I find it amusing whenever atheists gleefully discuss “what would the world be like if there were no religion?” In a way, I’m sympathetic to this sentiment. In fact, I wrote about this early on in my blogging adventures here. But, as I’ve said before, following Jesus is not a religion.
What’s ironic about this dialogue, as far as Christianity is concerned, is that they imagine doing away with the very paradigm they borrow from when they envision a world filled with peace, love, and compassion. This fantasy is based on a popular atheist caricature of history. And popular anti-Christian evangelists trade on the fact that most of their followers are, likewise, woefully ignorant of Christian history.
Of course, it’s vacuously true that Christian history includes wars, violence, and many evils done by people thinking they were serving Christ. But anyone with a rudimentary understanding should take these examples as being in direct contradiction to Christ’s teachings, not representing them. And by omitting the benefits we take for granted in our culture that uniquely came to us through Christian ideals, any thinking person should view such a myopic treatment of history as suspect.
On that note, if you’re interested in a brilliant rebuttal to this popular atheist notion, I would highly recommend a book by David Bentley Hart titled, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. I will quote rather copiously from it here in order to give you a good sampling of how Hart thoroughly dismantles these poorly constructed anti-Christian myths:
Many of today’s most obstreperous critics of Christianity know nothing more of Christendom’s two millennia than a few childish images of bloodthirsty crusaders and sadistic inquisitors, a few damning facts, and a great number of even more damning legends…. (p.17)
Hart is especially critical of the icons of New Atheism—Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. For instance, Sam Harris’s sanctimonious dismissal of Christianity’s historical impact:
He more or less explicitly states that every episode of violence or injustice in Christian history is a natural consequence of Christianity’s basic tenets (which is obviously false), and that Christianity’s twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs—its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on—are simply expressions of normal human kindness, with no necessary connection to Christian conviction (which is even more obviously false). (p.9 *)
Then Hart challenges the coherence of these pundit’s arguments: that the world would be more peaceful once religion is finally purged from civilization:
What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned, and of others like them, is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith. Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their confidence.
It is not even especially clear why these authors imagine that a world entirely purged of faith would choose to be guided by moral prejudices remotely similar to their own; and the obscurity becomes especially impenetrable to me in the case of those who seem to believe that a thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology might actually aid us in forsaking our “tribalism” and “irrationality” and in choosing instead to live in tolerant concord with one another. (p. 14 *)
Interestingly, Hart laments over what he calls shoddy, vapid, and philosophically sloppy writings of these modern atheists compared to that of 19th century atheism, particularly Nietzsche:
The greatest of them all, Friedrich Nietzsche, may have had a somewhat limited understanding of the history of Christian thought, but he was nevertheless a man of immense culture who could appreciate the magnitude of the thing against which he had turned his spirit, and who had enough of a sense of the past to understand the cultural crisis that the fading of Christian faith would bring about. Moreover, he had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was—above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion—than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an indeterminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.
He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy. (p. 5-6 *)
Hart explains how Christianity brought a depth of human compassion and other-centered, self-giving love that was virtually unknown to the world before.
It is also probably wise to recall that the Christians of the early centuries won renown principally for their sobriety, peacefulness, generosity, loyalty to their spouses, care for the poor and the sick, and ability, no matter what their social station, to exhibit virtues—self-restraint, chastity, forbearance, courage—that pagan philosophers frequently extolled but rarely practiced with comparable fidelity.
And these Christians brought something new into the ancient world: a vision of the good without precedent in pagan society, a creed that prescribed charitable service to others as a religious obligation, a story about a God of self-outpouring love.
In long retrospect, the wonder of this new nation within the empire is not that so many of its citizens could not really live by the ideals of their faith, nor even simply that so many could, but that anyone could even have imagined such ideals in the first place. ( p.45 *)
If you would like to hear lectures by Hart of these arguments (audio only), I highly recommend “Christianity and its Fashionable Enemies” and also “Myths about Christian History.” These are excellent. Here’s a short clip along the same subject lines.