An old letter about ‘true’ Christianity
I’ve been doing my best over the last several years to demolish the idea that there is such a thing as ‘true’ Christianity, and I’ve aimed this at people on my side of the fence to both motivate them and prepare them to engage this argument, but I’ve also aimed it at the moderate Christians that frequent my site. When ‘truth’ is to be weighed by scales of faith, no belief is discernible from another in terms of credibility. As Friedrich Nietzsche once put it, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”
On a daily basis you can find numerous cases of people doing insanely stupid, dangerous things because they were driven by faith. So often we hear cries that the atheist has caricatured faith by pointing these things out. The charge is that we are highlighting a handful of extremists (of course, there’s far more than a handful), and we are admonished to accept that these people have somehow gotten faith wrong. This statement is usually followed by a pablum of condescending sighs and an insistence that the moderate’s faith teaches something completely different than the lunatic in question. But what are religious people really expressing when they say that a particularly dangerous person’s faith is not their faith? Here are some options.
- 1. My faith is more likely to be true than theirs.
- 2. My faith is not more likely to be true, but it is more benign.
I can’t think of any other implications we could glean from that sentence. Can you? Leave a comment and I’ll add them if you can.
I think the second option once thought through defaults back to the first. Maybe god wants us to kill certain people (if you’re a Christian, you must admit that he has wanted it before), and if faith can lead us to truth then you must be aware of why your faith is more likely to be true than the extremist’s faith, since you think god wants something different than what the wackos say god wants. Therefore it’s not enough to simply say that your faith is different from that of the extremist – you must show us how the extremist gets faith wrong – you must show how your faith functions on a different mechanic that is “right”, and how that makes your belief about what god wants more likely to be true than theirs. After all, you’re both trying to act in accordance with god’s will, right? You just think that god wants us to do something different.
Of course, faith does not eject the false and keep the true – the notion of faith can embrace any belief. Faith is a horrible tool by which to acquire truth (think of all the people who follow faiths that aren’t yours…most people on Earth must be wrong if you’re right). Faith is a means to circumvent reason and reality. A single person in the 21st century believing that a man walked on water 2,000 years ago would be considered crazy, it is merely the number of people who believe it that rescues the believer from that assessment. As Sam Harris put it, “It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your prayers, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.” Because faith is a means to reject reason and reality when they threaten to obliterate a belief, faith disarms us of our only tools to separate credible truth claims from non-credible truth claims, and often makes bad ideas it allows us to adopt immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence. It is clear that the moderate’s faith is no more likely to be true than the extremist’s because they operate on the same mechanics, even if the moderate’s faith is thankfully less dangerous.
Because both faith that leads to murder/discrimination and faith that leads to charity operate under the same principle, it is impossible for me to criticize one but not the other. I am a critic of lazy thinking, and both sides of the theological coin are equally guilty. Assuring me that your faith is different does not rescue it from this accusation, and it certainly has no bearing on whether or not the nutjob got faith wrong – perhaps god really is talking to him and not you.
So what I wanted to touch on here was the first of the two options above since, as I explained, I think they’re both really the same thing. Ages ago I wrote a letter to the editor that tackles just that point.
Reflect that almost every Christian who has ever lived has not represented “true” Christianity by modern standards. Christians from a century ago were busy citing passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 in order to oppose womans’ suffrage. Before that, it was slave-holders of the American South using scripture to subjugate their slaves. For centuries before that we killed red-haired women for witchcraft and burned our best scholars at the stake for even speculating about the Earth’s motion (now that we realize that there are no witches and that there never were, one does not know whether to laugh or cry).
The history of the Christian faith is a kaleidoscope of unconscionable cruelty and a certain, murderous disregard for truth. Just think of all the great lights of Christian history who would likely be dismissed from “true” Christianity by the modern, moderate crowd for their waltzes with holy malice – this list would likely include almost every saint and most certainly every pope. If you believe that people like St. Augustine (who believed that non-believers should be tortured) and St. Thomas Aquinas (who believed that non-believers should be killed) had never read the sermon on the mount, you are sadly mistaken.
The closer you get to Jesus historically from where we stand now, the more monstrous “true” Christianity has been, and it gets worse as you move into the times before Jesus. The old testament is bursting at the seams with unthinkable savagery that is not only endorsed by god, but mandated by him. The scriptures that lead to these horrors are still in Christianity’s holy book. The credit for our liberation from them does not belong to “true” Christianity, but rather to generations of free thinkers who have made Christians ashamed to live by the tenets that have defined Christianity for the last 6,000 years.
There are over 34,000 different sects of Christianity according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, all of which are making claims to being the “true” Christianity. If we ever needed additional evidence that faith is an immeasurably poor means of discerning truth, this is it. It seems clear that there is no such thing as “true” Christianity, there are only millions of people in this country treating their feelings as though they were facts, and people are bound to feel differently.