Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).

As marquee atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens proclaim Christianity to be the single most damaging thing to ever befall humanity, are Christians in any position to rebut? Or are we going to simply rely on the frail argument that the “new Christians” are different than the “old” ones (read: crusades, inquisition, imperialism, witch trials, etc)?

When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism. Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen. Any organized belief system, after all, can be skewed to fit the most heinous inclinations of a wayward soul. In fact, it is often the most secular, areligious societies that wreak the most havoc, not the Christian ones. Think about Stalinist Russia or the various other communist regimes that dotted the globe in the twentieth century. They rejected any belief in God and systematically slaughtered millions of their own people. Think about the French Revolution—a thoroughly secular, godless movement that resulted in the barbaric purging of wide swaths of the innocent citizenry. Clearly a belief in God is not a prerequisite for horrific violence. And then there is the much larger human history (10,000+ years) predating Christ’s arrival on earth: and surprise surprise, all of it is littered with bloodshed and brutality.

Far from a malevolent force of destruction in the world, however, Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign can be traced back to Christians, or at least Christian teachings. Christians led the way in the abolition of slavery and were the first to publicly deem it immoral and denounce it as sin (Wesley, Wilberforce, etc). Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and most major charities and humanitarian organizations (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children, World Vision, etc) have decidedly Christian roots. Christians were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities (such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale). They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, substance-abuse programs, and many other progressive reforms.

It all goes back to the teachings of Jesus (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the widows, etc) and the practices of the early Christian church. The early church appointed deacons to care for widows and the sick (Acts 6:1, James 5:13), and they were remarkably more open and tolerant (to women, different races and classes, etc) than anyone else in the first century. Tim Keller explains it well when he writes, in The Reason for God,

“At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents. We cannot skip lightly over the fact that there have been injustices done by the church in the name of Christ, yet who can deny that the force of Christians’ most fundamental beliefs can be a powerful impetus for peace-making in our troubled world?”

Furthermore, though it is hard to imagine it today (when Christians seem inexplicably marginal to the thought life of the world), devout Christians have also regularly been the biggest shapers of science, thought, art, and culture. People like Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, Augustine, Rembrandt, Bach, Handel, Chaucer, Milton, Dostoevsky, and T.S. Eliot are just a few names from the impressive list of our Christian forbears.

I do not mean to offer any sort of defense for the many horrible things that have been done by Christians and in the name of Christ over the last 2,000 years. There is no justification for that. We must own up to them just as much as we own up to the many great, selfless things that have been done by Christians. But I also want to point out that Christ is who He is regardless of Christians. He is love, perfect and unconditional. We are just His followers: fallible, weak, human, confused. Sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we get it right. More often the latter, I hope and pray…


20 responses to “Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

  1. Check out D’Souza’s “What’s So Great About Christianity?” I heard him speak, and if the book reflects the talk, he’s a formidable opponent to the New Atheists. I think he’s debated a few of the marquee atheists.

  2. Here is D’Souza’s debate with Hitchens on this book/topic:

    Definitely worth watching (it is in 9 parts – all on Youtube). They discuss some of the very things you pointed out in the post.

  3. Hello, you wrote,

    Sure, Christianity has been used to justify a lot of evil—but so have atheism, and paganism, and virtually all other –isms the world has ever seen.

    Where has atheism and paganism been used to justify evil? It appears one such place you cite is Soviet Russia. If you could, please elaborate on and support the contention.

    In any case, the argument is a bit odd. It seems to be, “Yes, we’ve been bad, but others have been worse!” Better than the worst doesn’t seem to me to be a very laudable standard.

    You mentioned all the good Christians have done in support of the contention that “Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement or guiding principle in history.” What you failed to mention or address is that many of the reforms you say Christians championed were based on practices which Christians previously deemed moral. Why, for example, did it take Christians 1800 years (or more, depending on how you count Christians) to finally decide slavery was wrong, after long saying it was ok, or even that it was God’s will? Yes, Christians were on the forefront of the abolitionist movement, but they were also on the forefront in opposing it this movement. Look up the history of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    You say that the reform impetus was at least based on Christian teachings. You’ll have to identify specifically what Christian teachings they were based on, since much of these teachings are actually based on ethics and precepts which existed long before Christ arrived on earth. No one was feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and protecting the widows until Jesus said these were good things to do?

  4. Robert-
    For examples of how atheism opens up new potentialities for evil, I suggest reading Dostoevsky, Melville, or any number of other nineteenth century writers who were writing in the first century of atheism’s widespread acceptance. The reason communism (which shuns religion) is so destructive as an -ism is that it reduces everything to power, leaving very little room for any sort of transcendental morality… Thus the “purging” of millions of people is justified because it is about furthering the utopian socialist “idea”… the same reason fascism in WWII justified mass slaughter: in pursuit of a purified world order in which everyone acquiesced to the dominant rule. In contrast, true Christianity elevates the weak over the strong (“blessed are the humble, poor, etc…”), turning our human impulse to exert our will on and lord over others via power (Plato’s thymos) on its head. Of course wayward Christians have at times (i.e. the Crusades) fell into the same trap, but this is because we are all still human, suffering from the same impulses of our fallen nature.

    Thus, my answer to your criticism that Christanity has merely been “better than the worst” is that we are all still humans–Christians are not immune to our fallen nature, any more than anyone else is. Christianity is meant to rehabilitate our fallen selves (it is a process) and because it is so counter to our fallible instincts (to want power, recognition, gratification, etc), it is only natural that Christians frequently let their negative impulses get the better of them. My argument is NOT that Christians are any “better” than non-Christians (because we are all equally depraved)… but only that the restorative, grace-centric ideal of Christianity towards which we Christians all strive tends to yield GOOD things in the world.

    As to your objection about the slavery issue: It is true that many Christians were outspoken defenders of slavery… but up until about 200 years ago, everyone was. Slavery was universally accepted as a given in almost all cultures, and the notion that it was wrong was not trumpeted by anyone until the late 18th century, when Christians were the first to raise objections to its morality. Yes it is true and shameful that many “Christians” fought vehemently against abolition, but again, so did many non-Christians… We are all equally fallible and prone to use whatever means at our disposal (e.g. religion) to rationalize our twisted convictions.

    Finally, in answer to your objection that Christ’s teachings weren’t really unique in history but rather based on prior ethics and precepts: you tell me what belief systems prior to Christ were based on the self-sacrificial precepts such as “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) or “to save your life you must lose it” (Mark 8:35) or that we should turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) or feed our enemy (Romans 12:20). Or that “the meek shall inherit the earth” (matthew 5:5). Human history (and indeed, our human instincts) are entirely contrary to these notions: the fittest survive (not those who sacrifice for others), the strongest prevail, the ambitious are rewarded, the victorious in battle (i.e. Greek and Roman mythology) are the most god-like.
    Jesus comes along without a crown or a scepter or a sword and assumes the role of a suffering servant, born to a nobody peasant in a haystack without an army or thrown behind him. He’s the most unlikely person to change the course of human history, and yet he did. Why?? This is the question you should be asking.

  5. Hey… I’m in one of your Comm sections. Why aren’t you this articulate in class?

  6. Brett,

    You wrote,

    For examples of how atheism opens up new potentialities for evil, I suggest reading…

    Ah, but this is a bit afar from your original claim, which was that atheism and paganism have been used to justify evil. Opening potentialities for evil is a pretty mild accusation, one to which religions like Christianity seem far more susceptible.

    I agree with your assessment about communism, but be careful not to conflate atheism with anti-religion.

    It seems to me that your rationale for Christian offenses is a bit self-serving. When it’s Christians who perform them, they’re simply reflecting our fallibility and “fallen nature.” Why does this not equally apply to Hitler, Stalin, or, for that matter, fascism or communism?

    I think what you’re trying to avoid is the implication that within Christianity itself are found the seeds of its adherents’ misdeeds. This is actually quite an easy thesis to support. There is plenty to mine within the Bible to justify all sorts of nastiness, not just goodness. Really, where did Christians get the idea to burn “witches”? Or justify slavery? Or deny equal rights to women? Or destroy “heretics”? Or oppose democracy? Every sort of evil that Christians practiced was given a thorough theological justification. And it continues today.

    Your discussion of slavery is not wholly accurate, as there was opposition to the institution prior to the 18th century. Economic, and, yes, theological, factors played a part.

    Your discussion of unique Christian teachings is a bit confusing to me. You appear to suggest that suicide is ethical, with the Phil. 1:21 and Mark 8:35 citations.

    Turning the other cheek hearkens back to Socrates, who said in 399 BC, “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” In any case, it’s not a precept which is usually employed, even by Christians. Buddhists are probably one of the few religions which have consistently applied it.

    Romans 12:20 is not strictly an exhortation to feed one’s enemies. It’s typically interpreted as showing kindness to those who do you evil. This is another old precept. The Buddha said, “Let a man overcome anger by love, let him overcome evil by good; let him overcome the greedy by liberality, the liar by truth!”

    Many unlikely individuals have changed the course of history. Why aren’t you worshiping them as well?

  7. Your arguments that Christianity is not unique among belief systems (with which I agree) seem to contradict your argument that Christianity is uniquely responsible for evil throughout history. Either Christendom can be forgiven for its errors and evils, or no philosophy can– including socialism, capitalism, Islam, paganism, Americanism, democracy, free trade, conservativism, liberalism, feminism, the civil rights movement, pacifism, anarchism, libertarianism, humanism, and every other -ism. All -isms have sinned. To pretend that Christianity or religion have justified evil without philosophical perversion any more than any of these is disingenuous and ridiculous and makes you look like you have a chip on your shoulder more than anything.

  8. Tim Coe,

    I’m straining to find where where I said–or even hinted–that “Christianity is uniquely responsible for evil throughout history”.

    Can you help me out and cite the statements which give you the impression this is my view?

  9. Yeah, I’ve always been curious what people like Dawkins, et al, do with all the Christian-based hospitals and universities.

    Then again, I get too angry with their fundamentalism to actually read their arguments.

  10. “When one interrogates the assumption that Christianity has done more harm than good to humankind, we see that it is an idea founded in a rather shoddily conjured historicism.”

    you say, completely ignoring the harm Christainity is doing today. What about the subjugation of women? Treating 50% of our dear species as though they were simply an afterthought, one put here simply to serve men at that, is hardly an example of “GOOD things in the world.” now is it?

    How about the way in which Chriatian ideas (and most other theological theorizing) close off (most) avenues of thought? Assuming that God has already written down all there is to know about the world isn’t exactly the best grounding for a culture of critical thought now is it? and, frankly, where would we be without that eh? probably agreeing with everything you say, that’s where, and that CERTAINLY wouldn’t do us much good.

  11. Jack-
    The Christians you are referring to who treat women as “an afterthought” are not in the majority… In fact I submit that it is probably the case that there is a lower percentage of people who participate in the subjugation of women within Christianity than outside of it. In any case, such behavior (treating women as servants of men) is not sanctioned by most Christian churches today.
    And I’m very perplexed by your assertion that Christian ideas close off most avenues of thought. On the contrary, I think history has proven (in the work of countless philosophers, thinkers, writers, scientists) that Christian faith has a rather more illuminating effect on one’s thought life. I like what C.S. Lewis says about it in his quote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

  12. To build off of what Brett said, I find it curious when folks criticize Christianity for believing that God “has already written down all there is to know”.

    AFAIK, there’s nothing within Christianity that posits that the Bible is the sum total of human knowledge, or that it should be seen as such. There’s a difference between believing that the Bible is infallible Word of God, and believing that it’s akin to a set of encyclopedias. There’s much that the Bible doesn’t touch on, which is why God has given us curiosity, intellects, etc.

    Additionally, you could make a good case that God actually encourages us to study and understand the world, and the rest of creation. There’s a doctrine within Christianity called the “Cultural Mandate” that states that man has been placed on this world in order to understand, harness, and improve it — this is what is referred to in Genesis 1:28. And one can’t really begin to do that unless they seek to study and understand — even critically — the world.

    On a sidenote, I find it interesting that skeptics criticize Christianity for believing that God “has already written down all there is to know” even as they criticize the Bible for being so vague and sketchy. So, on the one hand, we have complaints that the Bible makes too many claims, and on the other hand, we have wishes that the Bible made more claims so as to clear up all of the confusion.

  13. “The Christians you are referring to who treat women as “an afterthought” are not in the majority”

    I wasn’t talking about Christians, I was talking about God:

    “And the rib, which the Lord had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man”
    GEN 2:22 (KJV)

    so wether or not “such behavior is …sanctioned by most Christian churches” is a bit irrelevant.

    As for “skeptics criticiz[ing] Christianity for believing that God “has already written down all there is to know” even as they criticize the Bible for being so vague and sketchy. ” – we don’t. We critisize YOU for thinking that God “has already written down all there is to know” when “the Bible [is] so vague and sketchy”, see the difference?

  14. I think that you are misinformed about what Christians believe. For instance, Christians are not a monolithic entity, and many have differing views on the veracity of the Bible. Most would tell you that the Genesis 1 account that you quote is no more historic fact than Aesop’s fables, and reflects the cultural and theological understanding of the time in which it was written. (I’m also not sure why Eve being knit from Adam’s rib means that she is subservient to Adam; Adam was, after all, made from mud and is not beholden to it.) In other words, the vast majority of Christians do not believe in a literalistic interpretation of scripture, despite what the history of the belief system suggests.

  15. In Hebrew, the creation of humanity as recorded in Genesis 2 looks a bit different than it does in English. The man was created from the earth, and the Hebrew verb “yatsar” is often used to describe the work of a potter. The woman was formed from the rib of the man, and the word used to describe her creation, “asah,” is more frequently associated with the work of a master craftsman. Thus, in Hebrew thought, God brought more of his craft and skill into play when creating the woman.

    Moreover, when God decides the man should not be alone, he says he will create an “ezer” for him. This word is often used to describe how God as the helper of people, especially the oppressed and lost, and is not used to mean servant, slave or subordinate.

    Drawing conclusions about God from English translations of the original language of the texts — especially 400-year-old translations that have been replaced by ones based on earlier and clearer documents — is often a poor choice.

  16. About a year ago, my Sunday school class went through the first couple chapters of Genesis with someone who was very knowledgeable in the original language, and it was incredibly eye-opening. Put simply, there’s so much that is absent in the English translations. The key points are there, sure, but much of the subtlety and nuance that helps you figure out exactly what is going on, is missing — as Brett pointed out above.

    I daresay that if people had even a slightly better understanding of the original text, and what it does and does not say in the original language, there’d probably be a lot less misunderstanding when it came to certain things like gender relationships, environmentalism, and creation in general. And I think people would find a whole new level of beauty within the language of the Scriptures.

    For example, the idea of God creating a helper for man that wasn’t meant to be a mere servant, but an actual helper — someone who provides the strength that man is lacking — is incredibly beautiful, very true (as I have learned time and again after getting married), and far more liberating than the mindset that seems to be associated with Christianity so much of the time.

  17. Rodney Stark is a well-respected sociologist-historian with several excellent books on the lasting historical influence of Christianity. Personally I can only vouch for “The Rise of Christianity,” but I’ve heard “The Victory of Reason” is just as solid.

  18. How on earth has atheism been used to justify “evil”?

  19. This discussion is interesting to me because it glosses over so much of the realities of scripture. When both old and new testaments have language which obviously gives approval to, or at least tacit complicity in slavery, and speaks of a woman who is raped with Silver and marrying her making up for it, or stoning our children who speak back and get drunk and such, or any of the other laws, which Jesus says he doesn’t change one jot or tiitle until the end of the world. I mean Christianity is an immoral religion, and The All-Knowing, All-Powerful, All Goodness and Compassion and Forgiveness God that is worshiped is also the God that All-knowingly unleashed Lucifer/Satan on us and created all the evil that is hell.

    Now on top of all this, “most Christians” negate their own faith, since they say (as stated above) that the Genesis is an allegory or a moral story or a myth to teach us, and deny it’s LITERAL truth. This avoids being a mindless creationist who avoids the slam-dunk nature of Evolution, and thus allows one not to be a creationist and still be Christian…Um, well, not so fast, since the purpose of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus was to cleanse us of original sin, so if there was no Adam and Eve and thus no original sin and it’s all an allegory, why do we need Jesus then?

    Slap the cherry on, and you have a world where Genesis didn’t happen literally and that m,eans the human race is probably 100,000 years old and God allowed all the Human history that happened for 98,000 years (obviously showing we were able to be moral and ethical enough to survive and flourish) to just happen with absolutely no stepping in, no being noticed as the one true savior, etc. and then WHAM! in the last 2000 years he decides to jump in, get involved and do the work of “God”, and we are to become subservient believers, worshipers, etc.

    Yet he NEVER says, “All that stuff in the Jewish books, absolutely doesn’t apply. Slavery is BAD.” or provide us now with a perfect translation into 20 or 30 languages, or shows up on the Tonight Show and lets us ask some questions. I mean you would think that somewhere God would be on the record saying “Slavery is BAD.”. But your book says the opposite.

    Also, re: totalitarian Governments and atheism: Well, there is a LOT of evidence, including his own writings, that Hitler never was an atheist, and worse for the case of Christianity there, that MOST of those who committed the worst atrocities WERE Christians or more specifically Catholics. Stalin and a few others WERE atheists, but they didn’t commit their crimes in the name of Atheism or atheist ideals. If someone robs a bank, and happens to be Baptist, I do not say they committed a crime in the name of baptist ideals. If they write a manifesto saying that God told them to kill black children and then shoot themselves, this is explicitly a crime that can be related to Christianity. The crusades were EXPLICITLY about religion, the Irish/English conflict is SPECIFICALLY about religion, the Israel conflict, the ethnic cleansings in many places, witch burnings, the inquisition, all VERY specifically ABOUT religion.

    Anyway, Christianity has done so much more harm than good, in creating frustrated people who cannot live to their potential and who truly stifle much of their reality (be they gay, women [for most of history]or whatever). People who live oppressed lives of rules and subservience and guilt are unhappy people, and unhappy people make bad neighbors and friends and family. This has been one of Christianity’s worst crimes in my opinion. Fear and Guilt, the twin fangs of the vampiric Catholic empire…

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