Great evil has been done in the name of Christ. This charge, a frequent objection to historic Christianity raised especially by the new atheist authors,1 typifies discussions of such historical events as the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Salem Witch trials. While characterizing historic Christianity as harsh and violent, they also insist that atheism, by contrast, is a rational and peaceful belief system.
For example, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins asserts that “individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism.” However, “religious wars really are fought in the name of religion, and they have been horribly frequent in history.”2
In briefly responding to this provocative topic, I offer four points for consideration:
1. The new atheists exaggerate the amount of evil done in the name of Christ. For example, the Crusades, which were military campaigns carried on by Western Christian forces against invading Islamic armies from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, were for the most part defensive engagements (implementation of Christian “Just War” theory). And though the Inquisitions and Salem Witch trials were morally regrettable events that involved unfortunate violence, the number of people killed during these episodes is much lower than one might think. Consider the estimate of Christian author Dinesh D’Souza:
“Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler and Mao in the space of a few decades.”3
2. The new atheists often sidestep or minimize the incredible amount of evil perpetrated by atheistic totalitarian regimes in the last century. Contrary to Dawkins, the multiple tens of millions (some estimates are as high as 100 million) of people systematically murdered by Soviet and Chinese Communist forces in the twentieth century were killed not merely by a few private leaders who happened to be atheists. No. These mass murders were carried out by a Marxist ideology that held atheism as one of its central components. Communism (or Dialectical Materialism) is a naturalistic and atheistic ideology by its very nature. Atheists may claim that these dictators were not representing true atheism, but without God objective human dignity, value, and purpose seem morally arbitrary and unjustified. So couldn’t Stalin and Mao reasonably argue that their regime’s murderous acts were consistent with their materialistic, atheistic philosophy?
3. Christians should candidly acknowledge that some real evil was done in the name of Christ when Christian leaders enjoyed political ascendancy. These acts were morally reprehensible and damaging to people’s confidence in the faith’s message of truth. Yet Christians can persuasively argue that these evils were objectively wrong according to the principles of the Christian worldview. Unlike the atheists who are unable to justify objective morality, believers can contend that these crimes demonstrated the antithesis of Jesus Christ’s historical teaching found in the Gospels. Further, Christians can also point out that evil things done in the name of Christ by genuinely misguided followers don’t logically invalidate the objective truth-claims of Christianity.4 The gross hypocrisy of some who identify with the name of Christ does not overturn the truth of Jesus’ historical resurrection from the grave.
4. Those who blame historic Christianity for its so-called dark side should also appreciate the faith for its amazingly positive contributions to the world. The Christian worldview5 has been the catalyst behind most of the great advancements of Western civilization. Christianity’s view of human beings made in the image of God led to the founding of Europe’s great university system and also stimulated the growth of the arts. The historic Christian faith motivated advancements in political liberty, economics, the sanctity of human life, and social justice. And Christianity’s view of creation supported the launch of modern science. When authentically embraced and lived out, the Christian world-and-life view produces practical, beneficial results for both citizens and civilizations.
Careful examination of the best arguments for, and the richest contributions of, both Christian theism and naturalistic atheism allow a person to not only evaluate the “deaths” question, but more. It places people in a stronger position to test and see which belief system is the most reasonable, viable, workable, and livable.