A commenter going enigmatically by “notme” once responded to my rundown of a controversy over Scripture classes in schools:

What has religion got to offer but War, Intolerance/hatred (of other religions and minority groups), and poverty? religion should not only be banned from classrooms but from the whole planet

I faithfully reproduce the comment as is, grammatical warts and all, keyed in, I imagine, in the first flush of a righteous indignation.

They’re common accusations, straight out of the New Atheist playbook. Religious belief is irrational, snarling, psychologically and socially stunting. In the enduring formulation of Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great (2007): “Religion poisons everything.”

But underneath the cynicism, the absolutism, sometimes the smugness, I wonder if what I’m really hearing is pain. The pain of someone who sought grace in a church community and instead found judgment and guilt. The pain, perhaps, of someone who invested their trust in a Christian group or friend only to meet with hypocrisy or cruelty. If I listened with more imagination and humility, what I might hear is the lashing out of the wounded.

Christians have, after all, tortured heretics, burned witches, hoarded wealth, propped up slavery, rubber-stamped colonialism. These are not accusations; they are history.

Both have a terrible legitimacy. Christians have, after all, tortured heretics, burned witches, hoarded wealth, propped up slavery, rubber-stamped colonialism, expelled or massacred entire Jewish communities, silenced women, persecuted gay people, and moved known child molesters from parish to parish. These are not accusations; they are history.

And not only history. You don’t have to look far—probably not much farther than the murky corners of our own hearts—to see the same old ugliness cropping up today: the self-righteousness, the love of respectability and comfort, the inertia and cowardice, the militant certitude, the blindness to inconvenient truths, the fear of difference, the fear of losing power, the fear of change or challenge.

On the Other Hand...

And yet if the gospel is true, it is nothing less than the master story of life on this planet—the reconnection of fallen, broken creatures to their Creator and his purposes for them. If it is true, won’t it work? Even allowing for the tenacity of sin and the bumpy work of sanctification, won’t it change things for the better, not just for the reconnected, but with ripples traveling far beyond them?

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There’s plenty of evidence that this is exactly what’s happened in our world over the last two thousand years. That as followers of Jesus loved their neighbors as themselves, turned the other cheek, cared for the least of these, forgave as God forgave them, and let their light shine before others, the world changed dramatically.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas insists that the egalitarianism underpinning all our freedoms and democratic ideals is the direct and exclusive legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic.

It’s a tangled tale, but one corroborated by various high-profile atheists like popular ancient history writer Tom Holland. “In my morals and ethics,” he recently wrote, “I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.” Philosopher Jürgen Habermas insists that the egalitarianism underpinning all our freedoms and democratic ideals is the direct and exclusive legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic: “Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

David Bentley Hart fleshes out the content of this debt in his book Atheist Delusions:

Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity … It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

If both are true-if Christians gave the West things we all rather like, such as inalienable human value, democracy, charity, and humility, and also gave us the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials and South African apartheid – what then? How do we make sense of the disjunction?

Coping Strategies

There are quite a few coping strategies out there. Frankly, I’ve found them mostly inadequate. So, for the intrepid fellow traveler along the tangled byways of Christian history, here are a few friendly “Dead End” signs to mark roads not worth taking—and some suggestions for alternative routes.

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1. “They weren’t really Christian.”

This one certainly looks inviting. In most Western societies for most of the last millennium, it’s been at least advantageous to identify with orthodox Christianity. Where Christian identity is default, plenty of things will happen under the banner of faith that bear little resemblance to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.

But we can’t get ourselves off the hook this easily. Partly this is because disentangling the motivations of a medieval crusader or heresy inquisitor from the Bible is not straightforward. It’s entirely possible to make arguments from Scripture – in some cases, uncomfortably coherent arguments – in support of “holy” war, the auto-da-fé, racial hierarchies, anti-Semitism, environmental despoliation, and more.

Would practically all Christians today agree that those are gross abuses of the text? Yes. Are we so confident that our own interpretative frameworks are unimpeachable—our exegetical maneuvers so free from the slant of self-interest—that we feel able to dismiss the faith of such misreaders as pure sham? Hmm.

Our engagement with history is so often superficial and incredibly supercilious. We fail to acknowledge how indebted we are to these blinkered, striving men and women who came before for the very weapons we level against them. And we forget our own blinkers, the contempt and disbelief that future generations will no doubt reserve for us and our blind spots. As T. S. Eliot wrote in another context: “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Miroslav Volf offers a more subtle version of “they weren’t real Christians” in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion.

The uncomfortable truth is no one comes out of history with clean hands. The law of unintended consequences is too potent, the feet of even our most cherished heroes too caked with clay. This is not to abdicate the responsibility either to act justly or to repent of the sins of the past. But it is to advocate for a measure of historical humility, an appreciation for how difficult it is to draw straight lines in a cracked and crooked world as cracked and crooked people.

Miroslav Volf offers a more subtle version of “they weren’t real Christians” in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion. A “thin” religious commitment may well be genuine but is not given primacy in an adherent’s life. It therefore easily becomes “thinned out,” instrumentalized, serving as a justification for actions which spring from far different sources.

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“Thick” faith, on the other hand, will be content-rich and potentially transformative. In the case of Christianity, it will prick and nudge those who hold it toward things like enemy-love, self-sacrifice, generosity to strangers, and forgiveness. This does not absolve Christians from violence done in the name of Christ but does suggest, as Volf puts it, that what is needed in response to religious violence is not less religion but more religion—of the “thick” kind.

2. “It’s not so bad in context.”

Again, this pathway isn’t impassable, but it probably won’t take you where you want to go. It’s true that most people would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of almost any historical episode you care to name. It’s true that our sense of many periods and events is so reductive and so selective as to be tantamount to myth.

When critics accuse the church of hypocrisy, violence, misogyny, and the like, can we not concede that what they say has all too often been true?

As a first or primary response to the wounded or the outraged, though, the history lessons seem less appropriate—and much less Christian—than a wholehearted and heartbroken admission of guilt. When critics accuse the church of hypocrisy, violence, misogyny, and the like, can we not concede that what they say has all too often been true? Defensiveness is a very human reaction; repentance is (or ought to be) a very Christian one.

My colleagues and I have been immersed in making a documentary (and more recently, writing a book) called For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined.Making it has been both a bruising and, surprisingly, mightily heartening experience. One of the gratifying/depressing reactions we’ve had has been the number of secular viewers and critics who’ve found themselves pleasantly surprised by our candidness. “You are acknowledging all sorts of bad behavior in the name of Christianity over the centuries!” exclaimed one interviewer in disbelief.

This should not be extraordinary. If anyone should be fluent in the language of confession, it’s a group of people who meet together week in and week out to admit that we have left undone what we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.

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To openly and without reservation own the wrongs of the past is the road less traveled, but alongside the advantage of honesty, it can also open up the possibility of a more engaged and fruitful conversation about the contributions as well as the failures of the church.

3. “The good outweighs the bad.”

Once more, it’s not that I don’t think the argument is valid. To the extent that it’s a meaningful thing to say, I sincerely believe the overall contribution of Christianity has been a positive one. But the wrongs are incontrovertible, and however much we might want to haggle over the scorecard, good deeds don’t cancel out evil ones.

In grappling with the most shameful and the most shining moments of Christian action in the world, my colleagues and I have been using a governing metaphor that audiences have loved. It rests on the distinction between a musical composition and its performance.

Take a sublime piece of music like Bach’s celebrated “Cello Suites,” and have a complete novice sit down to play them. The result will be far from sublime – but it shouldn’t affect your understanding of the genius of Bach as a composer. We know to distinguish between a good and a bad performance of the same composition. For believers and for skeptics alike, going back to Jesus and measuring the deeds of his followers against his teaching and example offers a solid way forward through the labyrinthine complexity of a very mixed history.

Jesus wrote a beautiful tune. Christians claim that it has never been bettered. When those who claim to follow Jesus have played in tune with him, that has been of great and unique benefit to the world. When they’ve played the tune atrociously, it’s caused harm untold. But the tune itself continues to sound down the arches of the years, calling each of us to our appointed place in the orchestra.

The Church’s ‘Double Consciousness’

In the course of making the film, we had a conversation with novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. When asked about the widespread suspicion of the institutional church, she spoke movingly of people’s reaction to John Ames, the small-town pastor who narrates her novel Gilead.

“I do book signings,” Robinson says, “and people come up and talk to me and often they say, ‘I just love John Ames. He’s just like my pastor.’”

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What she calls a “double consciousness” of the church is operative here—the contrast between a sort of “televised religion” and people’s actual experience of the church. “When you write about somebody and they say, he’s just like my pastor, he’s just like my uncle who’s a priest, they’re having a very deep recognition … But if you sat them down to describe a priest, a church, they would come up with the conventions that are everywhere now.”

There is something in this that’s profoundly characteristic of our cultural moment. In 2017, an Ipsos poll conducted across 23 countries found that 49 percent of adults agree that religion does more harm than good in the world. In the US it was lower, at 39 percent; in my own country, Australia, it was significantly higher: fully 63 percent of Aussies are apparently convinced that overall, we would be better off without religion. Yet, intriguingly, 60 percent of the population ticked a box in the most recent census declaring an affiliation to one religion or another. And another survey found that 88 percent of non-churchgoers in Australia like the idea of having a church in their neighborhood.

Apart from the observation that most polls would be considerably enhanced by a few well-chosen follow-up questions, what the disparity suggests is that for many people, our personal experience does not tally with certain powerful ideas that come to us via the cultural ether.

This is not only a religious phenomenon; as The Atlantic has reported, while in 2016 only 36 percent of Americans thought the country as a whole was headed in the right direction, 85 percent declared themselves “very or somewhat satisfied with their general position in life and their ability to pursue the American dream.” “What explains the gulf between most Americans’ hopeful outlook on areas and institutions they know directly and their despair about the country they know only through the news?” asked The Atlantic’s James Fallows.

Whatever the answer, it’s worth remembering that however bitter and cynical our public discourse may seem or become, bubbling beneath the surface is something both more interesting and less predictable. With all its quirks, frustrations, and serious failings, the case for the gospel message is nowhere more irrepressible than in the tangible experience of disciple-love to be found in the church visible just down the road.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney. She is author of For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined, which is also a documentary.