Thursday, January 04, 2007

Reasons to Reject Christianity?

I ran across this pamphlet by Chaz Bufe called 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity.

I had several general reactions to it.

  • Most of his objections seem to stem from individuals who called themselves Christians and yet who have acted in a manner inconsistent with the teachings of Christ.
  • Many of his objections are based on a misunderstanding of what Christianity really is.
  • Some of his objections are intellectually naïve or dishonest.
  • This appears to be a list of “reasons” developed “after the fact.” In other words, Mr. Bufe, for unstated reasons, rejected Christianity. This list is his attempt to justify his decision.
  • I have no illusion that he would change his mind even if I were able to answer every one of these objections with overwhelming evidence in support of Christianity.
Let me say that I am not dismissing these objections. I think that serious Christians must take them seriously. In fact, I want to address each of them in turn. (I plan to come back to revise and expand these comments later.)

Here is a brief statement about the purpose of Mr. Bufe’s pamphlet:

This pamphlet briefly looks at many of the reasons that Christianity is undesirable from both a personal and a social point of view. All of the matters discussed here have been dealt with elsewhere at greater length, but that’s beside the point: the purpose of 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity is to list the most outstanding misery-producing and socially destructive qualities of Christianity in one place. When considered in toto, they lead to an irresistible conclusion: that Christianity must be abandoned, for the sake of both personal happiness and social progress.
(The text in blue is from Mr. Bufe’s pamphlet. I have used ellipses to show where I have condensed the original.)

1. Christianity is based on fear…. Throughout almost its entire time on Earth, the motor driving Christianity has been—in addition to the fear of death—fear of the devil and fear of hell…. This is not an attempt to convince through logic and reason; it is not an attempt to appeal to the better nature of individuals; rather, it is an attempt to whip the flock into line through threats, through appeals to a base part of human nature—fear and cowardice.

This section asserts several different things:

  • Christianity is in essence motivated by fear.
  • Without this pre-scientific, irrational fear of eternal punishment, Christianity collapses.
  • Many Christian organizations and leaders have used and do use fear and guilt to manipulate people.
I can understand why Mr. Bufe might have this misconception about Christianity. But it simply is not true that it is based on fear. Yes, many leaders and institutions have used fear to manipulate people. This happened frequently in the Middle Ages. But that is not the essence of Christianity. Christianity is about redemption, reconciliation and authentic life. It is about love. Christians are too often guilty of reducing the Gospel to eternal fire insurance.

Jesus did not come to rescue us from eternal torture. He came so that we could enjoy truly human life, a life will not end even at death (John 10:10). In fact, love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).

2. Christianity preys on the innocent. If Christian fear-mongering were directed solely at adults, it would be bad enough, but Christians routinely terrorize helpless children through grisly depictions of the endless horrors and suffering they’ll be subjected to if they don’t live good Christian lives…. The nearly 2000 years of Christian terrorizing of children ranks as one of its greatest crimes. And it’s one that continues to this day.

I suspect that Mr. Bufe had some rather unpleasant experiences as a child. I’m sure that some Christian leaders have used some heavy-handed approaches with children. But there is no evidence that this is widespread.

There also seems to be an implication that children should not be troubled with religion until they are older. All children have a religion, whether they realize it or not.

The argument presented here goes something like this:

  • Christianity is false with no correspondence to reality.
  • Its foundation is fear and guilt.
  • It is abusive to trouble children with these issues.
Do we trouble children with environmental issues? Are not some of these issues framed almost entirely in terms of fear? It seems to me that the real issue here is whether Christianity is true. If it is true, it would be abusive not to tell children about it.

3. Christianity is based on dishonesty. The Christian appeal to fear, to cowardice, is an admission that the evidence supporting Christian beliefs is far from compelling. If the evidence were such that Christianity’s truth was immediately apparent to anyone who considered it, Christians—including those who wrote the Gospels—would feel no need to resort to the cheap tactic of using fear-inducing threats to inspire "belief." ("Lip service" is a more accurate term.) That the Christian clergy have been more than willing to accept such lip service (plus the dollars and obedience that go with it) in place of genuine belief, is an additional indictment of the basic dishonesty of Christianity.
How deep dishonesty runs in Christianity can be gauged by one of the most popular Christian arguments for belief in God: Pascal’s wager. This "wager" holds that it’s safer to "believe" in God (as if belief were volitional!) than not to believe, because God might exist, and if it does, it will save "believers" and condemn nonbelievers to hell after death. This is an appeal to pure cowardice. It has absolutely nothing to do with the search for truth. Instead, it’s an appeal to abandon honesty and intellectual integrity, and to pretend that lip service is the same thing as actual belief. If the patriarchal God of Christianity really exists, one wonders how it would judge the cowards and hypocrites who advance and bow to this particularly craven "wager."

This contains so many assertions and assumptions that I need to list them in order:

  • The evidence supporting Christianity is far from compelling.
  • The Christian appeal is based upon fear and cowardice.
  • If Christianity were true then the evidence would be “immediately apparent to anyone who considered it.”
  • Pascal’s wager is representative of the arguments for Christianity.
  • Pascal’s wager is an appeal to “cowardice.”
  • Nothing is more important than “intellectual integrity.”
The idea that Christianity should be “obviously true” if it is true at all is a naïve view of faith. Everyone has faith in things he or she cannot prove—things that are not obviously true. Faith is inescapable. The question is not whether one will have faith. The question is what that faith will be placed in.

Pascal’s wager is not representative of the kind of calculation that one makes in coming to Christian faith. It is primarily a statement made for the benefit of those who do not believe to demonstrate the “reasonableness” of the choice to believe in Christ. Its utility is not in convincing anyone. Whatever utility it has is only to frame the issue in a different way.

Einstein did not accept quantum physics. He maintained his intellectual integrity to the end. But that has absolutely no impact on the truth of quantum physics. It is either true or false. And it appears to be true as far as we understand it. We use it today in many technologies.

I would also suggest that there is indeed a volitional element to faith. One cannot just believe whatever one chooses. But reason only takes us so far. Beyond that we must choose what we will place our ultimate trust in.

(I’ll pick up with number four in the next post.)

So what do you think?

I would also like to hear from some who agree with Mr. Bufe. Do you take issue with my characterization of his argument? Do you want to reply to any of my answers to his objections?

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”

6 comments:

Steve Sensenig said...

I would also suggest that there is indeed a volitional element to faith. One cannot just believe whatever one chooses. But reason only takes us so far. Beyond that we must choose what we will place our ultimate trust in.

I agree with you, and gave this some thought as I read the original statements before reading your commentary on them.

However, I think you expressed what I believe to be an ongoing misconception in Christianity. We equate "belief" with "trust". You used them interchangeably in the section I quoted above.

I am comfortable with the idea that "belief" (intellectual assent) might not be as volitional. But "trust" is a whole 'nother thing, and I believe that is almost entirely volitional.

Basically we're saying the same thing, but I think that using the words interchangeably contributes to Mr. Bufe's line of thinking (that belief is not "volitional" to begin with).

Happy new year, Rod!
steve :)

Pastor Rod said...

Steve,

You have a good point. It would be helpful to make that distinction clear. However, the word "believe" is used in the sense of "trust" throughout the Bible.

Thanks for contributing your thoughts.

God Bless,

Rod

daniel the smith said...

I ran across this page a year or so ago and have been meaning to respond to it ever since, so this will save me the trouble. :)

The real challenge with some of his objections is to square "theoretical christianity" (which has good responses to what he says, I think) with "applied christianity"-- he didn't make up these things. There's lots (most?) of churches that can be accused of some of this to some degree or another. Especially to people who didn't grow up in the church.

So then the question becomes "how far from the ideal can christianity stray and still be a good thing?" and how can we as christians say Westboro is a cultish perversion of scripture without falling into the trap of saying "well, REAL christians (like me) would NEVER do that" about everything bad christians have ever done?

Bedtime for me; I'm looking forward to the rest of this!

Steve Sensenig said...

However, the word "believe" is used in the sense of "trust" throughout the Bible.

It is, and I have felt for a long time that this is a very unfortunate translation. The Greek behind "believe" is not at all related to "intellectual assent" like our English word "believe" is.

Either "believe" has changed meaning in English since the KJV first used that word, or it was just a botched translation, in my very humble opinion.

If I were translating Scripture, I would translate those instances with words related to faith and trust, not belief.

Just my opinion!
steve :)

Pastor Rod said...

Daniel,

You bring up an excellent point. I think the key is that when Christians are being hypocrites, they are being hypocrites. In other words, when they do "bad" things they are acting in opposition to Christianity. The correction is to be more faithful to what Christianity teaches.

While we do bear some responsibility for what has been done in the name of the Church, it does not invalidate what the Church teaches.

This may feel like a "cop out" to those outside the Church. But it is an important distinction.

Of course, we must then answer the objection that the teachings of Jesus and the Church are "theoretical" and that no one really practices them in any serious way.

We cannot answer that objection with words.

Rod

Anonymous said...

There was an excellent column on OpinionJournal last Friday about the new Atheism. Sam Schulman makes the case that today's atheists "have no new arguments, and they lack their forebears' charm."

One common trait I've seen is "piling on." Vocal atheists start with well-tested arguments such as how a benevolent God can allow evil. Then 20 arguments later they are reduced to "some Christians have bad breath." The exercise seems more fueled by anger than by a geniune attempt to influence others.

The newest approach is to argue from pragmatism. The world would be better off without belief. Where is the evidence for this? The notable atheistic experiments, the French, Russian and Cultural Revolutions, were shockingly violent.

Randy