The good and harm done by christianity is a topic of much discussion and argument, and I have written on it many times (e.g. Does religion poison everything? and Do religious believers have better health and wellbeing, like, really?).
Keith Parsons is a US philosopher and atheist who writes about the philosophy of religion, and actively engages with christian belief via The Internet Infidels website and the Secular Outpost blog. Keith has made his assessments of christianity in two posts on Secular Outpost, and they are worth checking out.
The seven deadly sins of christianity
Parsons assessed The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity back in March, and this was his list:
Christians often claim greater certainty for their beliefs than can be justified, Parsons says, and this can lead to poor treatment of those who disagree. I think this is fair comment, although he doesn’t allow for the fact the christians believe their faith is based on a relationship and not just theoretical propositions.
Institutional christianity has too often servilely supported the rich and powerful, whereas Jesus, as Parsons correctly points out, was always on the side of the downtrodden and poor.
Pagans found the numinous and sacred in all sorts of places and things in the world, but christianity removed it to a “distant deity, one that could be approached only through the Church and its appointed sacraments, rites, and ministers.” Guilty as charged. Christians must seek the deeper experience of knowing God, not necessarily mediated through the church. This inevitably strips the world of some of its former magic, but we must surely find a different kind of fascination with God’s creation.
Parsons rightly points out that the New Testament significantly improved the status of women in the ancient world, but later christianity didn’t always follow through on these teachings.
Christianity began as “marginalized, outlawed, and sporadically persecuted”, but after 3 centuries became established. Unfortunately, this led to the church often taking on some of the despotic aspects of the Roman Empire, including the crushing of religious dissent and the imposition of christian values on non-believers even until today.
Parsons recognises that all ideologies can lead to fanaticism, and he defines a fanatic as someone “who does not shrink from the full implications of his premises, however odious.” But he argues that monotheism is more likely to produce fanatics than other ideologies, and to discriminate against and oppose other viewpoints.
“Of all the Church’s sins, this one is the most bizarre. After all, Jesus was a Jew”. Yet from very early days, the church condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, and this persecution continued through the Middle Ages right up to the Holocaust.
The good stuff
Then just a couple of days ago, Keith evened the score with an assessment of seven things that christianity has got right.
1) Everybody matters.
Parsons says: “In the ancient world in general, the attitude seemed to be that a few people mattered a lot and others were pretty much insignificant and disposable” and the pre-eminent thinker Aristotle was an elitist. But “Jesus always sided with the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful” and “consistently emphasized that even “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45) are owed our compassion, and should be fed, clothed, and given shelter when they need it.”
2. Nothing is worth the sacrifice of your personal integrity.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) No worldly goods are worth the sacrifice of our character.
3. Money madness is dangerous.
“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 19:24). “Obsession with money is bad, … it diminishes life, warps character, and poisons our interactions with others.”
4. “Good” people are often the most odious.
Jesus often criticised the religious people of his day because they kept the letter of the law and didn’t really show justice and compassion. Parsons sees parallel examples today.
5. There are higher obligations than human law.
Christians have always taught a balance of respect for the law and civil disobedience when an issue of principle is at stake, as exemplified in Martin Luther King.
6. Retribution is an essential aspect of justice.
This is an intriguing one. At first I was unhappy with this, but Parsons argues that most of us believe that truly evil people should face justice and “get what they deserve”, though he rightly adds that justice should not be vindictive and should be balanced with mercy.
7. Redemption is possible.
Christianity is based on two principles – that we all have failed morally, and we all can be redeemed.
1. I find that I generally agree with Parsons, even though we come from very different viewpoints. I think he has been extremely fair, and should be respected for this. I may have chosen some different positives and negatives, but I can’t argue with much of what he says.
2. I find it interesting that most of his positives are based solidly on the teachings of Jesus, while most of his negatives reflect the church ignoring the teachings of Jesus.
3. Overall, I think christianity as a belief emerges from his analysis looking pretty good. Of course this doesn’t make it necessarily true – he and I obviously differ on that point – but he presents another strong case against those who say christianity is been unmitigated evil. Religion (that is, the things people do in the name of God) may indeed poison everything, but following Jesus produces much good.