Learning from an atheist

Apologetics series


Many atheists have alleged that great harm has been done by religion, christianity in particular. Even if they have overstated their case, we can, and must, still learn from their criticisms. And if the analysis is fair, we have all the more reason to listen and repent.

Keith Parsons is a US philosopher and atheist who writes about the philosophy of religion, and actively engages with christian belief via The Internet Infidels website and the Secular Outpost blog. Keith has made his assessments of christianity in two posts on Secular Outpost, and they are worth checking out.

The seven deadly sins of christianity

Parsons assessed The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity back in March, and this was his list:

1) Certainty.

Christians often claim greater certainty for their beliefs than can be justified, Parsons says, and this can lead to poor treatment of those who disagree. I think this is fair comment – after all, faith is required as well as good reasons – but he doesn’t allow for the fact the christians believe our faith is based on a relationship and not just theoretical propositions.

2) Servility.

Institutional christianity has too often servilely supported the rich and powerful, whereas Jesus, as Parsons correctly points out, was always on the side of the downtrodden and poor. The rich and powerful have an interest in maintaining the status quo, i.e. they tend to be conservative whereas Jesus tended to be more radical. Yet somehow the conservatives have managed to convince many christians to join them in preserving an unequal status quo.

3) Dis-enchantment.

Pagans found the numinous and sacred in all sorts of places and things in the world, but christianity removed it to a “distant deity, one that could be approached only through the Church and its appointed sacraments, rites, and ministers.” This is an interesting perspective. Christians must worship the creator, not any creation. But (1) modern western christianity might benefit from seeking and knowing God more deeply, and not necessarily mediated through the church, and (2) while this inevitably strips the world of some of its former magic, we must surely find a different kind of fascination with God’s creation.

4) Sexism.

Parsons rightly points out that the New Testament significantly improved the status of women in the ancient world, but later christianity didn’t always follow through on these teachings. We still have some things to learn here.

5) Theocracy.

Christianity began as “marginalized, outlawed, and sporadically persecuted”, but after 3 centuries became established. Unfortunately, this led to the church often taking on some of the despotic aspects of the Roman Empire, including the crushing of religious dissent and the imposition of christian values on non-believers even until today. I believe this may have implications for issues such as civil gay marriage and public religion.

6) Fanaticism.

Parsons recognises that all ideologies can lead to fanaticism, and he defines a fanatic as someone “who does not shrink from the full implications of his premises, however odious.” But he argues that monotheism is more likely to produce fanatics than other ideologies, and to discriminate against and oppose other viewpoints. It is surely a challenge to us to maintain commitment and enthusiasm without being obnoxious.

7) Anti-Judaism.

“Of all the Church’s sins, this one is the most bizarre. After all, Jesus was a Jew”. Yet from very early days, the church condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, and this persecution continued through the Middle Ages right up to the Holocaust.

The good stuff

Then just a couple of days ago, Keith evened the score with an assessment of seven things that christianity has got right.

1) Everybody matters.

Parsons says: “In the ancient world in general, the attitude seemed to be that a few people mattered a lot and others were pretty much insignificant and disposable” and the pre-eminent thinker Aristotle was an elitist. But he recognises that “Jesus always sided with the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful” and he “consistently emphasized that even “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45) are owed our compassion, and should be fed, clothed, and given shelter when they need it.” If we did this better and more consistently, we would be much better witnesses to him.

2. Nothing is worth the sacrifice of your personal integrity.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) No worldly goods are worth the sacrifice of our character – or, I would add, our zeal for God. But much of our culture in the west has been built on oppression of one form or the other.

3. Money madness is dangerous.

“And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 19:24). “Obsession with money is bad, … it diminishes life, warps character, and poisons our interactions with others.” But in our comfortable western culture it is so easy to seek gain before God.

4. “Good” people are often the most odious.

Jesus often criticised the religious people of his day because they kept the letter of the law and didn’t really show justice and compassion. Parsons sees parallel examples today. Let us do our very best to avoid being sanctimonious or pharisaical, putting barriers between us and the people we should be serving, and sharing the good news with.

5. There are higher obligations than human law.

Christians have always taught a balance of respect for the law and civil disobedience when an issue of principle is at stake, as exemplified in Martin Luther King. Standing with the disadvantaged may require standing against our culture, and even engaging in civil disobedience.

6. Retribution is an essential aspect of justice.

This is an intriguing one. At first I was unhappy with this, but Parsons argues that most of us believe that truly evil people should face justice and “get what they deserve”, though he rightly adds that justice should not be vindictive and should be balanced with mercy. If we criticise those who disagree with us, let us be sure to do it with love that can be seen and recognised. And if we support “law and order”, let it be with compassion and forgiveness.

7. Redemption is possible.

Christianity is based on two principles – that we all have failed morally, and we all can be redeemed. This should keep us from being too judgmental – there but for the grace of God go I! – and help us always to look for the good, or the potential, in others.


1. I find that I generally agree with Parsons, even though we come from very different viewpoints. I think he has been extremely fair, and should be respected for this. I may have chosen some different positives and negatives, but I can’t argue with much of what he says.

2. I find it interesting that most of his positives are based solidly on the teachings of Jesus, while most of his negatives reflect the church ignoring the teachings of Jesus. There is a clear lesson in this for christians. Non-believers often see the good in Jesus and the bad in his followers. If we want to reverse the decline in christianity in western countries, we need to follow Jesus more closely, teach his teachings, point to him, and lift our game.

Too often we allow unloving and uncaring behaviour to grow to be the norm in our churches. We blame people for their unbelief and unchristian behaviour, but Peter said judgment starts with the people of God (1 Peter 4:17). We act unlovingly, when Jesus told us to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and said people will know we follow him by our love (John 13:35).

3. Several of Parson’s criticisms are aimed at religion that supports the state and the status quo. Christianity, especially in the US, has too often become subservient to patriotism or capitalism or comfort and privilege. This is not the way of Jesus!

4. Overall, I think christianity as a belief emerges from his analysis looking pretty good. Of course this doesn’t make it necessarily true – he and I obviously differ on that point – but he presents another strong case against those who say christianity is been unmitigated evil. Religion (that is, the things people do in the name of God) may indeed poison everything, but following Jesus produces much good.

Photo Credit: thisisbossi via Compfight cc.

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  1. It seems to me your post could be the start of a very interesting dialog with Mr. Parsons. I think he would appreciate and benefit from a similar, balanced analysis of atheism. I very much believe that just as rational discourse leads to truth, if it is pursued consistently over time, like following a river to its source we find its springhead to be God.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! The teachings of Jesus and his nature as perhaps the purist soul to incarnate are full of love, joy, wisdom, and goodness.
    The teachings of many religious organizations are seriously flawed and often full of hate and lust after power and money. MEN have taken the words of our loving savior and used them to purport their own beliefs, which generally speaking, are about giving money to the church. The salaries of the better-known preachers, in the mega churches, not to mention their life styles, is patently obscene.

  3. Hi guys, thanks for your thoughts. I think I would find a dialogue with Keith Parsons would be extremely challenging, but I think I would also enjoy it. It is sad that we have to agree ken that organised religion (at its worst, at any rate) can do a lot of harm.

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