So What "God" Are We Actually Talking About? 

If there is a serious point to be made by the New Atheism, it is that religion—or at least, certain forms of religion—can transcendentalize normal human conflicts and disagreements, transforming them into cosmic battles of good and evil, in which the authority and will of a transcendent reality is implicated. If God tells you to kill someone, who can argue with that? Although this point is often made in a muddled and overstated manner, there is a serious point that needs to be considered: why might someone think that God would order them to kill someone?

I must make two points clear here. First, I am a Christian, and write and think from that perspective. Second, I regard the idea that all religions teach pretty much the same thing as fatuous, lacking any empirical support. It is an idea that is curiously favored both by theological liberals (anxious to elevate the generic concept of "religion" above any specific religious system) and atheists (anxious to show that religion is evil, by singling out a single religion as representative of all—witness Sam Harris's stereotypical account of Islam).

As a Christian, I hold that the face, will and character of God are fully disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus of Nazareth did no violence to anyone. He was the object, not the agent, of violence. Instead of meeting violence with violence, rage with rage, Christians are asked to "turn the other cheek" (see Mt 5:39; Lk 6:29) and not to let the sun go down on their anger (Eph 4:26). This is about the elimination of the roots of violence—no, more than that: it is about its transfiguration. Does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ command anyone to kill in his name? Certainly some Christians have argued so, especially during the age of the Crusades. But that belief is deeply problematic when confronted with the person of Christ. Christ commanded the sword to be put down, not to be taken up, in his defense. (The contrast with Islam is particularly instructive at this point.)

The importance of the witness of Christ on this matter can be seen in a tragic event in North America which took place in October 2006, within a week of the publication of Dawkins's God Delusion. A gunman broke into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and gunned down a group of schoolgirls. Five of the young girls died. The Amish are a Protestant religious group who repudiate any form of violence on account of their understanding of the absolute moral authority of the person and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. When those unfortunate schoolchildren were murdered, the Amish community urged forgiveness. There would be no violence, no revenge—only the offering of forgiveness. The gunman's widow spoke, gratefully and movingly, of how this provided the "healing" that she and her three children "so desperately need."4

Richard Dawkins is nauseatingly condescending about the Amish in his God Delusion. Yet I cannot help but feel that he misses something rather important in his blanket dismissal of their significance. If the world were more like Jesus of Nazareth, violence might indeed be a thing of the past. But that does not appear to be an answer that Dawkins feels comfortable with.

What about Atheist Violence Against Religion? 

As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, I know about religious violence only too well. There is no doubt that religion can generate violence. But it's not alone in this. The history of the twentieth century has given us a frightening awareness of how political extremism can equally cause violence. In Latin America, millions of people seem to have "disappeared" as a result of ruthless campaigns of violence by right-wing politicians and their militias. In Cambodia, Pol Pot eliminated his millions in the name of socialism.