This past holiday season saw more stories of communities using “holiday trees” instead of Christmas trees and retailers insisting that their employees not say “Merry Christmas” to customers, out of a concern not to offend people. Some folks are disturbed by Christianity—much more so, it seems, than by the other major theistic traditions of Judaism and Islam. So far I haven’t heard anyone complain about public use of the phrase “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Ramadan.”
The last few years have also seen a marked upsurge in Christian-bashing, as bloggers and pop culture figures have become more brazen in their criticisms and lampooning of Christianity. You don’t have to listen or read very long to see that this is not just a matter of intellectual dissent but visceral disgust. The fact is—increasingly it appears—many people find Christianity offensive. Why is this so?
Let’s consider some possibilities. Perhaps it is because Christian ideas and values are dangerous. Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other new atheists think so, based on their observations that many terrible things have been done by religious people, including Christians. They seem to overlook the myriad social goods that Christians have contributed throughout history and that Judeo-Christian values are foundational to the very concept of human rights (Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Justice is the latest scholarly demonstration of this fact). The argument of Hitchens, et al. pivots on abuses of Christian teachings, not the doctrines themselves. A crucial but common mistake. Of course, notwithstanding all of this, the perception that Christian ideas are dangerous might still explain, in part, some people’s offense.
Another possibility is that people are offended by how pushy and aggressive some Christians are when it comes to their beliefs This can be very annoying, as people are made to feel more like marketing target than persons. This is actually one of my own pet peeves about the evangelical world. But lots of non-Christians in our society are pushy with their beliefs as well. Plenty of professors and entertainers are aggressive worldview proselytizers. Every marketer pushes her products. Every lobbyist presses her agenda. Even scientists and auto mechanics proselytize others to win converts. Evangelistic Christians might be more of a nuisance to some people than these other zealots, but, again, this doesn’t seem to explain the degree of offense that so many people feel in regards to Christianity and its adherents. (In fact, renowned illusionist and atheist Penn Gillette regards such evangelistic fervor as admirable. Check out a remarkable anecdote here.)
Thirdly, people might be offended by Christianity because they perceive it as obviously false, a blatant flouting of reason. This seems to be what bugs Bill Maher in his controversial documentary Religulous as well as the creators of The God Who Wasn’t There. But, again, this doesn’t quite explain the level of disdain and even hatred that some people display towards Christianity and Christians. When someone is as badly deluded as Christians are, according to these critics, the proper emotional response is not hatred but pity. I don’t see a lot of pity on the part of the new atheists and anti-Christian critics.
My pastor recently suggested that the primary offending element is the suggestion, implicit in Christian theology, that there is a moral authority to which one is accountable. There’s probably some truth to this. In our culture the idea that one must live according to someone else’s standard, even if that Someone is God himself, is offensive to some people. The problem with this answer is that it can’t explain why Christianity appears to offend people more than other theistic traditions, most notably Judaism and Islam. Mention Moses or Mohammed with approval in a public context—or even quote either of them as an authority on some issue—and no one raises an eyebrow. People may disagree with you, but they won’t try to censure you or get you fired. But if you bring Jesus Christ into the conversation or—if you have the temerity—affirm his moral authority on an issue, then, well, look out.
So what is it about Jesus Christ that is so offensive (if, indeed, it is not just his followers but Jesus himself who bugs folks so much)? I will address this question in my next post but, in the meantime, I’d be happy to hear your own thoughts—in response to this question or anything else I’ve said.