What if Atheists are Right About Christians?

Over the last few weeks I have been reading a handful of books that have me thinking a good bit about how Christians are perceived by the world around us.  John Dickson’s book Humilitas , which traces the history of the virtue of humility through the last two millennia, was the book that really started these thoughts, and has me thinking about the damage that Christians have done to the name of Christ over the years.  Dickson starts off chapter ten of his book with a quote from Christopher Hitchens:

We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.

As I write these words and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

I re-read that four or five times when I first came upon it.  After stewing for an hour or two on this quote, I asked the question, “what if Hitchens is right?”  I am not saying that Hitchens is right that there is no God nor am I saying that the world would be a better place without people of faith, but I am wondering if he is right about the license taken under the guise of religious necessity, and where we see Christians doing this today.

A few snapshots that might help understand my question:

  • Last week I drove by the Planned Parenthood clinic in Hempstead, New York.  While passing by I noticed about four men with signs, a bullhorn, and angry looks on their faces shouting at a middle aged Hispanic lady walking out of the clinic with a child who appeared to be four or five.  While I didn’t have the chance to read the signs that they were carrying, my first thought was about the ugliness that the church can bring out in people.  While I can’t say for certain that it was a group of Christians conducting the protest, the image of angry looking people shouting at a lady and her child because they are in the Planned Parenthood parking lot is the image that many people have of the church.
  • Several years ago, while developing the plans for the church we planted in Baltimore, I took a job selling cars at a local Ford Dealership.  During my time there, the American Family Association decided that Ford, a religiously unaffiliated corporation,was a promoter of the dreaded “homosexual agenda” and as a result, they called on Christians to boycott Ford.  This is a common tactic by the AFA, and one that they are currently attempting to bludgeon The Home Depot into submission with.  These actions are not received by people as loving correction, they are received as if they are the threats of the neighborhood bully… and I don’t know that Jesus was the bullying type.
  • A friend of mine in Baltimore was convinced that the church planting movement supported by the Southern Baptist Convention was an effort to have a bunch of Christians from the south move up into a “blue state” and change the outcomes of the elections there.  While this was a pretty creative way of looking at things, I doubt that he is the only one that has a hard time separating the church in America from a political machine, especially considering the political rhetoric that has come out of “evangelical leaders” over the past several years.

In southern culture, the phrase “bless your heart” gives people a free pass to be nasty.  While it pains me to say it, I wonder if identifying ourselves as Christians isn’t used the same way in the political arena.  Christ called us to be salt and light to the world around us.  Salt and light do not repulse people, they are attractive… people desire them.

Christ called us to love the world, to care for it, and to introduce him to world around us… not to wield his name like a club.

How have YOU worked to repair the the image of the church within your sphere of influence?


About the Author: Matt Steen

I love Jesus, Theresa (my wife), the Redskins & Capitals, and am currently living in Waco, Texas where I am studying the finer points of BBQ (while working on my MDiv and MBA at Baylor University). When not studying, I serve church leaders through and am the Director of Connections for Harris Creek Baptist Church's Downtown Campus.

  • Michael Turner

    I have my own fair share of issues with Christian protests but let me ask you a question for the sake of counterpoint.  Take your example of the Hispanic woman outside of the Planned Parenthood facility.  Would you have a problem with the protest if she were bringing the 5 yr old in there to be euthanized?  

    I mean that seriously.  I’m not saying that an angry megaphone response is the only profitable way to react to the situation, but I would like to know how you would respond if you were literally watching a mother bring her child somewhere to die.

    • Matt Steen

      Thanks for asking.  I honestly believe that no amount of shouting, protesting, or sign carrying will change the mind of a mother who has made that decision.  The only way to change the mind of that person is through relationship…. and relationships do not happen on the street corner in front of planned parenthood, as someone is on their way to do something that hopelessness has driven them to. 

      What we have done is focus on symptoms, not the problem.  The problem is not abortion, the problem is not that our politicians have made abortion legal.  The issue is sin, and a need for a relationship with Christ.  Rather than focusing our time, energy, and resources on fighting the “evils of planned parenthood”, what if we were actually spending time getting to know people before they get to the point where they feel that an abortion is their only option?

      • Michael Turner

        I get what you’re saying, Matt.  I really do.  I’ve never picked up a sign or bullhorn and protested anything because it’s pretty much not in my personality to plan that sort of thing out.  However sometimes I think we get caught up in talking abstract concepts [relationships] about very stark realities.  We discuss as if in a vacuum that doesn’t exist.

        We can talk about relationships and politics all day long, but let us not find ourselves surprised if a portion of the population reacts harshly to something as disgusting as a woman literally bringing her child to slaughter.  If you were literally right there when the 5 yr old was getting gutted I’d imagine that relationships and politics would be far from the first thing on your mind.  Sin, on the other hand, and all the horrific manner of it would be most noticeable.  And I’d imagine that you would react in that horror.  Then later we could write our blogs and congressmen.  

        Christ himself overturned tables and broke out a whip of cords when God was being mocked [mind you by something perfectly legal and commonplace].  I would think that at least a little [or maybe a lot] of that attitude toward sin is inside of every Christian.

        Just some thoughts…

        • Bob Allen

          You’ve made some thought-provoking comments, Michael. Here are my thoughts — no guarantees that they are coherent or completely relevant (or that I won’t modify them after more thought and reflection).

          You got me to ask myself, “Who, exactly, were the targets of Jesus’ anger in the temple incident?” and I wasn’t immediately sure of the answer. I looked at one of these accounts, John 2:12ff, in the NIV translation. It seems that Jesus went after those who were exchanging money (probably at exorbitant rates) and selling the animals (again, probably at outrageous prices). Based on the reaction of “the Jews,” who I assume were the religious leaders, they believed that Jesus was also attacking them, at least indirectly. I conclude that He was going after those who were both God-worshippers and leaders. He didn’t ignore the immediate situation so that He could build relationships with them. But, it seems that He also did not go after the worshippers who were being duped and/or who were the victims of extortion.Acute diseases and situations demand a different response than chronic diseases and situations. And it takes a great deal of wisdom and discernment to know which is which, what the appropriate response is, and what the target should be. Unfortunately, the general perception (excluding gracious, perceptive folks like Rob) seems to be that we do not exercise either wisdom or discernment but attack indiscriminately.

          Thanks, Matt, for a great post and, Michael, for making me think.

    • Rob

      I don’t think the problem is the protest – it’s the vitriol nature of it.

      • Matt Steen

        I think that is a big part of it.

  • Rob

    First off, let me say that I am an atheist. With regard to the point of this article, I do not perceive the majority of Christians in this light at all.  While I do not personally believe in the supernatural, I would agree that the concept of Jesus is as Matt as described.  There are a minority of so-called Christians that have completely distorted the message of their religion and the expected behavior of its followers.  The problem is that they are vocal and not denounced enough by the majority. Some will attribute this minority’s behavior to the whole and do, in fact, do so.

    • Pastordt

      Thank you for separating the vocal minority from the majority of Christ-followers. May your kindness multiply as people continue to dialogue with civility about faith, philosophy and worldviews, rather than pigeon-holing as too often happens on both sides of these issues.

    • Matt Steen

      Rob, thanks for commenting, and thank you for extending grace to us.  I hope that the vocal minority will learn from it.

  • Michael Turner

    Hey Matt,

    Here is where I do agree with you.  I’ll give an example from personal experience.  When I was a young unbeliever I was captivated by the attention and controversy surrounding Marilyn Manson.  He was on tour and it seemed everywhere he went he was met with Christian protest for his uncouth behavior.  Some shows were even cancelled due to the tremendous pressure applied by the protesters to the sponsors and venues.  But most of the shows went
    on despite the evangelical storm. I went to one of these concerts in a very conservative area on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The protesters were there a week in advance trying to shut it down.  Yet the show sold out and I helped pack the house for the performance.

    So here’s the thing.  Marilyn Manson knew exactly what he was doing.  Prior to the controversy nobody really knew about him.  He actually relied on Christian
    protests to gain his wealth and fame.  He knew how to stir the pot and get the religious right fuming into a frenzy.  Kudos to him…it worked very well.  Without the protest he would have remained a no-name to most of society.  Without the protest he never could have climbed the charts or sold out big venues. 

    Christ sent us out into the world as sheep amongst wolves and instructed us to be “wise as serpents” [Matt 10:16].  In the case of Marilyn Manson I believe the evangelical community just flat out blew it.  Had the protesters been “wise as serpents” they would have seen how they were being played and used. 

    However I think that while the protests are similar, the circumstances between this example and Planned Parenthood are incredibly different.  And while I do believe there are valuable alternatives to be considered in approaching the problem of abortion, I cannot fault the protesters of an abortion facility the same way as the protesters of a rock concert. 

    As for Mr. Hitchens and if he is right, the answer is of course not.  Not in the
    slightest.  Hitchens conclusion is that “religion poisons everything”.  In actuality it is man that poisons religion.  Or in Mr. Hitchens case, it is man poisoning himself.

    Thank you for the dialogue and providing an avenue for
    discussion.  It is indeed thought provoking.

    • Rob

      Hitchens is doing the same thing that you say Marilyn Manson did/does – being controversial for effect and attention.  Of course religion doesn’t poison everything, but saying that it does (when the intent is to list the cases where it does) gets your attention.

    • Matt Steen

      Hitchens, Manson, Glenn Beck, all of them are copying off of Howard Stern.  Get people mad enough about something, and their product will sell.  Unfortunately the strategy works so well that Washington is beginning to adopt it.

      The problem with this is that no one ever seems to realize that is what is going on until it’s too late.

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