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I sometimes wonder if its strange that I have and really enjoy a great relationship with so many atheist friends.  It might have something to do with being in philosophy. Then I see this quote from a blog:

All the vitriol these Christians can spew could never be enough to diminish the heroic actions of 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist. Her courage is contagious. She stood up against her school and her community to fight for our rights, won her lawsuit and the admiration of many. But she’s also endured an enormous amount of hatred/bullying, and has done so with poise and bravery. I’ve seen a lot of this kind of bullying when issues of church/state are called out, but these comments are some of the most hateful I’ve come across. It is apparent that Christians only believe in tolerance so long as their religion is allowed to violate the constitution.Well, I’ve grown tired of just being tolerated and I will not be tolerating the stomach-churning hatred that’s continuously espoused by those doing the “tolerating.”

Wow. That is some strong, passionate rhetoric right there. Anytime I see that kind of response I make a it a habit to slow my usual snarkiness and genuinely listen. First, here’s the back story. Jessica Alquist is by all accounts a bright, articulate, involved atheist teenager and she wanted the school prayer banner removed from Cranston High school West’s auditorium. The offending prayer reads:

Our Heavenly Father, Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers. To be honest with ourselves as well as with others. Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. Teach us the value of true friendship. Help us always conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High West.

Alquist sued and won her case. The banner was removed. If you are already getting chock full of righteous indignation about activist courts, and America as a Christian nation then you will have missed the point. What is remarkable is not that the judge sided with Jessica. What is remarkable is the response from students at Cranston High West whose website espouses it is a place “Where we treat people as we would like people to treat us.” The atheist blog “JesusFestusFajitafishsticks” posted some of the tweets, posts, and messages that represent responses from students about the removal of the banner. Seriously I can’t print most of these here. They are so vile and violent. Their are threats, insults, and the worst kind of vitriol. I don’t believe all of them are from professing Christians but I’m sure a lot of them are. Here’s a sample of the ones fit to print (barely). Note some of these are actually edited by me in the interest of decency:

“May that evil, little atheist teenager girl and that judge BURN IN HELL”

“She’s not human. She’s garbage.”

“That B___ is going to hell and satan is going to rape her.”

“Jessica Alquist may have won her case but she’s going straight to hell #Godovereverything.”

“I hope there are lots of banners in hell when you are rotting there you atheist F____.”

My first knee-jerk reaction was to be suspicious of the quotes but they are genuine. What about the atheist response? One of the hallmarks on the so-called new atheism is a sentiment of “no more mister nice guy.”  Perhaps Atheism’s most articulate spokesman, Christopher Hitchens, says that “Religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt.” He names Christianity as the chief cause of much of the evil in the world today including the persecution of Jews and violence against homosexuals. Hitchens did not play around. The response to Alquist’s persecution is no different:

When will you stop saying this is shocking? It isn’t anymore.
When will you stop saying this is rare? It isn’t.
When do you think we need to start taking these kind of people seriously?
Hopefully when they’re aiming their violence and hatred at a 16 year old. This happens every time someone does something amazing to furthur [sic] our cause. Christians show their “love” all over facebook, twitter, and comments sections of news sites.

When one atheist friend of mine posted the story she remarked “How Christian of them” referring to the students and their comments.

My knee-jerk response was to question whether or not these were really the sentiments of honest Christian youth.  I was about to make the same point as this poster: “I don’t see anything in those comments that implies that ANY of these people are christians anyway… How would you actually know based on these remarks?” The atheists responded rationally: “‘Burn in hell . . . ‘HELL’. . . ‘Sinner’
Uhmmm… Sounds like good ol’ American Christians to me.”

Then I remembered my logic and there is a fallacy called the No True Scotsman Fallacy take from former Atheist Antony Flew:

Alice: All Scotsmen enjoy haggis.

Bob: My uncle is a Scotsman, and he doesn’t like haggis!

Alice: Well, all true Scotsmen like haggis.

The point is that it could be fallacious to make a claim “Christianity promotes love and tolerance” and then when confronted by the opposite, to simply ad hoc claim that these couldn’t be true Christians in order to prove that Christianity does not promote such behavior. Let me be clear. The atheists have a point. It does seem circular to neatly deny that true Christians would never do such a thing as a response to behavior by ostensibly religious people.

Now the No True Scotsman fallacy only works if one engages in it too much or if its simply ad hoc. So if it turns out that there are a lot of people who aren’t “true Scotsman” and it can be reasonably discerned then the claim isn’t a fallacy. For instance, in a recent book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and other Lies You’ve Been Told, Bradley Wright, an sociologist debunks a lot of myths about Christians. It turns out that weekly church attendance is a major factor in whether Christian Teens are just as promiscuous as non-Christian teens (i.e. true love waits) changes drastically when you consider the teens that profess Christianity and the ones who also attend church weekly. The same goes for divorce rates, giving to the poor, adultery and all the other hypocritical things Christians do. So a true indicator of the level of “Christianess” of the cyber-bullies would be how many attend church on a weekly basis.

But that’s not the point. Atheists are making an argument and one that we should listen to. I think it goes something like this.

1) Belief in God (and hell, etc.) makes one immoral in fact. It makes people mean, close minded and petty and in some cases violent.

2) People who are mean, close-minded, petty and violent should be treated with contempt, ridicule and hatred (per Hitchens)

3) Christians (when they are petty and violent) should be treated with contempt, ridicule, and hatred.

4) Therefore little good comes from religious belief and a lot of bad does come from it.

This is an important argument (and for those of you interested in logic, its valid). As I’ve mentioned before arguments can only go wrong in a few ways. One of the premises could be false or the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises no matter how true. I thnk there is a problem with premise one. The evidence that these teenagers were cruel, petty and evil is not proof that religious belief makes one cruel petty or evil. I will not deny that they are Christians–though if mentioning heaven and God is a sufficient condition for Christianity then just about every Philadelphia brand cream cheese commercial from 2000 is an advertisement for Christianity. I will not deny that these teenagers are cruel, petty, and evil. I will say that it is by no means evident that this means their belief made them that way any more than it is evident that Stalin or Mao Zedong was cruel or petty or evil because they were atheists. The fact is that some Christians are on TeamJesus and Team Edward (a Twilight reference) or team NASCAR with exactly the same enthusiasm and passion.

If what makes one a Christian is a set of beliefs then what is evident is that one can be a Christian and still be petty, cruel, and evil. Let’s not try to sugar-coat that by making excuses for Christians who engage in cruel acts by claiming they are not Christians. Christians, yes true Christians, can be and do just about anything.

The value of Christianity is not primarily that it makes otherwise, bad, selfish people good. The same is true for atheism by the way. What ethically follows from steadfastly disbelieving in God as an atheist? Absolutely no behavior necessarily follows from denying God exists. It doesn’t make one more or less ethical. It doesn’t require that one act more or less kind, generous, or well . . . anything. So what we have is a standoff when it comes to whether belief or disbelief leads to cruelty or violence. For every atheist that brings up the crusades, a Christian can bring up the Stalin purges. And the fact of the matter is there is blood enough to go around. Now I know that Atheists will say that I’m missing the point. Christians are being consistent with the teaching of the New Testament. They will say that the New Testament is full of hatred, bigotry and the condoning of violence. But this is a claim about what the New Testament says and means in context. What most atheists who make this claim don’t do is actually produce examples of the condoning of hatred, violence, bigotry etc in a way that any scholar of any other ancient document would buy for a second. And  a lot atheists aren’t willing to learn how to seriously study the bible to give it the benefit of the doubt.  In that, they are remarkably similar to a lot of Christians. But that is a post for another day.

At the end of the day sharing the beliefs of Richard Dawkins or Billy Graham doesn’t guaranteed any behavior. However, sharing the commitment to their worldviews through taking on the attitudes of atheists like Hitchens or Dawkins or attending church weekly like Billy Graham and many other committed Christians is more likely to affect one’s behavior.

Setting aside the sarcasm, the phrase “How Christian of Them” belies an important argument. If atheists have too many examples of cruel Christians then this is deplorable and maybe the only appropriate response to the fact that Christians are being cruel and violent is “How dare they do that.” It seems I remember Jesus himself saying something about hypocrisy and judgment beginning with the house of God. What the atheist argument reveals though is that to be a hypocrite, you have to be inconsistent with something you believe and to be ethically hypocritical you have to be inconsistent with your ethical beliefs. Atheists can’t be ethical hypocrites. Christians can be.




Raise the Level of Discourse