Tom at Thinking Christian wrote a thoughtful post inspired by my previous post on whether people really believe in God. Tom picked up on this claim of mine:

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God…

Tom agreed that there are real issues here:

How can we Christians reconcile our behavior with our professed belief in God? Are we as loving, as just, as devoted to truth, as worshipful toward God, as humble as our beliefs call for us to be? Of course not. We’re all on a path, at different places and moving at different speeds, and often our behavior is at odds with our beliefs. … The truth is, we mess up. Our one hope is the loving grace of God through Jesus Christ.

I appreciate Tom’s honesty and humility here. (In fact, this is something that I appreciate about many thinking Christians.) Setting aside the philosophical arguments, it’s this sort of honesty and humility that helps make me sympathetic to Christianity. It’s the actual behavior of many Christians, in contrast, that helps make me unsympathetic — and helps make me think that many Christians don’t actually believe what they profess to believe. 

The example I gave before was that of grieving death, and Tom pointed out that perhaps there are real differences between how believers and unbelievers grieve. He may be right about that — it’s hard to get into the inner mental state of someone who is grieving. So here’s another example instead — if Christians think that some people are saved and some are not, and there is something really worthwhile in being saved, and those who aren’t saved are really missing out, then why aren’t they spending more energy encouraging people to be saved? (One standard account is that the saved people go to heaven, while the unsaved don’t, but I recognize that different Christians differ on these details.) Yes, there are people who devote their lives, or at least significant portions of their lives, to missionary work and evangelism, and I admire them for following their convictions. It’s the Christians who don’t do this that I have trouble understanding. I know people who profess to be Christian and yet who live their lives pretty much like atheists do, except for the occasional trip to church, or prayer over dinner. For these people, their behavior is deeply at odds with their professed beliefs, and it makes me wonder if they really believe what they say they believe. 

Tom’s line that Christians “mess up” only partially accounts for the apparent disconnect between these sorts of Christians’ beliefs and actions. To focus on a timely example, I put what happened to Bristol Palin in the “messing up” category, and it’s nice to see that her community is forgiving her. But it’s the systematic behavior that concerns me — the systematic lack of evangelism in many Christians’ lives, the systematic acting as if God is not watching and judging their every behavior, the systematic living as if life is not spiritually sacred. 

Since I’m throwing stones, it’s only fair that I target my own glass house too. I’m sure there are atheists who don’t live in accordance with their own principles — and probably I don’t either, though it’s hard for me to identify systematic behavior along these lines. But here is one concern I have about how I live my life. I am vegetarian for ethical reasons, and I am especially opposed to how animals are treated in the factory farming process. I think that those who causally participate in this process, by for example eating factory farmed animals, are doing something morally wrong, and innocent animals are living horrible lives as a result. Nevertheless, I eat at restaurants that serve dead animals, and I am friends with meat-eaters, and I don’t do that much to actively try to encourage people to become vegetarian. Perhaps, for me to live in accordance with my principles, I should do much more to try to prevent this needless suffering. But I don’t — I take the easy way out, and pretty much live in accordance with society’s expectations for normal behavior. In this limited way, I identify with the Christians who choose to live a normal life, instead of spending their time evangelizing and going on missions.

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