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.