Let me forestall a couple of New Atheist freak outs from the start.
This post is not going to argue that we should ignore fundamentalist versions of religions as mere aberrations or perversions of their faiths. Fundamentalists exist and they pose serious risks to science, freedom, philosophical advance, and numerous other important values around the world. Attacking them for their absurd beliefs and their regressive ethics and politics is always a-okay in my book—as long as one does not descend into becoming temperamentally like them in the process. (My views on how to avoid doing that can be discerned from a careful reading of my dialogue: Atheist Fundamentalism?)
This post is also not going to say that non-fundamentalist believers are intellectually, ethically, and politically just wonderful allies to science, philosophy, and progressive values who should by no means be criticized. Even non-fundamentalists believe unjustified things and should be challenged vigorously for that. And there is some truth to Sam Harris style challenges to liberal believers that they’re often a positive obstacle to secular efforts to effectively isolate the fundamentalists. In short this post is not a plea to simply be nice to moderate and liberal religious viewpoints.
What I want to write about instead, as I have a few times before, is the question of who really belongs to a religion and challenge a familiar stance my fellow New Atheists take on this question that I believe is ill-considered both rationally and strategically.
New Atheists frequently credit the fundamentalists with at least taking what their religions say seriously and not “picking and choosing” what they want to believe. I think this is wrongheaded and I will take Christianity as an example (while noting that other religions have similar distinctions that can be made about how they work as well).
Fundamentalists “pick and choose” what they want to believe just as much as liberals do. Christian fundamentalists claim that they are strictly obedient adherents to literal Bible but that is a dubious claim. They typically accept the traditional philosophical definition of God as eternally unchanging, immaterial, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, all-loving, singular, and triune (i.e., a single person comprised of three persons—the Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). There are plenty of texts in the Bible which contradict these notions.
In Genesis 6:5 God is sorry He created humans. In Jonah 3:10, God changes His mind about destroying the Ninevites because He sees that they repented. In Genesis 18:16-33, Abraham bargains with God to try to convince him not to wipe out everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah if He can find ten righteous people there. God goes on to wipe them out when He judges there were not enough righteous people. But did He have to? Do Christians have to believe he was just messing around with Abraham and humoring him that He would even consider sparing them?
In Hosea 11:8-9, God describes shifting emotions: “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.” He goes through thought processes and has feelings, as only a temporal and changing being can. This is illustrated in Jeremiah 31:20 when He says, “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.” He is also surprised by turns of events as when in Jeremiah 32-35 (NRSV) he says that it “did not enter his mind” that they the Israelites would engage in some particular acts he considered wicked.
In the Garden of Eden story, God has a body and walks through the garden such that Adam and Eve can hear Him approaching (and He evidently does not know what they did at first—unless we are to believe He is deceptively playing with them as though He is playing hide and seek with children and pretending for their sake He does not know what he really knows). God also talks about creating humans in our image, which could be taken to imply that (a) there was more than one god and (b) they had an image, i.e., they were visible. Exodus 34 describes God passing in front of Moses. There we also read that God is slow to anger, which again implies varying emotional states. God also directs Elijah in 1 Kings 19 to stand on a mountain where He is going to “pass by” so that Elijah can bask in his “presence”. This is not a timeless, unchanging, immaterial deity being described. It takes hermeneutic gymnastics to square such texts with the god of Greek philosophy that most fundamentalists (and most Christians generally) believe in.
I could go on and on actually reading the literal text of the Bible to which the fundamentalists claim such automatic and unyielding deference, pointing out how it contradicts beliefs which are central to their understanding of their faith. Their actual beliefs are a hodgepodge of Greek philosophy infused with centuries worth of Christian thinking and a healthy dose of modern politics. Nowhere in the Bible is the Trinity laid out at all clearly. Jesus never even comes out and says in completely unambiguous literal terms that he is identical in some key way with God himself. It’s all cryptic stuff about being “one with the Father” or “the Son of Man” or “I AM I AM”. And do I really need to point out all the ways God and His thoughts on things seem to have changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament? Or do I really need to tell New Atheists about all the ways the Old Testament is not morally good and does not have benevolence to all people indiscriminately? (Hello, the Canaanites? The victims of child sacrifice he approved of? The people whose enslavement or marriages to rapists he codified in law? And does no one know about all the predestinarian verses in the Bible (see Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 for a start) that Arminian fundamentalist Christians obsessed with free will just ignore?)
And why should “true” Christianity be interpreted as either biblical literalism and absolutism in the first place? Who has the authority to say such a thing? Christians disagree on such things. Who are atheists or anyone else to decide which ones are right? Christianity existed for hundreds of years without any identifiable settled consensus on what books even belonged in a “Bible”. And even after that disagreements continued. Richard Carrier summarizes:
Contrary to common belief, there was never a one-time, truly universal decision as to which books should be included in the Bible. It took over a century of the proliferation of numerous writings before anyone even bothered to start picking and choosing, and then it was largely a cumulative, individual and happenstance event, guided by chance and prejudice more than objective and scholarly research, until priests and academics began pronouncing what was authoritative and holy, and even they were not unanimous. Every church had its favored books, and since there was nothing like a clearly-defined orthodoxy until the 4th century, there were in fact many simultaneous literary traditions. The illusion that it was otherwise is created by the fact that the church that came out on top simply preserved texts in its favor and destroyed or let vanish opposing documents. Hence what we call “orthodoxy” is simply “the church that won.”
Astonishingly, the story isn’t even that simple: for the Catholic church centered in Rome never had any extensive control over the Eastern churches, which were in turn divided even among themselves, with Ethiopian and Coptic and Syrian and Byzantine and Armenian canons all riding side-by-side with each other and with the Western Catholic canon, which itself was never perfectly settled until the 15th century at the earliest, although it was essentially established by the middle of the 4th century.
Presumably there were Christians for the hundreds of years before the Bible was either entirely written or agreed upon as an authoritative text within the Christian tradition. And since it was preexisting Christian tradition that judged the Bible authoritative in the first place, what is there to stop the Christian tradition from changing its mind about either the nature or standing of the Bible within the tradition? Who says it has to be taken as literal and infallible? Fundamentalist Christians? Why do they get to define the tradition for everyone? Some of the earliest, greatest, and most influential Christian theologians were understanding the Christian story in thoroughly allegorical terms within the first few centuries of the faith. Right from the start, Christians were reinterpreting their stories so that they were actually vehicles for expressing abstract philosophy more than literal propositional truths. And as canonical a Catholic and Protestant philosopher-theologian as St. Augustine was even okay with the idea that the creation account in Genesis was not literal!
Are the church fathers, including St. Augustine himself simply “pickers and choosers” about their faith and not real Christians like modern literalist creationist fundamentalists? Why in the world take such a position?
When growing up and then studying as a fundamentalist Evangelical late 20th Century American Christian, I was convinced that this was the only real kind of Christianity and that if it was false the whole thing was false and that other forms of Christianity were corruptions. So, I deconverted rapidly when that interpretation of the faith collapsed. And, frankly, the other, less literal versions of the faith are also shot through with falsehoods so the year I spent reading them as a last ditch effort to give faith every chance I could after I deconverted didn’t dent my atheism a bit.
But, nonetheless, the fundamentalists are not any more “truly” Christian or even more biblically consistent, either in principle or often in practice, than their intra-faith rivals. And within Roman Catholicism, there is a centuries long record of philosophical evolution that the Church spins not as “changes” but as ongoing further “understanding” of the “unchanging truth”, achieved through guidance from God over the course of time.
In philosophical and theological practice, the Catholic Church is very much like any longstanding legal tradition. It is constantly rife with factions trying to argue for new interpretations and reconcile them with the existing tradition. And over time, high level philosophical and theological debates do lead to the introductions of nuances that are taken to be Church teaching. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the Church is doubling down stubbornly on sexual regressiveness rather than finding ways to incorporate new, modern, moral and scientific realizations about human sexuality, equality, and happiness into account.
But the moderate and liberal Catholics are not just completely deluded or “unreal Catholics” for seeing their Church as one which at least in theory could give their progressive values a fair hearing. They are trying to change their Church through participation in a centuries long tradition of argument. They are, or can be, seen to be “real Catholics” as much as any other once radical and now canonized Catholics of past eras are. Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were at one point condemned by the Church and he went on to be given the distinction of being regarded “the Angelic Doctor, the Universal Doctor, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church”—distinctions he is still accorded today.
There are plenty of reasons to think the Church is too corrupt and/or false to submit one’s obedience or one’s mind to it in good conscience. But those attempting to participate in the tradition and influence it to update its values and beliefs for the 21st Century are not some novel aberration who have no real place calling themselves real Catholics.
Catholicism and all other forms of Christianity have always evolved. We atheists can criticize each iteration of Christianity as false and immoral in whatever unique ways each one proves itself to be wrong and counter-productive to human flourishing.
But we should leave questions of who are “real” or “unreal” Christians to the side. There is no truth to Christianity. It is a living tradition of people bound by much more than a single book or a single style of interpretation of that book or of its relevance. As non-believers, there is no “true Christianity”, just many Christianities, each of which are problematic and which should be addressed on their own terms. We can also point out contradictions in their own professed views. For those who actually profess a doctrine of biblical literalism, we can show all the ways their values and beliefs are inconsistent with what they say they believe. For those who profess a doctrine of transubstantiation, we can push them to acknowledge its absurdity and to abandon belief in it and the pretense they trust the Church’s teachings on all such matters.
But even though it would be simpler to reduce the entire faith to a single monolithic set of propositions or a priori commitments and just show that they are all false and therefore claim to have decisively and once and for all proven all “true” versions of the religion false in that way. But that is just not a true account of what Christianity is in its actual totality. And so it is beneath critical thinkers to think that way and it makes us sound historically ignorant and sociologically shallow.
For posts where I have analyzed what makes a religion “true” or not, analyzed the natures of non-fundamentalist believers, and talked about or modeled strategies for criticizing non-fundamentalists, please read any or all of the posts below which strike you as intriguing: