Wednesday, December 7, 2011

David Marshall: "Is Christianity a Blessing?"

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I’ll blog about Chapter 8, “Is Christianity a Blessing?”

The essential argument of this chapter is that Christianity has done a lot of good in the world in terms of meeting human needs and advancing respect for human dignity, especially that of the marginalized. Marshall documents that this has been the case in India and other places, and also throughout history, as Christians have taken bold stands against slavery from Christianity’s early days. Marshall is responding to the new atheistic charge that the Christian religion has had a negative net effect on the world, and I know that many skeptics point to this negative effect to argue that we shouldn’t have faith in the first place, and that even those who are liberal, mainline, or non-fanatical people of faith are enabling the dangerous practitioners of religion by believing in something without proof. But Marshall and other people of faith do well to point out the positive effects of Christianity on the world—-the way that people’s acceptance of biblical teachings about love and respecting the dignity of all has motivated them to elevate the downtrodden and marginalized and to combat injustice.

I think that Marshall’s portrayal of Christianity in this chapter is a bit one-sided, for I find that the Bible contains egalitarian and liberationist elements, but also aspects that are patriarchal, nationalistic, pro-slavery, and prejudiced against certain people-groups (see my post here). Moreover, while Marshall does well to highlight the Christian opposition to slavery across the centuries, there is another side to this issue, for there were also prominent Christian voices in favor of slavery (see here, here, and here). So which side was following the Bible? I believe that both were, in their own minds. The anti-slavery side drew from the salient liberationist stream in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, where God frees slaves (literally or spiritually), whereas the pro-slavery side acknowledged certain biblical writings’ recognition (even support) of slavery as an institution.

Marshall implies in this chapter that Christianity is better than other religions from the standpoint of practicality and also humanitarianism. On the issue of humanitarianism, he may be right, for I know of more Christian charities than Buddhist or Hindu ones. Marshall quotes even the Dalai Lama as saying that he wishes Buddhists were as proactive about humanitarian work as Christians are! On the issue of practicality, Marshall takes issue with Sam Harris’ exaltation of Jainism as better than Christianity, for Jainism’s teaching that people should not kill or injure any living thing could have disastrous consequences (i.e., not harming lice and fleas, which then proliferate). Moreover, on page 138, Marshall states:

“Some of what [Gandhi] taught was at odds with Christianity. Even Harris finds his advice to the Jews in Europe—-commit mass suicide to shame Hitler—-too much. ‘Gandhi’s was a world in which millions more would have died in the hopes that the Nazis would have one day doubted the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich,’ Harris comments, adding, ‘Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply.’ On this point, Harris agrees with the Christian ‘just war’ tradition. He entirely forgets to ask, ‘What would [the Jainist] Mahavira do?’”

But my problem with Marshall here is his generalization of the Christian teaching about war, when he says that some of what Gandhi taught was at odds with Christianity, and then goes on to discuss Gandhi’s view that people should not resist Hitler. Within Christianity, the just war tradition has not been the only game in town, for there have been salient Christian voices as early as the church fathers who opposed Christian service in the military (see here). I think that Marshall should have mentioned that in an end-note.

A significant issue that comes up in this chapter, as well as Chapter 5 (“Did God Evolve?”), is the “is-ought” question: does evolution or atheism provide a solid foundation for morality, enough to tell us that we “ought” to do good and not bad? Marshall does not appear to think so, and he refers to skepticism even among atheists about this. While evolution may promote cooperation and benevolence within an “in-group” because that would enable people in the group to survive, does it provide a basis for helping those in the “out-group”, with whom the “in-group” is competing for resources? Does it encourage assisting the weak and the sick, people who (on the surface, at least) do not contribute to the group?

These are big questions, and I cannot do them justice here. I’m hesitant to say that the Bible should be the basis for morality because there are areas in which the Bible appears to contradict what we understand as just and right. But can there be an evolutionary or even a secular foundation for morality? Perhaps cooperation rather than competition between groups can ensure survival and prosperity. Maybe there is a benefit that comes from taking care of the “least of these”, for the “least” may themselves contribute to society in some way (i.e., being a friend), or people can contribute to society better if they’re not continually afraid of themselves or their loved ones being kicked to the curb for becoming weak or sick.

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