As unlikely as this might seem, I actually agree with the New Atheism movement.
And no, I’m not just saying that for the shock value—because now you want to find out why in the world a Christian would agree with those guys: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, etc. (Although I’m not above saying it just for the shock value alone. Was there any shock value? I don’t know. I write this stuff pretty late at night, so my sense of what’s “shocking” might be a little off-kilter.)
Obviously, I don’t agree with their overall conclusion of atheism, but I agree with a great many of the observations they claim as support for their position.
Specifically, in his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris argues for what he calls a “conversational intolerance” of religion. In other words, when Christians (or adherents to other religions, for that matter) frame anything with “…according to the Bible,” or “This is what I believe…” or “…according to my faith…”, social convention and established etiquette dictate that it goes unchallenged, despite the hearer not sharing those beliefs. If we were to say that the earth is flat or that two and two make five, that would be challenged, but when we speak of God and miracles and answered prayer and angels and talking animals, Christians typically get a pass, Harris points out, and argues that we really shouldn’t, because faith isn’t really an answer. In the sense in which we typically invoke the concept, “faith” is only ever an evasion, or a restatement of the question at best.
And I think he’s dead-on about that, but not just for the obvious reasons he points out in his book, but because it would actually be better for us and for our cause, in the long run, if people did call us on what they think is our BS. I think that alone would, over time, correct a tremendous amount of the dysfunction and falsehood that characterizes Christianity as we know it (see my About page if you don’t know the “dysfunction and falsehood” to which I refer). It would strike at our very foundation, which is the only way we can know if we actually have one. If our foundation is secure, our belief-structure is invincible. The only reason we should be afraid of people like Harris and Dawkins attacking our religion is if we lack that foundation.
To clarify, let me explain that I think much of the dysfunction of our Christianity intersects at our use of the term “faith.” After all, faith is our foundation—“On this rock I will build My Church,” the Master said. If that’s off, everything else is off, and that’s where we’re off.
I think our concept of “faith” is profoundly mistaken, and that that mistake constitutes the nexus of all of our problems within the Church today. I’m not saying that a mere inaccuracy in the definition of terms lies at the root of all of our problems, mind you. Our problems have much deeper causes, and their effects go far beyond a misapprehension of the concept of “faith.” But, they all flow into and bottleneck and branch out again from that critical point.
To explain, let me begin by pointing out that there are two basic paths in life. And that’s not my observation—that’s what Jesus said.
If we apply this perspective to questions of belief, or epistemology, we’ll see that, whatever twists and turns we take along the way, there are only two basic paths to a belief of any kind, be it religious, scientific, political, relational or whatever: We either believe it because it’s true, or we believe it because we want it to be true. Of course, this doesn’t apply as much to the beliefs of children, who generally believe whatever their parents and other authority figures tell them, whether they like what they hear or not. But, after we’ve gone through teenage rebellion and resolved our philosophical/existential Oedipal and Elektra complexes (struggles against the constraints of authority figures and the belief systems they represent… that kinda’ fun stuff) and figured out who we are and what we believe about the world and our place in it, all of our beliefs can be accounted for by one of these two reasons.
If a belief is true, and we believe it because it’s true—that is to say, if a set of attitudes, propositions, and/or value judgments we hold with regard to reality, in whole or in part, is ontologically correct—then we should be able to point out specifically how reality itself corresponds to our belief. If we believe, for instance, that two plus two adds up to four, we should be able to demonstrate that in concrete terms with relative ease by finding any four objects and partitioning them into two groups of two, and vice-versa—perhaps by way of an abacus, or we could demonstrate it in conventional pre-established and agreed-upon symbolic terms (by way of Arabic numerals programmed into a calculator, most likely). If we correctly believe that the Eiffel Tower is located in Paris, we should be able to find the Eiffel Tower when we visit Paris, or find reports in the form of maps or written testimony from credible witnesses who have been to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower there. If we believe that a certain public policy is effective in bringing about the specific benefit for which it was intended, we should be able to find quantifiable statistical data to demonstrate that effect, and then be able to weigh that against the known costs and detriments of the policy, etc. You get the idea.
The process by which a belief of this kind is obtained is that a person begins with the facts at hand—which are potentially available to anyone and everyone because they’re part of the same reality in which we all exist, and then by way of logic and deductive reasoning, the person arrives at a conclusion, and that conclusion comprises their belief system in whole or in part. So, to summarize, the process goes:
Starting Premise (evidence, facts, data, etc.) + Logic and Reason (deduction, hypothesizing, experimentation, etc.) = Conclusion (belief system).
This, of course, roughly approximates what is known as the Scientific Method, although it can be applied to disciplines of study which are not strictly “science.”Questions of history, for instance, are not, strictly speaking, “science,” because we can’t reproduce past events in a laboratory and experiment with different variables for different outcomes. But, we can still use historical data to arrive at basically reliable conclusions by way of this process.
And while this part of the discussion might seem a little dry and tedious at the moment, it might be helpful to remember just how amazingly cool this method of thought really is—it’s how western civilization eventually moved out of the Dark Ages and through to the scientific revolution, and it’s why we have modern medicine and space shuttles and the interwebs and Blue-Ray players and other neat stuff. It has the advantage of enabling our beliefs to be known and scrutinized and dissected by others who can check our math, so to speak, and to join us if we’re right or to correct us if we’re wrong, thereby enabling all of us to find and live by the truth of our reality.
On the other hand, the second kind of belief is made up of the same basic building blocks, except their order is reversed. When people believe things because they want to believe them, their belief system is their starting premise, and then they apply logic and reason to cherry-pick the evidence to support their belief, and they eventually get into the habit of only exposing themselves to evidence that supports their starting premise and excluding any information that undermines it. And, typically, we don’t even realize we do this, and so we honestly see evidence everywhere to reinforce what we “know” to be true.
Starting Premise (belief) + Logic and Reason (induction, rationalizing) = Conclusion (carefully selected facts, evidence and data)
The disadvantages of this method of thought are many, not least of which is that it prevents anyone else who does not share our starting premise from joining us. In the First Path to Belief, we can share evidence and data apprehensible to anyone willing to accept it, and then explain our reasoning so that they also can arrive at our conclusion, but with the Second Path to Belief, the ground floor is a bit more exclusive. When people believe things because they want to believe them, it’s usually because that belief has been inculcated through lifelong socialization and cultural conditioning, so that their sense of security and identity within their peer or tribal group is tied up in their belief system. If a person grows up in Salt Lake City, Utah, for instance, there’s a good chance he was raised in the Mormon belief system, and so the assumed truth of Mormonism is an integral aspect of his personal and social identity, and so the validity of his sense of self is directly tied to his religion, and all of the social and political values entailed by that religion.
And that’s true for most other people in the world: if you grew up in Saudi Arabia or Baghdad, you’re probably some variety of Muslim, and you’re going to get pissed off if someone denigrates Islam or the Qur’an or Muhammed, because the purported sanctity of all of that comprises Who You Are. If you’re Indian, you probably subscribe to some variation of Hinduism, and the same prediction applies with regard to its literature and rituals and key figures.
This, of course, is why it’s such a taboo to challenge a person’s religious beliefs. You’re not just challenging the factual validity of their claims about magic underwear or the Night Journey, you’re challenging the validity of their very person and of their family and of their entire civilization.
But, religious people don’t have a monopoly on this form of belief. It’s the same for political beliefs, or even some politically-charged scientific beliefs. For instance, whether or not you believe in global warming and what you believe about its causes can be somewhat reliably predicted by your voter ID card, along with the news channels you watch and the people with whom you socialize.
And so, for people who wonder how someone can be so misguided and deluded that they believe they’ll live for eternity with 70 beautiful virgins if they strap a vest of explosives to themselves and blow up a bus full of Israeli school children, or fly a plane into the side of a building—that’s your answer.
If you’re wondering how your neighbor or family member of a different political affiliation can honestly swear by that “news” channel or magazine that is so obviously (to you) nothing but one-sided propaganda—that’s your answer.
The Second Path to Belief that I’ve described is typically what we mean by the term “faith.”
So, when we read in Scripture that we are “saved by grace through faith,” and that eternal life is granted to “whosoever believes,” we usually take that to mean that salvation comes through Faith as opposed to Reason. So, we don’t have to do good deeds, or keep certain rituals, or even be a nice person, really—we just have to believe, and God will forgive all of our sins, and we can safely presume on His forgiveness when we inevitably sin again.
That being the case (as our thinking goes)—What, precisely, a person must believe in order to be saved is of paramount importance. Most churches have doctrinal statements outlining the specific, minimal requirements needed for salvation (and therefore membership in their church), which usually consists of a list of particulars related to God and to Jesus and to the Bible and to the afterlife to which a person must subscribe, and they’re usually arranged in order of priority, which varies from church-to-church. And they’re not negotiable, because if you can’t sign off on them without qualification, you don’t belong at that church and you’re better off finding somewhere else to go on Sunday morning, if you can. They might let you join in if you don’t believe everything, but you’ll never be a full member with full privileges, and you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut when that particular doctrinal point you dispute comes up for discussion. For instance, belief in the Trinity is a must, normally, but if you’re a monophysite or some other variety of doctrinal mutant, that’s a deal-breaker and you may well go to hell for holding such a heresy, depending on which church leaders you ask. Because of the grave importance of holding the correct beliefs, and because of the far-reaching logical implications of those beliefs, churches have gone to war over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and various other highly-nuanced points of doctrine. So-called Jehovah’s Witnesses uphold that Christ was crucified—not on a cross, but on a vertical stake, and those who are mistaken on this point are very possibly outside the grace of God, hence the energy and attention JWs have devoted to correcting this grievous heresy.
In most churches, these beliefs are inculcated through childhood socialization and lifelong indoctrination, and holding them amounts to being rightly-related to God. And because these beliefs are held by faith and not by reason, evidence is really incidental to the whole system. Of course, the Bible is cited as evidence—but only if you read it with the correct emphases so that you know which verses trump others, and how to interpret those verses (and the doctrinal statements are there to tell you all that—or, at least, to correct you when you’re wrong). But, why it’s the Bible you’re reading instead of the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or The Iliad or On the Origin of Species is very much a question of childhood conditioning.
So, if you believe and uphold these things, you’ll be accepted and validated and given influence and position, but if you don’t, and you openly question those beliefs and uphold something else instead, they’ll cast you out… to “protect God’s people from false doctrine,” of course.
Now, it’s Ok if you want to go to the trouble of proving these beliefs by evidence and reason—if you’re into that kind of thing. But it’s really not crucial, because that’s above and beyond the minimal requirements for salvation. And besides, “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of heaven, right?” as Christians are fond of saying. Because, it’s not our job to convince people. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. After all, we can’t make anyone accept our starting premise—only God can do that, so if He doesn’t miracle them into believing, then they must not be predestined for salvation as we are. We can share the Four Spiritual Laws with them and give them gospel tracts and show them diagrams of the Bridge Illustration as often as we can, but it’s up to God to make them believe.
At least, that’s what I hear from my fellow Christians whenever there’s a seminar on evangelization, or an impromptu discussion of apologetics.
But apart from a scant few scripture verses taken out of context and greatly misconstrued, I can’t find any evidence to support this approach in the Bible that we claim as our authority.
What I find instead is example after example of Jesus and the apostles imploring people along the First Path of Belief:
“Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22)
“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2, 3)
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)
“Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:4)
“(Paul) went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19)
“He vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” (Acts 18:28)
“Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
Maybe you can’t “argue people into the kingdom of heaven,” but nobody told Paul that. Debate and argument and reasoned persuasion appear to have been his entire approach.
And yes, Paul argued from the Scriptures… sometimes—when his audience already accepted them as authoritative (as I’m doing now), but he didn’t expect non-Jews to blindly accept them on his say-so. When he made the case for Jesus Christ to Gentiles, he argued from other grounds of evidence that they would accept.
And nowhere in the Bible does it instruct us to believe the Bible “because the Bible tells us so.” The books of scripture were written by human prophets, and if Moses is to be trusted, then God Himself instructed the Israelites not to believe every prophet—only those whose prophecies stand the test of history (which, incidentally, disqualifies Pat Robertson several times over).
So, when Paul “argued from the scriptures,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authority of the scripture was his starting premise. Rather, his argument was the same as that of the apostle Peter, who pointed to the authority of scripture as a logical conclusion to draw from the evidence of what he witnessed in history.
Jesus and the apostles used reasoned persuasion (the First Path to Belief) to educate people into the truth, not emotional manipulation or appeals to superstition (the Second Path to Belief) to indoctrinate them into a belief system.
In fact, it was the very same kind of lifelong socialization and deeply-ingrained prejudice which passes for faith today that they had to work against in their time. The people to whom Jesus spoke were just as invested in Pharisaical Judaism as anyone today whose sense of self is tied up in the religion of their upbringing. Much of Paul’s audience identified just as fanatically with the gods of Olympus as any Muslim extremist does today with Islam.
This is why Jesus so often said that whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for His sake would find it, and that one must take up one’s cross daily to follow Him. He didn’t just mean that His followers should be ready for martyrdom (although He did mean that). He meant that they’d have to die to the sense of personal identity to which they’d been socialized. As long as they were just trying to preserve their tribal identity and the place within Jewish religious society they’d absorbed from their parents and rabbis and peers, they could never be open to learn anything new because—even though those things often pass for “godliness,” they’re really a counterfeit. If a person is truly devoted to God, then they know that honesty—intellectual and moral honesty—is more important to Him than keeping rules or rituals, or even maintaining relationships. In scripture, we read that truth is the basis for morality and righteousness and spiritual freedom, so if we’re loyal to God, we follow the truth wherever it leads. So, if honesty demands that we cut ties with the religion of our upbringing, that’s what Jesus Christ calls us to do.
When the religious authorities of His day denounced Him to their followers, He said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether My teaching comes from God or whether I speak on My own.”
The original Christians held out the resurrection as the central validation of Jesus’ message—the proof that His teaching came from God. And, they held it out as a verifiable historical fact—as something that happened in time and space, within human history and experience. As such, whether or not it happened is not a question of faith. It’s a question of evidence and reason and logic, and its truth or falsehood should be determined by the First Path to Belief: it should be demonstrable by evidence and reason apprehensible to anyone inclined to attend to it.
And if the evidence isn’t sufficient for the conclusion that the resurrection actually happened, then Christianity is an utter waste of time and a source of destruction and false hope, and should be abandoned. And that’s not by my determination—that’s how the apostle Paul summed things up.
If it can be proven, though—then the things we claim about God and Christ aren’t questions of faith either. They are not the starting premises accepted on blind faith, and from which everything else proceeds, but conclusions we reach by reason and evidence.
And it’s only then that faith comes into play—when reason alone takes us as far as it can. It is then that—having come to understand that God is real and has intervened in history to reveal Himself, we come to trust Him—not as a point of doctrine, but as a personal, relational trust. As Paul explained to the Athenians, we don’t believe God raised Jesus from the dead because we have faith. Rather, we have faith because God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is itself the proof of God’s existence and purpose, and it’s the down-payment on His promises to humanity.
“Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, and so your faith and hope are in God,” wrote Peter.
We can see this play out in the very first sermon ever preached about the resurrection: Peter, after pointing out recent events known to everybody in Israel at the time concerning Jesus, concluded, “Therefore, let all Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
His audience evidently did know that for certain, because it reads that they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
We read elsewhere in scripture that we receive salvation through the Holy Spirit when we respond in faith. But, despite the fact that they evidently believed the facts Peter had impressed upon them about the resurrection, and so were certain in their knowledge of who Jesus was, they did not yet have faith, for Peter went on answer their question by instructing, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
They were cut to the heart because they believed and understood who Jesus was and what they had done, but they had not received the Holy Spirit, and had not been forgiven their sins…
It continues to read that “with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”
So, contrary to popular versions of the gospel, when the Scripture reads that we’re “saved by grace through faith,” it’s not Faith as opposed to Reason, because it’s reason that leads us to faith. And when we read in scripture that our faith is “not of ourselves, it is the gift of God,” it doesn’t mean that He provides faith by way of mysterious and invisible, disembodied mystical forces, it means that He has given proof of Himself through the resurrection, so that we can apply reason and logic to the question of God’s existence. The resurrection is the “sign of Jonah” spoken by Jesus, by which everyone has opportunity to believe.
The truth isn’t actually as elusive as we make it out to be—He’s made it known and knowable to anyone so inclined. The problem is that people aren’t inclined, and that’s where we’re supposed to come in.
God does give faith through the Holy Spirit, but not invisibly and mysteriously. The entire point of Christianity and of the Church is that the Spirit of God and of Christ is present in the world through us—we are the Body of Christ, we are the temple in whom the Spirit of God dwells. So, it’s through people that the Holy Spirit works—through people like Paul and Peter and you and me. He’s given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven: what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. And if we don’t work to impart faith—and do it honestly and reasonably the way the apostles did it—then it won’t be imparted. People won’t believe.
And, in fact, people don’t believe—fewer and fewer every day. That’s not necessarily because the Church hasn’t been active in sharing the gospel. It’s because we’ve been sharing a false gospel.
The “gospel” is typically presented—explicitly or otherwise—as “salvation by grace through faith,” with Faith as the converse of Reason, but that’s obviously false. Rather, it’s Faith as opposed to Law by which we are saved.
And law, essentially, is a cudgel.
Or a sword. Or a gun.
Law says, “Comply, or else.”
And that’s the reason we don’t steal or cheat on our taxes or break the speed limit—because we know there are people with guns who will come after us if we do.
And that’s not a bad thing, because we need the law. As I discuss at length in my Christmas entry, we are a race dominated by our animal instincts and appetites. We need law to channel those appetites and instincts, to keep us from eating each other. The law keeps a stick at our backs to threaten us, and holds a carrot in front of us to entice us, so that doing the right thing is always in our personal best interest, and it protects us from others who might otherwise decide it’s in their best interest to kill us to get our stuff.
And that’s basically what the Old Covenant was about—God gave His law, and laid out a series of sticks and carrots to channel the Israelites’ appetites to make them righteous. When He applied the carrots and they were happy, they’d fall into complacency and wander away from Him, and then when He applied the sticks, it usually brought them back in line, but only for a generation or two. The problem was that the law couldn’t ever really make them righteous, because it wasn’t in their nature to ever be righteousness—nor in ours (it wasn’t just a Jewish thing, it’s a human thing). Of course, God knew that all along, so the real purpose of the law was to show them the truth of their (our) nature, so they’d understand what was on the table when He eventually offered them a New Nature through faith in the Messiah.
With the New Nature, what was impossible under the Law became possible by faith. Because now, those who belong to the Messiah have more than their animal nature to draw upon—they have the very Nature of Christ and God within.
Historically, there has been a great deal of confusion over this. Some understand the New Covenant to mean that the Law is abolished, while others insist that we must keep it in order to be saved. Some rally to what Paul said by upholding faith alone against works, while others invoke James’ insistence that we’re saved—not by faith alone, but by works.
My own position is that this confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the term “faith.” When “faith” just means believing the right doctrines in the absence of or in the face of reason and evidence, that confusion is understandable. But, when we understand “faith” to mean simply and plainly trusting God, then faith and law come out to the same outward expression. Both amount to doing what God wants: by faith we uphold the law, Paul said.
Except, if we’re doing it out of observance of the law, we’re doing it to avoid the stick and to get the carrot. In that regard, we’re God’s employees, at best, or His trained pets. Under the law, we’re really just using God to get what we want, but if there were another, easier way to get what we want, we’d drop God and go do that instead, because we don’t really care about God, we just care about that carrot.
Under the New Covenant, though, that economy is inverted. If we’re living by faith, we obey God because we love Him and trust Him, regardless of what we get or, even, when obeying Him guarantees that we’ll suffer and be persecuted. Even when doing what He wants guarantees us the stick and denies us the carrot, we do it anyway, because His will being done on earth as it is in heaven is what we’re ultimately after, because we trust His will and want to see it accomplished in the world.
A wise man once wrote, “Let us not seek to prop virtue by imagining hellish torture after death for vice and houris hereafter as a reward for virtue in this life. If virtue has no attraction in itself, it must be a poor thing…”
Under the New Covenant, obeying Him is reward in itself, because it’s as gratifying to our New Nature as sin was gratifying to our fallen nature.
And it’s not that the New Nature and salvation by grace through faith weren’t available before. In fact, one of Paul’s most emphatic points here, here, and here is that the righteousness by faith is older, and more fundamental than the Law of Moses. Everyone who’s ever been saved has always been saved the same way—that being by grace through faith, because there is no provision in the law related to eternal salvation, and if there were another way than the way Jesus and the apostles taught, then Christ died for nothing, he said.
The only difference now, then, is that we have a much greater basis for our faith than they had before—because of the aforementioned “sign of Jonah,” God’s goodness and glory are now verifiable facts of history.
Except, ironically, we don’t actually take advantage of that benefit, because we don’t preach the same gospel Jesus and the apostles did. We actually preach the Old Covenant, but package it as the New.
Instead of Faith as the converse of Law, we hold out Faith as a kind of law. We don’t teach people to tithe a tenth of their spices or dictate how wide their phylacteries and how long their payot have to be, but we make up other rules—rules of belief, which are just as ritualistic, and just as unrelated to actual righteousness before God. And, instead of the reasoned persuasion and logical appeal to evidence employed by the apostles, we use sticks and carrots to control people, to coerce them as best we can into believing what we want them to—reward them with popularity and influence and other goodies if they comply, and punish them if they don’t by ostracizing and vilifying them.
And it’s bad enough that we do this within our own walls. Despite Paul’s clear instruction that it’s simply none of our business what consenting non-Christians do with their genitals, we still try to use the government as a cudgel to enforce our standards for marriage and sexuality—standards we ourselves cannot keep.
And that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in. That’s why the Church is dying. That’s the reason 80 percent (!) of teenagers, upon graduating high school and moving out of their parents’ home and beyond their direct control, stop going to church—they haven’t been told why any of this stuff is true, and so they have no foundation. They’ve been socialized and indoctrinated and conditioned with sticks and carrots, but they haven’t been educated and empowered to understand why Christianity is true so that they can live it out by their own initiative, by their own genuine faith. And they see well enough how phony our own practice is, and so they don’t see anything worth emulating in Christianity as we know it.