A response to Hungry Atheist

On July 9 of this year, I wrote a post entitled, A follow-up to some comments. One of the comments I received on that post was from someone calling himself (or herself) Hungry Atheist. I thought that I would selectively quote the comment and provide response to the points that were raised in that comment. I want to thank Hungry Atheist for taking the time to comment in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

Friendly ResponseSpecifically, I see a potential contradiction in your final three paragraphs. In the one, you admit that the status quo has no value in and of itself. But in the following paragraph, you seem to reverse this opinion by being saddened that America is leaving its Christian heritage.

I’m uncertain what your primary message is: does the status quo (philosophical underpinnings, historical roots, what-have-you) have value, or doesn’t it? You’re suggesting two different things. Now, if I may – and I could be wrong on this – my impression is that you want to believe the Christian roots of your country are important, while you simultaneously want to believe the conflicting argument that traditions are not justifiable simply because they are traditions.

I think that the philosophical underpinnings have value because they are rooted in truth. They do not have value just because they are traditions or were the status quo. For example, if I held a tradition that the Earth is flat, that tradition would have no value because it is rooted in a falsehood. The real question is whether the underpinnings are true or false, not whether they were traditional or widely held.

Does putting a Christian prayer on the wall of a public high school show government preference towards a particular religion? It may or may not, but whatever the case, it is certainly not a simple question. And in this case, the courts sided with Jessica.

I agree that the courts sided with Jessica and I think the Christian community has to be willing to allow the court to make this decision. The benefit of living in a pluralistic society comes at the cost of giving up some opportunities for free expression.

I would also like to mention the difficulty in saying something like, “the only places in the world where democracy and freedom are experienced are countries that once held a Christian heritage.” First, Christian heritage is a colonial artifact. As you subsequently note, whenever the church has acquired political power, the results have been disastrous. One of those disasters was colonialization itself, in which Christianity spread across the globe like a plague.

A plague not because Christianity was bad or evil, but because the people who spread it so frequently were (by modern standards) downright nasty towards the Indigenous, and because, quite literally, plagues were one of the single-most powerful weapons of the colonizer.

Thus, you cannot really attribute modern democratization to Christianity any more than you can attribute it to colonization or, related, slavery itself (as slavery and trade were two of the major reasons colonization took place, in addition to the advance of Christianity).

I will agree that colonialization and evangelization were too often entangled and the result was confusion of what it means to be a true Christian. That being said, there were also many who did bring the good news of Jesus Christ to indigenous people in a way that was respectful of their culture; Hudson Taylor comes to mind as an example of this.

On that note, also recall that there was an entire civilization of people native to your country before European settlers ever set foot on it.

Your country owes at least as much of its development to Native Americans as it does to the Europeans, if not more. I live in Canada where this is an even more significant point than in the United States, as without our First Nations, the Europeans would never have survived the first winter – they would have died from the elements or scurvy or both (and many did).

Granted that our handling of native Americans was often wrong. I would argue that the abuse of the native Americans was not about religion, but about land ownership and ethnic prejudice.

Moreover, while you advance the argument that democracy and freedom owes itself to a Christian heritage, I will advance the argument that both derive from secular development.

The most free and democratic societies on Earth also have the highest instances of secularism and, indeed, atheism in the world (I refer here specifically to organic atheism. Just as you would not support a theocracy, I would never support a government that demands atheism). Whether you look at Japan, South Korea (which, incidentally, does not have Christian roots), nearly any of the Scandinavian or Western-European countries, or even our beloved North America, all of these great nations are highly secular.

When we compare religiosity to various social benchmarks, such as instances of rape, infant-mortality, equality, poverty, and so on, what we find is that as religiosity goes up, so too does rape, poverty, etc. As religiosity goes down, life is better for all members of society.

In any period of time throughout history that I am aware of, in which a particular religion was dogmatic and had political control (these caveats are important), we see some of the worst abuses of human cruelty imaginable. When secularism is advanced, we tend to get democracy and freedom.

Two thoughts come to mind. My experience of the church has been that there is a big difference between religion as a set of dogmas and rituals and Christianity rooted in relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Secondly, it is inappropriate to lump all religions together. On the surface, they may seem to speak to the same issues, each religion makes exclusive claims to truth that are incompatible with the other religions.

Specifically with regard to Christianity, while abuses have been perpetrated by some who claim to be Christian, on the whole, the works of charity and love practiced by Christians in obedience to their Christ have made significant positive impact in the societies in which they practiced these deeds. While this does not nullify the evil that has been done, it should, however, put it in perspective. The abuse of a few does not negate the positive impact of the many.

As a final point, I would like to clear up one more word that may not be appropriate, which is whether or not the prayer was “offensive.” I really can’t speak for Jessica on this one, but I get the impression that the major issue was not that the prayer was offensive. Rather, I *think* the better term might be exclusive.

Allow me to explain.

Imagine a plaque on the wall that has nothing more than a plain white background, a nice frame, and the following words:

“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”

I don’t think this message would be met with much resistance, because it’s an especially profound quote and particularly applicable to a school setting. If, however, this was what the plaque had said, it would change the context significantly:

“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.” – Proverbs 18:15

Barring any especially mindful non-Christians that recognized the context of the first plaque, the difference is that the second one – to an outsider’s perspective – suggests exclusion.

It’s as though to agree with the second plaque one would also have to accept the source of the message, in which case many do not.

Now, you may argue – probably correctly – that this should not happen, as the message need not be exclusive in this way. However, this does not change the fact that many outsiders *will* feel excluded by it. The result is not the same as the intent.

Let’s draw another comparison to illustrate how this *might* affect you. Suppose there was another plaque we could choose from, which read as follows:

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism.”

This is another example of a particularly profound and, I think, universally acceptable quotation. However, how does it alter its reception with the addition:

“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism.” – Richard Dawkins

How would you personally feel if this plaque, attributed to Dawkins, was placed on a public high school wall? Truthfully, it may not even bother you; you may be able to appreciate it simply for its elegance and the beauty of the message.

But perhaps you might be able to empathize a little better with the people that, I think rightly, would feel excluded by it, simply because of the associations it has with a very particular worldview.

In none of these cases is the issue that the message itself is offensive, nor is the issue with the message at all. Rather, it is always about a perceived sense of inclusion vs. exclusion, which is precisely why the First Amendment exists. That is, to prevent the government from showing any kind of preference (whether perceived or real, in my opinion) for any particular belief.

I hope that helps. Thanks again for the follow-up.

It does help and thanks for the discussion. Two last thoughts come to mind. We Christians are commanded to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). While you may disagree with the truth part, I hope that what I have written is in love, I am certainly not intending to cause offense. Secondly, we are commanded to give our answers with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) which is also my intent. You have certainly responded in gentleness and respect; I appreciate the dialog.