Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Does Christianity make people better?

Does Christianity make people better? That is the question a commenter asked about one of my recent posts. A writer on the De-Conversion blog argued that the existence of bad Christians is evidence against Christianity. I pointed out:
  1. The fact that Christians sin is not only not inconsistent with Christianity, but follows from it.
  2. You can't condemn Christians as bad without employing Christian principles to do it.
But "Slapdash" asks:
[I]f the gospel of Christ is really so transformational, wouldn't we at least see some kind of positive difference in the behaviors of Christians, as compared to the behaviors of those who do not know Christ? I wouldn't expect sinlessness in Christians, but I would expect to see, for example, statistically significant differences in the divorce rate of Christians as compared to non-Christians. Which I don't think exists at this point in time.

On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else. Where's the evidence of transformation?
Good question.

Let's assume that we were capable of actually measuring the "goodness" quotient of groups of people, and we found that, as some particular point in time, Christians as a group were no better, ethically speaking, than non-Christians as a group. Suppose we found that the goodness quotient of Christians was no higher than that of non-Christians. By the way, I don't think we can do this, but let's assume that we could.

Is this evidence that Christianity does not transform lives? Does it mean that Christianity does not make people better? On the face of it it would seem to, but, in fact, it does not.

The only way you could say it does is if you knew what those same Christians were like before they became Christians. If you are trying to determine whether people become better after becoming Christians, you can't do it by comparing them to non-Christians. You have to compare them with themselves. You can't determine whether one group of people is better after a change than before by comparing them to another group of people. You have to compare people before the change to the same people afterwards. Only then can you say with any definitiveness whether Christianity makes people different.

To simply cite statistics about how Christians compare to non-Christians is irrelevant. What were the people who are now Christians like before and are they better or worse now? I don't think there is or ever will be a study that can answer this question. It can only be answered by common sense.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked why he had become a Catholic. His response was simply, "to have my sins forgiven." If there is an institution that offers those who join the forgiveness of their sins, you wouldn't expect it to be terribly attractive to sinless people. Quite the opposite. It would be attractive to sinful people. They're the ones who need forgiveness. "I came not to call the righteous," said Jesus, "but sinners to repentance."

So it would not be terribly surprising to learn that Christians were even worse is some ways than non-Christians. But that wouldn't be inconsistent with the idea that the same people were better after than before they became Christians.

In fact, if you look at the post I was responding to, what you find is a person who discovered the evil that many Christians do through counseling with them. And how did this happen? It happened, presumably, because the people he was seeing knew that what they were doing was wrong and were seeking some way to deal with it. This is what he described as the "Christian underbelly."

First of all, the fact that they were seeking help says something about their state of mind. If they were not Christians, would they have been as enthusiastic about seeking help? If their sense of right and wrong had not be changed by their Christian beliefs, would they even have thought they needed it? The writers says these were people who did some very bad things. But at least they were people who knew they were bad things and were trying to do something about it; otherwise, they wouldn't have been there in the first place.

And, second, did the author of the original post have an equal amount of experience with the "non-Christian underbelly?" It is not likely. First, he himself says he was a "pastoral counselor," who was seeing people from "within the Christian community." What would he have found if his counseling experience was outside the church? It could very well have been much worse--or maybe not. People outside the church would seemingly be much less likely to realize that they had a problem, and therefore much less likely to seek out counseling.

So, does Christianity change people? I think it does because I have seen it change people. And if someone is going to claim that it does not, they've have to find a better way to argue their case than the ones they're coming up with over at the De-Conversion blog.

8 comments:

solarity said...

The secularists in our culture would love to convince the masses that religion is generally a destructive force in popular culture. Examples cited are invariably drawn from pre 19th century history. Such examples are no longer relevant. Modern religion (islamofascism excepted) bears little resemblance to the pre-19th century versions.

Being a rather wimpy agnostic myself, my circle of friends are always surpirsed when I rise to the defense of a belief system that I do not necessarily share. It always amazes me how intelligent people can be familiar with the last 200 years of western history and not appreciate the magnificent and absolutely vital contributions of religious faith to the overall "civilizing" of western culture. Whether or not such views ultimately reflect the wishes of "God", the life lessons contained in most religious scripture (Christianity in particular) have laid the foundations for democratic government, civic virtue and social justice. America's greatness stems, in large part, from the core belief systems imparted to the wider culture by the religious community.

I may not be a member in good standing, but I recognize the critical importance of people of faith in our culture and will defend to the death their right to worship and participate in shaping public policy.

whizler said...

Hello, I would like to comment on your blog entry, having read the de-conversion.com entry that you respond to.

First, you ask, On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else. Where's the evidence of transformation?Good question. It is indeed a good question--one which, unfortunately, you don't get around to answering, other than an observation, at the end, that you've seen it change people (presumably, for the better). Non-Christians have seen it change people as well, and not in entirely positive ways. In any case, "changing" people bears no relation to the truth of a religion; Muslims, Mormons, Scientologists, etc. can all attest to being "changed", just as their religious creeds predict they will.

You make a fair point when you write, If you are trying to determine whether people become better after becoming Christians, you can't do it by comparing them to non-Christians. You have to compare them with themselves. Okay, but it cuts both ways. Consider Ted Haggard. Unless he was, for example, a pedophile before becoming a Christian, it appears that life as a devout minister turned him into an adultering, homosexual drug-user. I think it's examples like this that so disturbed the poster at de-conversion.com. Were the Christians he counseled murderers, extortionists, and rapists before accepting Christ, and thus moving on to "lesser sins" like adultery, pedophilia and wife-beating? Rather doubtful. Christianity claims to embed a transformational message. "By their fruits ye shall know them," Jesus allegedly said (Mt 7:20). If that message is producing "bad fruit", perhaps it's the message that's at fault.

This argument seems...odd:If there is an institution that offers those who join the forgiveness of their sins, you wouldn't expect it to be terribly attractive to sinless people. Quite the opposite. It would be attractive to sinful people. They're the ones who need forgiveness.According to Christianity, there are no sinless people, remember? Therefore, no institution could exist which attracts them. If your argument is that Christianity attracts the "more sinful" (presumably, this category would only include adults who started as non-Christians, which I'm guessing, is not a very large percentage of Christians) or at least gets them to admit their wrongs, then fine. But then, lots of other creeds, ideologies, philosophies, and beliefs do the same; one doesn't need Christianity to become a better person. On the other hand, what does it say about a religion whose members knowingly commit an immoral act, after being told for years that it is a "sin"? Perhaps knowing they have a pass in the form of repentance strengthens the temptation.

So, does Christianity change people? I think it does because I have seen it change people. Undoubtedly it does, but you should also explain why Christianity changes people for the worse.

solarity said...

>>.If you are trying to determine whether people become better after becoming Christians, you can't do it by comparing them to non-Christians. You have to compare them with themselves<<

In the absence of any quantifiable or generally agreed upon standards as to what constitutes "better", isn't this discussion little more than another 'angels dancing on the head of a pin' argument?

Martin Cothran said...

I will answer whizler's argument later today, but let me address Solarity's point first.

The only reason the absence of quantifiable standards would be justification for saying that pursuing an issue was pointless would be if quantifiable standards were the only standards available to us. That is not, of course, the case.

I do, however, think there are "agreed upon" standards (which you seem to allow) in this discussion, as I think you will see as this discussion continues.

And, by the way, (my academic background in philosophy makes me take these things seriously) the medieval debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin had a number of very important metaphysical implications that modern people, busy about what Richard Weaver calls the "quest for immediacy" have too little intellectual patience to think about.

Martin Cothran said...

Whizler,

Thank for your post. You argue first that I did not offer an argument that Christianity does, in fact, change people for the better, other than mentioning my own experience seeing people changed for the better after they have become Christians. Maybe you could tell me how you think, other than actual experience and observation, we settle the question at all.

It just seems a little strange to me that anyone could say that they want to argue the question of whether, in actual experience, Christianity changes people, but not allow actual experience as valid evidence

I also wonder why you see personal experience of Christianity changing lives for the better as insufficient evidence, but apparently accept the same kind of personal experience showing that it doesn't. This is, after all, what the author of the original post at De-Conversion pointed to in his larger argument. Aren't you obliged to dispute his personal observations as well?

I think there are only two things upon which you can make a judgment in this case: your own experience, and what Christianity, in fact, says. I have offered my own experience, so let me address that second thing, and I'll do it by asking a question:

How can a religion that explicitly teaches virtue do anything but make people better? And how can such a religion possibly make people worse except to the extent that they ignore or blatantly violate its principles?

If you really adhere to such as system there is no way you could not become a better person, which is why it mystifies me that anyone could possibly say that such a religion actually makes people WORSE, which you say in your post. Please explain to me which tenets of Christianity contribute to making someone worse than they were before. Is it Christianity's stress on humility? Justice? honesty? Or maybe its advocacy of charity?

In fact, all you can do is to cite examples of bad Christian behavior, like the author of the original post. But, again, that is completely irrelevant. The question is not whether some Christians act badly; the question is whether there is something in Christianity itself that is to blame for them acting badly.

How can you say that the bad behavior of some Christians is attributable to Christianity when that behavior violates the very principles of Christianity?

Is it Christianity that makes them act badly, or their lack of adherence to it? Is the the practice of Christianity that is the problem? Or their lack of practice of it? "Abusus non tollit usum": The abuse of something does not nullify its proper use.

whizler said...

Greetings!

You wrote, Thank for your post. You argue first that I did not offer an argument that Christianity does, in fact, change people for the better, other than mentioning my own experience seeing people changed for the better after they have become Christians. Maybe you could tell me how you think, other than actual experience and observation, we settle the question at all.

Originally, you asked, “Where’s the evidence of transformation? Good question.” Yet, on this “good question,” you say almost nary a word. Is it now your argument that personal experience is evidence? Fine, but as you yourself argued, it can offer a distorted picture, such as when you wrote, “On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else. [emphasis mine]

Interestingly, the author of the post to which you responded offered one way to answer the question. You even quoted it: “I wouldn't expect sinlessness in Christians, but I would expect to see, for example, statistically significant differences in the divorce rate of Christians as compared to non-Christians. Which I don't think exists at this point in time.”

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Biblical view of marriage is that it’s a divine union, which cannot be broken under any, or just one, circumstance, depending on the scripture you cite. Despite this clear and unequivocal heavenly injunction, Christians are no less likely to divorce than non-Christians. What’s more, devout Christians are more likely to divorce than non-devout. Even worse, divorce is not the only measurable indicator. As one Christian website lamented, “In fact, when the Barna Research Group did a survey involving 152 separate items comparing the general population with those who called themselves Christians, they found virtually no difference between the two groups. They found no difference in the attitudes of Christians and non-Christians, and they found no difference in the actions of Christians and non-Christians. If the contemporary concept of a Christian is of someone who is no different than the rest of the world, is Christian really the word you want to use to describe your willingness to sacrifice everything you have to see God’s dream fulfilled? No way.”

So it appears there are ways to “settle the question,” or at least begin to answer it, and they involve using research data on behavior and attitudes. If you don’t accept them, I would be curious to know why not.

You wrote, I also wonder why you see personal experience of Christianity changing lives for the better as insufficient evidence, but apparently accept the same kind of personal experience showing that it doesn't. This is, after all, what the author of the original post at De-Conversion pointed to in his larger argument. Aren't you obliged to dispute his personal observations as well?

I don’t actually argue that personal experience is invalid, just that it can cut both ways. If you believe in Christianity’s ability to transform people for the better, then you also need to accept that it transforms them for the worse. Personal experience, which you believe is valid evidence, can provide examples of both.

You ask, How can a religion that explicitly teaches virtue do anything but make people better? And how can such a religion possibly make people worse except to the extent that they ignore or blatantly violate its principles?

This is the sort of question that seriously vexes the skeptic, strengthening their perception that religious believers are myopic. Need I quote your own scripture that condones slavery? Orders the execution of “witches”? Gloriously relates tales of god-sanctioned genocide and infanticide? Relegates women to subservient roles? Identifies homosexuality as “an abomination”? Need I go on? Oh, I’m sure there are slick arguments why such teachings are no longer valid or don’t represent “the new covenant”, but the truth is, that’s not the way they’ve traditionally been viewed, and some take them pretty darn seriously even today.

In reality, Christian scripture has been used to justify both evil and good—and both on solid scriptural grounds.

You wrote, Please explain to me which tenets of Christianity contribute to making someone worse than they were before. Is it Christianity's stress on humility? Justice? honesty? Or maybe its advocacy of charity?

In addition to the examples above, I did offer in my original reply that the doctrine of repentance could strengthen temptation. If someone knows they can just “repent” (i.e., clear their conscience) later for some hurtful act, then it could be argued that it reduces the disincentive to “sin”.

You wrote, In fact, all you can do is to cite examples of bad Christian behavior, like the author of the original post. But, again, that is completely irrelevant. The question is not whether some Christians act badly; the question is whether there is something in Christianity itself that is to blame for them acting badly. And I would argue, yes, there is. The “principles of Christianity” are quite malleable; I don’t doubt if you put 10 Christians in the same room, you’d get 11 different principles. If you want to argue that Christianity itself is not to blame for the awful behavior of its adherents, then you’ll have to do better than “lack of adherence”. WHY is there a “lack of adherence”? And how can non-Christians, who are also guilty of a “lack of adherence”, go about life without beating their spouses, having sex with children, having affairs…? “Lack of adherence” explains exactly nothing.

Slapdash said...

Hi whizler,

Very much appreciate your comments here. Just a quick clarification, that the following quote is actually me, not Martin - it was part of my original response to his other blog entry:

“On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else."

Martin Cothran said...

Whizler,

Good post.

In regard to the statistically significant differences between Christians and non-Christians on measures of social behavior, I have a somewhat dim view of the use of statistics (perhaps too dim, I admit), partly because I’m not sure that you can really quantify qualitative things, and partly because I think it is very easy to lie with statistics.

Let’s take the marriage statistics, for example. I don’t know what they say, but let’s assume the worst case for the purposes of argument that the divorce rate among Christians was higher than that of non-Christians. Does that necessarily tell us anything? I submit it does not. Such a finding could very well be a result of the fact that more Christians get married in the first place. In fact, one of the reasons I saw offered for lower divorce rates over all several years ago was that fewer people were getting married. This same phenomenon is seen in the failure rate of businesses. When you see a higher rater of business failure, it is usually because there have been more new business start ups overall.

If the rate of marriage among Christians is higher than that of non-Christians (which I have to think is the case), then that could lead to seriously misleading findings. If non-Christians are shacking up at a higher rate, then obviously that is going to suppress their divorce rate. You can’t get divorced unless you first get married.

Now if you have statistics that really control for these other factors, I’m willing to look at them. But, until then, I remain a skeptic.

But I still don't understand what ground a non-Christian has for condemning Christians for divorcing. Marriage is a Christian sacrament. Divorce is therefore the violation of a Christian sacrament. How can a non-Christian, who, since he doesn't believe in Christianity, cannot believe in Christian sacraments, say anything at all about the evil of divorce? The only person who can criticize Christians for divorce is another Christian. Anyone else who tries it is, once again, assuming the very position he is trying to attack.

In regard to Barna data on attitudes, it seems to me that this is precisely the kind of research in which quantification is difficult and accuracy questionable. But, again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this kind of data is accurate and the attitudes of people who identify themselves as Christians are not different from non-Christians. It seems to me this kind of finding bolsters my case that Christianity is not the cause of the bad behavior of Christians, and that such behavior occurs despite Christian teaching, not because of it.

If the attitudes of Christians are not in accord with Christianity, and their actions reflect this through bad behavior, how can Christianity be blamed for it? These people are not very good people because they are not very good Christians, as evidenced by the fact that their attitudes are no different from non-Christians. It seems pretty apparent to me that you have people in studies like this identifying themselves as Christians who are either not Christians, or not very good ones. I just don’t see how this in any way contributes to the case against Christianity itself. The problem is not an excess of Christianity, but a lack of it.

But then you made the additional point that there are things either encouraged or allowed in the Bible that are not what, to the modern mind, would be considered moral. You cite slavery, witchhunts, and genocide as examples.

Let’s stipulate for the moment that all three of those things are wrong in all cirucumstances at all times. So what? You still entirely miss any rhetorical target you might be aiming at here. There may be problems in the Christian subculture, but, to my knowledge, the prevalence of slavery, the persecution of witches, and genocide are not among them. Where are the Biblical origins of the modern Christian pathologies you cite as the problem, such as divorce? As far as I know, slavery, witchhunts, and genocide have nothing to do with divorce.

You do mention a fourth thing: the belief that homosexuality is an abomination. Here, we simply have a disagreement, which is incidental to the current argument and makes no difference to the previous points, where we are presumably arguing on common ground.

Finally, you argue that the teachings of Christianity are “malleable”, and that the term means different things to different people. But if you assert that, then you can’t blame Christianity for anything, since you could just define it differently than the belief system that you say is causing all these problems. I am defending the teachings of the Apostles, which is the only coherent definition of Christianity. You ask, what accounts for the lack of adherence of Christians to Christianity? in which case the response is simply, “sin”.

From within the belief system of Christianity, this explanation makes perfect sense. From outside that belief system, very little makes sense, including any critiques of that belief system, since those critiques (to return to one of my main original points) must assume the very Christian principles they seek to undermine.