The Immoral Person was Never a True Christian

A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheis...
A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheists in Rockville's Central Park in December 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Every group of people will have some some bad apples, individuals who commit bad acts that are not consistent with the values held by the rest of the group. Consider the example of Christian parents who kill their children by depriving them of life-saving medical care, resorting instead to ineffective prayer. Most Christians recognize that this is horrible parenting, that allowing a child to die like this is criminal, and want nothing to do with such parents. Some will readily disown such parents, and they should be praised for doing so.

Clergy who molest children provide another example. Aside from a few hopelessly brainwashed members of their congregations, few religious individuals are going to argue that child molestation is acceptable or consistent with their values. Most religious people recognize that sexually assaulting a child is a criminal offense and agree that one who does it should be punished. Some will publicly disown a member of clergy who commits such an act.

Among atheists, one will find bad apples too. It is inevitable that some atheists will commit crimes and other acts which are inconsistent with the values held by the vast majority of atheists. We should not be surprised when this happens, and we should not be reluctant to disown those who engage in such behavior.

When a member of a group commits a bad act, we should be on the lookout for three things about how the group responds.
  1. Does the group clearly articulate that the individual's behavior is reprehensible and in no way reflects the values of the group? This is a positive sign, indicating that the group will not tolerate the behavior and will not hesitate to disown one who engages in it.
  2. Does the group defend the indefensible merely because one of their own is involved? This would be a negative sign, indicating that the individual's behavior is not deemed unacceptable by the group.
  3. Does the group engage in a form of magical thinking in which they claim that the individual, as a function of his or her bad acts, suddenly ceases to be a member of their group? This is an extremely bad sign, suggesting that the group will do go so far as to distort reality to protect its image.
While I was on a recent blogging hiatus, an individual who had referred to himself as a "militant atheist" assaulted a Christian pastor. The story received considerable attention in major media outlets, so I trust that you are familiar with the details. In all likelihood, you have read many of the same posts about it that I have on various atheist blogs.

In every post I read, the author clearly indicated that this guy's behavior was unacceptable and was in no way consistent with the values of the atheist community. I have not seen anybody defend the assault simply because the perpetrator described himself as an atheist, and I have not seen anybody claiming that upon committing the assault the man magically ceased to be an atheist because a "real atheist" would never do something like that. I think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of atheists who addressed this incident did so quite well.

I would very much like to see Christians stop using the "not a real Christian" sort of response when a Christian commits a bad act and instead wrestle with the question of whether or not the act is something they want to defend or oppose. Some Christians do awful things, and this does not make them any less Christian. Claiming that someone who commits a crime suddenly ceases to be a Christian is ridiculous and reveals a willingness to engage in gross distortions of reality.

If other Christians decide that they oppose a particular sort of bad act, I hope they will speak out and let others know in much the same way atheists did in this recent example. I have to think this would be a far more effective way of discouraging others from doing similar things than resorting to denial.