I’ve previously described how, at least in my own experience, there seems to be something about the way of Jesus that motivates more and deeper altruism than I have observed elsewhere. But there’s another corollary that I have observed that I think deserves mention. I have known quite a few people who have, during their adult life, either come to or left the Christian faith, however they describe it. I have known fewer (but not none) who have chosen to adopt other faiths. And while this is about as unscientific an observation as any, there is a pattern I have seen that I cannot dismiss. While stipulating all the requisite provisos about the good non-Christians I know (and they are many) and the nasty Christians I know (and sadly they, too, are many), I have seen the way of Jesus (some would say the Holy Spirit) change people for the better in a way I don’t find replicated anywhere else.
What I mean is this: I count as good friends–good enough to have some grounds to say this–a number of people who, in the process of placing their trust in Jesus Christ, have become visibly and unmistakably (and sometimes radically) kinder, gentler, humbler, and more generous people than they were before. While it seems to me theoretically possible that the philosophy of Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism might also produce this change, I have neither seen it nor met anyone who claims it. And perhaps most tellingly, I have never seen such a change to the good for one who abandons his or her faith, and in fact I frequently have seen quite the opposite.
A qualification is in order here: I have known quite a few people whose baseline was a strident and decidedly not-humble fundamentalist Christianity. Thomas Paine is said to have observed that “a cruel god makes a cruel man,” and nowhere I have I seen this more true than in fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam. Some portion of those people, mercifully, come to recognize the cruelty of their ways, and because of kindness discovered, leave their fundamentalism. Of those, some move from fundamentalism to a more-open, gentler form of their faith, while others abandon faith altogether. But in either case, it appears to me that becoming kinder is the impetus, not the result, of their change of faith/philosophy. As a consequence I think it important to be mindful of that potential confounder when evaluating their change of heart.
Recognizing this caveat, I have known a number of people who have abandoned their faith because they came to find it wanting, incredible, false, or otherwise untenable … I have yet to see one of them become, as I said above, kinder, gentler, humbler, or more generous … in fact quite the opposite is often the case. Abandonment of faith tends, it seems to me, to generally be accompanied by a sense of superiority toward those benighted souls left behind, or bitterness toward the institutions they inhabit, or at least a general apathy toward the whole business.
So in summary, it appears to me that coming to Jesus has the potential to genuinely sweeten an individual’s behavior toward others, while moving in the opposite direction has no such potential and may in fact produce the opposite. Now as I said, this is certainly not an epidemiologic case-control study. I’m describing impressions here, not data. Nevertheless, one thing that keeps me from abandoning my faith in my darker days, and in fact keeps me coming back to it in happier times, is seeing the good it has done to others. The way of Jesus really does appear different from all the other stuff on offer.