Is Christianity Beneficial or Harmful to Society?

Christopher Hitchens memorably wrote about why God Is Not Great. Now, John W. Loftus has compiled a new anthology building off of that premise and showing us why faith is far from a virtue.

In his book, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, Loftus and a panel of experts (including Peter Boghossian, Victor J. Stenger, and Annie Laurie Gaylor) write about why the problem with religion isn’t just a fringe group of believers, but faith itself.

In the excerpt below, Loftus answers the question: “Is Christianity beneficial or harmful to society?” (I have excluded footnotes)

To answer this question I’ll deal first with the supposed societal benefits of the Christian faith and later to its societal harms. Whatever benefits we think the Christian faith has depends at least in part, on which society we’re talking about. When it comes to non-Christian societies, or cultures, Christianity has proven itself extremely harmful to them, as several chapters in this book show. That should be the end of the story.

Nonetheless, in Dinesh D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great About Christianity, the author argues Christianity is great because most people in western culture are Christians, that Christianity is growing in the world, and that Christianity is unique. Of course, these claims are all true. Tell us something we don’t know next time. That doesn’t make Christianity great. It only shows more people in the western world are Christians, that Christianity is growing and that it’s unique. By the same standards Islam meets two of these criteria, making it great too. And there is nothing about a majority that proves Christianity is true, especially since there is no such thing as Christianity, only Christianities, as David Eller has argued, which are reflected in the polls. D’Souza also claims Christianity is beneficial, although in the process he paints an unbalanced and sometimes ignorantly rosy picture of it, especially when it comes to the basis for morality, the origins of democracy and of science. It is not true Christianity can take credit for all that’s good in our society. And it is not true that Christianity causes no serious harms within it either. Chapters in this anthology argue otherwise.

Human morality and politics are human inventions which have evolved over time. Religions are human inventions too. And they too evolve. They are inextricably linked with their given cultures. So it stands to reason that any given religion is at least somewhat beneficial to its particular culture because, as a human invention, it helped to make that culture in the first place. All religions must therefore be beneficial to its given culture to some degree, otherwise no one would ever embrace them. We would expect this. Just ask Amish people if their religion has social benefits, or Buddhists in Thailand, or Shintoists in Japan, or Muslims in their cultures, and they will all say they do, and that their cultures are better than ours, and that this shows their religions are true too. Furthermore, as a given culture evolves so also does its religion, such that the religion of yesterday was beneficial to the culture of yesterday, just as the religion of tomorrow will be beneficial to the culture of tomorrow. So even if many of D’Souza’s beneficial arguments are valid ones they prove nothing more than that a Christian religious culture is beneficial to a Christian religious culture, which is a tautology and therefore trivially true. What we wouldn’t expect is for a religion to cause as much harm as Christianity does, which is the major point of this book.

The fact is that several non-Christian cultures were great by the standards of their day, and even ours to some degree, most notably ancient Greece during the golden ages, the Roman Empire in its early stages, several of the dynasties in ancient China, the Islamic Empire for Muslims under Muhammad, or the historic Japanese culture — none of which were Christian ones. So there is no evidence we even need Christianity to have a good society. Even largely atheist societies have been shown to be good ones by Phil Zuckerman. Therefore, if having a good society proves the dominant religious or non-religious viewpoint is true, then atheism is true by that same standard.

D’Souza and others will go on to tell us Christianity is great because it was the main motivator in starting most early American universities, most of our hospitals and most food kitchens. But these things would have been started anyway, if for no reason other than necessity. Other non-Christian cultures have them. It just happened that Christianity has been the dominant religion in America for a couple of centuries, that’s all. Besides, these things were probably not started by Christians out of altruism, or any desire for a better society, but as a way to convert people. After all, who are most vulnerable to the Christian message? They are the sick (hospitals), the poor (food kitchens) and young people leaving home for the first time to enter universities, which were mostly started to train preachers.

Turning next to the societal harms of Christian faith, it depends this time on which type of Christianity we’re talking about. The more that Christians embrace reason and science the less they cause harm. The less that Christians embrace reason and science the more they cause harm. I very much doubt, for instance, that the Christianity embraced by John Shelby Spong would cause much harm. He has argued in a number of books against conservative evangelicalism. In his book, The Sins of Scripture, he agrees with many of the issues we write about in this present anthology. In it he embraces environmental concerns and homosexuality while condemning both sexism and anti-Semitism. However, when it comes to the fundamentalist, conservative, or evangelical wing of Christianity, one anonymous person said it this way:

Not only is fundamentalist Christianity the greatest threat in the United States to science, tolerance, and social progress, but it is also the most prevalent form of Protestant Christianity to be found in our nation, whether you like it or not. It is the fundamentalist religious right that holds the reigns of the Republican party (which currently controls the nation, in case you didn’t realize), and it is this same fundamentalist religious right that lobbies for the teaching of lies in public school and fights against funding for embryonic research that could potentially save the lives of millions. Whether you like it or not, it is this flavor of Christianity that makes the loudest, most obnoxious, most dangerous impact on the world today, giving us plenty of good reason to direct the brunt of our attacks in its vicinity.

When it comes to the political, scientific, social, and moral spheres, the ones we focus on in this book, Christianity — especially the conservative or evangelical type — has caused and still causes a great deal of harm. To the degree the various kinds of Christianities have done good in the political, scientific, social, and moral spheres, it is not because of believers’ faith. Instead the good done has followed from reasoning about how to solve real human needs. And while their faith might have motivated them to do good in these spheres, good intentions of Christians are simply not enough, as the chapters in this anthology show. Even with the best of intentions there are always some bad unintended consequences that result when starting with harmful beliefs and attitudes.

Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails is available online and in bookstores starting today.

(Excerpt reprinted with permission of Prometheus Books)

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