Some great minds have devoted countless tomes to theodicy, the explanation of how God permits the existence of evil – and some mediocre minds have used such laxity as a target for attacks on faith.
Encapsulating that whole complex argument in a snappy epigram would seem impossible, and so it is.
But Evelyn Waugh made a good fist of it.
A friend of his, Nancy Mitford I believe, remarked that for a Catholic he was a nasty bit of work. “You have no idea,” replied Waugh, “how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.”
This short sentence invalidates in one fell swoop all the feeble attacks on Christianity launched by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett or Wolpert – or by Hume and other Enlightenment figures before them. They point out all the evil people perpetrated during the Christian centuries and put smug QED smiles on their faces.
Crusades, religious wars, the pyres of the Inquisition are all waved about like so many banners of hateful atheism. Most critics, especially the more strident ones, don’t take the trouble to keep up with the current (or any other) scholarship of such historical events, but that in no way constrains their vituperation.
I could go into historical references at this point, stating, for example, that there were very few properly religious wars in Europe, although there were many like the Thirty Years’ War, where secular appetites were camouflaged with religious slogans.
Or that the Holy Inquisition had no jurisdiction to execute anyone – all it could do was confirm heresy and pass the case on to the secular authorities. Or that in some 400 years of its existence the Inquisition’s rulings led to about 10,000 executions, which score the atheist Soviets could comfortably better in a quiet day.
Or that the crusades were a defensive response to several centuries of incessant Islamic aggression that had almost put paid to Christendom.
However, feeling particularly magnanimous today, I’m willing to accept that people killed during the Christian centuries.
But I’d demand reciprocity from the haters of Christianity: they too should accept the demonstrable fact that people also killed during the pre-Christian centuries, as they did in the pre-pre-Christian centuries. (The earliest sites of human habitation show remnants of numerous busted skulls.)
And, though it pains me to have to state the blindingly obvious, people even killed, and continue to do so, during the enlightened post-Christian centuries, after the West had freed itself from the intolerable bondage of its strangulating religion and begun to live according to high reason and even higher morality.
In fact, more people were killed in the first wholly atheist century, the twentieth, than in all the other centuries of recorded history combined. Yet I’m not even going to insist on a causative relationship between atheism and mass murder on that scale, even though I believe it exists.
My mood being as magnanimous as I claim, all I’m going to say is that, though things like cultures, politics, religions, aesthetics and morality are historically and geographically variable, people’s propensity to commit murder and other hideous acts is constant and universal.
Putting this undeniable fact in the context of comparative creeds, both religious and secular, is a hard task. Anyone undertaking it would have to be able to argue compellingly that this or that creed is better or worse at explaining this murderous proclivity, and more or less effective at containing it.
Christianity explains the evil in human nature by original sin, which leaves all of us in need of redemption. Christ’s death on the cross offered precisely that, while leaving people’s will free to accept or reject it.
Accepting Christ ipso facto entails accepting his ethics. Christ took the morality of Judaism and added some embellishments to found a religion whose God doesn’t just teach love but is love.
Love of not only one’s neighbour but indeed of one’s enemy, charity as the highest virtue, equality of all before God (and, eventually, the law), the transcendent value and dignity of every individual regardless of his status in life – these are the signposts of Christian morality.
Sorry, I left out a critical word: they are the signposts of only Christian morality. None of these concepts would have been intelligible to the pre-Christian world, and you won’t find even a hint of them in the works of the greatest pre-Christian moral thinkers, such as Plato or Aristotle.
Nor do they form a significant part of Islam, what with the Koran containing at least 300 verses that prescribe not loving one’s enemies but slaughtering them wherever they could be found, with the concept of an enemy defined broadly, to include apostates, Jews, Christians and anyone deemed insufficiently reverential to Mohammad.
As to the post-Christian, atheist modernity, it has thrown up veritable death cults of either the national or international variety, where the massacre of infidels is specifically mandated in every founding document. Hence at least the 300 million victims of political democide in the twentieth century alone.
Having accepted mournfully that people are sinners capable of killing one another en masse, and that no religious or secular creed will ever change human nature so thoroughly as to eliminate evil, we must decide which of them is best suited to mitigating it.
It wouldn’t stretch anyone’s credulity to state that Christians do evil in spite of their beliefs, while, say, socialists of either red or brown hue do it because of theirs. The gospel exudes the balm of love, while the founding documents of socialism have blood dripping off every word.
This gets us back to Waugh’s witticism and its intrinsic truth. His faith didn’t prevent him from being nasty, but, had he not had it, he would have been nastier still.
So would the period demarcated by Christendom have been nastier if it hadn’t been Christendom, though it’s hard to say how much nastier. While it may be difficult to establish exactly the number of people killed in this or that ancient war, calculating the number of people saved by this or that hospital, charity or soup kitchen is well nigh impossible.
However, just as it’s easy to believe that many, though alas not all, potential killers were restrained by the religion of love and the authority of the church preaching it, it stands to reason that those institutions saved thousands, possibly millions.
And it’s a matter not of faith but of fact that already the earliest centuries of Christianity introduced charitable institutions that had never existed before.
Thousands upon thousands of hospitals owed their existence to heroic monks and nuns who risked their lives ministering to patients suffering from deadly contagions, such as leprosy or cholera.
Thousands upon thousands of orphans, widows, the old, poor, hungry and infirm received solace and tangible help that, had Jesus never walked the earth, they wouldn’t have received.
For in those days Christians still practised what Jesus preached – not all of them, to be sure, perhaps not even most of them. But enough to make a vital difference. (Even today, Christians are disproportionately represented among volunteers at hospitals, hospices and charities.)
That was the beginning of history’s greatest civilisation that has since been almost eradicated. However, it has left a legacy that sustains the diminishing modicum of civility we still have left.
Many people invoking fundamentals we take for granted, such as human rights, civil liberties, equality before the law, social provisions and so on may not be aware that, without Christianity, none of these would have existed.
Like Evelyn Waugh, we too are a nasty lot. But we’d be – and would have been – much nastier still if for some 1,500 years our ancestors hadn’t had their lives guided by Christian doctrine, with love at its core.