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Could Christianity be good for society even if it’s not true?

For those who, like Richard Dawkins, Tom Holland, or Douglas Murray, appreciate the social benefits of Christian thought, but are hesitant to embrace the full message of the Bible, I encourage you to delve deeper into the faith.

EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVES AUTOR 205/Andy_Bannister 10 DE JUNIO DE 2024 16:45 h
Photo: [link]Louis Moncouyoux[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

In recent weeks, a growing number of public intellectuals have sparked a fascinating debate: is Christianity beneficial for society even if it's not true?

This thought-provoking question has been highlighted by several high-profile figures including recognised ‘horseman of new atheism’ Richard Dawkins, who in a recent interview stated the importance of Christianity's foundational role in promoting human rights, dignity, and free speech, despite remaining skeptical about its truth claims.


Prominent atheists embrace Christianity's social benefits

One of the most surprising turns in this discussion comes from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim-turned-atheist and outspoken critic of religion. Recently, Ali announced her conversion to Christianity, emphasising its positive contributions to society and embracing its theological assertions. She particularly highlighted that Christianity supports values like human rights and dignity in ways that atheism does not, drawing an interesting and poignant comparison for her regular audience and listeners.

Similarly, Douglas Murray, a well-known journalist and committed atheist, now identifies as a "Christian atheist." Murray acknowledges Christianity's significant role in shaping Western civilisation, particularly its impact on human rights, yet he remains unconvinced of its divine truth. This paradoxical stance raises intriguing questions about the necessity of belief in God to appreciate Christianity's societal benefits.

Historian Tom Holland is perhaps one of the most recognised Christianity-promoting-spokespeople in this modern arena. Holland’s prominence as an advocate for Christian values and societal benefit has led to many invitations to speak even in debates with Holland sitting on the Christian side (despite not being a full believing Christian himself), and most recently even affording Holland an invitation to speak at the 2024 HTB Christian Leadership Conference.

After what may have felt like years of an uphill battle for Christian believers defending their Christian worldview amidst the discussions of evolution, science and technology, what we’re seeing today marks a significant shift for Christians in such recognised critics new appreciation for the faith’s positive contributions to society. Something which as Ayaan has made clear in her recent personal statements, atheism or other faiths cannot pretend to offer. 


The paradox of appreciating Christian values without faith

And yet there is a significant paradox to be considered here. Can we accept Christianity as a social good and ignore the truth claims at the centre of the faith itself?

You see the paradox faced by intellectuals like Murray and Dawkins is akin to enjoying toast made by leprechauns. While the toast may be delightful, the explanation behind it seems implausible. A lite metaphor I’ll admit, but it illustrates the dilemma of valuing the positive outcomes of Christianity while rejecting its foundational beliefs.

Public intellectuals who appreciate Christianity's societal contributions but dismiss its truth may find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. This internal conflict, reminiscent of George Orwell's concept of "doublethink" in his novel 1984, involves holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. It's a challenging position, as it necessitates valuing the moral and ethical benefits derived from a faith one fundamentally disbelieves.


The integral connection between Christian beliefs and societal benefits

As Christians we would argue that the societal goods attributed to Christianity are not mere byproducts, but are deeply rooted in the core teachings of the faith.

The belief that humans are created in the image of God and that Jesus's sacrifice for all of humanity on the cross demonstrates inherent human value, are central to Christian doctrine, the outworking of which can be traced to many of our present day desires for dignity, pursuits and freedoms.

Galatians 3 asserts that ‘ [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.’ And we can trace major social histories including the abolition of slavery, the rise of scientific pursuit and equal human rights to this and many other passages of the Bible.

The difference kicks in when as Christians we also recognise that the goodness of the Christian message is manifest through the lives of believers by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling in Christians and reshaping their ‘fallen’ humanity with a new redemptive Christ-like character. This truth also recognises the fallenness of all humanity and where we fall short of making amends and living the good, just lives we’d so readily desire.

Removing these foundational beliefs undermines the very basis for the values of human rights, dignity, and free speech that some atheists admire.

For those who, like Dawkins, Holland, or Murray, appreciate the social benefits of Christian thought, but are hesitant to embrace the full message of the Bible, I encourage you to delve deeper into the faith. You may be reading this feeling in part torn between the idea of intellectual understanding and spiritual appreciation, however if this is you, why not consider engaging with prominent Christian thinkers, including former atheists such as C.S. Lewis or Holly Ordway, who can offer more nuanced understandings of Christianity.

Lewis’ works particularly explore the rational and moral foundations of the faith, whilst addressing intellectual questions and demonstrating the coherence and confidence to found in Christian teachings. This exploration can help reconcile the appreciation of Christian-derived societal benefits with any doubts about the faith's truth.


Integrating belief and benefits

The ongoing dialogue among public intellectuals highlights a critical examination of Christianity's role in society. While some appreciate its contributions to human rights and dignity without subscribing to its truth claims, this stance presents a complex and often contradictory position. Embracing both the ethical goods and the foundational beliefs of Christianity offers a more integrated and coherent approach, inviting a reconsideration of the faith's broader implications.

Andy Bannister, author, international speaker and the Director of Solas, in Scotland.


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