Can we judge a belief by how much it benefits or hurts the human race?
Some critics of christianity certainly think so. They think “religion poisons everything”. They think crusades and pedophile priests and intolerance, and more, count against believing.
But has christianity done more harm than good? If it had done a lot of good, would that prove anything? Read on to examine these questions.
Pragmatism and truth
The Roman governor Pilate famously asked Jesus: “What is truth?”, and philosophers have debated the question at length.
The truths of different areas of human knowledge are known in different ways. Maths theorems can be absolutely proven. Law courts require guilt to be established “beyond reasonable doubt”. Scientific facts are commonly known within 95% confidence limits. In other areas of human life, such as history, politics and relationships, truth is much less certain. Religious belief, and disbelief, are also difficult to ascertain.
Some philosophers argue that pragmatic considerations – whether a view or belief brings benefits or harm – are an indicator of truth.
If a religious belief causes harm, we can surely question whether either (i) it comes from a good God, or (ii) it is being lived out properly. Many, many people have understandably been turned away from christian belief by sexual abuse from a christian leader or priest, apparent hypocrisy, or lack of care.
Those evil outcomes of christian belief are all too apparent. But are there also significant positive outcomes that aren’t always mentioned by critics?
Do believers and critics alike cherry pick the evidence to suit their agendas?
I have examined both sides of the question in Belief and unbelief and I provide a load of references and links on which my assessments are based. I examine christian social movements (schools, hospitals, advocacy, social welfare, etc) that have benefitted the world, as well as sociopolitical events and attitudes (war, terrorism, repression, intolerance) where religion has contributed to evil.
In this post I want to highlight a few positives that aren’t always recognised.
Contemporary service to society
Religion is known to lead to prosocial (= positive) behaviour. Although christian churches in the first world are generally declining in numbers, there seems to be renewed commitment to doing good in society, especially for the underprivileged.
The Underground in Florida is more of a collective than a church. It was begun more than a decade ago by highly motivated recently-graduated university students who didn’t want to sit in conventional churches and do very little. So they looked around to find some way they could serve those around them.
Instead of forming a new church or a large social welfare organisation, they formed missional communities or micro-churches linked together in a network. Each micro-church is small enough to meet in homes, but looks outwards to those in their neighbourhood who they can help. Sometimes the micro-church leaders move to a location where they can live as neighbours with the people they want to serve.
And so there are micro-churches that serve single mothers, men with addictions, people in the adult entertainment and sex industries, the homeless, foster carers, victims and survivors of human trafficking, school students, and many more.
Each of the 200+ micro-churches forms a small community that those they serve can be part of, and so the care doesn’t just include physical needs, but friendship, inclusion and respect.
I have written up more on The Underground, together with some photos, in Living to serve others.
Love Your Neighbour
In England, the pandemic lockdown in 2020 led a London church to start an emergency food bank for those in need. The movement grew with the need, and now a consortium of thousands of churches and charities offer practical care and hope for the most vulnerable in their communities.
Volunteers have provided more than 7.5 million meals, and also offer delivery of emergency food, friendship, phone checks on how people are going, debt advice, employment support, Christmas gifts and other provisions to help people most in need.
The program came to the attention of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who offered his thanks and appreciation for the work.
A new angle on history
The evil committed by the church in history has often been used by critics as a weapon against christian belief. Atheist luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Steven Weinberg have made this point.
But the picture actually isn’t as clear as that. Historical author and non-believer Tom Holland, in his book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, tells the story of how Christianity transformed the modern world in many positive ways (as well as some negative ones).
Holland argues that many of the morals and ethics we take for granted today are not universal. The ethics of the world before christianity were very different to now, and much modern ethics are the fruits of christian civilisation.
For example, he says christianity taught us that all people were equal in the sight of God. This led to a radical care for others, including the weak, the needy, the vulnerable and the exploited. Some time down the track it led to opposition to slavery (which was generally acceptable in the ancient world). He says christians were also largely responsible for the important principle of the separation of church (religion) and state (secular), and for fundamental western concepts of science and liberalism.
Holland points out the darker side of christianity, but adds that this was when the christians didn’t live up to the ethical standards they had brought into society.
So, he argues, while christianity had significant negative impacts, we can trace very many important western values back to christianity – “the West remains utterly saturated by Christian assumptions.”
The good, the bad and the ugly
In Belief vs unbelief I conclude that when belief or unbelief are utilised by powerful states (like the Holy Roman Empire or the Soviet Union), they can both be complicit in terrible oppression and inhumanity.
Both views are at their best when sincerely believed by individuals. The teachings of Jesus have motivated many people to altruism, but the church has been a mixed blessing, with much we can be thankful for, but much that requires repentance. Non-belief seems to have produced less benefits to the human race and, in the twentieth century, a terrible cost when expressed in the form of communism.
If we think we can judge belief systems by how they work out, christianity seems to me to have a positive “score”.
Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels