19 Apr (#25) Freeloading Atheists and the Dignity of Christianity
Across our phone surveys and focus groups for the project Christians Might Be Crazy, we often heard that Christianity is “unprogressive” and even “repressive.” Instead of supporting the ideals of the future it defends prejudices of the past. Nearly a third (29%) of our survey participants agreed that Christians don’t believe all people are created equal.
This objection is a conversation stopper. Who wants to wave the flag for inequality? What decent human being sets out to oppose civil rights? But when people say Christians are on the wrong side of history, I have to interrupt. These accusers are on the wrong side of the facts.
The equality of all human beings is a biblical idea that has made a powerful impact far beyond the walls of church. It has touched societies around the globe and been adopted even by our most vocal opponents.
Scholar Nancy Pearcey points out that none other than the eminent atheist Friedrich Nietzsche gave Christianity credit for the concept of equality. In The Will to Power, he wrote, “Another Christian concept… has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity: the concept of the ‘equality of souls before God.’ This concept furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.” Pearcey cites the postmodernist Richard Rorty as another radical atheist who admits that “the idea of universal human rights was a completely novel concept in history, resting on the biblical teaching ‘that all human beings are created in the image of God.’” Pearcey comments: “Rorty admits that atheists like himself have no basis for human rights within their own worldview. He calls himself a ‘freeloading atheist’ because he is fully aware that he is borrowing the idea of rights and human dignity from the Christian heritage.”1
Whether others acknowledge it or not, this basic Christian belief has driven the fight for equal rights throughout history. Pearcey maintains that the success of many secular movements advocating equality today derives from “a beauty and an appeal that comes from their origin in a biblical worldview.” Arguments are ripped from their Christian context, redefined, and distorted, but they retain a measure of their original power.2
She says, “The only reason that movements for equality are making headway today is that they borrow their best lines from Christianity.”3
Even as our neighbors and friends join together to right wrongs like human trafficking for sexual slavery, we should not let others hijack our leading role in human rights. Christians are not tagalongs or freeloaders. We have been at the forefront of battles for racial, legal, social, economic, educational, and gender equality throughout history and across societies.
Both the Old and New Testament put these assumptions into practice by affirming equality in practical ways. Here are a few examples of the dignity the Bible brings to humanity:
- “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.” (Lev. 19:15 NIV)
- “Showing partiality is never good.” (Prov. 28:21 NLT)
- “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11 ESV)
- “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” (James 2:1)
he right to judge them. Over and over the teacher threw around the word equality to describe same-sex marriage adding that anyone who disagreed was unloving. This perspective was embedded in the curriculum my friend’s daughter was to learn and affirm, which to this Christian single mom felt more like indoctrination than education.
The conversation in the car that particular day was triggered by a bumper sticker in the next lane that said, “I believe in marriage equality,” a popular slogan where I live. It sends an unsubtle message that opponents of same-sex marriage are in fact advocates of inequality.
Across our phone surveys and focus groups we often heard that Christianity is “unprogressive” and even “repressive.” Instead of supporting the ideals of the future it defends prejudices of the past. Nearly a third (29%) of our survey participants agreed that Christians don’t believe all people are created equal. They perceive this bias as both a historical pattern and a present reality. One man explained, “Since its very conception, people have never been equal in Christianity according to the way it’s been preached. It’s never been about equality. It’s community versus community. To put it in broad terms, the haves and have nots. You don’t belong to my community; therefore, you are lesser than I am.” People spoke out against Christian prejudice toward women, racial minorities, and anyone who does not self- identify as a committed heterosexual. A man in Austin summed up what many thought: “The Christian church has consistently been on the wrong side of history in terms of things like civil rights.”
THE ORIGIN OF EQUALITY
The idea of equality did not pop into existence like a cartoon thought bubble. History shows where equality as a value and way of life did or did not emerge. And a pair of surprising forces have been no friends of equality. World religions did not come up with the idea of equal rights. Nor did it originate in a secular, non-religious outlook.
No major faith apart from Christianity mandates a deep commitment to the equality of all people. In every other religion certain individuals and classes rank higher than others on a ladder of spiritual attainment. They are more enlightened, more holy, further along in paying their karmic debt, closer to the divine by virtue of their good works, and so on. And the result can be horrific inequities. In Hindu culture, for example, the caste system made untold masses unequal and untouchable. In Muslim culture, sharia law gives women and outsiders nothing resembling the rights and privileges of the male faithful. Eric Metaxas, author of Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, sums it up this way in an email interview I conducted with him for this project:
In India, the concept of caste is a perfect example of how some cultures today believe and act upon the belief that some human beings are inherently better than other human beings. In many Muslim countries today, a Jew or Christian is viewed as subhuman, and they are routinely called “monkeys and pigs” and thought to be fit for extermination or slavery.
Subjection breeds ignorance and pain. When you ask yourself, “Do the religions of the world contribute to equality?” the honest answer is no.
The idea of equality of all people likewise did not originate in a non- religious belief system. The foundation of a dominant secular worldview— evolution—leads to the conclusion that some are more fit than others. Some deserve to be winners, and losers deserve to die. And by placing animals and human beings on a continuum of development, evolution has given rise to racist views that some individuals, peoples, and races are more advanced than others. In our debate on ABC Nightline, Deepak Chopra, for example, referred to me and some other people as “primitive.” Charles Darwin himself wrote, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised [sic] races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”1
Taken to its logical end, an unadulterated evolutionary view of humanity cannot lead to equality.
Those who say Christians are haters and bigots are on the wrong side of the facts because the concept of equality, as generally understood today— though sometimes misappropriated—actually originated and advanced in Christianity. Human religions and philosophies have never seen equality as an idea worth espousing, but the equality of all people has been essential to our faith since the very beginning. The Bible teaches that everyone equally bears the image and likeness of God in creation (Gen. 1:26–28). As a result, we share an equal dignity as uniquely created beings. We have equally fallen into sin (Rom. 3:23). And we are equally forgiven and saved by Jesus Christ when we come to Him in faith (Rom. 3:21–25).
- Nancy Pearcey, “Sexual Identity in a Secular Age.”