As a college student, in my Christian days, I remember reading C.S. Lewis explain what made Christianity plausible to him. He was persuaded that all the pagan myths that preceded the advent of Christianity were precursors of Christ. The similarities between the Christ story and numerous myths that had gone before him were not the result of Christian idea-theft. Rather God had been communicating the central concepts of the Christ story in mythic form before Christ ever arrived.
This is what most Christians think, following the book of Hebrews, was what happened with the ancient Jews. God gave them a sacrificial system and various archetypes so that when Jesus came they would have a framework of metaphors and symbols with which to properly understand the meaning of Christ’s life and work. Lewis essentially extends this concept to the non-Hebraic world and thinks that God was not simply allowing all other cultures to get things totally wrong and not know him at all. Rather he thinks God was giving different mythic and symbolic arrow signs to the same eventual historical fact of Christ’s salvific work.
This is how Lewis both can redeem the value of the pagan mythologies which he loved deeply and also how he, being so well-versed in mythology, could bring himself to believe in the literal truth of a story that bore all the markings of having been derived from what he knew were earlier mythic stories. Lewis convinced himself that the myths became fact in the case of Jesus. Jesus was not special for being non-mythical, but for being the historical instantiation of the myth as no longer a symbolic story but a true one as well.
What struck me most and always stuck with me is how strongly Lewis felt that without this explanation he simply could not be a Christian. This rather convenient and extraordinarily unlikely story he told himself was pivotal for his believing that Christianity could be true. And, ironically, it is an idea that many of the believers who lean on Lewis as an intellectual crutch to prop up their faiths would probably find uncompelling and unbiblical.
What struck me about this was that for many believers the central idea that keeps them believing is one that other believers would find wholly inadequate or, even, heretical. Also any given believer I encounter is readily willing to agree with me that any one portion of their generally accepted faith or another is false. Sometimes I talk to Christians who tell me outright there is no devil. Plenty of course immediately concede the whole Old Testament is filled with mythic stories not to be taken literally. Others insist that of course heaven’s not a “place” but it’s just some kind of “state of being close to God”. Others will flatly admit that of course we can’t make God do anything with our prayers. And others will say of course God is not the kind of being that has thoughts like we do or is personal in any recognizable sense to the ways we are. Or, of course Jesus didn’t literally raise from the dead. And so on and so forth.
My point is that you could probably get from any given Christian a refutation of some part of Christianity that is not important to them while they hold fast that some other part is what really makes the difference and keeps them Christian. You could even theoretically have two given Christians on opposite ends. One saying that if she had to believe the entire Old Testament was literal to be a Christian, she just couldn’t believe, and another saying that if the entire Old Testament is not literally true then the whole thing might as well be false and so she must believe even the ludicrous seeming parts or believe nothing at all.
If one given Christian conceived of God as another one does, he would not believe at all (and vice versa). This is maddening as an atheist because Christians always get offended when you characterize them as believing x, that the vast majority of Christians believe but which of course the enlightened person you’re talking to understands is false and not “real Christianity.”
I have noticed another related irony to this one. Atheists do the inverse thing with respect to religion.
Even though we refer to religion with one simple word, it is really comprised of a constellation of things (and any given religion may only have some number of these features and miss others altogether—making “religion” more of a “family resemblance” term than the demarcation of a specific one thing). Religions are each composed of some unique combination of some of the following things: myth, ritual, hierarchy, metaphysics, ethics, superstition, supernaturalism, belief in unseen agencies, priests, prophets, asceticism, festivals, meditation, tradition, supplication, spiritual experiences, mysticism, dogmatism, identity-markers, faith, etc., etc.
Many atheists do not just disbelieve in God but also criticize religion—not just particular religions’ particular actions or institutions but religion itself as somehow wrong and harmful even beyond its false beliefs.
What I find curious is that different atheists will put their finger on different aspects of religion as its damaging parts and concede that there is some redeemable value in other things religion does. So for one atheist, the real problem is historical associations with patriarchy, while for another it is its talk of “spirituality”, and for another it is its reliance on rituals as a tool of brainwashing, and for another it is the hubris with which the religious claim metaphysical knowledge.
Of course, many atheists will criticize numerous aspects of religion and not just one. But what is interesting to me is that they will also concede that while parts x and y of religion are fatally flawed morally and should be abandoned, another part, z, is a fine thing, worth salvaging and transplanting into some irreligious framework.
Ironically, some atheists might want to salvage ritual and others might want to salvage spirituality and others might want to retain robust metaphysical speculation. And still yet others think that not only the religious but everyone must have some kind of “faith”. And just as you could probably compile each individual Christian’s rejection of a part of Christianity into a refutation of the total system, you could probably piece together all atheist’s proposals for salvaging different parts of religion into a complete defense of all the aspects of religion. And would that be a defense of religion itself?
For my part, I want to say that most of the component pieces of religion, the activities which comprise it, really can be salvaged and put on a better footing. We can have spirituality and ritual and speculative metaphysics and mysticism and myths and festivals and identity-forming traditional bonds, etc.
But the one feature of religion which is unsalvagable to me is faith. Faith is the evil in religion as far as I am concerned. Faith is the root of the evil of dogma, the evil of religious authoritarianism, and the evil of religions’ hostility to knowledge and to change. And I think opposition faith is what truly separates the atheist from the religious to the atheist’s credit—even as there is much left in religion that atheists do not well enough salvage yet, to our discredit.
In my follow up post to this one, “Disambiguating Faith: How Faith Poisons Religion”, I put a finer point on what faith is and is not and why it is the real problem with religion which every atheist should oppose with little qualification and avoid replicating in their atheistic conceptions and practices in the world.