Has Christianity Done More Harm Than Good?

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To be sure, Christians and the church have been guilty of harm and evil in the past. But neither should we forget the good that Christians and the church, driven by faith, have accomplished.

There is a popular narrative that religion in general and Christianity in particular have done more harm than good for human society. This narrative is often espoused by militant atheists trying to show why the world would be better off without religion. It is a debatable claim disputed even by some thoughtful atheists as evidenced in Bruce Sheiman’s book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion than without It (2009).

So has Christianity done more harm than good? It’s impossible to answer this with any precision. It is not always easy, for starters, to determine if Christianity and not some other factor is the cause or source of a specific harm. It is not easy to measure harm, either, especially if we intend to count harms beyond physical harm, such as emotional, social, or even spiritual harm. All these difficulties apply equally to trying to measure “good.”

If we think more deeply, we also run into the conundrum of unintended consequences. What if something good in the short term turned out to cause unintended harm in the long run? How do you tally that? Is it a tie?

Furthermore, we do not choose our beliefs based simply on how good or useful they are. Truthfulness is as important a criterion as goodness. Neither of those is exclusive to the other.

To be sure, Christians and the church have been guilty of harm and evil in the past. We cannot ignore that. But neither should we forget the good that Christians and the church, driven by faith, have accomplished.

For example, there were widespread practices of abortion, infanticide, child abandonment and gladiatorial fight-to-the-death shows in the ancient Roman Empire. It was Christianity that condemned and resisted those practices, from boycotting gladiatorial games to rescuing abandoned children. The early Christians did so because they believed in the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God.

This same regard for human life coupled with love for neighbor also drove Christians to care for those who are sick and poor. The ecumenical Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 directed bishops to establish hospices in every city with a cathedral. These hospices not only nursed and healed sick people but also provided shelter for pilgrims and poor people. From these eventually developed the Christian hospitals dedicated to healing—the prototypes of our modern-day medical hospitals.

Our modern Western universities trace their roots back to medieval Christian monasteries. Our state-supported schools providing education for all children can be traced back to Germany and the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. In China, Christian missionaries led the crusade to abolish the cruel custom of binding women’s feet, a practice eventually banned in 1912. You can read many more examples of the good that historic Christianity has done in books such as How Christianity Changed the World (2004) and What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (2005).

Such good definitely enhances Christianity’s witness to the gospel’s truth. Good fruits prove a good tree. But our Christian witness cannot rest on past glory. The question now is, “Is Christianity doing more good than harm today?” Only the Christians of this generation can answer that by our obedience in word and deed, expressing God’s love and justice for the common good.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (2)


       Thank you Shiao, for your take in regard to harm and good done by the Christian church.  I think you may be right as to your assessment.  The church has done much good, while at the same time doing much harm.  I don’t know how you can weigh the two against each other without revealing a bias.  I think it is much more than atheists who might suggest that the world would be better off without religion or Christianity.
      But face it.  The Christian church has been no better than any other group in doing good.  There are many groups and have been throughout history that have promoted the well being of others.  Take, for instance, the Canadian and U.S. governments who offer much foreign aid to other countries or welfare to its own citizens , the Red Cross - an emergency response organization, or the Live Aid concerts of the 80's that raised some 200 million dollars for famine in Ethiopia, or the Boy and Girl Scouts in many countries. The list of ‘do good’ organizations apart from Christianity is very lengthy.  So the church does not have a corner on doing good or harm.  And the church does not stand head and shoulders above anyone else.
       I think the bad reputation that the church is sometimes given is due to the church purporting to taking the moral high ground above all others.  And the premise for this is the transformative work of Christ in an individual’s life, as well as the life of the church.  And so the Christian church is perceived by outsiders as taking to the soap box to preach not only its message of salvation but a message of condemnation for those who don’t join the ranks of Christianity.  The list is long, even by our denomination, of the behaviors that are condemnatory toward non Christians.  So if the Christian church is no better than anyone else in doing good and has also done its share of harm, then what sets the church apart?  If a good tree is known by its fruits, then what proves the Christian church to be a good tree or that Christianity makes any difference?  That essentially, Shiao, seems to be the question you are asking your reader at the end of this article.  Blessings to you.

SIDEBAR: If I was an atheist or an agnostic (I am neither. I accept the ecumenical creeds and CRC catechisms as TRUTH.) I would support Prostetant Christianity because it is the only religion/institution in history the world that has done anything to raise the fiscal and social status of working class people.

The only exception being some very small tribes and communes.  Good intentions only last for so long . . . even in the Catholic Church. Isn't that the most important concept of Calvin's Institutes?  God is running the show and all humans are corrupt, define "corruption" as you will.