Updated: Jan 19, 2021
The integrity of the Christian faith depends on Jesus, not upon the faithfulness of the Church nor, thank God, its perfection. The Church has always been a flawed (sometimes seriously flawed) means of God’s grace. And as it happens, finding fault for the terrible things the Church has done is a cottage industry w/in the church itself. Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins have nothing over Martin Luther, for example, who said, “The church may be a whore, but the church is my mother.” Indeed, Jesus’ main trouble was with the organized religions of his day, not to mention his own disciples. Do you think he is surprised that terrible things have been done in his name? No. Dismayed? Yes. But surprised? Not at all.
The Church has always been an imperfect, and often recalcitrant, servant of God’s will. To be sure, it has done many great things since its inception (I think of the vast majority of hunger relief organizations, non-profit aid groups to the poor, and social justice ministries that exist ~ the Salvation Army, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, World Vision, Amnesty International, and the Red Cross immediately come to mind, not to mention the genesis of most of the world’s universities and hospitals). And yet, are there nonetheless those who, in the name of God and under the aegis of the Church, have done terrible things? Absolutely. Terrible things have been done in the name of democracy, too (like dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and creating false pretexts for the Iraq War, two name two examples), but that doesn’t mean that democracy as a system of government should be dissolved, or that all democracy is evil, does it?
The nature of any group of people, religious or otherwise, is that when we get together, bad things can often happen, even (or perhaps especially) in the name of good, or God. We are all broken people in need of redemption. And if this sounds distasteful to the atheist ear, as it most certainly will, I would simply ask them to take an inventory of their own lives. Surely they don’t see themselves as good, much less perfect. Surely they struggle like the rest of us: they wage war, lie sometimes when it is convenient, can be belligerent to those they love, not always live up to their own ideals. Would they want to live in a world populated with people like themselves? If their answer is “yes,” their name is Narcissus. Or Legion. And really, in a world where the largest free democracy spends a quarter of its entire budget (over $1,000,000,000 ~ that’s “trillion” with a “t”) on defending itself against the bad guys, can anyone actually say with a straight face that people are basically good?
Charles Taylor, in his magnificent tome “A Secular Age,” argues that the Church (and in his view, the Reformation specifically) is essentially responsible for the rise of secularism and atheism in the modern age. He is not alone in this assessment. We Christians uncritically accepted the naturalist parameters of science as the only respectable arbiter of truth, and as a result, we shrunk God down to measurable, reasonable size; then made him answerable to our indictments; then relegated him to the far reaches of the cosmos; and then, when he wasn’t looking, almost took him out of the equation altogether. We called it Providential Deism, which in case you’re not familiar, is the religious expression our great country is founded upon. It was the religion of Thomas Jefferson, patron saint of all things patriotic, and the preferred religious expression of Ben Franklin.
Perhaps the resurgence of atheism will serve as a wake-up call to all religious people who have rested on the dogma of religious platitudes. You can read this article by Jonathan Sacks that he wrote a few years back entitled “Why Did God Create Atheists?” as a nice corrective: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article607773.ece
If we Christians really mean what we believe (and believe what we mean), then we need to stop engaging atheists at their own game of Prove It! and once again pick up the mantle of service and humility that indelibly marked the Founder of our faith, and which has been our rightful heritage from the beginning. In the meantime, as I write this, millions upon millions of Christians around the world are doing just that: quietly going about their lives in service to others, forgiving their enemies, praying for those who persecute them, fighting for justice. They rarely make the news, of course (where’s the salacious sound bite, the gruesome pics?), and so the world is lulled into thinking that they don’t exist. But they do. Just met one the other day for breakfast. Old friend.
Actually, the world is full of them.