Christianity seems to be frightening more people these days. The most recent flurry of alarm has been over "dominionism," as represented in a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza. It has been more than thoroughlydebunked, but still it seems to represent something more than politics. People are afraid of Christianity.
In fact for multiple reasons, many people are saying Christianity is bad, evil, harmful. This post is the first in a series examining reasons for Christianity's bad reputation. In memory of 9/11, I begin with "Guilt by Association." It goes like this. Islam is a religion. Some Muslims attacked us on 9/11 in the name of their God and their religion. Therefore religion is bad. Christianity is a religion. Therefore Christianity is bad.
The logic is laughable. Compare this, which is in near-identical form: Rodents are four-legged animals. Mice are rodents and can make a mess in your attic. Therefore rodents are bad. Dogs are four-legged animals. Therefore dogs are bad.
The reasoning fails miserably at every step, and it would be hilarious if not for two things. First, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins have sold millions of books trying to make a case for it. To some extent I can understand their response. The 9/11 attacks were more than deadly, more than terrifying. They ruined the world in other ways besides. You may recall that the 1990s were supposed to be "the end of history." The Cold War was over and "'peace' seem[ed] to be breaking out all over the world" (Francis Fukuyama). What could there be to fight over now?
But just when we thought things were getting better, we were attacked right on our own soil. What a huge, terrible, and terrifying letdown that was—and what was to blame? Religion! What does that mean? Religion is dangerous! How shall we solve that? Eliminate religion!
Hitchens and Harris speak it more forcefully, but I happen to have Dawkins' The God Delusion nearby today so I'll cite from there. He says (p. 304),
Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against 'terror', as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure 'evil'. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we might think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them…. They have been brought up, from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.
Go ahead and laugh again if you wish. He mocks the idea that terror "were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind of its own," but he goes on to treat "religion" as if it were a force with a will and mind of its own. That's just wrong. Individuals' and cultures' religious beliefs do have effects, but these are individual and local beliefs, wildly differing in their content and expression. There is no such force as "religion" apart from these individual and divergent beliefs. His thesis makes no sense. But he sold a lot of books anyway.
But (and this is the second thing) authors like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens will insist that this is wrong: that there is something that religions have in common that makes them all dangerous in similar ways. That dangerous something is belief, strong belief, strongirrational belief. Say you're walking down a dark alley and you meet someone who holds a strongly irrational belief. Run for your life! People with strongly irrational beliefs can do the craziest things. But it gets worse: religions' strongly irrational beliefs include the promise of eternity in paradise for practicing your irrationality; hence the irrational becomes, in a weird way, rational all over again.
But now we can ask what Dawkins would think of the idea that "belief" were a kind of spirit or force, with a will or mind of its own. One gets the picture of "belief" lodging in the blame like a virus (I'm borrowing directly from Dawkins here; he calls these viruses "memes") and multiplying there into full-blown psychosis. But beliefs have content. The 9/11 attackers did not kill because theybelieved. They killed because they believed that Allah directed them to kill and that by killing they would gain automatic entry into Paradise. People who believe, but who do not believe that, won't kill the way they did.
And now it is time to state the obvious: Christianity's beliefs are different from Islam's, especially radical Islam's.
Islam's founder was militaristic from start to finish: he participated in or led dozens of raids and battles. Jesus never wielded a weapon, and when one of his followers attacked a member of the posse that arrested Jesus, Jesus healed the man immediately. Jesus taught love for enemies; Islam teaches subjugation and/or killing of enemies. Islam's advance across the world has been predominantly through military conquest. Christianity's advance has been through acts of mercy, healing, and compassion, along with persuasion. (That persuasive aspect, by the way, speaks strongly against Christianity's being an irrational belief, but that's a subject for another day.)
Christianity's bad reputation in today's world comes partly through guilt by association. I hope by now it's clear that that's really guilt by illogic.