Letter from a Skeptic
Editor’s note: We present the following essay as an example to Christians, showing us how many skeptics think about the faith we hold dear. The thoughts and arguments here are not unique, and Christians do well to listen to them. In a separate post, Dick Alexander answers this anonymous writer. You’ll want to read his piece after you’ve read this one.
When asked why he did not embrace Christianity, Mahatma Gandhi replied with this widely known remark: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” The sentiment resonates with me.
There are several things you should know about me before you read on. First, I am not an atheist. I cannot rule out the possibility of God or the existence of a “higher power.”
That said, neither am I a Christian. My mom took me to church when I was a child, so I’ve got a few years of Sunday school under my belt, but not much else. I met my husband in high school, and we married in our mid-20s. I am now in my 30s and have two young children of my own. We do not go to church.
If there is a God, I’m not sure the church is very much like him. Increasingly I find myself at odds with the dominant Christian worldview. To paraphrase Gandhi, I like Jesus, I just don’t want to be a Christian. I’ve read a few books that argue the case for Christianity by producing various evidences to convince the reader that Christianity is “true”—that Christianity is the “right” religion to follow. But I need to know more than that.
The question I grapple with isn’t so much whether Christianity is right but whether it is good. Can I be a Christian and be good?
I can’t seem to reconcile the Christianity I observe in my own experience with the values I want to champion in my home. I remember a conversation I had with my uncle about this. He is very active in his church and always ready to turn our family gatherings into heated religious debates. On one such occasion he was raging on about some issue pertaining to what he called “America’s moral slide.”
He likes to talk about morals a lot, especially his position on homosexuals, LGBTQ issues, and the gay marriage debate. On other occasions he will launch into speeches that range from his views on young earth creationism to how Jesus would vote. He clearly views his Bible as authoritative in all matters—even when it stands in opposition to the facts. I’m pretty sure he would have had a problem with Galileo too.
During one such tirade, I pushed back. I interrupted him and said, “It is you Christians who are immoral. You’re unloving, intolerant, and judgmental—qualities I find morally offensive.” I probably came off as hostile to Christianity, but I was frustrated more than anything. For me this is a sincere and important question: Can I be a Christian and be good?
Apathy and Hostility
This is a significant issue. It is behind much of the apathy and hostility many in my generation have toward Christians and the church. So many Christians seem driven to prove they are right and everyone else is wrong. There’s an arrogance, a self-righteousness that seems to flow from the conviction that they are right on just about everything.
Non-Christians can be guilty of this too, of course. It’s human nature. But it strikes me that goodness, not just rightness, is what Jesus said mattered most—that good trees produce good fruit, that sort of thing. Honestly, I think Christians could make a stronger case for their cause if they would redirect the energy they put into being right toward being more loving. More like, well, Jesus.
I love my uncle, but I could never, in good conscience, share the values he upholds so religiously. And it’s not just my uncle. As far as I can tell, most of his Christian friends hold similar views.
He was shocked when I suggested that Christians were immoral. I’ll try to explain, but I would ask that you read with an open mind. I am not an expert. I am not a theologian. While I want to stand on reason alone, I realize that some of my conclusions are influenced by my emotions, and in reaction to the Christianity I have observed. Nevertheless allow me to speak to a few of the issues that make me question the “goodness” of Christianity.
To begin with, if a good tree bears good fruit, I think we need to be honest and admit that throughout history Christianity has produced some very bad fruit. Yes, I am aware that Christians are responsible for many great examples of charity and benevolence through the centuries. But these positive examples cannot and should not excuse the repulsive effects of bigotry and horrific violence that permeates church history.
Some have suggested that the history of violence and the history of religion are the same history. Launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, the knights of Europe united in a crusade to save the Holy Land from the rule of Islamic infidels.
One historian records the words of Raymond of Agiles, a representative of the church, upon the taking of Jerusalem:
Wonderful things were to be seen . . . in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reigns. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.
The brutality of the Christians was not limited to the Muslims. The synagogue in which the city’s Jews were sheltered was set on fire, burning them alive.
That may be ancient history, but I was discouraged by the results of a recent poll regarding the use of torture on suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Sixty-three percent of Americans agreed that torture is either “often” or “sometimes” justified. The demographic group that polled most strongly in favor of torture were white, Evangelical Christians.
I have difficulty picturing Jesus water-boarding anyone, let alone condoning the practice among his followers. During the centuries of Inquisition, suspected heretics were tortured in the pursuit of a confession. Many of the torture devices were inscribed with the motto “Glory be only to God.” Protestants are quick to blame the Catholic church for these atrocities, but when it came to killing heretics, even Protestant reformer John Calvin approved of their deaths.
This brings me to the subject of life. Christians claim to be “pro-life.” They say they are concerned about the rights of the unborn. This is a reasonable ethic. But what about the newly born?
Millions of innocent children have been the victims of collateral damage in wars that the majority of Christians enthusiastically support. Christians seem mostly OK with such unfortunate, “acceptable losses.” I find it difficult to believe that Jesus would be OK with this. Shouldn’t Christians be the most reluctant of all people to go to war?
As I understand it, the creation story occupies a single chapter in Genesis, which is just one of many books in the Bible. So how is it that Christians are so preoccupied with the “creation versus evolution” debate? My uncle insists that the earth is only 6,000 years old. This point seems essential to the integrity of his faith. It is a BIG deal to him. Do I have to accept literal six-day creationism in order to be a Christian? I think many Christians would answer that with a “yes!”
I don’t rule out the possibility of a creator, but is it possible that parts of the Bible deploy myth or metaphor to convey God’s creative work in words that ancient people could understand and relate to? Even if the Bible is infallible, the way we interpret it is not.
What I’m objecting to is the general Christian inclination to distrust science. I’m not suggesting that science is infallible either. I guess I’m reacting to the antiscientific bias I see in Christians.
Take global warming. Surveys show Christians as being the most likely group to deny global warming. Is it somehow Christian to pretend that humans are not destroying the very creation the Bible says they are stewards of? Is it because Christians believe they are about to be evacuated soon anyway? Or is it because Al Gore, a despised Democrat, popularized the issue in his book An Inconvenient Truth?
I care about the planet. I want my children to care about the planet. For me this is a moral issue. Again, shouldn’t Christians be the most vocal group when it comes to environmentalism?
I find that many Christians hold attitudes about the poor, about immigrants and refugees, and about social injustice and racial reconciliation that are troubling. Just this week I saw a poll that surveyed people on their perception of the racial problems in America. Would you like to guess which demographic was least likely to believe the incidences of racism experienced by black Americans? White, Evangelical Christians. Again.
The Christian God seems to me to be a very threatening God, preoccupied with judgment and even willing to turn good people over to Hell for eternal torment. Do Christians really believe that billions of people are headed to Hell, many of whom have had nothing but hardship while they toiled here on earth?
Not long ago a hero of mine, Elie Wiesel, passed away. As an Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camp survivor, his books have taught the world powerful lessons on love and forgiveness. Hitler sent Wiesel to the death camps because Wiesel was not a Christian.
Is he now laboring in an eternal concentration camp, sentenced by God to Hell for the crime of being Jewish? This hardly seems just or good. In fact I would say it is sadistic and cruel.
I am not presenting an academic thesis here, and my space is limited, but the whole subject of homosexuality, gay marriage, and LGBTQ issues is such a “hot button” in the culture, I must comment before I sign off. I think Christian attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have only served to further alienate me (and a large number of my peers) from Christianity.
I may not be a Christian, but the teachings of Jesus lead me to believe that the God he represents would show love and compassion toward gay people or anyone who is struggling with gender/sexual identity. When we are talking about the LGBTQ community we are talking about people God loves—people with basic human dignity and rights.
In the city where I live there is a significant Muslim population. Occasionally voices from the Muslim community call for Sharia law to be adopted in our civic laws. I bristle at the idea of one religious group trying to legislate their values on a free society.
I think that should also apply to the church. I do not believe Christians have been commissioned by God to enshrine their understanding of sexual ethics into the law codes of our country.
Do Christians really believe that in order to be faithful to their convictions they must depend on the state to pressure those who are not followers of Jesus to act like they are? I support laws that “preserve human rights,” even the rights of non-Christians to act un-Christian.
Is there room for someone with convictions like mine to be a Christian? Can I be a Christian and be good?
The writer has compiled ideas from a thoughtful nonbeliever into this essay. This piece summarizes that person’s concerns and convictions, as well as those from others the writer has encountered.