This is a guest post by Andrew Seidel. He is an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American.
In the New York Times op-ed pages, Nicholas Kristof argued that Jesus Christ’s “brand” had been tarnished by bigots and opportunist politicians who employ it for immoral ends. It’s this perversion of Christianity, Kristoff asserted, that’s driving young people away from the church.
I agree that “bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia” are driving enlightened people away from Christianity. But Kristof assumes that those odious characteristics are not tied up in Christianity. Like many Christians, Kristof believes his religion to be one of love. But history shows something very different.
When it comes to progress, religion doesn’t lead, it follows. Historically, secular movements and ideals drag religion into modernity. Religion later claims credit for the progress it has opposed. Prof. Mark Smith, who wrote the book on this, likens it to “the tail wagging the dog.”
The stronger religious, theological, and biblical arguments are on the wrong side of history for all of our important debates: women’s and LGBTQ rights, abolition, desegregation, and civil rights. In many cases, the opposition has been almost exclusively religious. Sure, some religious groups were on the right side — the Quakers, themselves branded as infidels and heretics, were early opponents of slavery — but the dominant biblical and religious arguments have always been on the wrong side. And when the less rigid, less orthodox religions have fought for progress, it was because secular ideals and values liberalized the congregations, and the churches then shifted and adapted their theological emphasis to catch up.
For instance, the Ten Commandments sanction slavery. Twice. Jesus recites a parable relating how hard to “beat” one’s slave, without ever condemning the repulsive concept of owning another human. Paul tells slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.”
The bible is pro-slavery. So was Christianity. Frederick Douglass spoke movingly of Christianity’s complicity in 1846:
Revivals in religion, and revivals in the slave trade, go hand in hand together. (Cheers.) The church and the slave prison stand next to each other; the groans and cries of the heartbroken slave are often drowned in the pious devotions of his religious master. (Hear, hear.) The church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighbourhood; while the blood-stained gold goes to support the pulpit, the pulpit covers the infernal business with the garb of Christianity. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support missionaries, and babies sold to buy Bibles and communion services for the churches. (Loud cheers.)
Secular values drove religion to abolition, forcing churches to examine their collective consciences.
Kristof cites Martin Luther King, Jr. in his defense of mainstream religion, apparently failing to realize that King strongly criticized the church. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was addressed to his “fellow clergymen” and in it, he criticized the “religious community” as a tail-light “rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.”
That religion is retrogressive only seems counterintuitive because religion later claims that it was responsible for progress it did not accomplish. You can see this happening right now with marriage equality if you pay close attention. The opposition to equal marriage is almost exclusively religious, but already, one can see religion beginning to claim credit for this moral victory. If history repeats itself, I predict that in a few decades many people will believe that the progress made by LGBTQ is because of religion, not in spite of it.
Kristof seems genuinely distraught by the mass exodus. He even takes a little dig at Secular Americans, writing, “Surveys find that religious Americans donate more to charity than secular Americans and are substantially more likely to volunteer.” But those same surveys consider houses of worship — including those with mandatory tithing — to be charities, whether they use the money to feed the homeless or gild the domes of their houses of worship. When this data quirk was studied, it turns out that 75% of this generosity goes the churches themselves, not charitable work. The authors summed it up: “Religion causes people to give more — to religion itself.”
Without that skew, numbers can change. For instance, as Phil Zuckerman has noted, studies of heroic altruism during the Holocaust showed that the more secular people were more likely they were to aid and rescue persecuted Jews.
What Kristof fails to understand is that most Christians are better than Christianity. They shouldn’t — indeed, they don’t — need the Bible or even Jesus to instruct them on moral behavior. Kristof has assumed that Christianity is good simply because it’s a religion. And that assumption cannot withstand scrutiny. The physicist Steven Weinberg devastated this assumption, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”
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