How To Let People Know You’re A Christian

One of my skeptical friends who hangs around Christians a lot posted the following: “HERE’S A THOUGHT: Maybe you wouldn’t have to say you are a Christian all the time if you would just act like one most of the time. Ya think?”

This sort of exhortation among Christians to show they are Christians by what they do rather than by what they say is rather pompously prejudiced in favor of Christianity, even as it attempts to be a dig at Christians who are “all talk and no action”. Because what are these behaviors that are supposed to “tell people you’re a Christian”? Is it giving to the poor? How would that tell anyone you’re a Christian? Are you implying that only Christians give to the poor?

Is it forgiving people? Refusing to judge people? Sacrificing for others? Being compassionate? Being gracious? Showing humility? Loving others? Doing unto others as you would have done unto you?

Which of these things are so uniquely Christian that when people see you doing them they should assume you must be a Christian? Which of these valuable things are you implying that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, and atheists characteristically don’t do?

Because people from all faiths and none exhibit all these virtues. Christianity does not have a lock on them or on any other virtues. The only people who would assume that those behaviors are signifiers of Christianity and not of general moral decency are people prejudiced to assume that only Christians can be good people. When Christians say that a Christian should be recognized by what she does rather than what she says, they’re implicitly assuming Christianity has a unique lock on moral goodness. It’s obnoxious and false. And atheists shouldn’t be encouraging that attitude by repeating such expressions.

When it comes right down to it the only way to show people you’re a Christian is with distinctively religious Christian words, signs, symbols, ritual behaviors, and deeds. And church attendance. Lots and lots of church attendance. Especially church attendance when poseurs would never show up. And proselytize. Do lots of that. Also go out of your way to bring up Jesus in contexts that no one but a Christian could possibly want to hear about him. (Or in ways that drive even other Christians crazy.) And create conflict and alienation with your friends and family and colleagues who don’t believe by taking their non-belief as inherently offensive and any criticisms they level at your faith as personal attacks. Also try to get Christianity established as an official religion in your country, demand laws be based on Christian teachings, and get Christian theology into science textbooks.

And whatever you do, don’t try to literally follow out that stuff that Jesus says about not being judgmental. Because not only will that make you seem outright unChristian to many, it may have the totally unintended effect of just making others think you’re gay.

If you really really want to prove you’re a Christian, be really really religiously Christian and go out of your way to be as public about your being a Christian as you can. Claim every sphere of life for Jesus. Do these things and everyone will get the point that you’re a Christian.

But just being moral? Loving others? Refusing to judge others? Tolerating others who are different than you or believe differently? Taking care of the poor? Doing unto others as you would have done unto you?

There’s nothing distinctively Christian about any of that.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    Seems to me, if you want to appear more Christian, you must act Humanistically….

  • Phil Yandel

    The objective of living up the standards of Christianity is not to proclaim your Christianity, but to allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to transform you into the image of your Heavenly Father. Just because other people or religions live good upright moral lives does not minimize the necessity for a Christian to live a life that reflects the moral perfection of God. For you, as a nonbeliever, to decide what should distinguish the life of a Christian is really not your business or problem. A Christian is answerable to their God for how they live, not to anyone else. Even other Christians are told not to judge others, but to examine their own lives, the logs in their own eyes, before looking for slivers in the eyes of others. While I am no longer one who believes in the Christian God, or the power (or existence) of the Holy Spirit, I do understand the concept of living for Christ. The objective is not to show others you are a Christian by your life, but to live a life in such a manner as to have others ask why you live the life you do.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      This post isn’t about the objective of living up to Christian standards. It’s about how to tell people in no uncertain terms you’re a Christian, whether in advisable ways or not so advisable ways.

    • ctcss

      No, what is being said in this entry, Dan, is apparently just a snarky way to tell people what you think being a Christian is. (You’re basically describing the kind of behavior by believers that Jesus constantly warned his followers against, which is to say, arrogance, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, unkindness, etc.) If this is what you think it means to be Christ-like, no wonder you decided to leave your religion behind. What you are describing sounds like rather rude, bad behavior by anyone, Christian or not. Phil Yandel has a much better take on what following the Christ means than you seem to.

      Don’t get me wrong. You’ve said some very humble and selfless posts in recent times that encourage people to be fair and to be just in their encounters with those that believe differently than themselves. But here you seem to have slipped off your own wagon of trying to adhere to a higher standard of being non-judgmental. How does this post fit in with your your other recent efforts?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I am fair. Sometimes fairness involves harsh but reality-based criticisms of regularly observable bad behavior. I didn’t say all Christians behave in these ways or that’s all it is to be a Christian. My point was many do. A couple weeks ago I accused some atheists of being atheists only because they “want to throw rocks at the retards”. Where was your outrage at my harsh criticism of them?

  • Danny Klopovic

    Is the sixth paragraph for real or a troll? As a Christian, most of what is said there is inappropriate for a Christian – well at least for those of the Anabaptist variety.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      My point was typically telling people you’re a Christian means doing more than being a moral person, it means having specifically religious signifiers. And then to warn people that that has its own dangers and to highlight how obnoxious and power hungry so much Christian attention seeking turns out to be. So most of it’s a “troll” you could say. Possibly one in an anabaptist spirit…

    • Danny Klopovic

      Well … I will grant that Christian attention seeking is obnoxious

  • Alex Gabriel

    ‘Forgiving people? Refusing to judge people? Sacrificing for others? Being compassionate? Being gracious? Showing humility? Loving others? Doing unto others as you would have done unto you?’

    Several of these seem less than desirable to me, at least as they often play out.

  • 3lemenope

    Christianity is not an empty set, morally speaking. It contains prescriptions and proscriptions for behaviors (and even, perversely enough, thoughts). So when your friend is demanding some consonance between the attested features of Christianity and the behaviors of those people claiming that they are Christians, he’s actually asking something fairly specific. Some of those behaviors are notably not normal. Cast off your family, give away all your possessions to the church, speak in tongues, handle poisonous snakes, full-body ceremonial dunking, the thing with the wine and the cracker, looking dour on uncomfortable benches on Sundays, don’t think about tits, do not think about tits, etc.. Their idiosyncratic status makes them useful for distinguishing “simply nice” people from people who are nice and also do other stuff because Jesus.

    From my outside perspective, one of the strangest aspects of Christianity as it is practiced today is that many of the “not normal” behaviors I listed above are ignored or discarded by Christians. If they started acting according to these rather more noticeable and rare behaviors, it would be even less difficult than it is to figure out who exactly is a Christian. So it is a question that occurs to me, too; if you call yourself Christian, why haven’t you given your property to the church to be shared, or cast off your family? Part of the problem that your friend I think is highlighting (intentionally or not) is that one of the reasons it’s so difficult to tell whether a person is a Christian is that Christians have evened themselves out for purposes of social lubrication. The Christianity we interact with is a domesticated sort of Christianity.

    Given their domestication, what seems to divide people who all have the same externally attested behavior is the internal motivation that drives the behavior. Making that connection explicit is the key to proper identification, I think. If you help someone across the road with their groceries because Jesus, you might be a Christian. If you did it for other reasons, perhaps not. How else can a person attest their motivations but self report (esp. through corny t-shirts and gaudy jewelry)? So, attesting that one is a Christian and one doing Christian-y things are both necessary, and neither sufficient, for properly identifying one as a Christian.

  • John Kruger

    Even most Christians I know are really put off by somebody who is overly vocal about their Christianity. I am talking about the really pushy and showy types that invariably come off as judgmental.

    Religion in general does not stand up too well in open discussion. Proclaiming a vague allegiance is not a problem, but once specifics about how to live life come up things frequently get very awkward. Questions like “if god is helping Tim Tebow win football games why is he so inactive towards all the horrible things happening to innocents in the world?” tend to come up. Most religious people I know are aware of this at some level and don’t talk about specifics at all in polite discussion. It is far easier to just attend church activities, pay the tithes, and participate in the community quietly without the judgement.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Even most Christians I know are really put off by somebody who is overly vocal about their Christianity. I am talking about the really pushy and showy types that invariably come off as judgmental.

      Indeed. I’m banking on them getting the point of the post’s sarcastic knocks on Christian attention-seeking.

    • 3lemenope

      There’s a long-running armchair theory amongst commenters over at UF that conservative literal-minded Christianity and a capacity for understanding irony are fundamentally incompatible. If they’re right, I think you’ll be kinda disappointed by how the sarcasm will be read.

  • Melissa Reyes

    I noticed that to highlight your point, you’ve chosen supposed traits of Christianity (compassion, humility, forgiveness) that happen to be extremely compatible with modern Western secular society. These happen to be rare cultural touchpoints upon which Christian beliefs and 21st century Westerners can agree. As a result, they do not seem unique.

    However, there are certain Christian ideals (marriage, divorce and sexuality to name a few) that are severely at odds with today’s culture. I only say “ideals” because current Christian success at upholding this is debatable–that’s probably an entirely different conversation:)

    The Christian traits that you are assuming are in effect universally good (humility, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek) would be absolutely reprehensible in some Eastern shame-based cultures. They would, however, absolutely love Christian ideals about marriage. In fact, they probably think Christians are not strict enough when it comes to sexuality. But there should be an addendum to your assumption: “there is nothing distinctively Christian about these values that I also personally find value in” is actually fed by certain cultural assumptions that are not universal.

    My point is this–there are certain moral aspects about Christianity that seem like no-brainers for Westerners. And there are certain aspects about Christianity that seem reprehensible to Westerners. Let’s not take only the “forgiveness, kindness and mercy” and criticize Christians for claiming to have a corner on the decency market, when it’s likely coming from a genuine desire to simply embody those characteristics. Are we now starting to criticize Christians for actually NOT wanting to be hypocritical?

    “And atheists shouldn’t be encouraging that attitude by repeating such expressions.” I don’t think your skeptical friend is not trying to reinforce arrogant assumptions. I think he recognizes that if his Christians friends actually acted on Jesus’ teachings and words, conversations and relationships would be a lot less strained. There is intrinsic value in the things Jesus said that could have positive ramifications if they could be translated from ideal to reality.

    There’s nothing arrogant with acknowledging that.

    I do agree that there seems to be a prejudice to assume that only Christians are incapable of good behavior. That of course is false. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that encouraging people to be good, kind and moral on a Christian basis is arrogant or worthless.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      You make good points, especially about differences in virtues cross-culturally.

      But my point is not that it is arrogant or worthless to use Christian categories to encourage Christians to be good, kind, and moral. My point is that you shouldn’t do it in a way that’s loaded with (and which reinforces) assumptions that especially good, kind, and moral people must be Christians and so will be interpreted as Christians. The specific remark that I was responding to was essentially saying, “act like a Christian and without ever telling people you’re a Christian they will just know you’re a Christian”. Now that’s either not true or it’s true because of cultural prejudices. Many atheists report that when they tell people they’re atheists they get told offensive things along the lines of, “That’s impossible! You’re such a nice person!” That’s the Christian privilege I am trying to highlight in such remarks.

      If you want to be more specific and say to a Christian, “It’s more important that you do what Jesus says about x, y, and z morally than that you let others know you’re a Christian” then I have no problem with that. Heck you can even tell people, “If you’re going to talk so much about being a Christian, you’d better make sure you’re representing Christians well by your actions and showing they’re really the sorts of things that Jesus (and contemporary Western culture!) will be impressed by”, that’s fine too. There are a lot of acceptable ways to exhort Christians to live up to the finest ideals of the best interpretation of Christianity without saying essentially “act like a good person and people will get it that you’re a Christian” since that makes Christians the unique standard of “good person” and that’s unacceptably prejudicial to me.

  • Chris

    Dan, I felt like this post started off on point and then devolved into a rant. You’re right that church attendance and other such signs are really the best proof positive that you’re a Christian, but you quickly turn to the more annoying things. As you have pointed out in the past, why let one particular group define the whole? The more annoying things you point out are usually within the purview of the conservatives, though it would not be inconceivable to find a holier-than-thou liberal indulging in similar practices.

    EDIT: I see you’re aware of this judging by your comments to others. It was just a very strange transition from legitimate things straight into the annoying. Ah, well, it’s all good.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, I started feeling punchy and like leveling a little sardonic criticism. It may have been a mistake as so many people seem to have been thrown by it. It just felt like good writing as I went and I liked the idea of challenging readers to sift the implications of what I was hinting out without spelling it out didactically.

    • Chris

      I think the issue was that you transitioned almost invisibly into criticism during the middle of a paragraph. If I had tried to do the same thing, which I might because it’s a good way to jump into some cultural issues related to things like inclusivism which I’ve been discussing, I would have framed it like this:

      Some say, “Christians should show people they’re Christian by how they act instead of saying it all the time.”

      That’s not true because x, y, and z. Christians have to say that they’re Christian.

      Of course, if you REALLY want to let people know you’re a Christian, Jesus Juke your friends into endless shame, carry your Bible with you very visibly every where you go, etc., etc.

      A few key words would have made the transition into criticism smoother.

  • smrnda

    Maybe an issue is that Christian values, with the possible exception of sexual ethics, aren’t really very unique?

    To take a less loaded example, there is such a thing as a ‘legless lizard.’ I’d imagine most people without a lot of knowledge of reptiles would not be able to distinguish a legless lizard from a snake. There are differences, but they won’t be obvious to most people from a cursory glance.

    • 3lemenope

      The economics ethics expressed in the New Testament are pretty far out there, too. They are less apparent only because apparently no Christian, outside of actual orders of monks and nuns, actually practices them.

  • Shira Coffee

    I had to laugh when I read this one. A couple of weeks ago, my husband drove over a concrete form left by a road construction crew, so we blew out two tires and had to stop abruptly in the middle of the road. The fellow behind us stopped, came to check if we were ok, then went away, came back with bottled water for us (now at the side of the road waiting to be towed) and a can of spray paint to paint the form orange so no one else would hit it. All very nice, but before driving off he gave us a card that said something like, “My name doesn’t matter. I have done this in the name of Jesus Christ.” I had to laugh. And I’ll admit, my gratitude was a little tainted by the blatant attempt to convert us.

    Bottom line: I’ll take Christians behaving well over Christians behaving badly, but the persuasive impact of it is probably less than they believe.

  • Lane

    If you are looking for a uniquely Christian moral, I would suggest: love thy enemy. I don’t think many other groups promote this, or would even think it smart. Its not even that popular among people who claim to be Christian.