Friday, August 21, 2015

Choosing a Worldview: Should We Judge from the Worst, or the Best?

(Icon: "The Synaxis of All Saints," author unknown)

Every now and then, I'll scout out a few articles about the atheism-vs-Christianity debate, and read the comment sections. (Incidentally, my Yahoo! news feed must think I'm an atheist, since all the articles that come up are poorly-argued atheist diatribes; or, on the other hand, maybe Yahoo! just wants everyone to become atheists of an ignorant sort.) Those of you who have ever looked at an online comments section know what an act of sacrificial humility it is for a thoughtful person to subject himself to the staccato idiocy that passes for conversation there; but I do it to get a sense for what the general tone of the conversation is among the many people following this debate, not just among the scholars.

One set of accusations pops up almost every time. Atheists accuse Christianity of being morally abhorrent because of things like the Crusades and the Inquisition (those are usually the only two events cited, because most atheists haven't bothered to learn a blessed thing about church history, and even what they know about the Crusades and the Inquisition is usually well off the mark). Christians will fire back with their own poorly-researched claims, decrying all atheists everywhere as morally repulsive because of the crimes of a handful of rapacious 20th-century dictators who happened to be atheists. 

While reading these things, it occurred to me that we're going about it all wrong. Both sides come up with the quite natural defense that those particular events or people cannot be used to paint the whole of one's worldview in broad strokes of moral vacuity; rather, it's simply a fact of human nature that some people, even when ostensibly dedicated to a sensible and peace-loving worldview, will do horrible things. Atheists have done horrible things, yes, and Christians have done horrible things. If the test of one's worldview is that it can only be held if everyone who has ever claimed to have held it has never done something horrible, we'd find ourselves immediately out of options. 

So, what to do? Let me propose an alternative. Rather than arguing about which worldview's bad apples were worse than the other worldview's baddies, let's ask an instructive question: which worldview is better at making saints? The best worldview will be the one in which people will be enabled to grow beyond their own egotism, to love one another sacrificially, to pursue gentleness and justice and peace as a way of life and not just a catchy mantra. That would be an interesting exploration. 

I know no one's holding their breath on this one, but I'm going to tip my hand and say that from what I've seen personally and what I know of history, Christianity is better at making saints--at taking ordinary people and fashioning them into moral exemplars--than any other worldview I know. Naturally, there are lots of Christians who never come close to being moral exemplars, but we're arguing about the worldview's potency for transformation here, not about the individual case studies; and on the whole I think a reasoned exploration would find that Christianity has a tendency to turn out Saint Francises and George Muellers and Mother Teresas at a greater rate and consistency than atheism has produced its world-changing moral exemplars (of which I'm somehow struggling to think of any, even after years of reading atheist propaganda). Why do I think this? Because throughout all the years of my life, most of it spent around conservative evangelical Christians, I've consistently found among them people of such love, graciousness, self-sacrifice, and humility that it honestly puts all of my non-Christian contacts to shame.

Next time you take to the debating ring, leave aside the tired old question of whose baddies were badder, and ask instead about which worldview is better at making good men. As Jesus said, "You shall know a tree by its fruit."