January 9, 2019

Most Christians Are Good People

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When discussing the many adverse effects of religion with a Christian, one statement almost inevitably seems to enter the conversation: "But most Christians are good people." The Christian will surely acknowledge that many people have committed awful acts in the name of religion. Perhaps they weren't "real Christians." Perhaps they were simply misguided in their actions. Regardless of the reason, they are the exception and certainly not the norm. You might expect that I, as an atheist, would disagree with this statement. I do not. I think that most Christians are indeed good people.

The point of this post is not to convince you that most Christians are good people. My point here is to explain why reaching this conclusion presents no problems for atheists and to examine why the reverse does not seem to be the case. That is, Christians seem to have real difficulty acknowledging the fact that most atheists are good people, something most atheists are able to acknowledge about Christians.

Saying that most Christians are good people poses no problem for the atheist.

As an atheist, there is no reason why I can't agree that most Christians are good people. Atheism contains no dogma and certainly none that tells me I must condemn Christians for not being atheists. Most Christians I have met in my life have been kind, trustworthy, honorable individuals who treat others as they would like to be treated. They have been my family, intimate partners, close friends, bosses, co-workers, neighbors, and so on. These Christians do their best to live productive lives, and many are genuinely concerned about the plight of their neighbors. Even though they may hold some beliefs I find strange, many care deeply about improving the world in which they live.

Of course, everything I just said applies equally to atheists and persons who are believers in other religious traditions. Most atheists are good people. Most Jews are good people. Most Muslims are good people. You get the idea. Most people are good people, regardless of which religious tradition (or lack thereof) they accept.

Yes, I do recognize that what I said in the previous paragraph is not something with which all atheists will agree and that it is not part of atheism. It fits much better with humanism. While it is true that not all atheists are humanists, the point here is simply that neither atheism nor humanism presents the sort of obstacles that would prevent an atheist or a humanist from acknowledging that most Christians are good people.

Saying that most atheists are good people poses a problem for the Christian.

Unfortunately, many Christians cannot seem to agree that most atheists are good people without adding an important qualifier, at least implicitly. The qualifier is comparative in nature, placing Christians on a pedestal above non-Christians. The atheist may be a decent person, but he/she can not possibly be as good as the Christian. The atheist or the person from a different religion may be good in some respects, but he/she is still going to hell to be punished for all eternity. The Christian bible is quite clear that those of us who do not believe in the Christian god are not equivalent to those who do in many ways. Their fate in the afterlife they imagine will be very different from ours.

This is an example of what I mean when I say that religion is inherently divisive. Believers in any religious tradition are indoctrinated from an early age to believe that theirs is the one true faith. That means that everybody else is necessarily wrong. Their god beats all others. Their morality trumps all others. Their fellow believers are more worthy, deserving, etc. than everyone else. Those who do not agree with them are deserving of severe and everlasting punishment. As an atheist, I am not encumbered with this particular prejudice (although I am certainly susceptible to others).

I am not sure there is any way around this for the Christian. How might a Christian acknowledge that most atheists (or other non-Christians) are of equal moral worth without adding any qualifiers? Could one do so and still be considered a Christian? Could one do so without needing to walk away from much of what is contained in their "holy" book? While I recognize that many Christians manage to treat atheists and other non-Christians appropriately, it is not clear that they can truly view us as their moral equals without discarding much of their doctrine.

Claims about most Christians being good people have little relevance to the larger question about the costs of religion.

What some Christians fail to grasp is that claims that most Christians are good people have little relevance to the larger question about the dark side of religion. The atheist can acknowledge that most Christians are good people while believing that Christianity itself is both irrational and harmful to humanity. Religion does not make people good (or bad). It may at times inspire people to do great things; it may at times bring out the worst sort of atrocities and foster irrationality. As Steven Weinberg reminds us:

(Religion) With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
To understand why this is the case, one simply needs to consider the earlier point about religion being inherently divisive. If I am taught to believe that people who do not share my beliefs are inferior, there is little to stop me from treating them accordingly. If I am indoctrinated from birth to believe that persons with different beliefs are morally inferior, condemned to hell, diabolical, etc., the door to atrocities opens wide. If this indoctrination has also diminished my ability to apply reason by convincing me that faith is superior, look out.

Even if most Christians (and other religious believers) are good people, Christianity (and other religions) are still irrational. They peddle falsehoods as profound truths. Even if most Christians (and other religious believers) are good people, Christianity (and other religions) still cause irreparable harm. And so, we can acknowledge that most religious believers are good people even as we work against organized religions.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised and expanded in 2019.