ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


Christianity, atheism, and other boring arguments by mattsteinglass
April 25, 2010, 2:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Does God exist? Are atheists at fault for failing to attempt to understand the deep truths of the religious doctrines they disdain? Is this the most useless, worked-out, tedious argument in the history of Western civilization? For Pete’s sake. Allow me to express the point in a way believers might find congenial:

2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; 3 and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Okay, here’s my question: who was this judge Jesus refers to? Did this judge actually exist? What do you mean it doesn’t matter? You say it’s just a parable? But if the judge didn’t even exist, doesn’t that completely invalidate Jesus’s point? No? You say the moral and spiritual weight of the story has nothing to do with whether or not it refers to a physically, historically real person?

I see.


29 Comments so far
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No? You say the moral and spiritual weight of the story has nothing to do with whether or not it refers to a physically, historically real person?

Ok, fair enough. Is the moral and spiritual weight of the Bible itself invalidated if, when it refers to Jesus and God, it’s actually not referring to physically, historically real individuals or beings?

No? It’s not? Then why treat it as Holy Writ from God, then? Why not just treat it as a historically important but ultimately all-too-human work of poetry, perceived history, and myth?

Once you’ve accepted the argument that the moral authority of Christianity – or any religion – can’t be laid upon the actual existence of the deity they worship, haven’t you accepted the atheist position? Aren’t you an atheist, in truth, if you live your life as though you can’t depend on an omnipotent, interested deity to tell you what to do, how to live, and protect you from the bad things that might happen to you?

And isn’t it good for people to live like that? Isn’t it bad for people to never experience life for fear of consequences in the hereafter? Isn’t it bad for people to not protect themselves or worry about the future, instead relying on a deity to grant all their wishes for them and make the bad stuff go away?

And if you agree that it’s bad for them to live like that, shouldn’t you maybe mention it to them?

In short, starting with the position that the truth or falsity of the meaning of Jesus’s parable is not impacted by the actual historicity of the events it recounts, shouldn’t you be a New Atheist?

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

Excellent parable parable.

Comment by citifieddoug

Kevin Dunn seems intimidated by literary writing, which he apparently can’t comprehend–and, to his credit, he makes no attempt to hide that fact. But his phony appeal to the average Christian worldview is laughable. In real life, neo-atheists, as a group, work overtime to malign and ridicule what they perceive (without much investigation) to be everyday religiosity. Yet, when faced with writers who can actually think and write, suddenly they’re on the same page as the “Christards” who follow the “buy-bull”? Yeah, right, dudes–you’re my friends. It’s you and me vs. the elitists who write actual sentences and paragraphs, thus forcing Mother Jones scribes into emergency-snark posture.

Drum, of course, reverts to the neo-atheists’ one and only thought–is God literally real, and can Christards prove it? Given that, to the n.a. brain, “real” means “Do you have a photograph of it?” religion is pretty much ruled out as a topic for discussion, given religion’s emphasis on meaning and, especially, truth not of the factual type (we’ll get to that in a moment). And its use of metaphor, symbolism, analogy and all them other literary dee-vices what make readin’ so gosh-awful confusin’-like.

I printed out Hart’s “First Things” column and am loving it so far. Re “But if the judge didn’t even exist, doesn’t that completely invalidate Jesus’s point?”, all I can say is, apparently it does for you. If you’re asking me to fill in whatever gap in your understanding makes it impossible to understand the elementary device called analogy, I can’t help you.

“You say the moral and spiritual weight of the story has nothing to do with whether or not it refers to a physically, historically real person?”

It can refer in a general way to real people and real life without referring to a specific person or event. What else do you need to know about that thing called writing?

Comment by savio

You’re saying, there’s absolutely no difference in the perceived significance of love as described by the Bible, and love as described in Romeo and Juliet? You’re saying that the vast majority of Christians don’t consider the Resurrection to be an actual event that occurred, or Jesus to have been an actual person who existed? That they don’t care because it doesn’t matter?

If you think any of that is true then, objectively, you’re the one who is completely ignorant of the “average Christian worldview.” The postmodern mealy-mouthed “it doesn’t matter if it’s really true because its mythically true” may be how you’re able to intellectually reconcile religious faith in a clearly atheist universe, but the vast majority of actual Christians reject your view in favor of belief in a God and Jesus who were really real, who really did and said the stuff attributed to them, and who really do intercede in the universe to answer prayer.

As an atheist, I’m perfectly ok with the idea of religious truth being about the same as the truth in Romeo and Juliet – that is, as a form of art that attempts to tell us something true about the human condition. Specifically to Christianity, though, I don’t think there’s anything true about it, even of the Romeo and Juliet type. The lessons of the Bible, even when taken as literary device, aren’t very true. Greed is a deadly sin, but rape is not? Homosexuality is an “abomination” in the eyes of God? You should abandon your family and arm yourself to join a new religious movement?

There’s just not all that much in Christianity that presents human beings as they truly are, or should be. Even as literary device, it’s not a very moral work.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

“You’re saying, there’s absolutely no difference in the perceived significance of love as described by the Bible, and love as described in Romeo and Juliet?”

Not sure what this means. But both refer to a real human emotion.

“You’re saying that the vast majority of Christians don’t consider the Resurrection to be an actual event that occurred, or Jesus to have been an actual person who existed?”

What I’m actually saying is that most C.’s don’t reduce religion to magical details, as neo-atheists do. Once we presume that the essence of C. consists of the R. and Jesus’ historicity, then we’re begging the question. Armed with that presumption, all we have to do is refer to polls in which people answer “yes” to these things. And never mind the vast host of questions left unasked, or the all-or-nothing nature of those which are posed.

And if you insist on reducing Christianity to two or three articles of belief, why these few beliefs? Why do they matter to YOU?

Your second paragraph is a total misrepresentation. I’m no postmodern C., given that my particular theology, while not “literal,” is many centuries old. And no one is dodging anything by pointing out the simple, obvious fact (i.e., read the text) that the Bible consists mostly of myth and symbols. The difference between me and you, in this regard, is that I find meaning in those myths and symbols–you don’t. To you, a metaphor is something fake and removed from reality. It’s pretend. I don’t know how to answer that attitude.

“The lessons of the Bible, even when taken as literary device, aren’t very true.”

True to whom or what? The Bible is an ancient document, and morality evolves along with people. If you want to bash the Bible for not functioning as a documentary account of life in 2010, bash away. Or for being out of touch, to a certain extent (depends on the passage), with modern Western morality (which didn’t exist) and modern science (ditto). We know that it contains all kinds of inconsistencies. But do these observations form a basis for understanding how and why the Bible works for modern C.’s? Hardly. What’s required is the extra step of understanding Christianity from the perspective of the modern C. experience, something neo-atheists refuse to do beyond citing any data which seems to support their preconceptions.

Comment by savio

See, I don’t agree with that. At all. And I’m not even Christian.

Here, for example, is what Gillian Welch gets out of Christianity:

“I will know my savior, when I come to Him
By the marks where the nails have been.”

She of course is singing this from the persona of a sort of alter ego she’s created for herself: a deeply religious, extremely poor Depression- or Second Great Awakening-era farmwife in the South or Appalachia. But she uses that persona to embody a sense of being lost and economically helpless, which can just as well be a mood that captures something about today’s crystal-meth service-economy suburbia. What she’s speaking to, then, is a religion that says: My savior, the King of Kings, suffered as I suffer. And he recognizes the wrongs that shape my life, and when I die those debts will be made whole, and at some point there’s going to be a moment when all of this injustice is upended, and, in a verse MLK used effectively, “justice shall flow down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

I don’t think that’s an untrue religion. And I think from any honest or multiculturally aware perspective you have to say that there’s a lot in this way of imagining the moral universe that is specifically Christian, and that’s also so deeply rooted in our Euro-American background that we see the world this way perforce, like it or not. Every American Jew loves Hillel’s line “Love thy neighbor as thyself. The rest is commentary.” But that could only be said in a moment of historical Judaism that was also giving birth to Jesus. Judaism hadn’t been about that 300 years earlier, and really that message has never been as central to Judaism as it has to Christianity. It’s to some extent a crazy message, one nobody can live by; but I don’t think it lacks moral power.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to this, but what I find interesting is that you seem to have taken from my post the exact opposite of what I intended it to communicate.

My sense is that the power, beauty, and spiritual weight of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Vodun religions are not dependent on whether or not any of the stories in their texts are historically accurate, nor on whether any of the entities they venerate are physically real.

For this reason, I tend to regard religious believers who insist on the physical reality and historical accuracy of their religions’ claims as confused. Unfortunately, this constitutes the overwhelming majority of religious believers. I am less annoyed by atheists who spend a lot of time pointing out that religious claims are vanishingly unlikely to true in the historical or physical sense. I think they are mainly responding to a cultural attack staged against rationalists and non-believers over the past forty years or so. I think if everyone could start by admitting that the Bible is gibberish as evolutionary theory or cosmology, and only extremely dodgy as history, then we could move on and have a productive conversation. Though even so, people who for some reason insist on finding their values in the most narrowly literal, dull parts of the book — the bits about who you can have sex with, how many fabrics your shirt can include, etc. — are going to remain pretty difficult for me to relate to.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

I’m not saying I want to discourage your perspective, but:

My sense is that the power, beauty, and spiritual weight of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Vodun religions are not dependent on whether or not any of the stories in their texts are historically accurate, nor on whether any of the entities they venerate are physically real.

It strikes me that, if you want to pray to God, it actually matters quite a bit whether or not God is actually real. How can a fictional deity respond to prayer? How can it even hear prayer?

The believers of these religions are spending a lot of time praying for things. That’s rather the point of religion, for most people – they “earn credit” for living a just life and being a good person, and then when the shit hits the fan, maybe just maybe they can pray to God and get an “out.”

I wouldn’t say it’s mercenary, any more than setting aside savings for your retirement is mercenary, but personal growth and community fellowship is only a little bit of what the religious think they’re getting from their religion. For the most part, they’re under the impression that God is there to answer prayer. Why are they under that impression? Because that’s what religious leaders are telling them.

You’re asking the religious to embrace a vision of religion that pretty much cuts out the heart of what they’re there for. Meaningful stories are pretty nice but they don’t grant wishes.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

I think to a great extent you’re right. And that’s why Unitarian churches aren’t as successful these days as Pentecostal ones.

However, the argument this started with was Ross Douthat and this Hart guy saying atheists are shallow and silly because they don’t consider the deep religious musings of people who do take religion at a values level rather than a physical superstition level. So I’m really mainly discuss that issue. And the reason I find Douthat and Hart silly is that they should start by acknowledging that it’s perfectly fine for atheists to point out that religions are not based on physical or historical truth; they’re not. They’re based on spiritual truths and values. And then they can take up a discussion with atheists on value-based grounds. Otherwise they’re being narrow and parochial and there’s not much reason for atheists to listen to them.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

As an atheist, I’m certainly willing to have a debate about values, but to me, that debate begins when people come to the table of secularism, and say “here are my values; in practice I think they work out to better ends than yours do, but I don’t claim that we have to do it my way because God said so.”

When someone puts forth a set of values that they claim aren’t just personal, but are Holy Writ, that’s where the conversation about values necessarily ends. Of course, a whole lot of people want the conversation to end that way. They want to prevent the conversation from ever happening. They have much to gain by doing so, which is why you see people wielding personal values sanctioned by “God” all over the place.

We’ll never arrive at the widespread religious understanding you seek while there’s that kind of power to be had invoking the name of God. Hence, the agenda of the New Atheists. If people stop believing in God, are convinced that they can stop, and that it is safe for them to do so, then invoking the name of God for your cause or set of values no longer has that kind of power.

They’re based on spiritual truths and values.

Well, maybe they are. Maybe they’re based on spiritual falsehoods, too. I’m certainly willing to grapple with the idea of religion as a series of mythical truths, or literary truths as savio styles them, but to say that they may be based on metaphorical truths is not to say that they definitely are. The idea that the unjust will get theirs in the end may not be true on any level – practical or spiritual. It might just be the case that if we seek that justice be done, we have make sure it happens, ourselves.

But that conversation doesn’t happen so long as people believe in gods.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

Thanks for explaining. I guess I assumed the pro-literal tone was yours and not a parody of the attitude.

I don’t agree, however, that “the overwhelming majority of religious believers” are as you describe them. I know that surveys suggest as much, but I consider surveys of that type leading in the extreme, especially in that they typically offer only yes/no choices. I’m not one who regards varying degrees of yes/no (e.g. Somewhat agree, mostly agree, completely agree) as anything more than glorified yea/nay questions. And human nature is such that most people, when given the choice between the Bible being true or not being true, will choose true. It’s a false dilemma, since–as you and I agree–the value and beauty of the Bible is not dependent on its factualness or lack thereof.

Belief in ancient miracles is akin to belief in ghosts or E.T.’s–those who profess a belief in such things are acknowledging received ideas and beliefs. Yet, most of them, I’m guessing, if confronted with an E.T. or someone risen from the dead, would have to be hospitalized for shock. Which wouldn’t be the case if they really, honestly believed in E.T.’s, ghosts, etc.

I find polls extraordinarily limited in measuring anything beyond who the respondent intends to vote for–and even THOSE sorts of answers only provide a general guide.

Otherwise, I agree with you completely. Your take is interesting–i.e. that atheists “are mainly responding to a cultural attack staged against rationalists and non-believers over the past forty years or so.” But (as always) my take is a bit more cynical. For one thing, I see atheists (neo-atheists, at least) as of the exact same mindset as fundies regarding their bone-literal requirements of is/isn’t, wherein a religious text is either all “true” or all “false.” (Hence, Dawkins’ reduction of religion to the question of whether or not God exists.) Neo-atheists are like fundies who have concluded the Bible is all false (vice all true). Again, either/or. In that sense, the battle taking place is more like a civil war. I also firmly believe that many scientists and champions of science, annoyed at our country’s science-education record, are using religion as a scapegoat for those issues. The rise of the Christian Right has provided the perfect opportunity to do so, given that they provide a convenient, ready-made, and vulnerable target. Also convenient for their purposes is the generational divide between traditional church services (organ, hymnals, sermon) and the more Boomer type (louder, entertainment-oriented, often evangelisitc). Thus the endless attacks on “organized” (read: traditional) religion. This divide provides yet another weak spot for atheists to attack.

I see what’s happening as highly opportunistic. Religion simply happens to be a very easy, ideal target at this point in pop history.

Comment by savio

I think I was less than clear toward the end of my post (hopefully, not throughout!). Let me revise:

“I also firmly believe that many scientists and champions of science, annoyed at our country’s science-education record, are using religion as a scapegoat for those issues. The rise of the Christian Right has provided the perfect opportunity to do so, given that the Christian Right provide a convenient, ready-made, and vulnerable target (esp. for parody). Another convenient development (for the purposes of neo-atheist propaganda) is the present generational divide between traditional church services (organ, hymnals, sermon) and the more Boomer type (louder, entertainment-oriented, often evangelisitc). Those involved in modern, Boomer-style religion tend to condemn old-fashioned Christianity as “organized religion” in an attempt to contrast it with their hipper, allegedly more individualistic version. This organized/Boomer rift provides yet another opportunity for neo-atheists intent on blaming religion for the state of science education (and for Congress’ crappy attitude toward NASA, etc.).”

Just as wordy, but hopefully less vague.

Comment by savio

Not sure what this means.

Sorry, I guess I wasn’t very clear.

Two people make the same claim. One of them exists, and the other does not. Which person’s claim do you find more significant? Or are they of equal significance?

What I’m actually saying is that most C.’s don’t reduce religion to magical details, as neo-atheists do.

And what is your basis for this claim?

To you, a metaphor is something fake and removed from reality. It’s pretend.

I never said or implied that it was. I thought I was pretty clear about that, actually. I think Romeo and Juliet says something true about love, even though neither Romeo nor Juliet were real people. I’m well aware of the power of myth, the power of fiction, to tell us the truth. As they say, “art is a lie that tells us the truth.”

But you know what? I don’t pray to Romeo. And if you tried to tell me that Romeo is a fictional character, not a real historical person, I wouldn’t stomp my feet and cry and throw a pity-fit about all the meanie “a-Romeo-ists” who are out to get me.

True to whom or what?

True to human beings. It’s absurd to suggest that rape was less of an issue than greed to the people of 30 AD, or 300 BC; it may have been the case that it was less of a problem to elite men, like those who wrote the Bible, but that’s exactly why it’s such an untrue document – its perspective is necessarily blinkered, privileged, and subservient to the interests of an elite few.

What’s required is the extra step of understanding Christianity from the perspective of the modern C. experience

Again – if you think the “modern Christian experience” isn’t, fundamentally, an experience of an actual, existing God and the message of a real, historical Jesus, then it’s clear that the New Atheists have a better handle on modern Christianity than you do.

Christians, by and large, and in vast majorities, believe that Jesus was a real historical person who really did die and then come back to life; that God is a real being who listens to prayer and takes action – even impossible actions – in response. That’s the modern Christian experience. Your experience of Christianity as a collection of stories only mythically true is an outlier, and not representative of the Christian religion. It is that fundamental disparity that the critics of New Atheism have never been able to face.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

“Two people make the same claim. One of them exists, and the other does not. Which person’s claim do you find more significant?”

The person who doesn’t exist, because I’ll want to know how someone who doesn’t exist can make a claim. Or do anything else.

“And what is your basis for this claim?”

Years of church experience, from mainline to evangelical-bordering-on-fundie. The magical details of the Bible, which neo-atheists treat like the essence of Christianity, do not constitute the main focus of the sermons, studies, etc. Neither does one encounter a series of claims which stem from a presumption that God and J.C. are real. Church is more than checking in, yelling “Yes!!” when the minister says “Do you believe God and Jesus are real?” and then leaving the building.

“But you know what? I don’t pray to Romeo. And if you tried to tell me that Romeo is a fictional character, not a real historical person, I wouldn’t stomp my feet and cry and throw a pity-fit about all the meanie ‘a-Romeo-ists’ who are out to get me.”

More macho junior-high stuff. Yes, your opponents are all sissies. Naturally. Anyway, your point about not praying to Romeo is meaningless.

“Again – if you think the ‘modern Christian experience’ isn’t, fundamentally, an experience of an actual, existing God and the message of a real, historical Jesus, then it’s clear that the New Atheists have a better handle on modern Christianity than you do.”

What’s clear is that many neo-atheists are recovering fundamentalists and Catholics who presume to present THEIR experience of Christianity as the norm, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

Comment by savio

The person who doesn’t exist, because I’ll want to know how someone who doesn’t exist can make a claim. Or do anything else.

Well, they do it fictionally.

1) Does, or does not, Hamlet claim that man is “like an angel in apprehension”?
2) Does, or does not, Hamlet exist?

Nonexistent people making claims doesn’t strike me as very weird at all. Fictional people do things fictionally.

The magical details of the Bible, which neo-atheists treat like the essence of Christianity, do not constitute the main focus of the sermons, studies, etc.

Well, but that’s hardly evidence. We would expect clergy to view their parishioners as persons who have already accepted the essential truths of the Christian narrative, and therefore not devote any of their sermons to making convincing arguments for them. They’d be preaching to the choir – literally!

I recommend you actually go to some of your clergy and ask them whether they think it’s important to believe in the literal historicity of Christ and the existence of God. You may get a few liberal pastors who will tell you it’s not important as long as your heart is in the right place, but I think you’ll find that the majority of them would think it was pretty weird indeed to spend all that time in church praying to a God one does not think exists.

The modern experience of Christianity is very much one of a historical Jesus and an existing God.

Anyway, your point about not praying to Romeo is meaningless.

It’s not at all meaningless. It’s simply an argument you’re not capable of rebutting.

Church is more than checking in, yelling “Yes!!” when the minister says “Do you believe God and Jesus are real?” and then leaving the building.

Of course, but I never said that it was. Why d you insist on grappling with these strawmen?

What’s clear is that many neo-atheists are recovering fundamentalists and Catholics who presume to present THEIR experience of Christianity as the norm, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

So, what? Catholics and evangelicals aren’t “normal” Christians? Who on Earth put you in the position of determining what forms of Christianity were the “norm”? What “evidence to the contrary” could you possibly be talking about?

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

“Nonexistent people making claims doesn’t strike me as very weird at all. Fictional people do things fictionally.”

You mean, Capt. Kirk didn’t need a scriptwriter to pen “Beam me up, Scotty”? Whoa.

“They’d be preaching to the choir – literally!”

You’re begging the question. Your observation is on par with “Well, sure he’s being nice. If I’d just murdered someone, I’d be acting all nice, too!”

“I recommend you actually go to some of your clergy and ask them whether they think it’s important to believe in the literal historicity of Christ and the existence of God.”

You’re not acknowledging my point. My point is that the average sermon and service are not reducible to literal belief in God, Jesus, etc. In other words, there’s much, much more to Christian belief than “Is God/Jesus real?” There is much that doesn’t boil down to those questions. You’re entitled to your opinion that the literal existence of God and Jesus are necessary conditions for any sermon to contain meaning, but that’s the outlook of a fundamentalist, and I am not one.

So I’m not using a strawman or men. You ARE reducing C. to a question of true/false, and my response is that religion is not reducible to same. No strawman–just answering your single, repeated point.

“Who on Earth put you in the position of determining what forms of Christianity were the ‘norm’?”

Who put YOU in that position? I quote: “The modern experience of Christianity is very much one of a historical Jesus and an existing God.” And I didn’t say that Catholics and evangelicals aren’t normal Christians–I’m simply noting they don’t represent all people of faith. A simple statement, and rather obvious in its truth.

Comment by savio

You mean, Capt. Kirk didn’t need a scriptwriter to pen “Beam me up, Scotty”?

In point of fact, Kirk doesn’t say “beam me up Scotty” at any point in Star Trek. Sorry, I’m a nerd.

You’re not acknowledging my point. My point is that the average sermon and service are not reducible to literal belief in God, Jesus, etc.

You’re not acknowledging mine, which is that while this is true, and I never said that it wasn’t, it’s also meaningless. It’s not the same thing as saying that there’s more to Christianity than belief in God.

You’re entitled to your opinion that the literal existence of God and Jesus are necessary conditions for any sermon to contain meaning

And I’ve never said that, either. It looks like you’re having a rollicking good conversation, savio, it’s just too bad you’re not apparently having it with me.

So I’m not using a strawman or men.

Of course you are, savio. Every time you respond to an argument I didn’t make, as though I did, you’re grappling with a strawman. You pack your posts with more strawmen than a Wizard of Oz convention.

And I didn’t say that Catholics and evangelicals aren’t normal Christians

But that’s exactly what you said, savio: “What’s clear is that many neo-atheists are recovering fundamentalists and Catholics who presume to present THEIR experience of Christianity as the norm, ignoring all evidence to the contrary.” Did you or did you not write those words?

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

So, the existence of God and Jesus are not central to whether or not Christianity has any meaning. You’re not saying that. Fine. My bad.

Re norm, let’s consult Merriam-Webster: “an authoritative standard: MODEL (synonym).”

When I said that fundamentlists and Catholics treat their C. experience as THE NORM, I meant that they treat it as the model. But there are, in fact, a number of models/norms within Christianity. No single model is followed by every Christian–therefore, no single model is THE NORM. To say that something isn’t the norm is not to label it as other than normal; rather, it’s a matter of identifying it as ONE OF MANY.

Comment by savio

Instead of “fundamentalists and Catholics,” I meant to qualify, “many recovering fundamentalists and Catholics.” I’m referring to a select number of ex-members, not all fundamentalists and Catholics, by any means.

Comment by savio

So, the existence of God and Jesus are not central to whether or not Christianity has any meaning.

No. But I think at this point, it’s pretty clear that the existence of God is central to whether or not Christianity has the meaning most of its adherents say it has.

I’m not going to get into your characterizations of Christians, savio. If you’re not already convinced by the ample evidence that’s been presented, you never will. It’s important to understand Christianity as it actually exists and is actually practiced; on that score it’s the New Atheists who have the substantively correct position.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

Whether God and Jesus exist, Christians exist and according to most atheists I’ve met, human experience has meaning. One group or another may have the truth, but I can’t see how any group has a good position when we’re all so vexed with each other.

Comment by citifieddoug

Matt, I think I disagree with “this constitutes the overwhelming majority of religious believers.” I don’t know the proportion but I don’t think anyone does. I grew up with Christians who believed that the Bible was assembled the way am old tractor is put together, with some genuine parts and some improvised rigging. The bias comes from the fact that only people who think the world is 6000 years old sign blog posts with their religion included.

Comment by citifieddoug

Matt, I think I disagree with “this constitutes the overwhelming majority of religious believers.”

In a recent poll, 80% of respondents agreed with the statement “the Supreme Being is one who watches over them and answers their prayers.”

Someone who believes that God is really watching over them and is listening to and answering prayer is someone who necessarily believes that God really does exist, and isn’t just a metaphor for love, or human fellowship, and the like. That the basic historical claims of their religion are, for the most part, true ones. You just can’t believe in the stories of religion, just in the myth of religion, and expect God to answer prayer.

If you’re a “God answers prayer”-type believer, you’re necessarily concerned about the existence of God. Who’s answering your prayers, otherwise?

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

Justin, there was more built into Matt’s comment than whether you believe there is an actual God who hears prayers. The topic is whether that belief also requires that everything in your scripture be literally true. Faith and doubt are built into credence for the worshipper and the scientist.

Comment by citifieddoug

The topic is whether that belief also requires that everything in your scripture be literally true.

Is the message of Jesus worth devoting your life to if it turns out it’s a work of fiction? Not just worth respecting, or worth saying “hey, there are definitely some spiritual truths there.” If the ministry of Jesus all turns out to be the dialogue of a fictional character, what about it is worth calling yourself his follower?

And if it’s just a bunch of good ideas, why say you’re a Christian? Why take the package deal when you can pick and choose from every world religion, or use your own horsesense and figure it out yourself, and call yourself a “citifieddoug-ian”? Or, perhaps, an atheist?

I guess that’s what I don’t get. The modern experience of Christianity, just by being Christianity, puts far more emphasis on the story of Jesus than seems justified, if it doesn’t even matter of Jesus really existed.

Comment by Justin St. Giles Payne

Doug, I dunno. I think when I’m in, say, Nigeria, the overwhelming majority of Christians I talk to think of God and Jesus as spirits that are concrete and may well appear to them at night when nobody’s looking, heal their tumors, cause them to become rich, etc. Since the advent of movie special effects, they may also believe that God might deflect an object that’s about to fall on them. At the same time many of the same people may believe they or their acquaintances can transform into bats and fly around at night sucking out people’s souls, and that Gorovodun spirits like Mami Wata may have a decisive influence over the profitability of their business. I think there are more of those folks out there in Nigeria than there are people in Ohio who have a more sober Niebuhr-type belief that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable and we can’t understand why he doesn’t always intercede our behalf, etc., and that the age of miracles seems to be over and it’s pretty immodest to hope for one yourself. And I think the folks in Nigeria have a lot in common with people in megachurches in Denver, who seem to believe similar very immodest things about the physical presence of supernatural beings in their lives.

Also, unfortunately, I think that in Judaism, the people who think of God in a personal physical sense and believe the chosenness of the Jewish people is in no way metaphorical and he expects us not to drive on Saturday and to bulldoze Al-Aqsa and replace it with a Disneyland facsimile of the Herodian Temple have a greater influence than more sane modern Reform Jews in Minneapolis do.

Comment by Matt Steinglass

You make a great point, but it might take me a while to swallow that as mainline Protestant, I’m the one being provincial while the pentacostals are the metropolitans.

You know what? I’m just going to quit arguing with smart people. Fare well.

Comment by citifieddoug

There’s also a degree-of-belief issue involved. On average, people sport conflicting beliefs without sensing any contradiction. For instance, many of the same Americans who say they want health-care reform (and I believe they do) also don’t want their taxes raised, which of course has to happen, since no overhaul of the system is going to happen without an initial and substantial investment. And I recall, back when Clinton was trying for reform, there were polls which showed Americans were FOR universal health care, with other polls showing they were against it. In short, they were both. Welcome to average America.

My point being that most people who profess literal belief in the resurrection, etc., can easily be shown NOT to believe in such things. Not many believers are going to insist they had a relative buried in a cave only to return to life three days later. Or that they witnessed their coffee maker at work transformed into a wine dispenser.

Belief is an infinitely more complicated subject that the media is ever going to give it credit for being.

Comment by savio

I agree. I also think that those who worship a crucified God probably shouldn’t grouse that we’re not more admired by our fallen neighbors.

Comment by citifieddoug




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