Few "Christians" Appear to Be Christians

Christian nativity scene

What does it mean to be a Christian? Is telling people you are a Christian sufficient? Is believing in church dogma regarding Jesus sufficient? Can one be a Christian without attempting to follow much of what Jesus allegedly taught? Nobody is expecting perfection, but is it expected that one would at least need to try?

Atheists are fond of criticizing the bible some Christians describe as "holy." We highlight the contradictions, the irrational superstitions, and the numerous examples of intolerance and cruelty. And yet, many of us agree with much of what the Jesus character allegedly taught. One of the messages repeated throughout the bible was that a society can be judged based on how it treats its poor. The bible is filled with calls to look out for the least fortunate among us. Kind of sounds like humanism, doesn't it?

When I listen to those in the U.S. who speak the loudest about their Christianity (i.e., the Christian right), I see little compassion for the poor. Unless I am severely mistaken about what it means to be Christian, this seems to be blatant hypocrisy. When an elected official who happens to be a self-proclaimed Christian pushes for tax cuts for the wealthy while cutting programs that provide assistance to the poor, I don't see the teachings attributed to Jesus. When he chooses preemptive war and the steep costs that come with it over domestic programs to improve education, health care, etc., this seems to be a departure from some of the central messages of Christianity.

I remember seeing an article in my local paper several years ago about Mississippi's "castle doctrine." This law states that I am permitted to use lethal force to defend my home, automobile, or business. If I shoot someone who I perceive to be threatening my home, car, or business, this law says I "shall be presumed to have reasonable feared imminent death or great bodily harm" and that I have "no duty to retreat" before using lethal force. In other words, this law allows deadly force as a first resort, even in public places such as a city street or parking lot.

The people who have been most vocal in their support for this law overwhelmingly identify themselves as Christian. And yet, if their bible was clear about anything, it was that we should not be overly attached to things. Does a perceived threat to our property really justify killing someone? Wasn't Jesus supposed to have said something about turning the other cheek too?

I see at least two possibilities here and suspect that there are many more. First, among those who call themselves Christians, most are hypocrites. If this is the case, I wonder why we so rarely hear from those in the minority when it comes to defining what it means to be a Christian and exposing the hypocrites in their midst. Shouldn't we expect to hear at least as much from these Christians as we do from atheists? Don't they have even more of an interest in defending Christianity than we do?

The second possibility is that being a Christian has little to do with following the alleged teachings of Jesus. Perhaps it is little more than a label one uses to identify oneself as a member of the tribe and reap the benefits that come with membership (i.e., Christian privilege). In this case, it seems to be a hollow claim aimed and obtaining social benefits and one that has little to do with morality.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and expanded in 2019.