The Record of the Church

For many people, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Christianity is the record of the church. After centuries of Crusades, inquisitions and (literal) witch hunts, the church (and the Catholic church in particular) has, in recent years, not only abused children, but knowingly covered it up. If there is a God whose kingdom is expressed on earth, how could it possibly be through the institution of the church?

One of the differences between the late Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists (such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett), is that Hitchens didn’t spend as much time on whether Christianity is true, but rather on whether Christianity, and its expression in the church, is good. While Hitchens certainly argued that Christianity isn’t true, he actually spent much more time arguing that you shouldn’t want it to be true.

This proved to be a very effective argument, largely because what the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies (Christian teaching which has recently been demonstrated by Jonathan Haidt’s work The Righteous Mind). Christianity first got a hearing because the early Christians were able to demonstrate that it was good by their lives. But to the extent that the church is seen as bad (or worse), people are more prone to turning away from it than towards it.

The reality is that church has been a powerful force for good and for evil over the centuries, and this has been powerfully demonstrated in CPX’s documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse than you Ever Imagined. While Christians and the church were behind the first charities, hospitals, the establishment of human rights, and campaigns against slavery; they were also behind the Crusades, the Spanish inquisition, witch hunts, and more. However, the central argument of the documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse than you Ever Imagined, is that:

“To judge a piece fairly, we know to distinguish between the masterpiece that was written and the… pretty ordinary performance! Jesus wrote a beautiful composition: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” There’s no denying that Christians have sometimes played completely out of tune, pursuing hatred, opulence, and bloodshed in Christ’s name. But… a bad delivery doesn’t diminish the genius of the original composition… What can’t be doubted is that the message of Jesus has resonated far beyond the walls of the church. Whatever we make of Christianity’s theological claims, its ethic of love has given us much of what we value most in the world today.”

Philosophies shouldn’t be judged by their abuses, but by their teachings. Just as atheists object when people argue that Stalinist Russia and Maoist China were atheist regimes, it is equally unfair to judge Christianity by those in the church who have abused Christ’s teaching. Jesus said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

A number of secular people dismiss this argument as an example of the No True Scotsman Fallacy:
Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person B: “But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge.”
Person A: “But no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

This is changing the definition of a Scotsman in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. It is argued that this is precisely what this argument is doing, saying “Yes, the church has committed terrible acts of evil and injustice, but no true Christian does evil/injustice in the name of God.” This objection can feel quite forceful, but it all depends on what a true Christian is. In the example in the No True Scotsman Fallacy above, if Angus was born in France rather than Scotland, then he wouldn’t be a counter example to the original claim, because what makes a Scotsman a true Scotsman is being born in Scotland.

What then, makes someone a true Christian? To insist that this argument commits the same fallacy by distinguishing between people who genuinely follow Christ’s teaching and those who merely call to themselves as Christian, is to insist that a true Christian is anyone who calls themself a Christian, rather than those who actually follow Christ. It’s essentially demanding that there be no difference between true Christians, and those who are Christians in name only. This is the surest way to judge a philosophy by its abusers, rather than by its teaching.

The difference between the Christians who established charities, hospitals and human rights, and those in the church who have gone to war, tortured dissenters and abused children, is that the former have done good because of Christ’s teaching, while the latter have done evil despite Christ’s teaching. To ignore this key difference is to insist that there is no such thing as a true Christian (as distinct from those who merely call themselves Christian), and to judge a philosophy by its abusers rather than its teaching.

The church’s record is far from perfect, and this is a point that Christopher Hitchens used powerfully to draw people’s hearts away from Christianity (while the other New Atheists focussed on the mind). Christians have taken part in Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, abuses of power and much more, but people have done these things despite Christ’s teaching and example, not because of it. If Christianity is judged by its teaching rather than its abusers, its ethic of love has given us much of what we value most in the world today. Indeed, as Luc Ferry (a secular philosopher) points out:

“By resting its case upon a definition of the human person and an unprecedented idea of love, Christianity was to have an incalculable effect upon the history of ideas. To give one example, it is quite clear that, in this Christian re-evaluation of the human person, of the individual as such, the philosophy of human rights to which we subscribe today would never have established itself. It is essential therefore that we have a more or less accurate idea of the chain of reasoning which led Christianity to break so radically with the Stoic past.” (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 60)

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