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Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Does Christianity Help or Harm? (Analyzing Assertions)

Now the rubber meets the road.   Having gathered numerous assertions by skeptics and Christians about the impact of Christianity, then tried to trace those supposed affects to Jesus, the Bible, or later Tradition, we now ask whether those claims are true or not.  


But how can we test historical causation?  This is a question that a detective, historian, teacher, or parent often asks.  "Why is there a dead body in Mrs. Smith's guess bathroom?"  "Where did the Vedic peoples come from?"  "Why is this room such a mess?"  In general, "How do we know that A caused B?"  Or more specifically, "How do we know whether Christianity really caused whatever phenomenon a critic blames it for, or an adherent credits it for?"

Let's answer that question with a series of four questions.     


Questions to Tease Out Causation

(A)  Was the phenomena in question common before the birth of Christianity?  

A must precede B to have caused B.  If Jack didn't come to school before the room turned into a garbage dump, he's probably not to blame.  This may seem obvious, but it is remarkable how often chronology seems to be ignored. For instance, Christianity cannot have stalled ancient science, as some assert, since even according to the ultra-skeptic Richard Carrier (writing in this case on a subject he knows well), science had already been resting in the sidings for a century and a half when Constantine declared for Christianity.

Any state of affairs which was common before Jesus was born, cannot accrue to the credit or blame of the faith he founded.  You can't credit Christianity for marriage, since it is a universal custom.  You can't blame it for scapegoating in general, since that also is nearly universal.  Though particular forms which marriage or scapegoating take in particular cultures may have been influenced by Jesus, the Bible, or Tradition. 

(B) How close was the alleged cause to the alleged effect in time and location? 

All else being equal, it's generally easier to shoot a pool ball into a pocket if ball and pocket stand near the cue ball.  If you blame or credit Christianity for some event that only occurred in the 14th or 20th Century, you may be right, since we may discover something in the Bible that no one noticed before.  But such historical "long shots" require more evidence to prove than a phenomena that blossoms immediately from Jesus' life or the writing of the New Testament, then appears  repeatedly in various cultures where the Gospel is heard.    

(C)  How clearly do you find grounds for the effect in the cause?  

As Carrier admits, the idea that the Creator is honored by studying Nature was present at the birth of both Greek and Renaissance science. By Hitler’s account, Marxist terror convinced him of the need for terror. It is therefore reasonable to credit the Bible with inspiring Buridan, Grossteste, and Bacon (who, after all, read it, and could easily have found those ideas), and Marxism, to some extent, for Hitler's knack for unfriendly persuasion.  

If a teaching was clearly enunciated by Jesus and modeled in his life, that provides much stronger evidence that the Gospel caused it than if you trace that effect to some obscure verse in Deuteronomy.  It is possible for an obscure OT verse to inspire a major social trend.  But if that trend conflicts with the teaching and example of Jesus, rather than being amplified by the record of the gospels, then at most the influence should be deemed weak and indirect.

(D) How deeply is this effect rooted in human psychology or sociology?  

History is messy and full of surprises.  One effect often flows from many causes.  Modern science was no doubt influenced not only by Christian theology, but also by the political fragmentation of the Roman Empire, economic expansion, Portuguese voyages of exploration, and the influx of foreign technology after the Crusades, among other causes. There are no simple, deterministic calculations that tell us when science or diabolical evil will arise. One could not predict a priori that foot-binding would arise in China, sati in India, or the metaphysical flourish with which the Aztecs developed age-old Meso-american rituals of human sacrifice.

But ideological causation is also clearer if humans share no clear, powerful instinctive tendencies to do whatever the ideology is credited for achieving.  Why would anyone hate someone of another race, diet, faith, or language? The answer is too obvious to need stating.  Humans have an instinct to circle wagons against "outside" groups, especially in times of danger and stress.  (Which is when scapegoating most often occurs, as sociologist Rodney Stark points out.)  

Of course an ideology may justify, thwart, or focus our instincts.  This is why we must ask for clear evidence in the founder's life, acts, and teachings, or in the sect's scriptures, for a given effect.  Later tradition is simply too amorphous and multi-variant to put too much weight upon.   

We should keep these four principles in mind as we evaluate claims about historical causation.  We might call them chronological priority, chronological and geographical proximity, causal elements, and psychological contrariness.  Of course other factors will also come up as we analyze whether the asserted harms and benefits of Christianity are credible.  

After sorting and pairing claims, nineteen remain.  I'll try to be reasonably brief


Analyzing Claims

(1) "Christianity supports despotism -- or led to the Constitution, while also encouraging proper respect for authority." 

The one skeptic who offered his analysis, Owen Younger, claims despotism is rooted in the very words and acts of Jesus, as well as in the Bible and Tradition.  Didn't Jesus say "Give to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's?"  But someone else noted, Jesus then said "Give to God the things that are God's." One thing that is God's, as Jews and Christians see it, is the human soul, which bears God's image as the coin which Jesus held in his hand bore Caesar's image.  

Does despotism need "support?"  Given that Caesar was already a despote, as were the rulers of Sumer, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, most Hellenic states, and states in India, China, and America before him, apparently not.  Ancient societies were usually tyrannical.  What can it mean to say Christianity "supports" something that was nearly universal before Jesus was born?

True, if some great movement for enlightened government arose which Christianity resisted, Y might be right in that more limited sense.  One cannot accuse Mohammed of inventing slavery, which was nearly universal in the ancient world also, but he did "support it" in the sense that viewing his own example of trading in slaves, Muslim countries dragged their feet, some only ending slavery in the 20th Century, if then.

I don't think we can reasonably blame Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, for supporting despotism.

Unlike most ancient heroes, Jesus had no political power.  Neither did he treat his followers despotically.  He rebuked his followers when they wanted to call down fire on a town that wouldn't listen to him.  So far as we know, he never asked them to shine his shoes, or sleep with him, or divorce their wives, or give him all their money, as despotic cult leaders do. 

Jesus was crucified by the Roman rulers, with help from Jewish authorities.  It tends to concentrate your thinking about tyranny, when your founder is murdered by tyrants.

The Bible as a whole seems even more critical of bossy political bosses.  True, Paul tells us to obey governing authorities.  But Luke describes how governing authorities persecuted Christians including Paul, as it persecuted Jesus himself.  The last book of the Bible can be described as a satire against despotism.  John describes a totalitarian world government, in a kind of science-fiction version of 1984, which wars against God and his people.

Historian Donald Treadgold noted that "Hebrew society was unique in the ancient Near East in managing to avoid the techniques, devices, and institutions of despotism." (Freedom, A History, 32.)   One finds in Samuel a profound ambivalence towards state power: he warned the Jewish people that they would be oppressed badly if they demanded a king.  But he gave them a king when they insisted.   Jewish historians then chronicle the sins and crimes of most rulers of Israel and Judea rather objectively, even pointing out that the greatest Jewish king, David, committed adultery and murdered his wife's husband, leading ultimately to civil war.  Kings who abused common citizens, whether nere-do-wells like Ahab and Jezebaal, or great kings like David, are frequently called on the carpet for their sins.  The Indian philosopher  Vishal Mangalwadi notes that when he read the OT, what struck him was how harshly it described the kings of Israel and Judea, by contrast to fluffy Indian chronicles.  (See Ramayana, for a sample.)

The prophets are constantly berating tyrants.  The institution of the prophet provided a check on ultimate power.

True, some ancient works, like those of the Cynics, early Taoists, and the Upanishads, also show skepticism about government power.  But that skepticism manifests itself more often by running from power than by reforming it.  Lao Zi advocates laissez-faire governing principles, and in one passage, critique sof strong-arm despotism in words that seem to echoe the more forceful attacks of the prophets.  Confucius and his followers could also rebuke leaders who abuse their authority.  But I know of no ancient body of literature that "speaks truth to power" so routinely, and with such timeless pizzazz, as do the Old Testament prophets. 

See the source image"You are the man!"  As Nathan said to King David. 

Human nature easily explains despotism.  We are creatures of the pack.  The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, and the Indian Kautilya, offer wise insights, but seem generally comfortable with despotic rule.  (Socrates comes close to rationalizing his own murder for the greater good of the state.)  Among all the ancient literature I have read, it seems to me that the Bible finds the best balance between the need to work together in society, and the need for social institutions which promote freedom.

Athenian democracy, which was limited to freeborn males, maybe one quarter of adults, had long since died by the time of Christ, the Roman Republic expiring more recently.  A few Christian emperors took power, and were checked by Christian leaders like Ambrose who played a prophetic role in limiting an extremely harsh Roman despotism.  (Read Suetonius for an account of the cruelties of twelve emperors just before and during the early rise of Christianity.)

Though I don't claim to expertise in European history, my impression is that European rulers were more constrained and less over-bearing and cruel, by and large, than Roman rulers.  Charlemagne's savage instincts were moderated by the advice of the Christian scholar Alcuin.  Christianity seemed to work a leavening influence on government during the Middle Ages and early modern times, though with much ambiguity.  One thing Christianity did was provide an alternative power base to the government -- the Church.  (Which of course could be corrupt as well, as were many prophets of ancient Israel.  But as the American founders recognized, divided powers is crucial to nursing out freedom.)  Also, in a Christian society, kings could never be conflated with gods, as they often were in the ancient world -- the New Testament itself contains an instance of a ruler being judged for exhibiting such megalomania.

The institutions of modern free states, the "little platoons" which Edmund Burke (a great Christian political thinker) so loved, grew up over many centuries, nourished by the Gospel.  John Locke, the son of pious parents and a Christian apologist himself, argued from Scripture for free institutions, influencing the early Americans, as another poster pointed out.

Are countries influenced by Christianity more prone to despotism than countries which reject that influence?  On the contrary, the correlation appears to be just the other way around.  Sociologist Robert Woodberry argues from a broad mass of empirical data that Protestant missions in particular is causally correlated to the development of free institutions around the world.  Protestant missionaries are among the most zealous people for the "Word of God" and the example of Jesus in the modern world.

I can see this in East Asia, where many of the chief and best reformers have been Christians.  I suspect this is one reason the Chinese government looks at the growth of Christianity with concern.  

So exegetically and historically (yes, I know this is brief), the evidence seems to weigh heavily in favor of Christianity as an agent of positive more often than negative political reform.  Despotism was the norm, not the exception, in the ancient world.  Clear warrant for more liberal government can be found throughout the Bible, including in the life of Jesus, and verses pushing the other way are few and limited in scope.  Nor did Christianity obviously warp the political fabric of ancient Rome.  It was already warped, to say the least.  Reform movements which can be traced to the Bible have made free institutions much more common around the world, often led by zealous believers.  (Even today, escapees from the dystopian nightmare of North Korea are told to look for buildings with crosses on them, if they want help.)


(2) "Christianity is anti-science -- or contributed to the birth of modern science." 

Both of these seemingly contradictory positions might be true at the same time.  Christianity might have one effect in one era, another during some other period.  Or parts of the Bible may promote a scientific attitude, others may undermine it.  

Jesus does not talk about science per se, though he talked about, and seems fascinated with, Nature.  ("Consider the lilies of the field!" "Consider the birds of the air!"  "Do men not look at the sky and tell what kind of weather is coming?"  One might suppose that belief in a recent creation of distinct species, or belief in supernatural causes of  natural phenomena -- lightening, draught, diseases -- might weaken commitment to rational and scientific explanations.  But again, we need to take an empirical and critical approach to tease out supposed causes and effects.

Ed Babinski replied to my first post:

"Modern science owes a lot to the Greeks and Romans. Their legacy in science, math, philosophy was reborn in the Christian world as an abiding interest in neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism, and a continuing love of mathematics, which Christians appropriated.  Also, alchemy evolved into chemistry in the West.  And a tremendous boost in curiosity came about after some Italian glassworkers came up with glass so transparent one could make lenses out of it which led to telescopes and microscopes, expanding vision and curiosity exponentially.  And prior to the discovery of the New World the west was not greatly surpassing other civilizations. But with the New World came prosperity and money to devote to investigating the world. The discovery of the New World and everything new that it contained also led to a rise in curiosity that further magnified people’s curiosity and even challenged biblical authority, for how could all those additional species not sink the ark of Noah?  Europeans also had natural advantages as pointed out in the book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Not to mention the connectivity due to Roman roads, and the fact that Europe is the only continent without a desert, it is filled with water and soil rich in essential minerals due to glaciers crushing rock beneath them. 

"Those many advantages mentioned above led to modern science. Europe had Christianity and the inheritance of respect for government instilled by the law books of Roman Emperors such as the Laws of Justinian which Christian missionaries brought with them along with the Bible, and Europe also had all the previously mentioned advantages as well. No wonder universities formed there as well."


The rebirth of science certainly had more than one cause, as did the general success of Europe.  (Northern Europe was not the seat of any great civilization in ancient times, despite its lack of deserts and proximity to the Middle East where, as Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, useful animals and crops were first domesticated.)

Science, unlike despotism, is a rare formation.  It appeared in ancient Greece, to some extent, then fizzled out well before the rise of Christianity.  Precursors can be found in many ancient civilizations.  But the full-orbed spectacle does not appear until after Alfred the Great, Charlemagne and other Christian rulers pushed back against alien invaders (Moors, Huns, Norse), and established a flourishing new civilization in western Europe.  Time plus theology plus tinkering (aside from glass, sailing ships) and then exploration, plus reading the ancients, plus technology from the East, slowly sowed the seeds for a dramatic and world-changing rebirth. 

Why did it happen in Europe, not in the more ancient civilizations of the Middle East, India, or China?  

I think Allan Chapman, Paul Davies, James Hannam, David Landes, Nancy Pearcy, Rodney Stark, and Charles Thaxton, have adequately shown that there are, in Christian theology, several ideas which contributed to the rise of science, and that these ideas did in fact have that effect through the Middle Ages into the early period.  And Richard Carrier, perhaps against his better judgement, showed that even ancient Greek science was partly inspired by emerging theistic beliefs.  James Thrower shows that both theism and atheism emerged alike within a Greek intellectual environment that had begun to seek universal causes.  (Western Atheism: A Short History

Yes, books have also been written making the opposite case.  But the fact is, modern science did arise in theistic societies and cliques, among people educated in the Bible, who were more likely than ordinary people of the time (Stark shows) to be pious believers.  

Against that, many Americans no doubt disbelieve in evolution because of a literal reading of the Genesis story.  I'm not sure what harm that does.  We'll ask in Part III.    


(3) "Christianity teaches children to loath themselves."  

Again, our question must be essentially empirical, avoiding mere armchair exegesis.  

Did Jesus loath children, or teach them to hate themselves?  I see no evidence for that.  Even skeptical NT scholars like John Crossan say Jesus was unusual for his time in treating children with compassion and respect, and they liked him enough that they crowded around him until the disciples complained.  I doubt the 12 year old boy whose fish and bread Jesus divided and gave to the multitudes was traumatized.  I think he went home and said, "Guess what happened today!"  

But Younger traced this trait to the Bible in general, not to Jesus in particular.

Christians believe that all human beings were created in the image of God, but are sinful.  We must repent and trust in Christ in order to see the Kingdom of God.  Judgement awaits those who refuse to repent.  By contrast, evolution teaches children that we evolved by chance from lower forms of life and ultimately from non-life.  After we die, our bodies and "minds" dissolve back into the elements from which they came.

Which is more traumatic to children?  

I suppose one could make a theoretical argument either way.  But let our arguments arise from facts, not imagination.  Do Christian children in fact loath themselves more than other children do?  I have seen no evidence for that, in the lives of those I know, or say in the psychological studies that Patrick Glynn cites in God: The Evidence.  Glynn writes:

"It is a more than a little ironic that . . . modern psychology at the end of the twentieth century has arrived at a formula for mental-well-being and happiness hardly distinguishable from that of traditional religion - faith, hope, love, self-discipline, and a life lived in conformity with solid, traditional moral principles."  

Glynn cites a number of studies to show that strong religious faith is negatively correlated with suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and stress, and divorce, and positively correlated with marital and sexual satisfaction, overall happiness and "psychological well-being."  

In addition, the work of psychologists like Ernest Becker, Robert Coles (the Pulitzer-Prize winning Harvard  professor who studied children of faith, who led him back to faith himself), M. Scott Peck (who also came to Christian faith through his studies), and Victor Frankl, does support the value of religious and in some cases Christian faith, for psychological well-being among children as well as adults.

So the evidence seems to support the value of religious and Christian faith in particular.  (One study among Tibetan adolescents did correlate higher depression with greater religious commitment.)

If skeptics can offer quality evidence which points the opposite direction, let's see it. 


(4) "Christianity supports slavery -- or helped lead to its abolition."  

Again, slavery is not something that required "support."  It is an almost universal human institution, found in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific islands, almost anywhere society "progresses" enough to allow the technological control of one man by another.  (Stocks, bonds, etc.)  Sumerian, Greek, Indian, and Roman laws are rife with references to the institution.  Slavery needs no ideological support, since it makes economic sense to force other people to work for you at the lowest possible cost.  Post-Christian Communist and Nazi governments reinstituted mass slavery on unusually cruel terms.  

So support in the strong sense is not needed, but it may be needed in a weaker sense.  It is true that if there is some ideological force which threatens this institution, an ideology which justifies enslaving and demands subservience from slaves, might protect slave-owners from criticism and prevent reforms from taking place.  

Younger blamed the Bible and Christian tradition for "supporting" this institution, but not Jesus.  

The debate over what the OT "really" says about slavery is old, and I will not enter into it much here.  Certainly the Jews did enslave their enemies at times.

One point I think is worth making.  Reading ancient Greek historians, note carefully what happened battles.  Basically the winners had three choices: (1) set the losers free, in which case they might fight you again; (2) enslave them, at least until the war is over; (3) massacre the losers.  Even today we are forced to chose between leaving terrorist suspects in limbo in Guantanamo, or setting them free and hoping they don't attack us again, as some have.  Would those suspects prefer to sit in their cells all day long, or, say, get out and work on a road?  

I am not sure, in other words, that slavery is always an absolute evil.  This is a point that is too seldom made in these discussions, no doubt because it is awkward to say, and can be misconstrued.  But I'll say it.  In some circumstances, there may be worse choices than forcing people to work against their will.  

However, abolition of less excusable forms of slavery was certainly one of the great goods in human history.  While it is easy to think, from a comfortable 21st perspective, that it is natural to recognize the evil of slavery, as some of the New Atheists vainly suppose, in fact the ancients of most cultures did not recognize the problem, in fact they generally took the soundness of slavery for granted.  Our perspective on slavery was formed by a particular movement of thought, working on the human psyche over many centuries.  I believe it is generally correct, but we shouldn't be naive about where it came from.   

I agree with the Christians (and people like Nietzsche) who assert that the Gospel of Jesus is a very plausible cause of the abolitionist or liberating movement, and that there is strong historical evidence that Christianity did, indeed, "set the captives free" more than once.  Few people realize how many signposts mark that way across Christian history: I posted a list here of acts of liberation that pre-date the Enlightenment.  (Which is often misleadingly credited for freeing the slaves.)  

True, if you search the Bible for verses which say, "Though shalt liberate slaves," you will search in vain.  You'll find Paul's letter to Philemon, which asks the "owner" to receive his runaway slave "no longer as a slave . . . but as a beloved brother."  You'll find condemnations of those who take slaves.  But you'll also find slaves told to serve their masters faithfully, and in the Old Testament, the enslavement of enemy peoples on a large scale.  

Nevertheless, I believe Jesus and the movement he founded doomed slavery from the start.  One way of seeing this is by reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's powerful Uncle Tom's Cabin, which did so much to turn Christian America (at least the North) against slavery.  In essence the book is a Bible study with a story attached, showing that a faithful follower of Jesus and reader of the NT cannot consistently support slavery.  

I believe Stowe was absolutely and clearly correct.  

"What is the chief commandment?"

"Love God and love your neighbor as yourself."

"But who is my neighbor?"

"Anyone you meet -- say, a person of another nationality who has been mugged and tossed by the side of the road you find yourself traveling down."  

How can anyone read Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, or hundreds of verses that reinforce this "slave" morality, and imagine a sincere follower of Jesus can deprive, beat, chain, and sell a fellow human being?

That is the conundrum with which Stowe confronted America, and it changed our history.  

Of course people are pretty thick, as rational creatures go, and of course people rationalize their sins.  But the devil of enslavement took a sucker punch almost every time Jesus opened his mouth.  It took a while for us numb-skulls to work it out, but some people got the hint pretty quickly.

Christianity cannot be blamed for causing slavery, and only ambiguously for "supporting it."  But while Jesus did not directly confront this ambiguous evil, his indirect attack proved deadly, as Christianity played a key role in setting slaves free around the world.  


(5) "Christianity supports misogyny -- or liberates women." 

I have posted a case for the latter on this site, with supporting materials from the Bible, scriptures of many traditions, and Christian history, now running to the length of about two volumes.  I am now gathering anthropological materials that so far tends to point in the same direction.  

In short, Simone De Beauvoir was largely correct, when she claimed that men have everywhere been in control in their relationship with women.  De Beauvoir was of dubious help, seducing her students and disciples, then handing them over like a madame to her venile "love" interest, Jean Paul Sarte.  (Until they tired of a given young woman, and ditched her.) 

Again, misogyny did not need "support."  Some Christian men have hated women, as some women have hated men.  We can argue about who should be priests or pastors some other day.  But Jesus was the one who really has liberated women, around the world, I show.  


(6) Christianity "stifles doubt, hamstringing progress."  

The source of this impediment is again traced to the Bible as a whole, and to Christian tradition.  I am a bit at a loss to understand what it is supposed to refer to, so will attempt no further analysis for the time being.  Personally, my organ of doubt seems healthy.  I tend to doubt this claim, for instance; however will leave it be for now, so we can make quicker progress in our analysis.  


(7) Otherworldliness  

Younger says he isn't sure what this refers to.  I imagine the contributor is thinking of something like the old saying, "He is so heavenly-minded that he's no earthly good," writ large.    

The harmful effect is, indeed, left unstated.  Certainly the Bible talks much about the "Kingdom of God," but Jesus says "the Kingdom of God is among you," which implies it is manifest in some sense on Earth.  I know missionaries who have radically improved the lives of thousands through their deep commitment to the Kingdom of God.  In How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, I mention 72 followers of Jesus who have had a particularly remarkable effect on this world, precisely because they were so mindful of the next world. But we would need more explanation of what the poster has in mind, especially what concrete harms are alleged and how they are evidenced, before we could analyze this claim.  


(8) Sexual Repression

Younger traces this quality to Jesus, the Bible, and Christian tradition.  And of course he is right.  The Bible stands firmly against extramarital sex, affairs, love triangles, orgies, wife-swapping, homosexual acts, beastiality, even (in two verses that particularly trouble me) lusting after those with whom one is not married.  

So I readily concede that the "harm" of sexual "repression" can be traced directly and unambiguously to the Christian scriptures and even to Jesus Christ.  

"Sexual repression" is not, of course, unique to the Christian tradition.  

Indeed, humans in general find that we need to repress their instincts and appetites more often than giving them free rein.  I wrote about this in Jesus and the Religions of Man eighteen years ago:

"Genghis Khan had instincts.  Lemmings have instincts.  A cat that has drunk a full bowl of milk, sitting on a Persian carpet, has instincts.  Civilization is a collection of individuals who live productive lives through the discipline of instinct." (67)

Nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.  If Christianity really "represses" the sexual instinct -- though some studies suggest that pious sex is best -- that probably means serious Christians and other puritans have fewer STDs, abortions, unwanted children, alcoholism (but we've seen that already), and healthier families.

Hedonism or libertinism cannot easily be lived out as a consistent philosophy, any more than pure Stoicism.   A few have claimed we should not "repress" our appetites, like the Cynics, but fortunately their ideas did not catch on in polite company, at least while the police are around.

Christianity also ended polygamy in many countries, contributing to the well-being of both wives and children, as "repression" usually does. 

If the poster has anything else in mind, let him explain his complaint and the evidence he would offer for it.  In the meanwhile, I'll count this as a solid blessing -- not contracting any STDs has been good for me, I think.    


(9) Christianity creates discord between religions and denominations -- or peace-making?  

Read the history of Christianity, and we can certainly find plenty of unpleasant real-world effects.  The Hundred Years War and other wars of religion.  Inquisitions.  Persecutions of Huguenots and Catholics.  

Rodney Stark has made the case in one of his less-famous books that such discord is inevitable among theistic sects.  The ultimate nature of theistic claims stokes the flames of religious animosity.  

Maybe so.  If Stark is right, Younger would no doubt be correct to trace this evil to both the Bible, which makes such claims, and to Christian tradition, which so often demonized opponents over fairly minor differences.

So provisionally, I'm will to grant the skeptics this point.  

However, I remain skeptical on two counts.  

First, our approach is empirical.  And empirically, it seems that society has vacillated between two conflicting modes (which I also describe in Jesus and the Religions of Man): authoritarian or totalitarian hierarchy, and violence and anarchy.  Finding a peaceful and harmonious path between those lions has been no easy achievement.  

Socrates was not the only ancient pagan to be condemned to death or exile by the City of Athens, which the world rightly admires so much for its achievements.  The Romans got their kicks watching people die violently, the grander and more colorful the pageant, the better.  Jews and Christians were not the only ones on the receiving end of that.

Then after Christianity lost steam in western society, we witnessed the least tolerant and most quarrelsome sects of all -- Nazism and the various mutually-anathemizing tribes of Marxists.  

So frankly, I just don't know whether Christianity has increased, decreased, or had little effect on the quarrelsomeness and violence of ideological discord on Planet Earth.  I am open to arguments.  

My agnosticism applies the other side of the coin as well, the claim that Christianity should be credited for "peace-making."  

Sometimes the Gospel does deserve such credit.  For example Lords of the Earth, by my friend Don Richardson, tells the story of how the incredibly brave Australian missionary Stan Dale placed his body between warring factions of the highland Yali tribe in New Guinea, to coerce an end to violence.  Don also helped bring peace to battling factions belonging to the lowland Sawi tribe. 

And of course that happened in Europe sometimes, too.  

The empirical approach would be to make a full listing of both wars and wars that were prevented, and compare the two lists.  But of course wars which have been prevented seldom make the history books.  An alternative would be to compare ideological warfare, or warfare overall, in comparable civilizations, say China or India vs. Europe at comparable periods.  But then other variables would arise -- ethnic groupings, weaponry, distribution of wealth, cultural assumptions.  (Some say the difference between northern and southern Chinese can be traced to the fact that the latter cooperated to grow rice, while wheat in the north was grown by the individual.)  Until someone conducts such a study -- and it would be tricky to take all the variables into account -- I don't think we can make a clear case to settle this debate either way.  

Stark and those who think like him, such as Adam Smith, throw another monkey wrench into this issue.  Why do we assume that social comity is ideal?  In fact, Stark has argued, states which a top-down religion monopolizes the market, such as Sumer and Egypt, stagnated intellectually.  Nations in which ideas competed for constituencies -- Greece, Israel, Medieval Europe, I would add late Zhou-era China -- proved the most inventive and progressive.  


(10) "Ambiguous Scriptures can be read to encourage harmful social movements."

We'll have to allow the person who posted this to explain what he or she means, and why we should believe it.  Ambiguity is an ambiguous concept, and the ambiguity of the Scripture is -- not always so clear!  "Can be read to" suggests that the person so reading has an agenda to which he is subjecting the Bible.   Which of course we all do, as Jesus himself warned.    


(11) "Genocide." 

Reading about peoples like the Maori and Yanomamo, it seems that genocide was often seen by pre-Christian peoples as the ideal solution to a political conflict, if you could pull it off.  Alexander the Great (according to Arrian), and other conquerors were sometimes also wholesale in their killings.  

To make the case that Christianity increased instances of genocide, you would have to first derive a base-line frequency, then show that it has increased under Christianity, and then explain what about a religion that talks so much about love, paradoxically proved so deadly.  Again, when Charlemagne wanted to kill Saxons who failed to convert, it was the priest Alcuin who tried to stop him.  But I am open to arguments on either side of this issue -- just extremely skeptical.  

The poster may be thinking of the Native Americans.  As Diamond (whom Babinski cites) notes, however, some 90% of the Native Americans who died after contact between the Old and New world, were felled by the introduction of diseases.  When there were massacres, on either side, the causes of those massacres need to be examined.  I have never heard of such a massacre that began by a general reading his Bible and saying, "Says here we need to go kill us some Injuns."  


(12) "Idealizing human sacrifice."  


With this final item on the list of "harms" Christianity is supposed to have engineered, again we begin by looking at the base-line.  Human sacrifice was already ideal in many ancient civilizations: among the Canaanites, Phoenicians, in Sumer, sometimes in Greece, in Rome (including "the games"), among the Druids and Norse, in India and China and most of all in Central America -- among others.  One cannot "idealize" what is already ideal.  But one can use bad old ideals, to bring about revolutionary changes for the better.

Judaism and Confucianism were among the ideologies that developed a logic which made human sacrifice not only passe, but unacceptable.  Christianity ended human sacrifice, including "the games," in many countries.

So it is quite a paradox to say Christianity "idealized" human sacrifice, even while ending it.  What the author of this comment no doubt means, is that Christians worship a God who allowed His Son to pay the price for our sins on the cross.  But of course, Christians did not kill Jesus.  Neither did God.  On the contrary, as Christians see things, Jesus having defeated the Evil One by laying his life down on the cross, God brought Him triumphantly to life again, putting to flight the powers of darkness such as those evil spirits which demand human sacrifice.

Apparently this poster doesn't like Christian theology, but he fails to point to any actual evil caused by it.  On the contrary, he inadvertantly points to enormous benefits from the Gospel, to all those whose lives were not taken.

The theology of Christ's sacrifice, as I argue in several of my books, resonates not only with ancient Indian, Chinese, Greek and Norse spiritual intuitions.  It also resonates with modern psychology, movies, and political ideals, fulfilling truths that we all know in our hearts.  What the Gospel idealizes is not human sacrifice, but God's love.  By revealing God's love through the evil men do, Christ chased the spooks that haunt warped hearts and cultures, crying out for innocent blood.

This analysis of critiques of Christianity leaves me with some questions,

Now let us turn to unpaired claims about the positive goods which Christianity has achieved.


+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + 


(13) Education and Universities

Jesus was a teacher.  Among the last words he left his disciples with, according to Matthew, were, 

"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you all the days until the end of the age."  

True, Jesus didn't tell his disciples to teach physics, evolutionary biology, or Sumerian literature.

But the commandments of Jesus were written down, requiring literacy to "observe."  The book in which they were written, the Bible, encouraged literacy simply by being a famous book which demands to be read.  

Traditions arose which put something of a roadblock in the clear path thus set before Jesus' apostles, to teach his followers to read.  After the Cathars interpreted some of Jesus' teachings in a way that was a little Gandhi-esque and wild, the Catholic Church banned the general reading of Scriptures, and discouraged vernacular translations.  Nevertheless, Catholics founded schools across Europe, including schools that would grow into the first great European universities.  Protestants followed that example to the full, including by founding primary and secondary schools, and universities, around the world.  

My wife, who grew up in a Japanese Buddhist family, went to a Catholic kindergarten and high school.  Around the corner from her house was a Methodist women's college, the first such school in Nagasaki for women, founded by a missionary.  

One of the schools I taught at in China was connected to perhaps the top high school in the province, founded by missionaries from Yale.  (Which itself was created by Congregational ministers.)  The other school was partnering with a Presbyterian high school in the United States.

Look around your city, and you'll find more of the same.  

The Gospel of Jesus has helped billions of people around the world by providing them an education.  This is indisputable.    


(14) "Help for the poor, charity, orphanages, 'the last shall be first.'" 

I don't think any reasonable person will deny this item, either.  Even one of the most radical skeptics who contributed to these threads, cited the Beatitudes and their influence on subsequent history.   Well, here they are.  


(15) "Input into human rights."  

See "slavery" and "misogyny" above.   It is no coincidence that the Geneva Conventions were enacted in the city which Calvin established the Republic of Geneva, and is where the Red Cross, with 17 million volunteers around the world, still has its headquarters.  ("Founded to protect human life and health, to ensure respect for all human beings, and to prevent and alleviate human suffering."  The link in this case is Jean-Henri Dunant.) 

Again, it is not hard to find a credible causative link between a man who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and brought life from the dead, with institutions that seek to do the same.  Historians like Will Durant note that the change began already during Roman times: 

"To the miserable, maimed, bereaved, disheartened, and humiliated it brought the new virtue of compassion, and an ennobling dignity; it gave them the inspiring figure, story and ethic of Christ; it brightened their lives with the hope of the coming Kingdom . . . Into the moral vacuum of a dying paganism, into the coldness of Stoicism and the corruption of Epicureanism, into a world sick of brutality, cruelty, oppression, and sexual chaos, into a pacified empire that seemed no longer to need the masculine virtues or the gods of war, it brought a new morality of brotherhood, kindliness, decency, and peace." (Caesar and Christ, 602)  

"Human rights" as a general concept is far from universal or common.  Buddhism did teach compassion, and Confucius, Lao Zi, and Epictetus were on the same page.  


(16) Art, Music, and Literature

These things existed before Christianity arose, obviously.  The Greeks and Romans produced some of the world's greatest epics, as well as masterful plays, dialogues, histories, and biographies.  Similar works arose in other great civilizations.  I am more familiar with Tang poems than with Greek or Roman poetry, and consider Journey to the West a comic masterpiece.  

The Bible never says, "Go and write great literature."  However, it contains some of the world's greatest literature.  The story of creation astounds me with its concision and psychological depth.  Job is a masterpiece, as G. K. Chesterton explained so well.  The Exodus, great "hero" stories in Judges, tales about Abraham's family, about David and Goliath, Saul, Bathsheeba, and Absolum, the Psalms, the lovely Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes ("Vanity of vanities!"), have enriched human culture and even language ever since.  Isaiah inspired Handel, as whom does he and his fellow prophets not inspire, who loves great ideas brilliantly expressed, and is not made out of wood?  

No doubt the western world would have created other art if Jesus had not been born, and some of it would also have been great.  It is hard to compare what one sees with what is invisible.  We must beware of confirmation bias, into which some writers on this subject fall.  No doubt we also miss much that would have come into the world, from a transcendent all-conquering Norse civilization, for example.  A work like The Song of Roland or Canterbury Tales could probably have been written with some other reference than the Bible, I suppose.  (Though watching the Wife of Bath try to justify her affairs by quoting Scripture is alone worth the price of the book.)  A thoroughly pagan Shakespeare might not have to change too much.  

Still, the Christ-enthralled literature, painting, and music of Europe certainly was great, as great as anything in the world of written, painted, or sung arts.  And much of what was greatest was inspired more deeply by the themes of the Jewish and early Christian literature.  I am a better judge of literature than of painting or music.  I for one would miss Augustine's Confessions and City of God, Dream of the Rood, the brooding novels of Tolstoy, the psychological masterpieces of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Jane Eyre, Walker Percy, as well of course as my beloved Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien.  I doubt any of these would be quite possible without Christ.  

It seems probable to me, but not provable, that Christ has, indeed, increased the amount of truly great literature, music and possibly painting.  (Though I am more doubtful of the latter.)

I don't insist on that, though.   


(17) Hospitals

The warrant for physical healing lies at the very heart of the Gospel.  Jesus healed: even Morton Smith recognized that Jesus' miracles are infused into every layer of gospel material. And most of those miracles are healings.  Two of the longest books in the NT were written by a physician, suggesting that healing could also come in more conventional ways.  (Though as Stark again points out, even without a miracle, spiritual healing was safer than ancient medicine, and thus probably saved lives!)  

That the Gospel has thus inspired the founding of a great many hospitals, and the training of a great many doctors, is undeniable.  I have met many of the doctors, and seen many of the hospitals, in Asia.  At least with the advent of modern medicine, millions of people have seen their lives extended, or enhanced, by the healing touch of Jesus through his followers.  

The Old Testament prophesied "healing for the nations."  The fulfillment of this prophecy can be historically verified.  


(18) Stop Islam

Of course one could ask whether Islam would have appeared in the first place without Christianity.  Probably it would not have.  But something else just as militaristic might have arisen in its place.  

What is in Christianity that opposes Islam?  The easy answer is "theology."  Christian trinitarian theology is obviously at odds with Islamic theology, so the two were doomed to struggle, one might say.  

But one could plausibly argue that Christian imprecations to peace and "love your enemy" undermined western defenses by taming the wild Germanic tribes.  Thus Islam swallowed half of "Christendom" before the pope could sneeze.  Then he did sneeze, adopted the Islamic concept of jihad more-or-less wholesale, and sent the wild French into the Middle East, where they sacked Constantinople and Jerusalem alike, and halted the Islamic expansion.  That is, until Angela Merkel decided Western Europe was the perfect environment for young Islamic men.

But one can approach this question comparatively and therefore scientifically.  We have a control experiment.  

Islam attacked Christendom and "Hindudom" at about the same time, and conquered much of each.  But Christianity provided an institution -- the Church, led by Pope Urban II, Charles Martel, Don John of Austria, and the like -- and an ideology (borrowing elements from Islam) which ultimately enabled the West to push back.  As Paul Tillich warns, the danger with Islam and Marxism was that Christianity would become too much like its opponent in order to fight him -- and I suspect that may help explain the savagery of the Spanish conquest of the New World at times.  But ultimately it was Christianity that forged a hammer which not only beat back Islamic jihad in Europe and (temporarily) the Middle East, but also in India, where Islamic assimilation was still on-going when English imperialists arrived.  

So I think this item is mostly legitimate.

One might add that Christian ideals also played an important role in the struggles against Nazism and Communism in the Second World War and after.  


(18) Christmas.  

Yes!  I like how this poster thinks.  

Right, right, I know.  Jesus wasn't really born on December 25, modern Christians worship Santa Claus and materialism, Christmas is so terribly syncretistic, yackity-yack-yack.  

But I think Christmas imbibes the spirit of Jesus: lights in the dark, carols, Handel's Messiah, giving of gifts on a day when God gave His greatest gift.  That it has embraced the Germanic Yggsdrassil and turned it into a Christmas tree (with lights as Dream of the Rood envisions on the cross), gingerbread houses, mistletoe, reindeer, sleigh bells ringing, and all the rest, denotes the redemption of all human culture that Christ came to bring about, and delights my heart.

I call this fulfillment, not syncretism.  And definitely a big net plus, not begrudging or denying the beauty of pagan holidays like Chinese New Years, Devali or Obon. 


(19) The weekend.

The world was created in seven days, and the seventh day, God rested from his labors.  He demanded that the Jewish people rest that day, as well, which was called the Sabbath.  Jesus labored on the Sabbath to heal people occasionally, or to pick a little grain, so he was no fanatic on this subject.  But after he rose from the dead, Christians began to celebrate on Sunday instead.  Thus, much later, the two-day weekend.  

When I lived in Taiwan, some shop-owners, and prostitutes I was told, worked every day the year round, resting on Chinese New Years very briefly.  I still find myself at odds with my Chinese employers over their tendency to see the whole week as belonging to their wage-slaves, though they have learned that they need to give time to western employees which they do not give Chinese employees.  (Which is why I am in Seattle right now.)    

No doubt with industrialization (if it came), ultimately workers would demand more time off, and employers would be forced to give it.  The Romans already took one day in eight off, and had many festivals, besides.  (As did the Greeks.)  But I do think Christianity probably did bring about more rest and recreation for workers that would otherwise have been given.  

Summary:

Having analyzed assertions so far, some questions remain unanswered, at least for me. What does it mean to say that "ambiguous Scriptures encourage harmful social movements," and why should we accept this as a critique of the Christian record? Is there any reason to think Christianity harms the psyche of children? Have genocides gotten worse under Christian influence? In what sense does Christianity allegedly stifle doubt and thus "hamstring" progress? Is there any objective and fair way to gauge the impact of Christianity on art, music, and literature? Is sectarian quarrelsomeness a net gain or loss?

Skeptical posters missed a few beats, of course: persecution of the Jews is one I would name. (Though see Stark on that, also.)

On the other hand, I think our method has demonstrated its value, along with the on-going and perhaps increasing value of Christianity to the human race.

Christianity has provided the basis for political reform around the world, as Robert Woodberry shows. Just as flowers grow where the good king died, so the institutions of freedom and democracy flourish best where news of the death of the King is told. The Gospel played an important role in ending slavery and human sacrifice, and helped halt the outward expansion of such virulent social weeds as Islam, Nazism, and Communism. It encouraged the development of human rights, both in concept and where the mugging victim meets the road. The Gospel has liberated billions of women, as I show in detail, educated billions more young people, and healed billions more. Faith helps us repress or at least suppress instincts which need to be controlled, saving lives, saving families, and creating a monogamous ideal which difficult as it may prove, has surely prevented much agony. Those who consistently attempt to follow a religious ideal in the West seem to be happier, and to suffer from fewer social ills like alcoholism, suicide, and the like. And then there is Christmas, which was the start of it all.

That's my tentative conclusion, anyway. But skeptics and believers are welcome to point out facts that I have overlooked.






5 comments:

Gary said...

Superstitions are unhealthy and even dangerous. They are the cause of much of the suffering and violence in this world. Christianity is a superstition. It is therefore unhealthy and dangerous. Abandon superstitions and embrace reason, science, and secular humanism.

David B Marshall said...

Your superstition appears to be the belief that dogmatically stating your opinion without a sliver of evidence will magically make all the bad facts go away. Didn't you even bring a butter knife to a gun fight?

Gary said...

Which "facts" are you referring to?

David B Marshall said...

Do you always comment without reading the article you're supposedly responding to? Don't waste our time, please.

Gary said...

Your post is WAY too long. That is probably why no one else has commented.

Magical beliefs (superstitions) may be fun for children but they are unhealthy for adults. Religious beliefs, which I believe are mostly superstitions, are the cause of so much tribalism, discrimination, violence, and war. Let's stick to reason and science, shall we?