A poll conducted on the Q&A TV program in 2012 asked the question “Does religious faith make the world a better place?” Seventy-six percent of the 20,000 respondents said “no”.
Why do many Australians think that Christianity is bad for the world?
In this conversation we confront the very worst of Christianity - including clergy child abuse, misogyny and 'out-group hostility' - and make some surprising discoveries. An eye-opening and wide-ranging conversation confronting one of the big questions for modern Australia.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and worked for The Age newspaper for 32 years, the last 12 as Religion Editor. He continues to write for the media on faith and politics, as well as on classical music and opera.
Join us as we ask Barney Zwartz some bigger questions.
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Bigger questions asked in the conversation
So Barney. You worked in a variety of roles at The Age for over 30 years. What happened when you applied for the Religion editor job?
Now is it true that you have a “degree” from a university in Liberia?
How much do you know about forces?
A force for good in the world? - science
So Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists ever - yet it’s common to believe that Christianity opposes science and scientific thinking. For example, I found a website with 20 reasons to abandon Christianity and they listed reason number 8 as Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific. It claims that for centuries Christianity arrested the development of science and scientific thinking miring the populace ‘in the deepest squalor and ignorance with tragic results’.
So is Christianity an anti-scientific force with tragic results?
When Sir Isaac Newton discovered his law of gravitation in his Principia Mathematica - one of the world’s most groundbreaking scientific texts ever written - he expressed the hope that it would ‘persuade the thinking man’ to believe in God. Was he just saying that because everyone was Christian at the time and he’d lose credibility if he didn’t put in something about God?
But wasn’t it only when we got religion out of the way that we could make scientific progress? In his bestseller, God is not Great, atheist Christopher Hitchens claimed that the wonders of the microbial world were only made evident after, “the priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity”
A force for good in the world? - the good
But Barney, before we go much further, perhaps we should step back and consider what ‘the good’ actually is. What constitutes ‘good’ in our world?
Does this present the secularist with problems - for example famed atheist and scientist, Richard Dawkins once wrote:
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference"
So is there a problem if our universe has at bottom, no ‘evil’ and no ‘good’?
Yet we all still do have a sense for what constitutes good in the world - but where do we get those ideas of “good” from - aren’t they self-evident? You had a conversation with radio personality John Faine once about this.
A force for good in Australia? - evils done
A poll conducted on the Q&A TV program back in 2012 asked the question “Does religious faith make the world a better place?” Seventy-six percent of the 20,000 respondents said “no”. Why do you think so many Australians think that Christianity is bad for the world?
But they do have a point with things like rampant child sexual abuse in the church and subsequent cover-up of paedophile priests. I mean quite clearly this is a force for evil isn’t it?
Now others perceive Christianity as being bigoted, hateful, and misogynistic. American television host and political commentator Bill Maher once said,
"If you belonged to a political party or a social club that was tied to as much bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, violence, and sheer ignorance as religion is, you’d resign in protest."
Why haven’t you resigned from the Christian religion?
Is Maher’s fair appraisal of Christianity?
A force for good in Australia? - good in Australia
What good then has Christianity done in Australia?
Church and state
But wouldn’t Christianity be more of a force for good if the church didn’t tell everyone what to do - if ‘faith’ were kept private, and practised behind closed doors, with no influence on public policy?
The Bible’s answer - love your neighbour
Today's Big Question: Is Christianity a force for good in the world? And the Bible itself helps us answer this question. In the Gospel of Luke, one of the four biographies of Jesus’ life we have, Jesus tells a story which may indeed inform public policy. It’s the well known story of ‘the Good Samaritan’. Barney, does this give us something of the vision of ‘the Good’ that we look for in our world?
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question from an expert in the law who asked Jesus a somewhat ‘spiritual’ question of what he must do to inherit eternal life’.
Jesus answers him by referring to the Law and the two great commandments, ‘
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
Is it significant that part of the response to this “spiritual” question is the practical injunction to love neighbours?
Isn’t this a hard thing to do in private?
Then the expert in the law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response. What strikes you about the parable?
Does this story indicate that ‘religion’ in and of itself isn’t necessarily a force for good in the world?
Jesus concludes the parable by asking a question:
‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ 37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
So what does this story means for the person professing to be a Christian?
But is the Christian message just about ‘doing good’ though? Isn’t this an outcome and not the primary focus of the Christian message?
Now Barney, Richard Dawkins in his bestseller The God Delusion claims that ‘Love thy Neighbour’ really meant only ‘Love fellow Jews’. Hence he claims that Christianity fosters ‘out-group hostility’ and ‘division’ making it a significant force for evil in the world. (p.253) (p.262)
Is this a fair reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan?
But doesn’t Christianity breed war, hatred for your fellow man & divide us all?
But isn’t evil done in the name of Christianity? Such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa. Aren’t these people acting in the name of Jesus?
So how do we work out which is real Christianity or not?
The impact for good personally
Barney we’ve considered the impact for good of the Christian message philosophically, in the world, in Australia - but what about for you personally? You didn’t grow up in a Christian home - what was it about the Christian message that persuaded you to follow it?
Richard Dawkins said in a 2016 BBC interview that religion is evil for indoctrinating children in childhood into a religion that requires neither evidence nor justification and is never questioned. Was that your experience?
Has Christianity been a force for good in your life? How so?
So given the good and the bad how do we adjudicate if Christianity is a force for good or not?
The Big Question
So Barney, is Christianity a force for good in the world?