What if I stumble? Arguing against Christianity from the lives of Christians
A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door. After a few minutes they realized I was not going to be as easy to b-p-t (biblical proof-text) into submission as the typical mark, and so they suddenly switched tactics. “Do you know,” one of them said, “that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only group that refused to submit to the Nazis in Germany during World War 2?”
“I don’t know if that is true or not,” I replied, “but even if it was, it wouldn’t make Jehovah’s Witness more likely to be true.”
Or would it?
And if I’m wrong and the moral lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses does make their faith more likely to be true, does that mean that the failure of adherents to this faith to live morally makes their faith less likely to be true?
Bad Christians = unbelievable Christianity?
Jeffrey Jay Lowder explores these kinds of questions in “Are Christians the best argument against Christianity?” when he considers the claim of “The Confident Christian” that Christians are the best argument against Christianity.
Lowder wants to know whether this might be true. Of course, he observes, much depends on what we mean by “best”. Lowder is not sure this is true if we’re talkin’ ”the argument with the most evidential strength,” but he is open to the possibility if we mean “the argument with the most emotional or rhetorical appeal”. Lowder closes by inviting the reflections of others. I’m taking him up on that offer, albeit on my home turf where there is more room to stretch.
Spotting a Christian by their love
Let’s start with this statement from Jesus in John 13:34-35:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Should we take Jesus to be offering a formal criterion for the identification of his disciples? I think not, for it would suggest that the only way a person could learn somebody is a disciple of Jesus is through inductive or abductive inference after witnessing the way the person lives over an extended period of time. This would, among other things, preclude the possiblity that a person could learn another person is a disciple of Jesus through good old direct testimony as in ”Hi,, my name’s Bill and I’m a disciple of Jesus.” And that seems rather, er, implausible.
The argument from the meager fruits of theism?
Let’s consider what Lowder calls “The argument from the meager moral fruits of theism.” This is how Lowder summarizes this argument from Paul Draper:
“The moral fruits of theism are meager at best: theists do not seem to live more moral lives than atheists. Neither church history nor Draper’s personal experience support the claim that theists are morally superior to atheists. On the assumption that theism is true, one has reason to believe that theistic belief has significant moral fruits, that worshipping God is a source of moral strength. Thus, on the assumption of theism, the fact that theists do not seem to live more moral lives than atheists is surprising. On the assumption that atheism is true, however, this is not surprising. On atheism, believing in God would not make people morally better.”
Lowder does not endorse this argument explicitly because he thinks we have insufficient data to establish that belief in God has meager moral fruit. This is certainly true, but there is another rather glaring problem with the argument. According to Christian teaching, the demons believe in God too (James 2:19), but demons are not known for their moral fruit (unless we’re talking about stinking durians). So no, Christian should not think that merely believing in God is a sufficient criterion to ensure any increase in moral living.
Add to this the frequent warnings in the New Testament that people who are not true disciples are intermingled in Christian communities (e.g. Matthew 25:21-46; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 John 2:19) and the argument is left for dead. After all, you can always argue that the indistinctive moral living of any select group of Christians is evidence not against Christianity but rather against the assumption that these particular individuals are genuine disciples of Jesus. (You know Chesterton’s old saying: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It’s been found difficult and left untried.)
How about Hortatory?
Now let’s wrap this up. Consider the opening statement from this old DC Talk song “What if I Stumble“. According to the statement:
“The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
Does DC Talk really intend here to make a formal claim about what makes most atheists be atheists? Perhaps. But I think there is a more plausible way to interpret statements like this if we switch to the genre of hortatory, a mode of speech that seeks to inculcate some particular kind of action in the individuals at which it is directed. If we interpret DC Talk’s claim as hyperbolic hortatory then we can see them attempting to spur Christians on to moral living rather than making a literal description of the source of most unbelief.