1.08.2022

Stop Claiming Your Religion Makes You a Better Person and Show Us

magic floating Jesus

"I'm a Christian, and I believe..." I'm willing to listen to this sort of thing from time-to-time, but I'd like to make a suggestion. Instead of (repeatedly) telling us what you believe, show us what you believe by living it. I know you want me to believe that your religion has made you a better person. I am open to the possibility that it has, but I'd like to see it in action. Setting aside the possibility that you might be a good person with or without your religion, show me through your actions that you are a good person and that your religion has contributed to this. If you are right about what your religion can do, this should be fairly easy.

When I was growing up, I had a close friend from a Mormon family. We didn't talk much about religion since that sort of thing was discouraged in the part of the U.S. where we lived, but some of what he told me about his religious beliefs sounded quite strange. One thing I could say for him and his entire family was that they almost always seemed happy and like they got along extremely well. He attributed this to his religion, and I didn't argue the point. If that was true, they were a damn good advertisement for their religion. They didn't have much interest in broadcasting it to others; they just lived it. I can't claim all the Mormons I've encountered were like this, but I will admit that I grew up with much more positive attitudes about that religion than I might have otherwise.

I realize there is a danger in religious believers feeling like they need to be happy all the time, and that is not what I am advocating here. I know how unhealthy this can be. My point is that I'm far more likely to be convinced that religion is worthwhile when I see it having a positive effect on how people treat others than anything they tell me. Does it make you more generous? Great! Show me. Does it help you empathize with others? Wonderful! We certainly need more of that. Show me how it does so. Seeing your religion in action is far more persuasive than hearing you talk about it.

I do suspect that good people are going to be good with or without religious belief, but I am open to the possibility that religion helps some people be better than they might otherwise be, and that's what I have in mind here. The religious believer who is genuinely well-adjusted and who treats others well even when they do not share his or her religious beliefs is something special. Perhaps some of what they've been able to accomplish has been facilitated by their religion. That seems worth knowing about. After all, there are an awful lot of religious believers who might be able to learn from such an example.

And I suppose this brings me to the point most of the atheists and especially the anti-theists are waiting for. Plenty of religious believers who want to tell me all about their religion are not good people; they are hateful, bigoted, care little for the welfare of those who do not share their beliefs, etc. What are we to make of them and what they might suggest about their religion? If living well is an effective advertisement for one's religion, what do we do with the many hateful examples? Some Christians will insist that the people I am referring to here are not "real Christians," but that is something they need to sort out.

If I think about just a few of the evangelical Christians I know, some are positive examples that make their religion look good. Some are bigoted, hateful, and cruel, leading me to want to have as little to do with their religion as possible. Others, probably the majority, fall somewhere in between. This makes it difficult to know what to think about the religion they share. Perhaps the shared religion has little to do with how they behave.

"But doesn't everything you just said apply to atheism too?" Yes, I think it does. Most of us know atheists who are great people and atheists who make atheism look bad. One key difference is that it seems very unusual to hear atheists claim that their atheism makes them good people, while this is one of the most common things one hears from Christians. In addition, it seems clear that atheism tends to be a much smaller part of who most atheists are than Christianity tends to be for most Christians. But the original point still isn't a bad once. When I see an atheist being a jackass on social media, I expect that my reaction is similar to how many Christians react when they see an outspoken Christian doing the same (except for denying that they are a "real atheist" because they are behaving in ways I don't like).

What's the point? If Christians (or other religious believers) want to promote their religion, the best way to do so might be to stop the mindless preaching and demonstrate its power by living better. If it is true that religion leads them to be better people, we should see clear evidence of this in their behavior.