About a week ago, I had a discussion with a woman at the Pages and Places book festival prologue party. I told her that I was a local writer and blogger after she asked what I do and talked I began to speak about my article regarding the contraceptive healthcare mandate and why the arguments against it are very problematic. She asked me if I was an atheist, I replied in the affirmative, and she was quite disgruntled. She said “Jesus still loves you and doesn’t want you to go to Hell.” I told her that I find no good reason to believe in her god or Hell and raised several objections to her statement: If I’m going to be punished for non-belief (especially when God gives me no good reason to believe he exists and he could), Christianity is quite an immoral system, it’s not just to punish people from other religions, and if God doesn’t want me to go to Hell, why would he send me there?
The woman replied and said that people from other religions can be saved as long as they ‘believe in something.’ This type of response of common from people known as religious pluralists or otherwise those who seem to ‘invent their own religions.’ Besides this sentiment of hers being very unbiblical, she provided no justification for her belief. I asked her why she believed this and there was no reply regarding justification. We soon entered into a discussion regarding the problem of evil (in light of the recent flooding that devastated the area that prominent religious persons namely Fr. Jack Ryan and Bishop Bambera had much to say about) and the women’s defense for God allowing evil was that we need natural disasters to know what good is and to be charitable to others. I asked her, before objecting, if God created these natural disasters because we can have this good and charity without them (and would have more opportunities to do so) and she said that God isn’t responsible for natural disasters!
While some theologians, priests, and laypersons may back away from belief in a literal Hell and a punishment for sins (although this seems to be quite contrary to the New Testament), it makes little sense for a Christian to claim that God is not responsible for natural disasters because one of the most common beliefs amongst Christians, I would wager, is that God created the universe. If God created the universe, it seems only logical to assume that he is responsible for the natural laws that guarantee the occurrence of natural disasters.
I try not to assume much about the beliefs of theists I happen to be having discussions with, but it seems reasonable for me to assume some basic ideas that a person might hold. When theists divert away from the standard teachings of their religion, I am quite lost because the person seems to have little justification for their claims from both their holy book/religious tradition (provided that this actually provided justification) and from ‘standard reason.’ If one calls him/herself a Christian, it seems to make little sense to use this label if one does not believe the standard ‘set’ of Jesus was raised from the dead by God, Jesus died for the sins of humankind, God created the universe, and God is omni-max (all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful).
Theologian John Haught, at his 2011 lecture at King’s College, asserted that ‘God likes drama’ and that there is so much calamity in the universe and on earth because it’s part of a beautiful narrative by God. Without calamity, he reasoned, life wouldn’t be interesting…and there wouldn’t be freedom, a future, or life. Haught says that without ‘accidents in the universe,’ there would be no novelty, evolution, progress, or meaning in life. All of this, of course, flies in the face of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god who can presumably have the universe in any way he wants…which would allow a story, progress, freedom, etc.
As an atheist, I suppose I don’t get to define what makes one a Christian or who can rightly use the label (and, again, I don’t want to drift into no true Scotsman territory). There certainly is a wide diversity amongst individual believers, some people may interpret some passages differently, and the Bible can be the ‘big book of multiple choice’ as hosts and co-hosts of The Atheist Experience often say. Look at one verse and Jesus tells people to pray in private and look at others that support open prayer… Look at one verse and prayer is said to work if one has the faith of a mustard seed and then hear the commonly voiced ‘God helps those who help themselves’ (and one wonders how helping oneself can be distinguished from God intervening).
Theologians and individual believers, when they engage in apologetics, often seem to make God smaller and smaller when they gradually move away from the standard claims that Christians make. In my two years as an atheist at a Catholic college, I have heard believers say that Hell doesn’t exist, but rather ‘Hell’ is separation from God. I have heard that Jesus didn’t literally raise from the dead, but rather the story is ‘truthful’ in that the lessons learned are the real value in the story. I have heard that prayer is just trust in God and that God doesn’t actually intervene in human affairs.
The list goes on and on… God seems to boil down to that little gap that we have left to put him in when it is most likely the case that that gap will fade and allow a new one to open up… God used to be the explanation for disease, droughts, lightning, earthquakes, and so much more. Now, though, we can explain these things without evoking a deity. Believers now look to the brain and the universe in order to slide God in somewhere while often not understanding that they are committing a version of the fallacious appeal to ignorance: just because we can’t explain something does not give us any justification to assert ‘God did it.’ Yesterday’s god-explanations are today’s science.
When theologians and individual believers recognize that the challenges to main-line faith claims are too overwhelming and that Christianity reduces to a ‘way of life’ and ‘truthful’ because the stories teach lessons, why don’t they just be honest and call themselves secular Christians, or just shed the label of Christian altogether? As I’ve noted before, there is a wide disconnect between theologians, priests, and laypersons. The theologians and priests are often claiming far less — as far as metaphysical religious truth claims are concerned — than the laity, but the laity are endorsing ideas like creationism, for example. Where are the laypersons getting these ideas from…and why aren’t their ministers doing something about this
It might be easy for priests and theologians to say “Well, persons x, y, and z can go out on their own and read what deep thinkers in the Christian tradition are saying, study on their own, etc,” but these persons are obviously not doing this. Are the church services and Bible studies merely a ‘pat on the back and let’s all agree and don’t actually learn anything’ sessions? Are the CCD classes for children very similar to the ones i attended while I was in kindergarten (!) until high school? When I look back to my early religious education, I was taught about a literal hell, a literal Adam and Eve story, how I and my family members could go to Hell if we didn’t confess our sins on a regular basis, and was very concerned about my great-grandmother’s soul.
If Christianity really boils down to “living life according to the teachings of Jesus as individuals interpret them while cutting out all the bad stuff or redefining it away or making excuses for it and living life according to the metaphorical teachings of the Bible,” there’s really not much more to it than me reading Lord of the Rings and doing the same while not actually believing in a literal Gandalf and the label itself appears to be meaningless.
Further, this idea of Christianity being ‘truth-ful’ can be a ‘move’ known as equivocation – an informal logical fallacy that is committed when one uses a word in two different contexts and obfuscates meaning. Saying that Christianity is true (when we accept the standard understanding of true as meaning based in fact and in accordance with reality) and then saying it is truth-ful (meaning that the teachings one can derive have some semblance of moral truth to them) is to equivocate.
Sure, one can certainly gain benefits from a Christianity such as this (although I would argue that one can have the benefits without Christianity and be better off without the religious baggage), but it’s quite empty of standard understanding and the common threads that believers share as far as metaphysical truth claims are concerned. This Christianity is certainly much ‘nicer’ than the standard fare, but it appears to be an incredibly dishonest position to take. Why don’t those who believe in a ‘truth-ful Christianity’ shed themselves of the Christian label and just call themselves secular Christians?