Stephen King is a very successful author of horror fiction, being responsible for some of the most recognizable horror icons in popular culture. This includes the classic IT, which was adapted to film twice, and The Shining, which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick. Several of his other stories have also been adapted to film, including The Mist, Pet Sematary, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Misery, among many others. King is 72, but he is not slowing down. It feels like every time I walk into a bookstore, there is a new book by him out on the shelves. His son, writing under the name Joe Hill, is also a successful horror author, with titles like Horns and NOS4A2.
Religion often makes an appearance in his work and King himself seems to have an ambivalent relationship to Christianity. For example, King’s website says the following about his religion:
Stephen was raised as a Methodist and attended church regularly in his youth. He no longer attends church, but he does believe in God and reads the Bible. Tabitha, his wife, was raised as a Catholic.
This statement seems to me to imply that he is a Christian who does not attend a church (based on believing in God and reading the Bible). However, other statements he’s made either shows disbelief or agnosticism about the metaphysical claims of Christianity. For example, Hollowverse reports him saying the following:
The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance…logic can be happily tossed out the window.
This quote is widely attributed to him on the internet and purportedly comes from his novel, The Stand, which may or may not indicate that it is a view he holds himself. Unfortunately, these quotes never indicate where in the book this quote appears, so it is difficult to get the context (i.e. whether it is said by the narrator or by a character). So we can take it with a grain of salt. Anyway, this may be a critique of Christianity or it may just be a critique of assigning a religious cause to everything, while perhaps still allowing for a spiritual cause for some things. Also, he has said that he “believed in evil” but that he has “gone back and forth about whether or not there’s an outside evil, whether or not there’s a force in the world that really wants to destroy us, from the inside out, individually and collectively. Or whether it all comes from inside and that it’s all part of genetics and environment.”
This seems to indicate an ambivalence over at least one claim of Christianity – the existence of demons or similar beings. But he also said:
The older I get, the less I think there’s some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people. And unless we’re able to address that issue, sooner or later, we’ll fucking kill ourselves.
A common concern in King’s ideas about religion is his belief in the evil of organized or institutional religion. According to this CNN belief blog, he said the following:
I’ve always tried to contrast that bright, white light of real goodness or Godliness against evil,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I’m not a proselytizer, and I hate organized religion. I think it’s one of the roots of real evil that’s in the world. If you really unmask Satan, you’ll probably find that he’s wearing a turnaround collar.
This may come across in his novels, as Christians are often not portrayed well. In Carrie, one of the main characters (the mother, Margaret) is one of the villains and an outspoken Christian. In Insomnia, pro-life activists are among the villains. One of his more recent works, Revival also seems to express cynical views about Christianity through the characters. In The Mist, the (human) villain (Mrs. Carmody) is an outspoken Christian. In In the Tall Grass, the character who ends up being the villain is also a Christian (at least in the Netflix movie). One of the villains in The Shawshank Redemption (Warden Norton) is another Christian. This does not mean that his portrayal of Christianity and Christians is all bad. I’ve not read The Stand, but I’ve read a review that said that Christians are the good guys in that novel. According to the CNN article mentioned earlier, Desperation has a more positive portrayal of Christian faith, and the article gives reason to think that Christian themes are prevalent in his work.
To be fair to King, I don’t want to conclude based upon evil Christian characters that he harbours a general anti-Christian sentiment. After all, evil comes dressed up in good ( or, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” 2 Corinthians 11:14) and perhaps he is preoccupied with that concept as an novelist. Also, phony Christians or “wolves among the sheep” is a very biblical idea. But whether he believes biblical, historic Christianity is actually a good that evil comes dressed up in or whether it is actually a form of evil, or a “mixed bag”, is not clear to me.
Something Wrong with Religious Explanations?
Let’s start with one of the quotes above about religious mania having the power to explain everything. It’s not clear to me what the quote means by God or Satan being the first cause of everything. Either he means that God was the first cause of the universe (which is true) or that everything that happens is either caused by God or Satan. The latter view is probably not taught by Christianity. Some Christians have a deterministic view of divine sovereignty which implies that human beings have little to no free will, but this view is not essential to Christianity and is (from what I can see) a bad representation of biblical truth. The Bible clearly shows human beings to be responsible for their actions, and therefore they cause some events. Humans and other free agents (angels) are represented as having the ability to rebel against God. The Bible clearly affirms that God created the universe, that he is sovereign and in control, and that he is the direct cause behind at least some events, but this does not imply that he is the cause behind everything that happens. In other words, everything is either decreed or permitted by God. So, the idea that God or Satan causes everything doesn’t reflect Christian truth. But even if everything were ultimately determined by either God or Satan and nothing is left to chance, why would that imply that logic could be abandoned? Logical reasoning can be applied within the confines of any worldview. He seems to mean that reality contains at least a little chance, and therefore a worldview that allows no chance is illogical. But this isn’t true. Purposiveness or the lack thereof (i.e. chance) has nothing to do with how rational that worldview is. Either the world is more purposive or it is not. If it is more purposive, then it is more rational, or more logical, to believe that less happens by chance. However, I think he’s presupposing that a metaphysics that that explains more things in terms of chance is the more reasonable view. But, of course, this view needs to be justified.
The Social Objection to Christianity
Let’s address the idea that if Satan were to be exposed today he would be wearing a turnaround collar and that organized religion is a root of evil. King could mean that church leaders are in general more evil than other people. Or he may mean that when church leaders are evil, they tend to be more evil than other people. The second claim is more likely to be true than the first one, though I’m not sure how you would go about verifying either of them. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to regard church leaders as more evil than the ordinary person. Because of their position, they are held to a higher standard, and therefore, any fault in them appears more glaring. And given that they represent something that’s controversial, the enemies of that ideology make much of any fault in them. We hear news stories about the disgrace of church leaders, but rarely or never do we hear any news stories about the charitable activities of churches and church leaders (and that is certainly not because it doesn’t exist). Unfortunately, as I’ve written recently, church leaders are also placed on pedestals so that when they do sin, they hurt people more deeply than they would otherwise, because people look up to them and even make them into mediators. It is true that church leadership, like any position with power, corrupts people by inflaming their egos and sometimes attracts bad personalities, as with any profession that promises power and attention or admiration. In this respect, however, it is no different than other similar professions.
Let’s turn to the claim that institutional religion is one of the roots of evil in the world. One of the features of the recent New Atheist movement has been the belief that religious belief is a root of great evil and, consequently, its eradication will lead to a much better world. King’s claim is more modest. It is not religious belief in general, but institutional religion, which is a root of evil. There is legitimacy to concern about evil done in the name of God, but I disagree that organized Christianity is a root of evil in the world. If churches vanished, other social institutions and ideologies will replace them, and we will be just as inclined (more so, I believe) to evil and violence as when organized Christianity held sway. As several writers have noted, politics is the next big contender where secular people find their meaning and self-transcendence. People are and have been more likely to kill each other for political causes than religious ones. In fact, the United States has erupted in violence in the past months as a result of political ideas and goals. We also need evidence that a different system would have worked better. As I’ve written in response to Jordan Peterson, how do we know that corrupt human nature bettered by the gospel, was not the best way forward? After all, isn’t it a very striking coincidence that the notion of universal human rights emerged and prevailed first in only one culture, a Christian culture, and only in the last 200 -300 years? Would we enjoy what we do today if Roman or Greek paganism had continued to hold sway, or the ideas of Greek philosophers? It’s very difficult to say. It’s difficult to accurately judge the social consequences of ideas when implemented and believed on a large scale, as we’ve learned from many failed political and social projects (socialism probably being the most notable example). There were also great wrongs along the way. But what is our standard of measurement? Is the measure what we have today or is the measure what everybody else was doing at the time? It isn’t fair to measure people against a standard that nowhere existed at that time. Homo Sapiens have existed on this earth for thousands upon thousands of years. There was nothing that guaranteed things wouldn’t continue much as they had before. But they didn’t. They became much better (only) during the last few hundred years. We shouldn’t measure our ancestors’ actions against our systems and ideas today, but against the brutal existence that was ubiquitous at that time and especially before that time.
Churches are also a very constant source of good. Many international charities are explicitly Christian. The Salvation Army is a prominent example, which was founded as a church by a Methodist preacher called William Booth. It is present in around 130 countries. World Vision, Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, and Lutheran World Relief are all examples of large explicitly Christian charities. Local churches usually function as small charities that help people in the community and partner with other churches and charities to help the poor. During the early days of Christianity, Christians were known for taking special care of the poor, sick and vulnerable beyond that of non-Christian Romans and Greeks. As I’ve pointed out in a previous entry in this series, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, mercy was not regarded as a true virtue. Mercy was often seen as contrary to justice, because it was unearned and undeserved.[i] This contrasted with the Christian attitude to the poor, so that even non-Christian writers recognized it, including Lucian (130-200) and Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor who tried to roll back the Christian influence on the Roman Empire and re-institute paganism.[ii] Christianity also made a contribution to medicine and the development of hospitals.
The Catholic Church is known for its charitable activities throughout the medieval period as well as today. Thomas Woods, a Catholic historian, tells us the following about Christianity’s contribution to hospitals:
It is open to debate whether institutions resembling hospitals in the modern sense can be said to have existed in ancient Greece and Rome. Many historians have doubted it, while others have pointed out an unusual exception here and there. Yet even these exceptions involved the care of sick or wounded soldiers rather than of the general population. With regard to the establishment of institutions staffed by physicians who made diagnoses and prescribed remedies, and where nursing provisions were also available, the Church appears to have pioneered.[iii]
Importantly, this does not refer to care of the sick in general (which did exist), but the existence of institutions dedicated for that purpose. “By the fourth century, the Church began to sponsor the establishment of hospitals on a large scale, such that nearly every major city ultimately had one.”[iv] During the medieval period, people could stay at monasteries for lower rent and for longer duration than elsewhere. Monasteries were refuges for sojourners and travellers, orphans, the sick, the poor and they maintained schools. Monks didn’t just care for poor that came their way but sought them out in the surrounding area.[v] These facts, among others, leads Woods to conclude”…the Catholic Church revolutionized the practice of charitable giving, in both its spirit and its application.”[vi]
Nick Spencer gives the following explanation of Christianity’s role in the development of universal altruism as an ideal:
What it is to say is that, however generous we can be, it is certainly not natural or obvious for humans to ascribe dignity and worth to all humans everywhere, irrespective of capacity or circumstance. The most cursory reading of human history confirms this, and the West is certainly no different from anywhere else in this respect. And yet it was in the West, specifically through the intrusion of Christianity into the thought world of late antiquity, that this changed.[vii]
A more recent book by a non-Christian popular historian showing Christianity’s contribution for the values of the West, is Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. I have focused here on Christianity’s contribution to the establishment of charity and universal altruism as a value in both belief and practice, but the works I’ve cited show many other areas where Christianity contributed to Western civilization. With the exception of Tom Holland, all these authors are Christians. You may perhaps say that they are biased in favour of Christianity and there is probably truth to that. However, it is clear that whatever exaggerations there may be, Christianity played an indispensable role in the development of Western civilization in general and Western morality in particular.
The case can certainly be made that the good of Christian civilization far outweighs the bad, especially when one considers that any endeavour or project that involves human beings will eventually do evil. The brutal punishments of the medieval period are often pointed out, but what is not mentioned is that it was a brutal time in general. Some people look up to the classical pagan civilizations as a model, but the Romans were not much better (if at all), whose capital punishments included burning, being mauled to death by wild animals and crucifixion, not to mention the practice of viewing some of the latter for entertainment. Ironically, the familiarity of Jesus’s crucifixion and the “air-brushed” way it is often portrayed in art makes us forget the incredibly cruel execution method that it was. Ancient Athens is seen as a beacon of Western civilization and its capital punishments seem somewhat more humane. This included poisoning, throwing the individual down a pit or tying them to a piece of wood and then leaving them to starve. The case can be made that some of the execution methods that were sometimes (not regularly) used during the Medieval period were cruel even for that time. I have the following to say on that front. During the Middle ages, European Christian civilization was still very young compared to a civilization like China and not many centuries had passed between the conversion of European tribal barbarians to a politicized Christianity that was itself strongly influenced by Roman law. Apart from this, there are a good deal of myths that have been propagated about the Middle Ages, some of which have been addressed by Rodney Stark in Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.
Are Evil Acts by Christians Evidence Against Christianity?
So, Christians have been responsible for a great deal of good throughout the last 2,000 years in addition to the bad, like the Spanish Inquisition and the cruel punishments in the Middle Ages. The evil acts of Christians or Christian political authorities in the past are sometimes thought to give evidence against the truth of Christianity. But is that true? This type of argument is a form of the ad hominem fallacy. The ad hominem fallacy attempts to discredit someone’s argument or belief by appeal to something about their person (such as their moral character). For example, say someone who has committed murder says that murder is wrong. Does the fact that they have committed murder mean that it is untrue that murder is wrong? No, obviously not. The fact that murder is wrong is just as true when spoken by a convicted murderer or a serial killer as when spoken by an angel. This is a type of the ad hominem fallacy known as an “appeal to hypocrisy”, which attempts to discredit someone’s truth-claims by appeal to their immoral character. Unless the moral character of the one making the argument or holding the belief is specifically relevant to that belief (e.g. it is a belief about the claimant’s moral character), their moral character is irrelevant to the truth or untruth of their claims. One may say that the Bible itself says that “you shall know them by their fruits”, which presumably means that you are to dismiss a Christian prophetic voice or pastor if they are clearly, and perhaps impenitently, immoral in some way. However, Jesus wouldn’t say that you should dismiss what is clearly true just because it is spoken by a false prophet (which is absurd) just that one should not accept their counsel, leadership or go to them for teaching as a regular matter. So, the main point is that truth is truth regardless of who says it and how immoral they are. One may say that the New Testament itself makes the claim that Christians will be more moral than non-Christians, which would mean that one of the verifiable claims of the Bible ends up being false (if it is true that Christians are not generally better than non-Christians). To be clear, this would not disprove Christianity, because the central beliefs of Christianity, nicely summarized in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds, are unaffected by the untruth of certain things in the Bible (including this claim). It would only disprove the doctrine of Biblical Innerancy. But is there such a claim about Christians in the Bible? Non-alchemist, an internet atheist personality and former Christian, puts the objection like this:
According to believers, Christians are connected to the Holy Spirit–a divine person actively working to transform their lives. They are “new creations,” and sin no longer has the same dominion over them that it once did. If we take these doctrinal claims seriously, it seems plausible to expect that Christians (on average) should be more moral than non-believers.
Yes, Christians believe in the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit” which means that the Holy Spirit comes to live in us and our bodies become a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Non-alchemist’s reference to the “new creation” comes from 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” His other reference is to Romans 6:14: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law, but under grace.” However, neither of these contentions entails that the Christian will be without sin. The claim about a Christian being a new creation is not made relative to non-Christians, but relative to his own former life as a non-Christian. Also, saying that sin will not have dominion over you or rule over you is not the same as saying that Christians will not sin. It means that Christians are not enslaved to sin, but are free to be righteous. So the claim is that Christians will be better than their own previous lives as non-Christians, but not apparently that they are better in every respect, with respect to every virtue than any given non-Christian or than the average moral character of all non-Christians. C.S. Lewis puts it nicely by way of example:
Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. [viii]
Clearly, though, Christians believe that they are better than non-Christians in the sense that they are Christians and believe in Jesus. On Christianity, sincere belief in and devotion to Jesus is the most important act, and unbelief and apostasy the most heinous, meriting the worst punishment. Needless to say, Christians will mostly adhere to Christian morality better than non-Christians, because non-Christians do not believe everything Christians believe about morality. Moreover, the New Testament is explicit that sin is still in the lives of Christians. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). But apart from this, a good deal of the New Testament is written as a result of problems (false teaching and immorality) in the churches, just as many of the prophetic books in the Old Testament exist as a result of prophetic rebuke of the evil in Israel. The churches need to be rebuked and exhorted. The Book of Revelation starts with letters to several churches containing both praise and rebuke. All of this clearly implies an acute awareness of the faults and sins of genuine Christians, let alone false Christians. In the same way, the people in Jesus’s parables who are judged are often identified as servants of the person who represents God in the parable (usually, a landowner or another authority figure). Within the context of Jesus’s teaching, this could refer to either Jews or Christians. At least sometimes, it refers to Christians. So, Jesus also had an awareness that his followers would do things badly and would be judged (by him) for it. “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:19). Again, this implies that there will be need for discipline among believers.
So, we have to be very clear about what the New Testament claims and doesn’t claim about the lives of Christians. There definitely is a discernible claim that the Christian will be a new creation with respect to their former life as a non-Christian. There is also a discernible claim that the unbelieving world is, in some sense, under Satan’s power. There is an explicit claim that Christians continue to sin after coming to Christ. However, there is no claim or implication, as far as I can tell, that a given Christian’s life will be better morally in every respect, with respect to every virtue or every shared moral belief, than any given non-Christian or the average moral character of non-Christians. One might say that one should expect something like this to be true if Christianity is true, but one cannot claim that the New Testament claims that it is the case. If the New Testament does not make such a claim, then it becomes fallacious to claim that the sins of Christians gives evidence against Christianity. This would be like claiming that the immoral behaviour of Utilitarians or Aristotelians or Kantians disproved or counted as evidence against these moral philosophies. Clearly, it does not.
The Problem of Measurement
Even if it were the case that Christianity predicts that Christians, on the whole, should be better in every respect than non-Christians on the whole, there is a problem in making this judgment that is glossed over. How do you know and quantify the quality of one person’s moral character, and how do you then determine the average moral character in every or most Christians and non-Christians over the past centuries? Making wholesale judgments about one person’s moral character is difficult enough, given that we only see a very small snapshot of their actions, and given that we don’t see their intentions and motivations, or the various pressures, psychological tendencies and environment and upbringing that contributed to their acts. Those facts do not necessarily affect their moral responsibility for their evil acts, but it does impact a competent judgment of their moral character. There is no database of all the morally relevant acts that someone has acted out that can be consulted. Finally, there is also the problem of moral disagreement, which I’ll deal with more thoroughly later. There is not even consensus on the measuring staff that should be used. The judgment about how moral Christians are compared to other groups will undoubtedly then be based on anecdote, media and popular culture representations of Christians and so on. Needless to say, this will not give one an accurate picture, especially given the measurement problems we’ve looked at.
The Difference in Standards
It is also clear that Christians and non-Christians disagree on what is moral behaviour. There is some baseline of shared moral beliefs but you will find that the bitterest disagreements between non-Christians and Christians focus not on shared moral beliefs, but on moral disagreement. Non-Christians in the English-speaking world will regard Christians as immoral as a result of their moral beliefs, perhaps most prominently: abortion and homosexuality. Christians have regularly been regarded as bigoted and judgmental for disapproving of homosexuality. Historic Christian views on sexual morality have more generally, beyond the issue of homosexuality, been regarded with condemnation by the secular world as excessively strict. It isn’t strange then that the accusation of hypocrisy often comes based upon Christians not following Christian sexual morality. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The accusations of hypocrisy do seem often ( but not always) to focus on places where the secular world disagrees with Christian moral beliefs. Christians were widely perceived to be “judgmental”. No doubt some of the reason for this did have to do with unkindness but, in the same way, this accusation only seemed to surface when the secular world approved of the behaviour in question, while Christians did not. Thus, the problem is not really “judgmentalism”, and the accusation of “judgmentalism” is frequently smokescreen for moral disagreement. Also, the pro-life position is regarded as immoral by pro-choicers. Non-Christians also disagree with Christians about how to conduct a moral community. Christians maintain that a serial killer who repents and believes in Jesus will be saved, but the apparently virtuous non-Christian who rejects the gospel, will not be. Christians show mercy where the non-Christian world doesn’t want to and disapproves where the non-Christian world wants to approve. Other common complaints in the United States against Christians is that they have the wrong political beliefs and are more authoritarian culturally, if not politically. All of this is indicative of moral and political disagreement, not a violation of shared moral beliefs. The political disagreement is prominent because the secular left arguably makes political beliefs central to a person’s moral character. (This, by the way, is fundamentally misguided. Political beliefs are a very small and insignificant part of someone’s moral character. It is easy to have the “right” political opinions and it requires little to no virtue to be loud about it on social media. The effect of making politics so prominent in the assessment of someone’s moral character will severely damage not merely public and private morality, but also politics.)
Wolves Among the Sheep
Even if it were the case that Christianity predicted that Christians would be clearly superior with respect to every virtue, compared to non-Christians, you need an additional assumption that everybody claiming to be Christian are actually Christian. You may claim that the New Testament itself predicts Christians that are on average morally better than non-Christians ( a claim we’ve already looked at), but even if that were the case, the New Testament also presents us with a picture of the Church that is constantly in flux and embattled by phonies. In the New Testament, false Christians, false prophets and false teachers are constantly a threat, where people are deceived and misled, and where “lukewarm” Christians often not merely reside but prevail. The New Testament also warns about apostasy based upon unbelief or unrepentant immorality (Matt 24:11-13, Hebrews 6:6, Hebrews 10:26, 2 Peter 2). Jesus says that false prophets and false christs will be prevalent in the last days and may even deceive true Christians (Matt 24:11). He provides a test for determining who they are ( “you shall know them by their fruits” Matt 7:15-16). In the same way, Paul writes frequently about false teachers in 2 Corinthians, in Galatians, and other letters. John writes about false Christians more than once. Peter writes about apostates in the church. The author of the book of Hebrews writes about apostates. Revelation also shows a concern for a sect of Christians who were adopting pagan customs and practicing sexual immorality (the Nicolaitans). We also know of Christians who lose their faith all the time. This usually happens over time and involves a gradual abandonment of Christian beliefs and principles. This type of process rarely happens immediately, which means there is plenty of opportunity for them to be seen doing wrong while still bearing the name of God. In his most famous work, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis admits what I admitted earlier: that a conversion to Christianity should improve that person’s moral behaviour. However, he goes on:
But there is another way of demanding results in which the outer world may be quite illogical. They may demand not merely that each man’s life should improve if he becomes a Christian:they may also demand before they believe in Christianity that they should see the whole world neatly divided into two camps—Christian and non-Christian – and that all the people in the first camp at any given moment should be obviously nicer than all the people in the second. This is unreasonable on several grounds.(1)In the first place the situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100 per cent. Christians and 100 per cent. Non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so.[ix]
[i] Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, (New York: Harper One, 2011)Kindle Edition, p. 111-113
[ii] Woods, Thomas E Woods Jr., How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, (Washington: Regnery History, 2012) Kindle Edition, Loc 2727
[iii] Ibid., Loc 2667 – 2672
[iv] Ibid., Loc 2672
[v] Ibid., Loc 2757, Loc 2792
[vi] Ibid., Loc 2818
[vii] Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle Edition, Loc 1247
[viii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Harper Collins, 1952) p. 210
[ix] Ibid., 208