Habemus Altare

Needless to say, there are a great many reasons that people have not only for ignoring the claims of Christianity, but for rejecting them outright. Sometimes these are intellectual ones. But the most potent, perhaps, are moral and social ones There are no shortage of moral failings, and even atrocities, with which Christians can be rightfully charged. Joachim Kahl, not wholly implausibly, once said that ‘the history of Christianity is the best school for atheism’. Equally it is not uncommon to hear religion in general, and Christianity in particular, still dismissed as ‘the opium of the masses’ - especially, for some reason, by people who have never read Marx, and certainly never read the rest of the paragraph from which those words are taken. The immortality and disutility of religion, and again Christianity in particular, is a dominant theme for New Atheist authors.

But then we come to a Saint Francis, a Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an Albert Schweitzer, a Dorothy Day, or a Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. And such figures prevent Christianity from being written off quite so easily. They hint, not only to us but to the world, that among all the chaff, there is some wheat after all… I am not saying that such saints, in themselves, are the key to countering atheism. My point is rather that they prevent people from completely dismissing Christianity as ethically moribund and socially useless. As such, they offer an invaluable corrective to the more strident (and, to a point, justified) attacks on the Church and its members - not as incorporated into a meta-ethical, apologetic argument, but simply through undertaking the works of mercy and inspiring other Christians to do the same. The famous injunction, normally attributed to Saint Francis, to ‘preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary’, like many timeworn phrases, contains much that is true.

Stephen Bullivant in “Atheism, Apologetics, and Ecclesiology: Gaudium et Spes and Contemporary Unbelief”, published in Imaginative Apologetics, pg. 92-3
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