Believers Behaving Badly

When people leave the Christian faith, one of the factors that is sometimes cited is the behavior of believers. There are a range of experiences that might lead to this: Perhaps someone was a first-hand witness to abusive individuals and/or communities, or maybe after a long period of involvement and examination they came to the conclusion that there wasn’t anything supernatural going on within Christianity at all. Are these experiences good reasons to question the faith? Even though they shouldn’t be decisive, I think they can provide some evidence that Christianity is false – a clue that the path one has chosen is wrong.

Let’s first consider what’s being claimed here. According to believers, Christians are connected to the Holy Spirit – a divine person actively working to transform their lives. They are “new creations”, and sin no longer has the same dominion over them that it once did. If we take these doctrinal claims seriously, it seems plausible to expect that Christians (on average) should be more moral than non-believers, or at the very least experience greater moral growth relative to a particular starting point than skeptics. But does the evidence bear this out? It certainly doesn’t seem like it to me.

“Ahh” the Christian might say, “There’s a ready answer to your worries – the people you’re considering probably aren’t real Christians.” It’s of course logically possible that this is true, but I don’t see any reason to take such a pre-packaged reply too seriously. It can (and is) used by countless religions and cults to explain away the inconsistent behavior of their adherents. In other words, dividing a group into true believers vs false professors can be a profoundly effective defense mechanism that keeps people from questioning the truth of their beliefs. Any time someone questions the transformative power of your religion with data or experience, just blame it on false professors. Rinse and repeat.

There’s also an interesting inconsistency to be found here too. If a Muslim started to get the sense that there was nothing supernatural/life-changing about their religion, many Christians would encourage that person to question their beliefs on that basis. However, when other Christians question their faith for similar reasons, they are often shut down. What a ridiculous double standard. Why does this happen? Because many of the faithful acknowledge that such perceptions can count as evidence against the truth of certain religious claims, but don’t want to be fair and apply that logic to their own beliefs. Heads I win, Tails you lose.

All of this to say, if Christians can view their experience with the church as a piece of evidence that Christianity is true, then I don’t see anything wrong with skeptics viewing their experience with the church as a piece of evidence that Christianity is false. As for me, not only did I not see anything that couldn’t be explained by basic human psychology in my many years of involvement across multiple churches, but I didn’t see anything that different about Christians than anyone else. This includes getting to know the most devout ones (ie church leaders) very well. I’m sure many people share that experience, which isn’t surprising at all. It turns out that people are pretty much the same everywhere you go, whether they make elaborate supernatural claims or not. Go figure.