You’re at a party. You’ve just mixed your drink, and you’re heading out of the kitchen to find a comfortable place to sit down and a friend to talk to. But as you pass through the living room, you happen upon Trent Horn, veteran Catholic apologist, engaged in a heated debate with . . . himself. The topic? Christian hypocrisy.
And so you can’t help it: you sit down a ways off for some shameless eavesdropping. How could you resist?
DAVID (that is, the anti-Trent): So you’ve saved the best for last, eh?
TRENT: Yeah, this argument is a perplexing one for me. There are aspects of it that make me want to dismiss it outright, but then there are parts of it that stick around in my head and unnerve me.
DAVID: Well, don’t keep us in suspense!
TRENT: It’s called the argument from meager moral fruits. It basically says: If Christianity is true, then why aren’t Christians noticeably more moral than non-Christians? The Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias once said a Hindu friend asked him, “If this conversion you speak about is truly supernatural, then why is it not more evident in the lives of so many Christians that I know?” Zacharias said this comment haunted him throughout his ministry. It’s especially ironic now that we know that Zacharias was involved in numerous sex scandals.
DAVID: It’s sort of a variant of the problem of evil, wouldn’t you say? But in this case, the evil we wouldn’t expect if God did exist is the lack of virtue among so-called believers.
TRENT: That’s a decent way to summarize the argument. On the whole, I agree with the major premise that we would expect genuine Christians, on average, to produce better moral fruit than non-Christians. Jesus himself said, “By your fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16), but there are supporting premises that I doubt.
DAVID: Which ones?
TRENT: Well, I wonder how we know that Christians aren’t morally superior to non-Christians. You can’t make generalizations about an entire group of people from a few anecdotal encounters. The argument relies on a huge sociological claim that even one of the argument’s major proponents, the philosopher Paul Draper, doubts we can prove. There is even evidence to the contrary in that Christians tend to give more to charity.
DAVID: Christians are more likely to give to their churches, not charity. That’s not the same as giving to charity. The Church has a nice built-in system to milk believers and make them feel better about themselves, even though the money primarily goes to help the Church, not the poor.
TRENT: Actually, there is evidence that Christians give more to charities, and not just to their churches. But what’s wrong with giving to the Church so that people can have access to the sacraments? After all, “man doesn’t live by bread alone.”
DAVID: Because it seems as though the sacraments aren’t very effective. There are people who receive the Eucharist every week, but it doesn’t seem to be doing them any good because they’re still jerks Monday through Friday.
TRENT: This reminds me of when C.S. Lewis once compared the efficacy of Christianity to the cleaning power of a fictional brand of toothpaste called Whitesmile. Basically, he said you can’t compare Frank who has naturally good teeth and doesn’t use Whitesmile with Deborah who has habitual teeth problems and uses Whitesmile. We shouldn’t compare believers and unbelievers who have different dispositions toward charity, but we should consider what a believer would be like if he had never been a Christian.
DAVID: It’s convenient for your argument that we can’t directly observe the counterfactual of a Christian never having believed at all to see whether Christianity works or not. Also, Lewis is talking about isolated cases. The meager moral fruits argument asks us what the world would be like if God existed, and it makes a plausible case that Christians as a whole would be different from non-Christians, but in many cases, it’s hard to tell them apart.
TRENT: Is it, though? Maybe if you consider moral fruits we all agree are good, like following the Golden Rule or caring for the poor. But when you look at other moral issues, Christians clearly beat atheists and even many other religions. Consider abortion: the majority of weekly Mass-goers think it should be illegal, but the vast majority of atheists support legal abortion. The same is true for other evils like sexual activity outside marriage. You also see this kind of thing in the early Church, like in the second-century Letter to Diognetus, which says Christians “marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.”
DAVID: But it’s easy to check a survey box and say you’re against abortion. How many of those Christians actually help women experiencing unintended pregnancies?
TRENT: A lot of them donate money to crisis pregnancy centers and similar causes . . .
DAVID: They do that because those charities don’t challenge them. It’s a cause that makes them feel good about themselves. Why aren’t more Christians donating to famine relief or to fight malaria?
TRENT: For some Christians, I think it’s ignorance about either the scope of those problems or their ability to address them. Another problem is that you have people saying they’re Catholic or Christian, but they don’t really believe this, or they aren’t living a grace-filled life.
DAVID: Ah, the no true Scotsman fallacy!
TRENT: Why do you say that?
DAVID: You’re saying, “Christians are morally superior to non-Christians,” and you can dismiss any counterexamples to that claim by saying they aren’t “true Christians.”
TRENT: Although I admit that the class of “true Scotsman” might be an arbitrary distinction, the Bible clearly attests to there being true and false Christians. Now, I think anyone who is validly baptized is a Christian, but some of the baptized don’t believe in the faith they profess. But that shouldn’t cause us to doubt that there are genuine Christians whose actions make them distinct from the world.
DAVID: But if baptism really regenerates people, and the Eucharist lets them “feast on the body of Christ,” then why doesn’t every Catholic who has access to these sacraments demonstrate moral fruit?
TRENT: I think the answer to these questions is summarized in this famous principle from St. Thomas Aquinas that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.
The debate continues in Trent’s book, Devil’s Advocate. Buy it here.