Christianity and Human Dignity - Does Religion Lead Good People to do Evil?

On July 9, 2019, Public Discourse published an insightful article (which was apparently either earlier or later delivered as a speech) by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput entitled, “Building A Culture of Religious Freedom.” Early in the article, Archbishop Chaput made three points that deserve to be repeated. This is the second of three blogposts on Archbishop Chaput’s comments (the first can be found here.)

Having made the point that a Christian’s life is a public life, and that it is impossible for a Christian to separate the public aspects of his life from the private aspects and still submit wholly to the Lordship of Jesus, he continues by emphasizing the positive impact religious faith has on society. He writes:
Religious faith sincerely believed and humbly lived serves human dignity. It fosters virtue, not conflict. Therefore, it’s vital in building a humane society. This should be too obvious to mention.
If I have one concern about Archbishop Chaput’s article it is its generalization of its arguments to be about “religious faith.” I understand that he is a Roman Catholic which has recently blurred the historic distinction between Christian faith and other non-Christian faiths in a movement to be more ecumenical. I, however, don’t believe that all “religious faith” serves human dignity. So, for purposes of this blogpost, I will limit his points to the orthodox Christian faith, and we shall see that it works very nicely when so limited.

There is a meme running about the Internet by Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, who is quoted as saying, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." This meme is another excellent example of why really smart people can sometimes make the most ignorant of comments.

First, the Christian faith (with some obvious and well-documented historic failings as will be discussed later) advances human dignity. It teaches that all people descended from two historic human beings which translates to an understanding that all people are brothers and sisters. At its core, it is impossible to treat people differently on the basis of skin color or some other irrelevant factor because everyone comes from a common set of human ancestors. (Those who argue that some people are descendants of Cain and worthy of hatred on that basis have drawn an arbitrary line between people that the Bible does not teach).

The Bible also teaches that all people have value in God’s eyes. First, they are all created in the image of God which means that they all have value. Second, when the people of Israel were first set apart through the calling of Abraham, he was instructed that he was blessed to be a blessing to the whole world. The idea that the entire world (not just the Jews) would receive God’s blessing is inherent in the Jewish story. Ultimately, the Bible teaches that people are saved or lost not based on their lineage or their children, but their own deeds.

Second, when someone says that Christianity teaches hatred because it teaches division, that person sincerely misunderstands the Bible. In fact, anyone who teaches that the Bible teaches separation other than the division between those who are saved because they have accepted the free gift of salvation and those who are not saved because they have rejected the gift create an artificial narrative that is not supported by the grand, over-arching narrative of the Bible.

The founders saw this when they wrote in the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness….” Even though the Founders lived this out imperfectly (as all people ultimately do because of our inherent sin nature), the ideas rightfully understood express the worth of the human person, and the foundation of that worth in God.

In fact, it is important to recognize that the Bible is the only religious book where the people of God constantly fall short of what God wants. They have been taught what God desires, yet they continue to fail to rise to the standards taught and consistently return to their sinful ways. The critique that religion makes good people evil ignores the fact that the Bible teaches one way of living, but the people of God regularly fall short of what God desires for them. It isn't religion but human nature that leads people to engage in evil behavior.

The Christian faith encourages us to go against our negative/sinful nature. It encourages us to love – both our friends (which is easy) and our enemies (which is not, but which is every bit as important). It encourages us to live lives that correspond with the fruit of the Spirit, (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). It tells us to turn the other cheek and to help our neighbor. I know almost no one who would look at the major teachings of the Bible on virtue and argue that the Christian faith creates anything other than good people and a virtuous citizenry.

Yet, Archbishop Chaput notes that modern, common secular society sees a very negative impact of religion/Christianity on society.
But one of the key assumptions of the modern secular state—in effect, the secular creation myth—is that religion is naturally prone to violence because it’s irrational and divisive. Secular, non-religious authority, on the other hand, is allegedly rational and unitive. Therefore, the job of secular authority is peacemaking; in other words, it must keep religious fanatics from killing each other and everybody else.
Archbishop Chaput’s statement represents an accurate viewpoint of many secular individuals, and unfortunately that viewpoint has some basis in fact. It is certainly the case that some religious beliefs hate those of other religious beliefs. Some who call themselves Christians hate people of other religious, people of other denominations, or even people of different races and ethnicity within their own denomination. There have been wars between these groups, largely encouraged by corrupt politicians who sought to use the divisions to pursue their personal ambitions. But, as I mention above, the Bible teaches that those who follow God regularly fail to do what God desires us to do, but that is not because Christianity caused the evil; evil people can use anything -- even the teachings of a good and holy God -- for their evil purposes. So, it is true that sometimes religious fanatics must be kept from killing each other. Christians must recognize that too many Christians have not lived lives in accordance with Christ’s teaching, and may have corrupted the Bible for their own evil ends.

Looking at the larger picture, however, this viewpoint of Christians as religious fanatics needing secular society to control them is, as Archbishop Chaput states, “an Enlightenment fantasy.” The viewpoint is based on the exceptions not the rule. Just as newspapers don’t print all of the good news that occurs in a community, so we tend to focus on the publicized evils and ignore all of the good that comes out of religion. Everyday there are thousands of people whose lives are changed by Christianity or whose lives are positively affected by Christian people. There are people in prison who accept the Gospel and leave behind lives of crime. There are homeless people who are brought off the streets by caring Christian outreach ministries inspired by the Biblical teaching such as found in Proverbs 21:13 to help the poor. There are older people whose Christians friends help them with their gardening or housecleaning as acts of love inspired by Christ’s admonition to love one another and Paul’s instruction to help those in need.

Archbishop Chaput focuses on another undeniable truth: non-religious communities have proven to be the most oppressive regimes. He notes:
Secular politics and ideologies have murdered and oppressed more people in the last 100 years—often in the name of “science”—than all religions together have managed to mistreat in the last millennium.
Absolutely true. The three largest mass murderers in history were all leaders of secular states two of which (Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin) were clearly anti-Christian and the third of which had a leader (Hitler) who hated Christianity. These three killed well over 100 million people which is many million more than the remainder of the people on the top ten list (which sadly includes murderers who identified as Christians but clearly never read the Bible).

So, what is going on? If Christianity has been largely, but not universally, a force for good, and if it has proven to be so much better than secular ideologies in terms of how it treats its fellow human beings, why is it depicted as an evil that needs to be controlled. Archbishop Chaput has an answer for that, too.
What’s really going on in much of today’s political hand-wringing about religious extremism and looming theocracy is a push by America’s elites and leadership classes to get religion out of the way. God is a competitor in forming the public will, so God needs to go.
That is both a sad and fascinating hypothesis. Could it be that the tearing down of the revered place Christianity has historically held in America just the result of the people in charge of our political institutions just wanting to remove God as a competitor? Could it be God stands in the way of what they want to accomplish by standing against the will of the elites through the teaching of a transcendent morality and a high view of human dignity?

It is certainly worth considering.

Coming up, I will post on Archbishop Chaput’s third of three points: “Man is a moral and believing animal. The need to believe is hardwired into human nature.


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