Refuting Popular Atheist Arguments #5: “Look at all the evil caused by Christianity!”

Inevitably, when speaking with many atheists or agnostics about Christianity or religion, you will hear about all the evil and crazy things religious people have done.  Islamic jihad is something popular to bring up, as is the Crusades.  Granted, even a few atheists know that equating the two is historically stupid, as apparently Obama did not, but still, it should be admitted that some self-professed Christians did bad things during the Crusades.  Other things people bring up are abortion clinic bombings, the crazy Westboro Baptist Church, and greedy and immoral pastors.  The thrust of these arguments is that religion or Christianity cannot possibly be good or true because it has produced so much evil.

There are several levels to address here.  First, there is a matter of logic, and we’ll see that this argument doesn’t hold water and might even backfire on the atheist.  Second, there is the matter of evidence, where it is argued that bad behavior by Christians is decisive evidence against Christianity.  This will be shown to be too narrowly focused on one piece of evidence.  Third, there is the emotional form of this “argument,” which is actually the most difficult one to address even though it is not really an “argument.”

The Logical Form

Taken purely as logical, this argument looks something like this:

1.  Christians have done very bad things.
2.  Anyone who does very bad things disproves his own belief system.
3.  Therefore, Christians disprove their own belief system.

Premise 1 cannot be disputed, but there is a problem with Premise 2.  This can be easily illustrated by simply changing Premise 1 so that the argument looks like this instead:

1.  Atheists have done very bad things.
2.  Anyone who does very bad things disproves his own belief system.
3.  Therefore, atheists disprove their own belief system.

Premise 1 in this version remains indisputable, and so atheists have a problem.  Taken in this very simple form, Premise 2 ends up disproving all forms of atheism, which is obviously not something these atheists are aiming to do.  Slightly more careful atheists will recognize this and object that when atheists do bad things, they’re not doing bad things because of their atheism but in spite of their atheism, as opposed to all these crazy religious people.  They will therefore modify Premise 1 and 2 so that the argument looks like this:

1.  Christians have done very bad things because of their worldview.
2.  Anyone who does very bad things because of his worldview disproves his worldview.
3.  Christians disprove their worldview.

This is better; after all, Premise 1 still seems true.  However, Premise 2 still proves too much for the atheist because there is also no doubt that there have been atheists who do bad things because of their atheism, such as communists.  Many atheists respond by saying people like that were not proper atheists at all because then they’d be humanistic.  The argument again transforms into something like this:

1.  Christians have done very bad things because of an accurate understanding of their worldview.
2.  Anyone who does very bad things because of an accurate understanding of his worldview disproves his worldview.
3.  Christians disprove their worldview.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.  What matters is not simply that people do bad things but that they do so according to an accurate understanding of their beliefs.  Atheists want to have this exception for themselves, but why can’t Christians use that?  There is no doubt that Christians have done bad things while proclaiming obedience to God.  However, in those circumstances, it is easy to point out that what they did contradicts the Bible or rests on a grave misunderstanding.  For example, there are stories of Christians mutilating themselves or maybe another person because of Jesus’ words that it is better to gouge out your eye or remove your hand than to sin.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s a fairly simple matter to show how that’s a big misunderstanding.

What is especially intriguing here is that when we get this far, it exposes a weakness of materialistic atheism.  The whole argument rests on the premise that there is an objective standard of goodness on which actions can be evaluated and that those actions prove truthfulness.  However, on what basis do atheists even believe in some objective good?  I would argue that there is no objective standard for morality in atheism because of their allegiance to naturalistic determinism and overall purposelessness.  Many atheists even agree with this and have admitted that there is no such thing as objective morality.  They may not like it when other atheists take that belief to justify doing all sorts of things that make us feel bad, like steal or commit adultery, but that’s just a feeling.  They would say, though, that this does not necessarily mean that atheism is false.  Maybe the world is just a crappy, meaningless place and the brave, intellectual materialist simply faces that fact.  If this is so, however, then it’s hard to see why they’re complaining so much about the actions of others in the first place.

Therefore, this argument only begins to have any weight if we 1) assume there is objective good and 2) clearly make a link between belief and bad behavior consistent with that belief, with this objectively bad behavior necessitating a refutation of the belief from which it comes.  Unless atheism gives its own ground for objective morality and then makes a powerful case that Christianity in particular, when understood consistently, makes people do bad things, then this attack on the Christian faith falls way short.  Instead, it looks like a much stronger one against atheism itself.

The Evidential and Emotional Case

Building a logical argument like this is bold, but it becomes clear that most atheists are normally not coming at this issue from the perspective of simple logic.  Another way it can be presented is evidentially; while they may concede that bad behavior by anyone does not logically necessitate the falsehood of their belief system, it still presents strong evidence against it.  However, even this weaker claim is subject to many of the same criticisms above, such as the need for an objective standard of good as well as a clear link between bad behavior and belief.  Furthermore, it is too narrowly focused.  Why not point out to all the good things Christians have done?  To name just one story, South Korean pastor Lee Jong-Rak created his “Drop Box” ministry to save babies from infanticide, where unwanted babies are dropped off to him in a box and he takes care of them.  For every atrocity committed by a Christian, there are many stories of Christians doing selfless good.

However, even if we were to grant that Christianity has done more harm than good, that still does not mean it is false.  Why not consider the historical evidence?  Arguments for God’s existence?  The behavior of Christians is not the only thing that should be considered.  The evidential form of this argument still falls hopelessly short.

Still, I would say again that even here is not where the discussion often ends.  Typically, when talking to atheists who bring this up, they harbor some anger or bitterness towards religion or Christianity.  This becomes apparent when personal anecdotes start coming up, such as how they have seen Christians act hypocritically or how they have been mistreated by some Christians in the past.  These people are salt and light of the world?  No thanks, they say.  This constitutes “evidence” against Christianity in the sense that these atheists’ basic perception of these Christians makes them believe that the allegedly loving principles of Christianity cannot possibly be true.

Here, I think some level of empathy is in order.  It’s unfortunate that Christians have hurt people illegitimately.  Nonetheless, there are several things to point out there:

1.  Many people who call themselves Christians simply are not.  Checking “Christian” on a survey doesn’t make one a Christian.
2.  While it is true that real Christians still do bad things, Christianity itself accounts for this fact because nowhere does it claim that Christians are perfect.  In fact, Christianity claims quite the opposite; everyone is messed up, including Christians, which is why we all need a Savior.  This is not an excuse but an explanation, as Christians are fully expected to apologize and repent when they do sin.
3.  Related to the evidential discussion, the bad behavior of Christians, even if it is personal, does not mean that Christianity is false.  They need to examine the person of Jesus and his claims.

Nine times out of ten, in my experience, you’ll get to to the emotional objection.  It is still important to point out all of these logical and evidential problems, but at the end of the day, I think it’s important to come clean that Christians continue to sin.  What should be highlighted is not that Christians are awesome but that Jesus is because he saved us.  Also, it should be noted that atheists tend to like painting themselves as coming from a standpoint of pure reason and evidence, but the use of objections like this betrays a heavy dose of emotion.  That is not necessarily wrong in itself, but it does show that the atheist is considering other things besides reason.

Conclusion

As an intellectual objection, this argument is fairly easy to refute, and I hope this post helped point out its flaws.  However, as matter of personal experience and emotion, it’s not so easy to dismiss.  In this issue, I think it’s important to be both empathetic as well as mentally sharp.  It should be admitted that, yes, from a logical standpoint, even if every Christian on earth was living contrary to biblical principles, that would not mean that Christianity is false, but it sure wouldn’t make Christianity very attractive at all.  Small wonder why the Bible puts a lot of stress on loving behavior as a witness to the Gospel.  This is also why William Lane Craig ends his book Reasonable Faith with the notion that the greatest apologetic for Christianity is our very lives.  People are not robots, and while emotions can certainly get out of hand, they are not always bad considerations.  We would do well to remember this as we give a defense of the truth, doing so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).  At the end of the day, we are not about scoring intellectual points on a fake scoreboard but winning people for Christ, and that involves the whole person.

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3 thoughts on “Refuting Popular Atheist Arguments #5: “Look at all the evil caused by Christianity!”

  1. Pingback: Islam/ISIS and Christianity/KKK: How do we discern when a religion is to blame? | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: Stories indeed: An Unexpected Encounter That Stretched My Apologist and Pastoral Sides | leesomniac

  3. Pingback: Dishonoring of Christ: When Allegedly Christian Universities Lose Sight of Priorites | leesomniac

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