December 28, 2018

Sharing Stories of Christian Wrongdoing

"Crime Scene Do Not Cross" tape (3612094774)

When I'm on Twitter, I often see atheists posting links to stories about Christian wrongdoing. There's nothing surprising about this. I do it too. As long as Christians keep claiming to be morally superior to atheists and other non-Christians, sharing these stories seems like a useful public service. But in a surprising number of these cases, I see atheists accompanying their links with commentary suggesting that the Christian involved is not "a real Christian" or not "behaving in a very Christian manner." This added commentary often seems to undermine what I assume is the point of sharing the story.

Suppose an evangelical fundamentalist pastor is caught stealing money from his church (shocking, I know). If an atheist shares a link to this story on Twitter and adds something like, "This doesn't seem like a very Christian thing to do," I find myself feeling puzzled. How is it not a Christian thing to do when so many are caught doing it? And why would an atheist play into the whole Christian = moral thing by suggesting that a criminal act was not a Christian thing to do? By impugning the Christianity of the pastor, isn't the atheist doing exactly what many Christians are going to do when confronted with the story?

I saw one of these recently in which the atheist reported the wrongdoing along with a statement about how the wrongdoer "wasn't acting Christian at all." It struck me that this is exactly the sort of thing Christians say when one of their own is caught doing something wrong (i.e., they deny the person's Christianity because a "real Christian" never does anything wrong). I can see why they would do it; it puzzles me why atheists would do it.

My hunch is that many atheists, especially those who are ex-Christians, have internalized the association of Christianity and morality to the point where they don't recognize they are doing this. I don't blame them for this, of course. Years of indoctrination tend to have a lasting impact. But it does seem like this sort of commentary plays directly into what many Christians are going to want. It often makes it look like even atheists regard Christians as being more moral because they are Christians.

When I see a story about Christian wrongdoing, I don't typically question the faith of the wrongdoer. Instead, I tend to think something more like, "it is too bad that this sort of behavior seems to keep happening among Christians." Note that this is not the same thing as regarding the behavior as typical of Christians or common among Christians. Most of the time, it isn't. Even though I think we'd all agree that child rape by Catholic priests is far too common, we recognize that it is not the norm and that most Catholic priests do not rape children. But when one does, I'm not about to suggest that he isn't a "real Catholic."

My suggestion, then, is that we atheists keep sharing stories of Christian wrongdoing but that we give a bit more thought to the commentary we attach to them. Perhaps we should not be suggesting that the person involved is "not really a Christian" or is "not behaving like a Christian." Doing so helps to maintain the connection many Christians want to make between Christianity and morality. As fond as we atheists are about complaining about this sort of thing, we probably shouldn't be supporting it.