The question sometimes crops up of whether Christians should treat unbelievers the same way as they treat fellow Christians. And, in case they should be treated differently, how does that pan out?
The question is often framed in an adversarial manner. There are unbelievers of the “Theocracy Watch” variety who imagine that all Bible-believing Christians are closet witch-burners who look back wistfully at the goode olde days of the Spanish Inquisition. Inside every outwardly amicable, Bible-believing Christian is a little Torquemada scratching and clawing to get out–like a those chest-popping, acid-dripping critters from the Alien franchise.
Of course, there’s nothing to say to people like this. Given their deep-seated suspicion, any denial on our part would be scoffed at.
However, the question is still worth answering, if only for our own sake. Let’s take a few examples.
Suppose you’re hiking with some friends. One of your hiking companions, who happens to be an atheist, sprains his ankle. If you go at his pace, that will slow you down.
Suppose a dangerous weather front is approaching. If you lag behind to help him out, you do so at considerable risk to your own safety.
What would you do? What should you do?
Suppose you’re a consistent unbeliever. In that case it would be irrational for you to risk your own life to save his. You’ve only got one life to live.
Suppose you’re a consistent Christian. In that event, all things being equal, you’d assume a personal risk. You’d stay behind to tend to his needs as best you could.
(I say, “all things being equal.” You do have to balance the risk against other obligations. For example, if you’re an only child, you shouldn’t assume the same degree of risk, for your parents may depend on you in their old age. If, on the other hand, you’re one of nine kids, then you can assume a higher risk.)
In this scenario, a Christian would treat an unbeliever better than his fellow unbelievers would. So Christian ethics is more loving and neighborly to the unbeliever-next-door than secular ethics.
On a related note, it’s not as if Peter Singer’s influential brand of secular ethics is very loving or caring–not even where his fellow infidels are concerned.
This, in turn, shades into a related issue. Atheists sometimes quote polling data according to which a majority of Americans distrust atheists. They then complain about how unfair this is to atheists.
But should a Christian trust an unbeliever? Well, it’s a matter of degree. Let’s take another example.
In a combat situation, who would want to take with you? A comrade who believes in the afterlife, or a comrade who denies the afterlife?
A consistent unbeliever would be less reliable since, from his perspective, he has everything to lose if he’s killed. So he’s less likely to risk his own skin to save his comrades under fire.
Now, in real life, people can be inconsistent. A lot depends on what we know about a person.
But that’s a general sense in which Christians would be inclined to treat an unbeliever differently than a fellow Christian. That’s not the same thing as mistreating an unbeliever. Treating him unjustly. Or treating him worse. It’s just a question of prudence.
Take another example: if two men are running for public office, one a competent Christian, and the other a competent atheist, should a Christian voter treat one differently than the other?
Well, there are situations where their policies may overlap, but as a rule the atheistic candidate will have policies which are unsympathetic to Christian values. So we don’t trust him to represent our interests.
In the last two examples, no injustice is done to the unbeliever. To the contrary, we’re simply taking him at his word. We take his ideology to heart. We take his agenda seriously. If he’s sincere about what he says he believes, then, to that extent, he can’t be trusted.