Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Christianity built to suit our wishes?

Continuing the discussion with John W. Loftus.

Christianity, as you noted, begins with bad news. There is someone before whom we will have to stand accountable for our actions. Even "good people" aren't good enough. There is no room for excusing or justifying the wrongs we have done, no softening the blow by favorable comparisons with other people, "I thank God that I am not as other men." I'd certainly prefer a religion that would take seriously the kind of crap I like to tell myself about the fact that I am not such a bad guy after all, that while I may be worse than X, I'm certainly better than Y. But, but, I'm nice to my friends and family, and who told me I had to love those XXXs over there anyway. They don't coun't, they're just, well, XXXs. Besides, look at all the rules I successfully follow, at least on my good days. And as a human race, well, we'll be OK, if my party wins the next election, or when the Dialectic of Matter brings in the Classless and Stateless Society.


Although most atheists adhere to a moral code, Christian morality is tougher, and not just with respect to sex behavior. I remember reading C. S. Lewis's chapter on pride for the first time and getting mad at him. No religion built to suit our wishes would make Pride the first of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Islam tells me that if I follow the Qu'ran I can make it to Paradise by my works. If I do the Five Pillars, I'm in pretty good shape. And, I can look down on all those people who don't follow the rules as well as I do. Hinduism says that if I mess up in this life, I've got a lot more chances.

For Christians who take sin seriously, human history is no surprise. Overthrow the French monarch, and you can expect the guillotine in the streets of Paris. Overthrow the Czar, and end up with the Party Purges.

A secularist who has a guilty conscience has the chance of appealing to relativism to justify his answers. Moral codes are invented by human beings for their own benefit, so if I screw up, I at least didn't offend the Creator of the Universe.

I never said Christianity was not emotionally appealing. No belief system could survive without some emotional appeal. But there are a lot of ways that I could make Christianity more emotionally appealing than it is.

If you go on my site, you will find a few atheists making the case that there is an emotional upside and a downside to Christianity. What needs to be argued for is that there is something special about the emotional appeal of Christianity that is subversive to the fair examination of the evidence, that is somehow not present on the atheist side.

Further, you haven't come to terms with my observation that many of us tend to get suspicious about things that are too good to be true. Our desire to believe does have a tendency to bias us in favor of a belief, but it also makes us suspicious at the same time, especially if we have already heard that wishful thinking might undermine our rationality. In fact, people very often overcompensate in the direction of pessimism.

20 comments:

Walter said...

The biggest emotional appeal for Christian theism is the belief that you will survive your own death, hopefully getting reunited with loved ones who perished before you. I often wonder if Christianity had no concept of an afterlife, would it still be all that popular of a religion? If you had to follow a bunch of rules with no hope of personal reward, how many would still sign up?

The biggest emotional appeal for atheism is freedom.

Anonymous said...

One look at the transhumanist movement and you'll see that "surviving death" is not an appeal exclusive to Christianity, or even theism.

And atheism's emotional appeal goes beyond mere freedom, especially when we start looking at atheist movements. There is the appeal of being part of a self-described elite circle (remember that "Brights" garbage?) and all that comes with that. I'm not sure "freedom" would be the biggest appeal given what else is in the running.

unkleE said...

Walter, I'm sure you are correct that the prospect of life after death is a big attraction for christianity. But having thought about it quite a lot, I think that even without that, I would still choose to follow Jesus. In the end, christianity isn't just "pie in the sky when we die", but is also, properly understood, a call to positive action to relieve human bondages and suffering here and now. And this is very easily observed in the christian emphasis on serving by providing education, medical help and assistance to the marginalised, which was noted by Rodney Stark in early christianity, and continues to this day via the Salvation Army and christian hospitals even in strongly Muslim countries..

unkleE said...

And further ...

"If you had to follow a bunch of rules with no hope of personal reward, how many would still sign up?

The biggest emotional appeal for atheism is freedom."


You, and many christians, have misunderstood here. NT christianity is about freedom, not legalism (following rules), as many many passages show. Christianity has that same appeal as atheism, just in a different form.

Walter said...

You, and many christians, have misunderstood here. NT christianity is about freedom, not legalism (following rules), as many many passages show. Christianity has that same appeal as atheism, just in a different form.

Well, that depends on which denomination of Christianity that you happen to subscribe to. The Christianity of my youth was quite legalistic. I am aware that not all sects of Christianity are as strict as mine was--some I know of were actually worse than mine.

Victor Reppert said...

Humans do have the desire not to become extinct, although since Christianity doesn't come with a full certainty of salvation, and since I am pretty sure a lot of people would pick extinction over hell, it sometimes, at least comes with a downside even with respect to our destiny.

But other desires are connected to the future life, including the possibility that someday the injustices we see here on earth will be righted. That's a desire that, even if it were to be false, I would have to sympathize with those who had it.

The desire simply to continue on existing at whatever cost is, of course, what drives Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. But to survive to see justice finally done, that's a desire that Voldemort could never have.

Doctor Logic said...

How many Christians here believe that God answers their prayers?

Walter said...

Humans do have the desire not to become extinct, although since Christianity doesn't come with a full certainty of salvation, and since I am pretty sure a lot of people would pick extinction over hell, it sometimes, at least comes with a downside even with respect to our destiny.

Except that most people that believe in a literal hell are convinced that they are not the ones going there. It's always the other guy that's getting the one way ticket to the inferno. Fear of hell is also a strong motivating factor in accepting Christian (and Muslim) dogmas.

JS Allen said...

Fear of hell is also a strong motivating factor in accepting Christian (and Muslim) dogmas.

Fear of hell is also a very strong motivating factor in rejecting Christianity.

Walter said...

Fear of hell is also a very strong motivating factor in rejecting Christianity.

If one truly believed, one would not reject the only chance one had to escape eternal torments.

JS Allen said...

If one truly believed, one would not reject the only chance one had to escape eternal torments.

So you say.

Plenty of empirical evidence shows that, if one gets too worried about hell, one will look for any reason to disbelieve.

JS Allen said...

For example, see:

http://evaluatingchristianity.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/the-delight-of-the-saints-in-the-suffering-of-the-damned-or-this-is-why-i-like-victor-reppert/

"In high school, I had a brief fling with Evangelical Christianity, mostly through the influence of a girlfriend. One of the things she said to me, in a particularly painful conversation, was that it filled with her with horror to imagine being in Heaven and looking down to see me among the Damned. It’s perhaps not surprising that sometime later — after we had broken up — she started rebelling major time against her church’s teachings, and ended up in very liberal Christian waters. Me, I just ended up by not being Christian at all…"

Or take the example of Sabio Lantz, who began to doubt Christianity when he realized that his Hindu friends lived moral lives, and thought it wrong that they could be condemned to hell.

Heck; Victor himself is a great example. Victor flirts with universalism, and I suspect he would begin to doubt Christianity if he believed that it preaches a hell that will be heavily populated.

I've spent my whole life observing people who reject hell first, and then Christianity. There are plenty of people who disbelieve for other reasons, but the doctrine of hell is right up near the top for people who reject Christianity.

Shackleman said...

The idea of eternity positively terrifies me, be it in heaven or hell.

Terrifies.

F.O.R.E.V.E.R. in any form, is a REALLY long time.

So, count me as a Christian who has signed up in spite of my true fear of eternity. I was unafraid of death when I was an atheist. I figured when I was dead, I wouldn't know it. Now, as a Christian, it's downright spooky to me and I don't know what to think of death anymore. Like seriously, what the crap am I going to do all day for eternity?

Louis said...

To the Christians in the room: What would make Christianity more emotionally appealing to you? What wish do you have that isn't fulfilled by your faith? If you could fashion your own religion to fulfill your wishes, what would it look like and how would it differ from your current faith?

Walter said...

I've spent my whole life observing people who reject hell first, and then Christianity. There are plenty of people who disbelieve for other reasons, but the doctrine of hell is right up near the top for people who reject Christianity.

For me, the problem was contemplating the morality of an eternal hell and trying to reconcile that with a benevolent deity who supposedly wishes all men to be saved, yet makes it so very easy to end up in a place of eternal torment. A place that did not need to exist at all; God could simply annihilate his enemies versus keeping them in existence forever so that they may suffer without end.

If I truly believed that such a place existed I would worship the Devil, if necessary, just to keep myself out of such a chamber of horror. Self-preservation would override any moral concerns when you are speaking of eternal suffering without cease.

Anonymous said...

Do we know for sure that hell is eternal torture without cease?

If we don't, then how reasonable are we being in allowing such a concept of hell be a big factor in our rejecting Christianity?

Walter said...

Do we know for sure that hell is eternal torture without cease?

If we don't, then how reasonable are we being in allowing such a concept of hell be a big factor in our rejecting Christianity?


Most Evangelical Christians that I have ever known are absolutely adamant that hell is as eternal in its duration as Heaven is. It is one of the things that caused me to reject my Baptist faith. There is something wrong about God wishing me to come to a loving relationship with him while holding a knife to my neck. Except that God is not going to kill you, he is going to make you suffer torments with no chance of divine pardon EVER.

An eternal hell is cruelty beyond human comprehension. I could understand some form of temporary corrective punishment for some of the things that we have done in this life, but never-ending punishment strikes me as highly immoral. And if God's morality is that much different from mine, why should I praise and worship him? I might worship out of terror and a desire for self-preservation, but it would not be out of love or respect.

Anonymous said...

I agree that if hell is eternal torment that's a pretty big impediment to belief.

I'm just saying, what if it's not?

Edward T. Babinski said...

@Vic,

1) Your description of Christianity sounds like a wife beaten down by her husband who fears she will never live up to his high expectations, but fears even more not having someone to "love."

2) Or it sounds like, "believe or suffer eternally." It sounds like you're more frightened of having "unholy" thoughts and being sent to hell forever, than of admitting you have just as many questions as I do, honest ones, concerning what lay behind a metaphysical curtain that neither of us can see behind.

3) As for "justice finally being done." Do you think eternal punishment is just?

We spend a few decades (if we're lucky and don't die in the womb or in childhood) on this planet, being pumped full of at least one language and one culture, and then our hormones kick in and we have to struggle with those, and today there's more that each of us has to struggle to learn, literacy levels are relatively higher than in the past, more complex mathematics and engineering formulas, more complex studies in all the sciences. More technology. And we have to eat, have a dwelling to live in, a way to get around, take care of our health, our teeth, our clothes, suffer through a lifetime of repetitious or often boring labor, sometimes strenuous labor that cripples us, and live with the knowledge that suffering of some sort and death will take each one of us in the end, and many of us will also suffer chronic illnesses of mind or body, including such things as paranoia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, Lou Gherig's disease, cancer, heart disease, AIDS, TB, malaria, to name a few. And after that, "justice is finally done?" How so? Eternal hell after all that?

Edward T. Babinski said...

@Vic,

You also mentioned that "For Christians who take sin seriously, human history is no surprise."

But human history is no surprise to atheists either. Both apes and humans indulge in both peacekeeping and ferocious behaviors toward one another.

Second, atheists also note that a preponderance of Christian churches, prayers, and evangelism stemming from a country, seems to offer that country no special advantage in the long run. The Christianized Roman Empire fell. The Southern U.S. lost the Civil War even with "God" being added to their new Constitution, and thinking themselves nearer to the teachings of the Bible than the North with its far more numerous schisms, sects and denominations. Even Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany had many churches, believers and prayers (Hitler gained more votes in the countryside than other candidates, among,I presume, more religious folk). The first World War also was fought between countries with plenty of prayers being said on both sides. Indeed, Europe was the world's evangelist for centuries, sending out missionaries to the rest of the world. But European Christians couldn't stop fighting amongst themselves, and European soil was the one on which the most advanced weapons were tossed at each other. Therefore a preponderance of Christian churches, prayers, and evangelism stemming from a country, seems to offer that country no special advantage in the long run.