Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bad Christians, Good Christianity

There exists today a modern brand of atheism that runs something like this: Christianity has long been a wicked influence on the world; it has been a tool of tyrants, has oppressed men and women (especially women) since its inception, has been an enemy of science, reason, progress, and tolerance.  It has caused men to rise to tyranny, yet made others too weak to fight tyranny.  It caused the crusades, the inquisition, the religious wars, as well as being a generally pernicious influence on human behavior.   

Such an atheism is not intellectually rigorous.  Its proponents, like the late Christopher Hitchens, typically know little about even science, less about actual history, and least of all about real theology.  Modern science developed in the Western world because of Christianity and not in spite of it.  Men, believing the universe to be the product of an orderly mind and not random chance, knew the world might be rationally investigated.  The positive effects of Christianity in history have been documented by various historians and scholars (1), as well as its positive effect on human behavior even today (2).

Nonetheless, the problem with the “new atheist” position lies deeper than a poor understanding of the positive effect of Christianity on the world.  The heathen’s argument runs something like this, “if Christianity is true, then Christians would be sinless.”  Since Christians are not sinless, Christianity must not be true.  It would be tempting to dismiss the heathen’s argument as an instance of the ad hominem fallacy.  Obviously to attack a person as a bad person is not to say that their beliefs are untrue.  But the argument is even worse than that.  

The atheist wrongly assumes that if Christians are bad, then Christianity must be bad, but, to argue that ‘if Christianity is true, all Christians would be sinless,’ is like arguing that if doctors existed there would be no sick people. Doctors exist, however, because there are sick people, and thank God they do.  Christianity exists because there are spiritually sick people, and thank God it does. G.K. Chesterton put it this way when he said, “when the world goes wrong, it proves the Church right.  The Church is justified not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”  Doctors exist because man needs cure from physical disease.  Christianity exists because man needs cure from spiritual disease.  A naturally sick man falls from the ideal of health and needs a cure.  A spiritually sick man falls from the ideal of moral goodness and needs redemption. 

I once spoke to an atheist who claimed that the high ideals and indeed, commands, including love of enemies and turning the other cheek (3) of Christianity were falsified because they were too hard to follow.   But this is clearly absurd.  That men do not perfectly follow high moral standards is not proof that the standards are bad, but that people are.  That many people fall short of health is not proof that health is a vain ideal, but that people are sick.  

Nonetheless, there was something right in the skeptic’s claim.  When faced with a moral ideal one cannot follow, he can only do one of two things.  He might abandon the ideal.  Certainly, this is a popular option in modern culture.  Faced with a difficult law, the skeptic denies the law.  Then, having denied God’s moral standards, man becomes nothing except a collection of appetites.  Hence, obesity rates are high, drug abuse, various forms of unchastity including contraception, premarital sex, and divorce are high.  

Still, there is one other option left to a person.  On falling short of high moral standards, he might react by denying the standards.  He might act instead, however, by seeking forgiveness.  He might decide that it were better to fail at following a high and holy moral standard than to be content with success at a mediocre one.  God can make saints from sinners, but He can do nothing with a man who rejects Him entirely, just as a good doctor can cure a disease, but can do nothing with a man who refuses treatment and even denies himself to be sick. 

(1) Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1997).
Thomas Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades” http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/the-real-history-of-the-crusades

(2) Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares, (2007) 

(3). Christopher Hitchens for instance, ridiculed the idea of love of enemies say, “I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want. Don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them, destroying them, erasing them. And you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea.” (emphasis mine).

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