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.
i think that the reason a lot of people hate christianity has to do with a combination of fear and guilt. fear that christianity is real and true, combined with the guilt of denying and disobeying moral authority as your pastor mentioned, probably creates a real sense of loathing in most peoples egos.
no matter how much people try, it seems that God and absolute morality are two things which humanity will never be able to escape, despite the strongest efforts of some
You forgot we’re too “political” as if everyone outside the door of a church is not registered to vote. Personally, I like it when that argument is raised. you know the one, “Don’t legislate your morality on me!” I politely respond, “Sir, would you prefer that I legislate my IMmorality on you instead?”
In all seriousness, I’d love it if this topic were the subject of your next book. Heck, I’ll write the preface for you!
Jim, maybe it’s not so much that people are angry at Christians or think Christianity is bad. Maybe it’s rather an attempt to stop cultural imperalism. (Whether this is necessary or effective are matters open to discussion). It is a fact that we live in a culture of religious pluralism. IMO, the trappings of Christian culture–especially white, Protestant Christian culture–are inordinately dominant.
In reality, I don’t think that Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu students or faculty at my state university would be offended by someone like me saying “Merry Christmas” to them. And I think that to the extent there is a problem of cultural ignorance and insensitivity, this is better addressed by more awareness of other faiths, cultures, and their holy days than by saying something neutral like “Happy Holidays” (when you don’t even know what the other holidays are!). And this shouldn’t just happen in December. Hanukkah is so much less important in Judaism than, say, Yom Kippur. Ramadan, of course, moves around.
As I see it, it matters more whether a state university has “Winter Break” instead of “Christmas Break” than that individuals be hesitant to say “Merry Christmas”. My own state university, for instance, is not a Christian institution and serves a very diverse student body, in the midst of a very diverse city. It is just plain silly, IMO, for the school to give special treatment to one culture’s religious holidays than another’s. Why not have a Ramadan break if we’re going to have a Christmas break?
My general impression having been at a state university for a few years now is that Christians in the U.S. are not justified in being so defensive about perceived attacks from secular or pluralistic contemporary culture. It’s better to love our neighbors by seeking mutual understanding than it is to entrench ourselves in our own cultural traditions in a way that cultivates blindness to others’. Celebrating Christmas on Dec 25 isn’t even a universal Christan practice, let alone is it a command from our Lord that keeps us distinct from the pagans in the way that Passover or Yom Kippur were for the ancient Israelites.
I appreciate what the others have added to the dialogue. I also like what Jim has pointed out by bringing in Muhammad and Moses. It is easy to jump to the conclusion of moral authority as the offensive aspect of Christianity, but I believe that it goes much further. We can easily keep Muhammad and Moses is the categories of prophet or even teacher, but the recorded Christ must be in one of two classes. Either a lunatic or God incarnate. It is his death and resurrection that either brings people to their knees in humble obedience or causes them in their pride to dig their heads further into the sand. I believe people realize that it either requires their life, or their joy. It is far easier to trade a little joy for cynicism than a little life for truth and joy.
I’ve been involved in some debate and good discussion recently with non-Christians, and I think the loudest (or most focused-on by the media) among us certainly bring a lot of ridicule on us all.
Pat and I initially thought the answer would be something more spiritual, since Jesus claims himself to be the pivotal character in history — a rock that makes people either stumble or be crushed. No other character in history with whom I am familiar makes such a bold claim about himself. Something about His spirit colliding with ours demands a strong response, perhaps. (That said, I am currently amazed with the people in my recent discussion’s ability to pick and choose which of Jesus’s words they want to believe and then still claim he is a good guy, though they feel liberty to ridicule any who follow him as Lord.)
While I think our initial response certainly holds a lot of weight, I would be curious whether other places in the world have the same response to Christians. Perhaps Christians here receive more contempt simply because we are so prevalent. If those claiming to be Christian were a small minority, perhaps no one would pay them any mind. If we weren’t so linked to the dominant culture (as Scott pointed out) perhaps we would not be brought up so quickly in discussions about what is wrong with America. Maybe this would have nothing to do with it. Has anyone else had significant experience in a non-Christian culture who could shed some light here?
I agree that sometimes as Christians we do get pushy. Although I myself have never tried to share my faith with anyone I have seen others do it and they will sometimes get adimit about it and scare the person away. I think if those who share their testimonies with others and the things that God did for them in their lives did not get so high on their soup boxes then I think there wouldn’t be as many offended people. We need to share our faith and not sit on our hunches this world is plummeting and fast its time we stand up and show them the way out. We need to do it with strategy and tactic. I think it needs to start with our government. And we can start by electing somebody who will flip our country around for the good. So lets get out there and vote this November. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!