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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Christianity the Worst Source of Evil?

A friend writes:

I have run across the following issue a lot recently: the blaming of Christianity (and belief in God generally) for all the major evil of the world. I had a conversation in Seoul with a Canadian expat who argued that Christianity is to blame for the majority of hatred and violence in the world. She was then unwilling to also have a conversation about what Christianity has contributed to education, human rights, medicine and the sciences in general.

I usually respond to such people thus: “Like what? What hatred and evil are you talking about? Please describe the hatred and violence you’re decrying and show why you attribute it to Christianity rather than to, say, greed or lust or vengeance or envy or fear or something much more generic than a particular religion.”

If that doesn’t slow things right down, I might then ask, “And ‘the majority of hatred and violence’ relative to what? How much do you know about the history of China, Japan, and Korea? There’s rather a lot of hatred and evil there that has nothing to do with Christianity. Say, a few millennia worth. Or about either northern or sub-Saharan Africa? And how about the pre-Columbian Americas? Any accounting for the bad blood and bloodshed–and blood sacrifice–there?”

Usually that’s the end of it. Half-educated people are the most dangerous in these conversations, of course, because they think they know things when all they “know” is what people like them “know,” which in these historically illiterate times doesn’t amount to much.

(Especially in this era of confused feelings about Islam and guilt over what is supposed in some circles to be the Greatest Evil of All Time, namely, the Crusades, ask such a person if she has opinions about the millennium during which Muslim slavers from North Africa raided southern and western Europe–as far away as England–hauling off Europeans to the African slave trade–upwards of a million of them during just the last four centuries [16C-19C] alone–’til they were stopped by European [Christian!] powers in the nineteenth century.)

The same correspondent added this: Today, a friend posted this on his Facebook: “It might be immodest to suggest that the odds rather favour the intelligence and curiosity of the atheists, but it is the case that some humans have always noticed the improbability of god, the evil done in his name, the likelihood that he is man-made, and the availability of less harmful alternative beliefs and explanations.” I find it especially interesting that he is looking for less harmful alternative beliefs, when I am pretty sure that humans have a long history (with or without God) of screwing one another over.

You don’t even have to look back very far: like, one century. The 20C is the bloodiest in history and most victims died from violence and hatred fomented by secularist ideologies: nationalism (e.g., Japan’s devastation of China, Germany’s devastation of Europe), communism (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot–and let’s not forget the smaller-time, but still sanguinary, rightist regimes in Central and South America: both kinds of regimes are notable for devastating their own people), and Buddhism (the nasty little wars in Sri Lanka and SE Asia), if you see Theravada as “atheistic.” So what kind of atheism is “less harmful”–that is, something other than armchair atheism but an atheism that has attracted a wide following and governed states and commanded armies?

What we sometimes hear from the not-so-New Atheism at this point is the reply that “Those aren’t the kinds of atheism I’m commending. Those are bad atheisms. I’m talking about the good atheisms that appeal to our better natures and especially to our rationality.”

(Such people rarely tolerate the same claim from our side, namely, that we’re defending the good kind of Christianity, not the bad kinds. But let’s press on.)

We might ask in reply, What real-world atheisms are you talking about? The studied apatheia of Epicureanism or Stoicism? Do you really want Marcus Aurelius in charge of, say, public charity? The similar nirvana of Theravada Buddhism in its stark, pure form: too unearthly-minded, one might say, to be any earthly good? The historical record of such philosophies is chilling, not comforting: hardly the kind of warmhearted, pacific humanism your friend likely prefers.

Nietzschean atheism is obviously no recipe for peacemaking–not while the Übermenschen are asserting themselves properly on a recalcitrant population of human sheep. And Orwell, Huxley, and Lewis, among many others, offer dystopic warnings about atheistic social engineering, from Gattaccan eugenics to Big Brother-ish surveillance to other Weberian nightmares of “efficiency” and “rationality.” So what real atheisms are really being put against Christianity as a way of life and a way of governing life?

Those who would claim the high ground of rational and historical argument ought to sit still for some. And that argument might show–I think it does–that Christianity is not inherently hateful or violent. Instead, it would show that faithful (rather than token or cynical) adherence to Christianity generally makes a measurable positive difference: in terms of the hospitals and schools and science you mention, as well as leading markers of social and psychological health such as lasting, happy marriages, high levels of volunteerism–and, one should note, an ethical structure that actually prizes lasting, happy marriages and high levels of volunteerism.

This is a start at an answer, at least. David Martin’s excellent book Does Christianity Cause War? is worth your reading on this question, as is the volume of essays edited by Kenneth Chase and Alan Jacobs, Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology.


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