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. 1.  My faith is more likely to be true than theirs.
  2. 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.

  • Amanda

    Love the writing JT… looking forward to more great stuff like this.

  • Christian Philosophe

    Interesting post. It is apparent that you put a great deal of thought into this. However, I am afraid that you have tragically misrepresented the word "faith". It is unclear from your post whether your intention is to describe "faith" as Christians typically use the word or to define "faith" independently. If you are simply redefining the word, your post is relatively useless. If you are intending to describe how Christians typically use the word then have done little more than torch a straw man. Only the most uneducated Christians use "faith" to describe their means for acquiring truth. Properly, "faith" describes the outworking of some epistemological study that fails to yield absolute certainty. Faith is cherished when absolute certainty is otherwise unattainable. In the way Scripture frequently uses the word, "faith" is almost indistinguishable from "trust". In the same way that you might cherish the trust that your best friend has in you (even though s/he cannot be absolutely certain that your motives/intentions are honorable), God cherishes the trust that believers place in Him – that He is who He says He is and does what He says He does. However, nowhere does Scripture recommend "faith" as the means by which one ought to acquire truth. To illustrate my point, try rereading your post, but every time you use the word "faith" replace it with the word "trust". I trust that what I believe is true, but only a fool uses trust as a means to acquire truth (if it even makes sense to use "trust" in that way). I do apologize that you have obviously had some run-ins with ignorant Christians, but I am trying to do my part to amend that problem.

    Furthermore, concerning your letter to the editor and historical Christianity, there is little doubt that many many Christians have committed unspeakable acts of cruelty. However, this fact is of little importance if the specific ideas that led to that cruelty are not isolated. Faith is not to blame for the Crusades any more than trust is to blame for the accidental suicide of the child that jumps of a building wearing a superman cape. It was the specific idea that was trusted in that deserves the blame. Concerning the "unthinkable savagery that is not only endorsed by god, but mandated by him," you must understand God's perspective in these instances. Indeed, it would be unthinkable savagery for a judge to knowingly sentence an innocent man to death be lethal injection, but it is hardly savagery to sentence a guilty person to death. The Bible is clear that all people everywhere are born deserving death. A just God would enact the proper sentence – death. You could say that God ought to prevent such a person from being born if that is what his/her destiny is, but this is no more than mere conjecture. There is no good rationale that suggests that God is morally obligated to prevent the birth of an individual that would otherwise deserve everlasting torment. There is, perhaps, strong emotional appeal, but there is little in terms of proper a priori argumentation.

  • Christian Philosophe

    Sorry for the typos in my response, particularly "jumps of…" should read "jumps off…" in the second paragraph. Also, "be lethal injection" should read "by lethal injection." My bad.

  • JT

    Christian Philosopher,

    "Properly, “faith” describes the outworking of some epistemological study that fails to yield absolute certainty."

    How many ideas are absolutely certain? Due to our lack of absolute knowledge, we may turn up all manner of evidence in the future that may prove us wrong. But nobody playing fair will formulate beliefs on what we don't know – all we can do is the best with what we currently have. We do this for all kinds of things we all consider true: the Sun is hot, my shoe size is 11, etc. While these ideas are not absolutely certain, they are reasonably certain, which is as good as we can do. So saying that faith accounts for things that aren't certain means applies to pretty much almost everything (including the hotness of the Sun or your shoe size). If that's the semantic outlet you wish to play, fine, we can agree that believing in things for bad reasons is perfectly lame since good reasoning is the means to reasonable certainty. What reason do we have to believe that a Canaanite Jew rose from the dead?

    As far your semantics on trust, I don't see how this changes anything. Trusting in things with no good reason is just as credulous. All related points, so far as I can see, still stand. You're still hosed without good reasons. So if you trust in the bible (or in what you think the bible says) you still need to elevate your position over that of the fundamentalist in terms of reason. So far as I can tell, both the moderate and the fundamentalist use the same arguments for god's existence, they just arbitrarily decide which Christian god to believe in.

    Prove me wrong here if you'd like. Why is your belief in the will of god more likely to be true than a fundamentalist's? You can start with why you think god exists or why the bible is true.

    "However, this fact is of little importance if the specific ideas that led to that cruelty are not isolated. Faith is not to blame for the Crusades any more than trust is to blame for the accidental suicide of the child that jumps of a building wearing a superman cape."

    Both the child's actions and the ideas that lit the fires of the Crusades were poorly reasoned. That's the whole point. Torquemada and his successors believed they knew the will of god and were acting upon it. Like all people, their actions made sense within the context of their beliefs. The problem, simply, is inaccurate beliefs. I assert that all religious people have indefensible beliefs. Feel free to offer up a counter to this assertion.

    "you must understand God’s perspective in these instances"

    You should give me a reason to believe that you are attuned to god's perspective or will in these instances.

    "Indeed, it would be unthinkable savagery for a judge to knowingly sentence an innocent man to death be lethal injection, but it is hardly savagery to sentence a guilty person to death."

    This is the perfect distillation of my point. Is there any slaughter that could not be absolved under this line of reasoning? The witches slain over millennia on account of god's edicts in the OT (even if you contort language to take the 'Jesus made it all better' line of reasoning, plenty of 'witches' were victims of this before Jesus is purported to hit the scene)? The non-virgins who lost their lives for their 'crime'? The list could go on and on.

    To absolve god (and as the followers absolved themselves), you must merely brand them as guilty. Guilty of what? Being born a human? An inability to accept the ludicrous claims of Christianity? Having sex?

    I remain convinced that neither those pious believers or you, Christian philosopher, can substantiate any of their claims to know the will of god (or even that a god exists). I invite you to try.

    You then tell me I can't note that it would be more compassionate of god to nullify someone's existence rather than knowingly allow them to suffer eternally (after suffering temporarily at the hands of his followers) because that would be mere conjecture. Since conjecture is no good, perhaps you can start by explaining how you rightly know that god exists and that you are privy to his will.

    JT

  • Christian Philosophe

    "…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"

    "Faith is a means to circumvent reason and reality."

    The purpose of my post was simply to clarify the meaning of "faith", particularly in light of how you have used the word in the above quotes. As I mentioned before, to substitute "trust", a synonym of "faith", into the above statements would seem to take all the weight and power out of what you are saying. If you had in mind to define "faith" in your post then the post makes sense, but is relatively meaningless because it is not normally meant that way. If you had in mind to describe how Christians typically use the word and then argue its veracity as an epistemological exercise then you have failed, because you have not described the word in a way that Christians actually use it.

    I am simply suggesting that it is the reasoning behind the faith, and not faith itself, that should be critiqued and revised insofar as it is inconsistent with truth as we know it.

    I would not normally feel inclined to respond to a post such as yours, but upon reading and rereading you post it seems that you have encountered a few tragic flaws. First, you have misrepresented the word "faith" and twisted to to say that it refers to an epistemological method, rather than an the embracing of an uncertain epistemological end. Then, upon torching that straw man, you seem to have equivocated your self-defined "faith" as an epistemological method with "faith" as a religion in general – specifically Christianity. Thus, in eviscerating your straw man you also appear to be eviscerating religion. This would not be equivocation if you had demonstrated a necessary link between faith as an epistemological method and religion – such that the failure of faith (as you defined it) necessitates the epistemological failure of religion. However you seem to do no such thing.

    One final point: I am certain that you are not willing to say that simply because there are a multiplicity of opinions on a subject that none of those opinions are true…? That is obviously a fallacious contention, yet it is the only piece of evidence that you offer that has any factual support. You also offer this as evidence: "Reflect that almost every Christian who has ever lived has not represented “true” Christianity by modern standards." You go on to back up this statement with anecdotes about women's suffrage and witchcraft. However, no where do you support the unwritten premise that Christianity is defined by the behavior of the majority of its followers. Indeed the historical-majority definition of Christianity is an ever-changing one. As is the denominational-majority definition, the theological-majority definition, and the traditional-majority definition. Usually, based on my own experience, when someone claims to hold to 'true' Christianity s/he is referring to a very specific definition of Christianity, with reference to Biblical and historical data. Which definition is the 'true' definition? Frankly, it doesn't matter at all. A definition simply describes the way a word is being used, and its truth is determined by how well it coheres with the way the author intended the word to be understood. Does this mean there is no 'true' Christianity? Of course not. Just because there is no standard definition for the term "Christianity" doesn't mean that there are no true examples of a specifically-defined Christianity. Certainly there are a plethora of examples of historical-majority Christians, as well as theological-majority and denominational-majority. The confusion normally enters the equation when one suggests that Christianity as s/he defines it exactly corresponds to the way God Himself would want Christians to understand/believe/behave. This claim is hardly objectively verifiable, and has obviously been tendered by pretty much every Christian that has ever lived. Does this necessitate that every single one of them is wrong, to some degree or another? No. Perhaps there has existed a Christian that has perfectly exemplified Christianity exactly as God wants. However, even if there has never been a Christian that has perfectly fulfilled the previous statement, that does not mean that God has not set up some standard by which He will judge 'true' Christians from 'false' Christians. Again, as I mentioned before, no claim for this standard is absolutely objectively verifiable. This is not, however, because such a standard does not exist, but because Christians have yet to agree upon what that kind of objectivity would look like. There is no agreed upon means for establishing objective verifiability.

    Basically, just because Christians disagree on what God's standard for 'true' Christianity might be doesn't mean that there is no such standard.

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  • Mac

    @CP: “I am certain that you are not willing to say that simply because there are a multiplicity of opinions on a subject that none of those opinions are true…?” Not to butt in…okay, I guess I am :-) …but while it’s possible that none of the opinions are true, it’s not equally possible that *all* of them are. My particular question is, who has the straight skinny (and that’s not exclusive to Christianity, by the way) and why? What makes the Christian perspective more rational than any other?