The niceness test
C.S. Lewis writes, in Mere Christianity :
I think this is the right moment to consider a question which is often asked: If Christianity is true why are not all Christians obviously nicer than all non-Christians?
He continues, a few paragraphs later, in the second part of his three-part response:
[W]e must be careful to ask the right question. If Christianity is true then it ought to follow (a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian. (b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before.
I agree with Lewis that a Christian’s level of ‘niceness’ should not be compared with the ‘niceness’ levels of non-Christians but against the level of ‘niceness’ of the hypothetical person the Christian would have become if he had not converted to Christianity.
But unlike Lewis, I think it is impossible to make either kind of comparison. I say this because I see ‘niceness’ as a false test. What is perceived as ‘niceness’ in a given person is not necessarily genuine, and it is not necessarily the result of spiritual conversion.
- Observations of ‘niceness’ can be subjective. I think converts tend to seem ‘nicer’ to the groups that convert them than to outsiders, particularly those whose belief systems the converts have rejected.
- The practice of ‘niceness’ can be selective. Believers may treat fellow believers better than nonbelievers — or they may tend to show more courtesy or grace to nonbelievers (who are still prospective converts) than to fellow believers (who are already won over).
- ‘Niceness’ is outward behavior. Independent of religion, people act nice for a wide variety of reasons — some selfish, some altruistic. And religion can introduce multiple new reasons to act nice toward various people — again, some selfish, some altruistic.
- Even if a person’s ‘niceness’ is driven by altruism, that altruism may be the result of something other than a genuine spiritual conversion — for example, an inherent desire to ‘pay forward’ the kindness one has received from church members.
In other words, conversion to Christianity might somehow produce new ‘nice’ behaviors in a person, but that still won’t prove “Christianity is true.”
Now I’ll get personal: I became a Christian at age 13 and considered myself a believer until around age 40. I would characterize myself during that period as selectively ‘nice’ but essentially self-centered, immature and arrogant. My mantra was “If the world fits, you’re the wrong size,” which I invoked as license, even a mandate, to offend nonbelievers with my expressions of belief. As I said in a previous post, I was a born ‘devil’s advocate’ who happened to be advocating Christianity.
It’s logically possible that Christianity made me less horrible than I would have been otherwise. But even to the extent that Christianity made me ‘nicer,’ it is not clear that my ‘niceness’ was for any noble reason at all, let alone a spiritual reason. Again, religion can introduce multiple new reasons to act nice toward various people. I know for sure that in many cases I was just reciprocating toward people who were nice to me, and that in many cases I had something to gain — socially, emotionally or materially — from acting nice. And of course I had a simplistic expectation that if I was nice to people, God would be pleased with me and possibly reward me. I may have had some bursts of genuine compassion, mercy or generosity, but probably not many.
The bottom line: Lewis’s ‘niceness test’ is a false test because ‘niceness’ doesn’t prove anything. At least in my case it didn’t.