If People of Faith Commit a Crime, Do They Still Represent the Faith?

A self-professed Christian goes on a murderous rampage and kills nearly 100 people. Is he a True Christian? Does he still represent the faith?

According to a new study (PDF) from Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute, 83% of Americans don’t think so. In fact, only 13% of people say that a self-identified Christian who commits a crime is still a Christian.

Meanwhile, if a group of self-identified Muslims fly a plane into a building, should they be considered True Muslims? 44% of Americans say yes.

How’s that for a double standard?

(via Joe. My. God.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/ThisIsSaei ✔ Unverified

    To play devil’s advocate; name the last time there was such coordinated effort on behalf of a Christian Extremist group to blow up civilians?  Ireland comes to memory, but that was somewhat isolated on the scale of violence we’re seeing come from self-declared Muslim states.  

    While I abhor the violence of the Christian Empire, it’s nothing like it used to be – and in the eyes of most Americans – there is a clear Islamic Empire rising, violently.  It’s not a double standard in context, just short term memory.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dave.hasbrouck Dave Haaz-Baroque

       I’m sure there are more recent cases that aren’t on here, but according to records of attempted abortion clinic bombings, the last one was in 2007: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-abortion_violence#Arson.2C_bombing.2C_and_property_crime

      In fact, this shows a pretty extensive record of violence directed at civilians from Christians who have anti-choice views. So it does happen, yes.

      • Rich Wilson

        Neo-Nazis, Aryans nations, etc all self identify as Christian.  At least I’ve never heard of any that didn’t, and I’ve heard of lots that did.

        • http://twitter.com/ThisIsSaei ✔ Unverified

          I hear both of you.  I’m not saying there isn’t violence.  I’m saying the scale of violence is different.

    • http://twitter.com/DyNama DyNama

      Oklahoma City Bombing comes to mind, the biggest domestic terrorist attack in America. The biggest terrorist attack before that one was the
      Mountain Meadows massacre, about 120 men, women, and children killed by Mormons in 1857. Both of those called themselves christian. i agree with your point tho.

      • Rich Wilson

        Some people claim that Greenwood OK was the largest act of domestic terrorism in US history.

        • Drew M.

          An elevator incident. Heh.

        • http://twitter.com/DyNama DyNama

          i’ve never heard of that one! i just remember the Mountain Meadows massacre from news coverage during the Oklahoma City bombing being mentioned as the worst previous. thanx, i will check out the Tulsa Riot.

    • Anonymous

      Sigh… here we go again.

      The political violence in Ireland during the late 20th century was ***NOT*** a holy war. I am so sick of  trying to explain this, even to atheists whom I would expect to be better educated and informed than the average Merkin. True, there were some religious fanatics like Ian Paisley running around, and groups like the UDA that killed Catholics just because they were Catholic. But the IRA was a Marxist organization that didn’t give a rat’s ass about Catholicism. It wanted to overthrow the government of the Republic of Ireland as well as getting the Brits out of Northern Ireland. The violence was primarily political and colonial, with religion just a useful way of telling the two sides apart.

      • http://twitter.com/ThisIsSaei ✔ Unverified

        Ah.  Not the argument I was trying to make.  

        I was only speaking as far as public perception might go – violence committed by religious individuals – trying to explain the poll and its context.  I have a TON to learn about the Irish conflict, and I profess no expertise on the subject.  

        You make an excellent point here. I think “Jim [the other Jim]” makes a point along the same lines here too, in more general terms. Violence by religious individuals isn’t always motivated by religion, and that’s an important point to make the distinction clear.

        Thank you for the clarification.

      • Anonymous

        Religion certainly played a part in the Northern Ireland troubles.  It would be wrong to be so blasé as to dismiss it’s influence entirely.  When you have Orangemen marching through a divided city you have anger and hatred on both sides.  Whether than is a symptom or a cause is a matter of debate but it cannot simply be swept away.

      • oli kenton

        Isn’t this typical of Holy wars though? The Crusades were largely started as a way to redirect internal christian strife caused by a warrior caste without too many external enemies. The Conquistadors swept away the heathens to nab their gold. While i’d generally agree that the Trobules weren’t a Holy War, they were very religious in nature. The political and colonial aspects were also religious. I think you under play the amout of religion in the conflict.

  • Rich Wilson

    There are no True Scotsmen in prison.

    • Morrison90

      And there are No True Atheists who are in charge of Dictatorial mass murdering governments.

      • Rich Wilson

        No, actually there have been atheists in charge of dictatorial mass murdering governments.  e.g. Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao.

        The fact that you think anyone has ever denied that means that you’re still totally and completely missing the point.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13307410 Nathan Henderson

        Atheist individuals are responsible for their actions, not atheism. Christian individuals are responsible for their actions, not Christianity. Muslim individuals are responsible for their actions, not Islam.

  • BunyipAndler

    I think that the title of this article is misleading. Just because a Hindu steals something, it doesn’t make Hindus thieves.

    Yet, that doesn’t stop the thief from being Hindu.

    In other words, I would answer the question in the title as “No”, and the questions in the poll as “Yes”.

    • Bob Lee

      They only post these things to rattle the Christians with hypocrisy, like they aren’t hypocrites because there are on morals. They missed that there is Grace.

      • Bob Lee

        There are no morals

      • Rich Wilson

        Yes, because everyone at Brookings is a Godless Heathen.

        http://www.brookings.edu/about/reputation.aspx

        Must be tough being an oppressed minority.

      • Josh

        What?

      • Anonymous

        We bring up the hypocrisy so that you will hopefully identify it and try to correct it.

  • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

    Christianity has so many different definitions it’s impossible to say they aren’t a Christian. You could possibly say they aren’t a “Catholic”. Yet you may run into trouble there with people who don’t take Catholic dogma has seriously as others.

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewF

    It seems a rather loaded question on a few counts.

  • Jim [the other Jim]

    The question missing here is:  “If a person uses his faith as justification for violent actions,  does he still represent that faith?” You don’t have to dig very far into any of their holy books to find such justification.

    • http://twitter.com/ThisIsSaei ✔ Unverified

      Perfectly stated.

    • Morrison90

      Of course, if an atheist commits a mass murder, thats no problem, because that is not necessarly inconsistent with being an atheist.

      If fact, no evil perversion is inconsistent with being an atheist.

      Isn’t that convenient?

      • Ben

        I’d like to see your examples of atheists killing people in the name of not believing in a god.

        That aside, you miss the point. Atheism in and of itself does not claim to have any moral code that must be lived up to. A person who doesn’t believe in god is still an atheist if they commit a crime.

        What’s convenient is that Christians and Muslims both want to claim that somebody who commits a crime in the name of their religion can’t possibly be part of their religion.

        • Ivan

          Everything is permitted.

          • Woodhurst

            Can’t tell if referencing Dostoevsky with the perfect account name, or just concise.

        • Anonymous

          >That aside, you miss the point. Atheism in and of itself does not claim to have any moral code that must be lived up to. A person who doesn’t believe in god is still an atheist if they commit a crime.

          This works against you (us?). If atheism has no ideology or moral code beyond non-belief in a deity, then this means that 100% of murderers who self-identify as atheists are still True Atheists. It seems like some of us want to have it both ways.

          • Rich Wilson

            100% of right handed murderers are right handed.

        • Ed

           Google Hitler and then Communism.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13307410 Nathan Henderson

            You have a point a communism. No regime should enforce belief in a metaphysical question in any direction. On Hitler though you are way off base. He actively promoted his own warped brand of religiosity in the Third Reich.

      • Rich Wilson

        American prisons are full of (a disproportionate) number of Christians. However, none of us would say that they are all there because they heard Jesus tell them to commit a crime.  Those few who are hearing Jesus should be in a psych ward, not a prison.

      • Rich Wilson

        American prisons are full of (a disproportionate) number of Christians. However, none of us would say that they are all there because they heard Jesus tell them to commit a crime.  Those few who are hearing Jesus should be in a psych ward, not a prison.

        • Annie

          Not that I disagree, but many American prisons use Christianity as a way to “morally rehabilitate” prisoners.  So many people who enter prisons may have been raised in a specific faith, or no faith at all, but they know that once in prison, the only way to get in the good graces of their wardens is to practice Christianity.  I have only visited one prison (Angola) and Christianity was a huge way to get freedom there.  The christian chapel, built with money from the Billy Graham Foundation, was touted as the only place on the compound where a prisoner was free to do whatever he pleased.  I’ve never been in prison, but perhaps that little carrot would be enough to get me to check the box “christian” on any census I had to fill out.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=13307410 Nathan Henderson

        Its inconsistent with having a rational wold view guided by secular moral principles like the kantian imperative or the social contract. You are correct tha “atheism” does not provide a moral code in and of itself, but neither does “theism”. You need a bigger picture than what a person believes about one metaphysical question.

    • Ed

       It’s the PERSON who is committing the act and not the religion. And it’s the PERSON who is interpreting the scripture to suit their own SELFISH reasons. This isn’t the fault of the religion, it always goes back to a F…’d Up HUMAN. Lastly, just because someone CLAIMS affiliation with a certain religion, doesn’t mean they actually believe in the true core of the doctrine. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who merely CLAIMED to belong to a certain religion even possesses any real faith in anything beyond themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/Kahomono Kahomono

    Shall we guess what that graph looks like if the perp identifies as neither Christian nor Muslim but… Atheist?

    • Anonymous

      If doing bad, then he/she represents atheists.

      If doing good,  he/she does not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paul-Reed/692599362 Paul Reed

    There is more to the issue. It’s not just a case of “Is the person a [insert religion here]?” but also “Did [insert religion here] directly lead to the crime?” as well as “Did [insert religion here] foster a mindset in which the crime was permissible or even laudible?”

    The point made here, though, is the “No-true-Scotman”-fueled double standard, employed by the (mainly Christian) Americans to distance themselves from this kind of crime. On the one hand, if the criminal claims to be x, surely he is x regardless of what anyone else claims.

    Then again, if you randomly brought together two Christians of different denominations, each’d probably claim the other isn’t a True Christian™…

    • http://twitter.com/ThisIsSaei ✔ Unverified

      Reminiscent of Sunni / Shiite conflict, eh?

    • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

      @facebook-692599362:disqus :
      “Then again, if you randomly brought together two Christians of different denominations…”

      I found it interesting that, in the study, there was a difference between religious groups on the question about whether Mormons are Christians.

      “Most Americans report that they do not know a lot about the religious beliefs 
      and practices of Mormons. Seventeen percent of Americans say they know a lot, 55 percent say they know a little, and 27 percent say they do not know anything about religious beliefs and practices of Mormons.

      Although relatively few Americans say they know a lot about the religious 
      beliefs and practices of Mormons, more than 4-in-10 (41 percent) say they do not consider it a Christian religion. There is significant disagreement between different religious groups. For instance, nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) white evangelicals say that the Mormon faith is not a Christian religion, as do a plurality (43 percent) of black Protestants. Majorities or pluralities of all other major religious groups and religiously unaffiliated Americans say that they consider the Mormon faith to be a Christian religion. Americans who say they know a lot or a little about the religious beliefs and practices of Mormons are much more likely than those who say they do not know anything to say they consider the Mormon faith a Christian religion.” (bottom of numbered page 7)

  • GregFromCos

    Have to disagree somewhat here.

    In a recent Pew poll (http://goo.gl/h2nfa), 1 in 5 Muslim Americans felt that Suicide bombings were permissible, that means 20% of Muslims would think that their fellow Muslims were still Muslim after an atrocity. Definitely higher than the Christian number.

    All that to say, I think its a bit unfair to judge Christians about their views here, since Muslims themselves find it more permissible.  

    • Snow

      Wow, 3% higher. That changes everything!

      • GregFromCos

        But if you asked Christians that same question (is it ever justified) it would be much lower that the 13%, which means that the question of whether they are still Muslims would also be  much higher.

    • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

      @GregFromCos:disqus :
      “All that to say, I think it’s a bit unfair to judge Christians about their views here, since Muslims themselves find it more permissible.”

      My main judgement of the people who answered “No” for a self-professed Christian who committed violence and “Yes” for the self-professed Muslim who committed violence is that they probably didn’t bother to notice the similar content of holy books when making the judgement about what the “true” version of each religion allows and doesn’t allow.

  • http://twitter.com/deanrobertsnet Dean Roberts

    Interesting. I’m intrigued by all this research done in the US.

    I mean, in Christianity, sin is sin and Christians fall short every day. The Church can be very unforgiving when it comes to Christians morally failing. Therefore, they aren’t a Christian because people don’t want to associate with them.

    You guys over in the US have the whole issue surrounding the 9/11 tragedy. So there’s bound to be political feeling there, with Islam being an escapism for American Citizens. 

    As I commented on another post, the UK is very different. I think that the majority of the UK would say that a Christian was still a Christian and a Muslim still a Muslim if they committed crimes…

    http://deanroberts.net

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Can you elaborate on this:

      “Therefore, they aren’t a Christian because people don’t want to associate with them.”

      You just claimed that Christians can only be Christians if the rest of the collective says they are….

      Wat.

  • jbrock

    As far as I’m concerned, if someone identifies as Christian then s/he’s Christian. Ditto for Muslims. Let their co-religionists argue over how ‘real’ their faith is.

    Does it therefore follow that all Christians are guilty of any given atrocity committed by one Christian?

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Another thing I found really disturbing about the attitude towards Muslims was the part indicating that very large percentages of people would be uncomfortable with a mosque being built near their home and with a Muslim teaching at their public school (p. 14-5).

    Also, near the beginning of the study was the following:

    “Americans strongly affirm the principles of religious freedom, religious 
    tolerance, and separation of church and state. Nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) 
    Americans agree that America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for 
    everyone, including religious groups that are unpopular. Ninety-five percent of 
    Americans agree that all religious books should be treated with respect even if we 
    don’t share the religious beliefs of those who use them. Nearly two-thirds (66
    percent) of Americans agree that we must maintain a strict separation of church 
    and state.

    As a number of findings below demonstrate, however, Americans do not always 
    apply these principles evenly or consistently.”

    In other words, there’s a gap of 22 % between the people who agree America was founded on the idea of religious freedom for everyone and the people who say that there must be a strict separation of church and state.  So, of the people who believe America was founded on religious freedom for everyone, anywhere from  22 % to 34 % (depending on the overlap between the two groups) don’t think there should be a strict separation of church and state.

  • Renshia

    “How’s that for a double standard?”

    You mean standard operating procedure working as expected, don’t you?

  • Drew Bentley

    When a religious person commits a horrible crime, that person clearly has mental issues, even if they did the crime in the name of their god(s). If an atheist or non-religious person commits a horrible crime, that person also clearly has mental issues.

    I think the problem with people who commit crimes is, they’re all mentally unstable, it’s just some drag their invisible friends in to justify their crime in some cases which are just part of their problems since they felt the need to commit such crimes in the first place.

    Either way, people who commit crimes only prove one thing, that there are evil people in this world with likely chemical imbalances in their brain.

    • Larrykogom

      Well said man …that statement should end all the arguments ….

  • Anonymous

    A person does not stop being a Christian because of their actions.  At least that’s what Christians tell us their religion says.  They are saved through grace after all.  The actions of any member of a group reflect on the group.  That is inescapable and really shouldn’t be avoided.  That means that Hitler stays a Catholic and Stalin stays an atheist.  Equally Gandhi stays a Hindu and Thomas Jefferson a deistic Christian.

    The only way that a person can stop being a member of a faith is to express their lack of belief in that deity.  They may switch religion or abandon it entirely as Jewish Einstein and Sagan did.

    In my view religion per se isn’t the problem.  It is simply a way for people to justify things to themselves and to their community.  If a person is homophobic they can use Christianity to justify their bigotry.  If a person hates priests he can use his atheism to justify putting them in a gulag if he can get enough popular support.  The problem with using a faith to justify your actions is that there are no natural checks and balances to faith.  Rationality at least has the arbiter of reality to limit our excesses but with faith anything is justified by the selective reading of a holy book.

    • oli kenton

      Actually then Stalin would stay a Christian too surely? He attended an orthodox seminary to train as a priest. He was presumably at this time a devout Christian.

      • Anonymous

        He was a Christian but he explicitly rejected Christianity.  See my second paragraph.

  • http://profiles.google.com/asecretagentwoman secret agent woman

    I went back to read through the study.  I’m going to post about it on Monday, but I’ll credit this blog with bringing it to my attention.

  • Brian Macker

    Hitler said to kill Jews.  He participated in such acts.  Is it a double standard to  claim that Nazi atrocities represent that ideology?

    Mohammad said to murder and enslave non-Muslims, and to spread terror through the land.   He participated in such acts. Is it a double standard to  claim that Islamic terrorism represent that ideology?

    Christ said to turn the other cheek, and not throw the first stone.     He participated in such acts.   Is it a double standard to  claim that Christian pacifism represents that ideology?

    I think it’s telling that Islamic extremism leads to terrorism, whereas Christian extremism leads to the Amish.

    • Brian Macker

      Oh, and BTW when a Christian burns a witch at the stake it does in fact represent the face of Christianity.    The infallible word of god shouldn’t include such instructions if the expectation is that people should not obey.

      • Rich Wilson

        Except that ‘witch’ is an artifact of KJV era translation.

        http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_does_'Thou_shalt_not_suffer_a_witch_to_live'_mean

        But there’s plenty of evil in Exodus to choose from.  Even the whole idea of God having a ‘chosen people’ seems pretty dated.

        Also I think religious extremism in any religion leads in numerous directions.  Not sure it’s fair to compare the best direction of one with the worst of another.  Although I will admit that Phelps doesn’t appear to have blown anything up.

    • Anonymous

      Matthew 10:34.  Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

      Christian extremism leads to such terrorist acts as the gunpowder plot, the IRA, Anders Breivik, the KKK, Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder, More than that it leads to a president thinking, saying and acting on what he thinks God orders him to do:  ‘I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”

      Painting Christianity as a peace loving, pacifist faith may represent a small part of it but it is far from the big picture.

    • http://withinthismind.com/ WithinThisMind

      Pop Quiz! 

      Bible, or Koran?

      1-Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

      2-let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty.

      3-Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, and quite pluck down all their high places:  And ye shall dispossess the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein: for I have given you the land to possess it.

      4-The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity (will become) as though he was a bosom friend.

      5-And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city.

      6-these are a folk who believe not. Then bear with them (…….) and say: Peace.

      7-And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain

      8-Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.

    • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

      You’re basically quote mining the nice parts of the Bible and the horrible parts of the Qur’an.  There are also parts in the Bible which advocate violence and parts in the Qur’an which advocate helping others.

  • Daniel

    The difference might be attributed to the fact that many of the salient Muslim evil doers (9/11 terrorists, etc…) are motivated by their religious beliefs, while most Christians evil doers (with the notable but rare exception of Michael Griffin, Paul Hill, Eric Rudolph, A.B. Breivik, etc…) aren’t really motivated by their religion.  The vast majority of people who commit crimes in the US are Christian for the simple reason that most Americans are Christian, but they don’t do so because of Christianity.  We can blame Christianity for a lot of things, but it can’t be blamed for most crimes (although it is a motivation for some, see above).  Of course, that doesn’t excuse the No True Scotmanism being displayed here, but it does explain it in part.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X