• The Truth Behind the New Atheism: The Definitive Refutation, Part 6

    Chapter 8: Is Christianity a Blessing?

    In this chapter Marshall’s goal is to remind the New Atheists (and anyone else who read their books) about all of the great things Christianity has done for the world in order to counter the enormous bad its done. He mentions several main ways Christianity has impacted various parts of the world for the better, though spends about half of his time on India.

    Marshall argues,

    Men and women called by God to “play” the chords of the Gospel to make, mend, catalyze, and move things to where they belong in society. Of course, believers often strike “wrong” cords, or right cords out of key. From such discords arise inquisitions, witch hunts, and crass religious come-ons. But when Christians act on Gospel teachings in tune with the Holy Spirit to respond to the needs of the world, a higher-order “music of life” emerges. […] Slavery has mostly ended, as Dawkins points out (with some 15 million exceptions). Women have become more equal. Most unbelievers would also agree, I think, that science, universal education, the spread of democracy, the erosion of caste in India and foot-binding in China have been among the biggest steps forward. What if the Christian faith lay at the heart of each of these great reform movements? And what if radical, God-inspired compassion for members of the “out-group” turned out to be the engine of human progress? (136-137)

    Marshall spends the next four pages on the various reforms in India and I would agree that much of what is said is true and Christianity did seem to have a good impact on India in several ways. However, in some places he clearly exaggerates the role Christianity played. He writes,

    Martin Luther King said, “I went to Gandhi through Jesus.”

    In a way, so did Gandhi.

    It would be unfair to ascribe Gandhi’s teachings part and parcel to Jesus, given his love of Indian scriptures. Gandhi was a syncretist, a Hindu, and a big fan of both Buddha and the Jains. Some of what he taught was at odds with Christianity.


    But Gandhi was deeply influenced by Jesus in three ways. First, though offended when a convert in his area began insulting Hindu gods and drinking English booze, later he read the New Testament, and changed his mind about Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart.” Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek “delighted me beyond measure,” he said, and Gandhi began trying to unify the Bhaga-vad Gita, the story of Buddha, and Jesus’ teachings. […] Finally, Gandhi was also touched by Christ indirectly, through profound intellectual changes the Gospel brought India. (138-139)

    After looking up Marshall’s source for these claims about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi I found Marshall’s claims to be exaggerated.

    I’m sure King was influenced by Gandhi, though King himself tells us what first inspired his non-violent approach and it wasn’t from Gandhi, but an anarchist in Henry David Thoreau. His essay titled On the duty of civil disobedience greatly inspired King. King said,

    When I went to Morehouse as a freshman in 1944, my concern for racial and economic justice was already substantial. During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’ for the first time. Here, […] I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I read the work several times.

    I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting his idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement, indeed, they are more alive than ever before. [1]

    A telling passage also highlights the fact that Jesus was not as influential on King as is often argued. Gandhi had a much larger influence. King wrote,

    Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

    Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. In was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. [2]

    Clearly, Gandhi was a much greater influence since without him King would not have believed Jesus’ teachings could be applied to the civil rights movement in the first place. The same can be said of Gandhi, in that other ideas were more important to his thinking:

    Mohandas K. Gandhi […] built a unique ideology of non-violent resistance and peasant socialism from a series of semi-anarchist sources and linked them with Indian traditions. From Tolstoy he evolved his policy of non-violent resistance, from Thoreau he took his philosophy of civil disobedience, and from Kropotkin his programme of decentralized and autonomous village communes linking agriculture with local industry. [3]

    In his autobiography Gandhi gave his opinion of Christianity,

    The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. I had seen in other lives just the same reformation that I had heard of among Christians. Philosophically there was nothing extraordinary in Christian principles. From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindus greatly surpassed the Christians. It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions. [4]

    Marshall quotes Gandhi as saying that the Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart,” and this seems to be the only evidence he has that he was inspired by Christianity. But it seems to me that Marshall needs more evidence than this. As Gandhi said,

    But the New Testament produced a different impression, especially the Sermon on the Mount which went straight to my heart. I compared it with the Gita. The verses, ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat let him have thy cloak too,’ delighted me beyond measure and put me in mind of Shamal Bhatt’s ‘For a bowl of water, give a goodly meal,’ etc. My young mind tried to unify the teaching of the Gita, The Light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount.That renunciation was the highest form of religion appealed to me greatly.” [emphasis mine] [5]

    Clearly, Gandhi liked this verse, but appreciating a single verse can hardly be considered evidence of influence of the religion of Christianity or even Jesus as Marshall attempts to argue. In fact, Gandhi refutes this notion throughout his autobiography. For example, he writes,

    Once [some Christian friends and I] began to compare the life of Jesus with that of Buddha. ‘Look at Gautama’s compassion!’ said I. ‘It was not confined to mankind, it was extended to all living beings. Does not one’s heart overflow with love to think of the lamb joyously perched on his shoulders? One fails to notice this love for all living beings in the life of Jesus.’ The comparison pained the good lady. [6]

    Gandhi was a seeker, a man who obviously had an open mind and read of many different belief systems and took the bits he liked and disregarded the rest (as Marshall even admits). Besides, the non-violent attitude was taught by Buddha hundreds of years earlier so it’s not as if Christianity possessed something revolutionary. Gandhi said the same thing himself, as quoted above. It seems clear to me that Marshall has greatly exaggerated any influence Christianity may have had, if any, and judging by the several times he mentions Christianity in his autobiography, and most of those instances are speaking of Christian friends or badly about it, I’d say the influence was miniscule at best, if it influenced his thought at all.

    The next argument Marshall attempts is that Christianity was responsible for the abolition of slavery. I actually did quite a bit of research for this section of the book and wrote a pretty good piece, but Hector Avalos has since written an excellent article rebutting this entire section. Avalos’ research obviously bested mine so I am citing his piece for this section, however, I was pleasantly surprised after reading the article for the first time since I discovered a few of the same errors as Avalos did. [7]

    Avalos goes into much detail and his piece is very long so I will link to it in the footnotes, but in sum, Avalos writes of Marshall’s take on slavery,

    I don’t use the derogatory “hack” writer very often, but I think it is deserved when an author shows a complete disregard for the basic tenets of research and documentation. As stated at the outset, Marshall seems to work by reading a few secondary surveys and then selecting favorable quotes, whose accuracy he never checks. So, Marshall is a cut-and-paste artist, pure and simple.

    More importantly, Marshall repeatedly represents as facts what he does not know to be facts, and that is as deep an indictment of intellectual integrity as one can find. Having accused some New Atheists of displaying “uncritical naiveté,” Marshall shows himself to be just another apologists who fails to live up to the standards he demands of others. Frankly, Marshall is a lazy-person’s apologist.

    However, Marshall is not different from a Rodney Stark or other recognized apologists who say the same things Marshall does about slavery. Their case for the Bible’s role in the abolition of slavery is based on mostly careless research, a dismissal of the achievements of other cultures (e.g., Haitians), and a general disregard for the value of checking the primary sources. [8]

    The next topic Marshall discusses is the role of Christianity in ‘liberating’ women. Marshall writes,

    During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese began to wrap up the feet of little girls to make their mature waddle more “sexy.” For the rest of their lives, women hobbled on crippled feet. (This also made it harder for them to walk off, an important concern in a polygamous society!) The movement to ban foot-binding was begun by Christians, though their role is often obscured.

    The status of women in a society may even be a function of how strongly the gospel has influenced that society.

    […] Note the United Nations’s Population Briefing Paper. Researchers ranked the status of women in 99 countries by employment, education, marriage and children, and health. In all four categories, the ten countries in which the status of women was highest had a Christian background – except for Taiwan, which came in fourth in the “marriage and children” category. Among the lowest listings, none of the countries had a Christian heritage (apart from the complex case of Mozambique, which has a mixed religious population and came in seventh from the last in health, but fourth from the top in employment). (148)

    Regarding the foot-binding of women in China, from my reading, I’d say he is partially correct, however, a major influence was due to “Chinese intellectuals” who “demanded reforms.” In addition, it was also due to the influence of the West and other nations’ views of the practice. After a time foot-binding became “an object of international ridicule and evidence of China’s barbarity and backwardness.” [9]

    In addition, economics and personal interests were also large factors:

    [Natural foot societies’] most interesting, and perhaps most convincing, argument was that footbinding went against women’s personal and economic interests in every possible way. It weakened their bodies, restricted their freedom, prevented them from working effectively at home or in the fields, and made them easy targets for sexual assaults during wars. Worse, footbinding became an economic burden for the country as so many women, instead of working in the fields and factories, spent most of their time, money, and energy on their feet, bindings, and shoes. [10]

    So, it wasn’t just Christian missionaries but fellow Chinese who wanted reform, and the economic situation was a major factor as well, so to give Christianity such a large share of the credit as Marshall does would be a huge error.

    As for the status of women in Christian countries, if you look at his source this Population Briefing Paper he cites is from 1988, a very outdated source if you ask me. The problem is that the facts contradict Marshall’s argument. I’ve covered this much more extensively elsewhere but put simply, according to an updated 2009 UN “Gender Empowerment” study, the leaders in gender equality are Sweden, followed by Norway and then Finland. These three countries are some of the least religious in the world. For comparison, the united states, one of the most Christian countries, has a gender equality ranking of 37, according to the 2010 Human Development Report. [11]

    Another source we can look at is history for how Christians have treated women. To give an example, allow me to quote historian Howard Zinn,

    [A]ll women were burdened with ideas carried over from England with the colonists, influenced by Christian teachings. English law was summarized in a document of 1632 entitled “The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights”:

    In this consolidation which we call wedlock is a locking together. It is true, that man and wife are one person, but understand in what manner. When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with Rhodanus, Humber, or the Thames, the poor rivulet looseth her name…A woman as soon as she is married, is called covert…that is, “veiled”; as it were, clouded and overshadowed; she hath lost her streame. I may more truly, farre away, say to a married woman, Her new self is her superior; her companion, her master…

    Julia Spruill describes the woman’s legal situation in the colonial period: “The husband’s control over the wife’s person extended to the right of giving her chastisement…But he was not entitled to inflict permanent injury or death on his wife…” [12]

    Note how the above laws mirror the previous biblical passages we looked at in chapter six. David Marshall’s next claim is that Christianity invented the university. He writes,

    Christianity invented the university. Believers established almost all pre-Civil War American colleges and schools in Africa, Latin America, China, and India. Great European universities remain medieval towns shadowed by church towers. (149)

    I would agree about the role Christians played in creating universities, however, their original use was to acquire “minds trained in canon law and theology to break heretics,” however they also had facilities for law, medicine, music, and philosophy. It seems the original motivation to create teaching centers was to proselytize, not for the sole benefit of education. [13] Even one of Marshall’s own sources admits this. Alston Chase writes,

    America’s first universities were founded for the purpose of the propagation of the faith and the instruction of the young in the service of God. The purpose in founding Harvard University in 1636, for instance, was – according to the earliest known document – so that “every one shall consider the Mayne End of his life & studyes to know God & Jesus Christ, which is Eternall life.” [14]

    Marshall’s final argument I will examine looks at the role Christianity played in creating democracy. He writes,

    The relationship between Christianity and pluralism is complex. Dawkins think the founding fathers of the American republic had little use for Christianity. Some Christian apologists say, “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Almost all the Christians I polled agreed that “America was founded on Christian principles.”

    The founding fathers were of two minds about Christianity, as fair-minded historians admit. On the one hand, they often recognized the contribution the Bible had made to Western civilization and retained a great deal of faith themselves, in the understated style of the time. Modern democracy came at the tail end of a long process of growing pluralism in Europe, with Christian thinkers from Ambrose to John of Paris to John Locke playing key roles. (150-151)

    First of all, most of the founding fathers were Deists, with only three of them who could be considered Christians. [15] Second, the founding fathers were not inspired by the bible, but Enlightenment principles. To prove this I will quote Chris Rodda discussing a study done by Donald S. Lutz,

    From this chart it does appear that 34% of the documents included in Lutz’s study cited the Bible. That’s because they did. And, without Lutz’s explanation of this figure, this chart seems to support the assertion that the Bible, more than any other source, influenced the political thought of the founders. So, the Christian nationalist history revisionists simply omit the explanation that follows.

    “…From Table 1 we can see that the biblical tradition is most prominent among the citations. Anyone familiar with the literature will know that most of these citations come from sermons reprinted as pamphlets; hundreds of sermons were reprinted during the era, amounting to at least 10% of all pamphlets published. These reprinted sermons accounted for almost three-fourths of the biblical citations…” (1)

    The 916 documents included in the study were not official documents, legislative proceedings, etc., but writings “printed for public consumption,” such as books, newspaper articles, and pamphlets. Only items of over 2,000 words were included. Taking into account that three-quarters of the biblical citations came from the subcategory of sermons, which comprised only 10% of the category of pamphlets, the Bible is really in the same range as Classical influences for documents that weren’t sermons. [16]

    This would cause the bible (as Rodda explains above) to be knocked down to about nine percent, more in agreement with another historian in Frank Lambert, who says that “almost 90 percent of the references are to European writers who wrote on Enlightenment or Whig themes or who commented on the English common law. Only about 10 percent of the citations were biblical, with most of those coming from writings attributed to Saint Paul.” [17]

    To ram the point home that the united states was founded upon secular principles, not religious ones, allow me to quote John Adams from A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America:

    The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature: and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or labouring in merchandize or agriculture: it will for ever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses. (emphasis mine) [18]

    To quote Richard Carrier on the above quote by Adams,

    That’s a direct denouncement of the Law of Moses, which derived from an interview with God and the inspiration of heaven. He is saying they heeded no such things, but discarded them all, and derived American government directly from their own reason and observation, from the natural world alone. Though Adams does credit beside reason “morality and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests” as helping to sustain America’s success, he never once credits any specific principle from that religion (like the Ten Commandments) as lying at the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. The idea isn’t even considered. Instead, volume 1 is entirely about the example and influence of Greece and Rome; volume 2 is about that of the secular Italian republics of the Renaissance; and volume 3 more of the same, followed by the precedent of the British Commonwealth.

    In the words of his reviewer in the August issue of the 1795 American Monthly Review, the authors whom he considers as most influential in his survey are these: “Particularly among the ancients, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Cicero, and Tacitus, among the moderns, of Machiavelli, Sydney, Montesquieu, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Swift, Hume, Franklin, Price and Nedham.” Moses is conspicuous for his absence. So is Jesus. Solon, of course (and in contrast), would be represented most significantly in the writings of Aristotle, as well as many of the others. And indeed an extensive section in volume 1 is devoted to Solon’s Athens, where Adams credits the first invention of representative government to Lycurgus of Sparta, and Solon with its improvement. No mention of Moses. [19]

    As I’ve shown, Marshall’s telling of history is more often than not way off the mark. Considering the handful of “good” things Christianity has done I would say Christianity’s influence on the world has mostly been for the bad, all things considered. To give some brief examples, there are the many horrific stories that have come from the immoral actions of Christian missionaries, [20] the Inquisitions, murdered abortion doctors, such as Dr. John Britton and Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1994 and 1998, respectively. Christians also enslaved millions of African Americans in the united states and around the world for centuries. Where was Christianity’s supposed abolitionist “influence” then? These examples are just a drop in the bucket as entire books have been written on the violence religion has caused and continues to cause. [21]

    1. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson, Grand Central Publishing, 2001; 14

    2. Ibid.; 23-24

    3. Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction, by Colin Ward, Oxford University Press, 2004; 12

    4. Gandhi: An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Beacon Press, 1993; 136-137

    5. Ibid.; 68-69

    6. Ibid.; 160

    7. See the Addendum near the end of my previous review of The Truth Behind the New Atheism

    8. A Slave to Incompetence: The Truth Behind David Marshall’s Research on Slavery by Dr. Hector Avalos, originally posted 7-15-10. Accessed 7-25-11

    9. Arching for Beauty: Footbinding in China, by Wang Ping, University of Minnesota Press, 2000; 38

    10. Ibid.; 39

    11. David Marshall is Refuted Again

    12. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present, by Howard Zinn, Harper Perennial, 2003; 106

    13. The Faith: A History of Christianity, by Brian Moynahan, Doubleday, 2002; 277

    14. Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, by Alston Chase, W.W. Norton & Co., 2003; 197

    15. America is Not a Christian Nation, Part 2

    16. Think the “Christmas Resolution” was Bad? Check Out H. Res. 888 -accessed 7-25-11

    17. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, by Frank Lambert, Princeton University Press, 2003; 246

    18. A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America – accessed 7-25-11

    19. Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy, by Dr. Richard Carrier – accessed 7-25-11

    20. A Partial History of Christian Missionary Atrocities

    21. Two good sources are: Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History, by Jack David Eller, Prometheus Books, 2010 and Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, by Hector Avalos, Prometheus Books, 2005

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist