Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-il: Is it really religion that poisons everything?

A few days after the passing of Christopher Hitchens, North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il also died.  Given that one of the obsessions of the North Korean regime is the suppression and eradication of anything religious, and that Hitchens championed the view world-wide that it was religion that poisons everything, one might expect that Hitchens would be in broad support and agreement with the late North Korean leader.  However, he had the following to say about Kim Jong-il and North Korea”

“North Korea is a country that still might give us a lot of trouble and it is, believe me, it is exactly like a 1984 state, it is as if it was modelled on 1984, rather than 1984 on it. It is extraordinary, the leader worship, the terror, the uniformity, the misery, the squalor.”

I sympathize totally with his assessment of North Korea.  Its condition is a modern-day tragedy and (with its nuclear ambitions) a threat to world peace.

I have a friend who is currently working to bring to trial for crimes against humanity the leaders of the former Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  The BBC is reporting on this landmark trial.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were estimated to have killed over 2 million people – all in the name of a non-religious (atheistic actually) ideology.

Hitchens, in his book, used his withering sarcasm to attack religion as the source of all evil, and he argued that emancipation from it would liberate us all.  But it is not difficult to find societies, built in opposition to religion, that have gone terribly wrong – as even he readily admits.  North Korea and the Khmer Rouge being just two in a list that would have to also include Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Cultural Revolution – which together exterminated more people than World War II did.

Hitchens and I are in ready agreement that something is wrong.  Across our globe today we regularly inflict tragedy and abuse on each other.  A cursory reading of history will show we have been doing it all through our recorded past.  Looking around at own lives, workplace relationships, family relationships and issues in our own society (eg bullying in schools) reveals steaks of the same trend.  Vastly different societies, like that in India, live with rituals openly acknowledging that something is wrong.

We are also in agreement that religion is not a solution.  We have plenty of religious societies that display a failure equal to the atheistic ones of North Korea and the Khmer Rouge.   Is education the solution?  I am all for education and have invested heavily in it myself.  But we live in an age of unprecedented opportunities for education yet global tragedy and abuse is arguably at similar unprecedented levels.  Science and technology?  Likewise!

Jesus lay our root problem, not on any of the systems we develop, be they religious, educational, economic, or political, but deeper than that – in our hearts.  He said,

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

The verifiable fact that poison has flowed within any and all human institutions, societies, religions, educations – all the way down to even our families – shows that it is not religion that poisons everything.  Kim Jong-il and the track record of the North Korean regime point to something deeper.  Perhaps, unpleasant though the thought may be, Jesus had a point.  Perhaps it is our hearts.

The paradox of mankind is that we can reason morally, and grasp the ‘good’, but cannot live it – whether our society has religion or not.  Perhaps that hearkens to what the Bible says about us:  that we are made in God’s image but have since fallen.  If there is even a remote chance that the biblical diagnosis is correct then would it not be worthwhile to assess, even in a cursory way, the biblical credentials, as well as the remedy that is offered in the gospel.  After all, what is there to lose in becoming informed?

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  • December 22, 2011 - Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-il: Is it really religion that poisons everything?

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