One of the very most irritating things Christians do is infer that all those who reject Christianity must have had a bad experience with the church and then “mistakenly rejected Jesus for the church’s sins”. With guilty handwringing and desperation they throw their fellow Christians under the bus and plead, “Don’t reject God because of the fallibility of man!!”
First of all, not every unbeliever has just been spurned by the church. Even many of us who now rail against it as a moral and intellectual disaster used to love it and deconverted while loving it. My consciousness of the evils of Christianity was only raised through hearing out its critics, both towards the end of my faith and then much more afterwards. That’s not to say I was unaware of the hypocrites and general fallibility of Christians. Recently re-reading my poetry written as a Christian teenager and then college student, I’m struck by how concerned the poems are with criticizing hypocrites. But it really wasn’t because I felt surrounded by hypocrites. It was because I was emulating Jesus, and that’s what Jesus did–he constantly went after the Pharisees for (supposedly) being whitewashed tombs.
But even as I denounced bad Christianity all the time, I was like a duck in water in the church. I willingly and happily studied in a college environment that was saturated with evangelical Christianity and spent my summers at an evangelical Christian camp giving the Gospel. The further I got from high school and the more I was taking control of my life, the more I chose to associate with fellow Christians who were as on fire for the Lord as I was. So, like the proselytizers I come across, when the topic of bad Christians came up, I reflexively absolved real Christianity and, most importantly, God and Jesus from all blame.
But this mindset is irrational, and for several reasons.
One thing that struck me and played a key role in my deconversion was that even though I thought very highly of my Christian community and how loving everyone was and attributed that to Christ’s work in our individual lives, I still didn’t think we attained to anything like a supernatural superiority over non-Christians. And the mere existence of the bad Christians was a problem too. Because if all of us were gifted with the Holy Spirit, we should all be drastically and regularly different. And we shouldn’t just be better at specific virtues because we were specifically more focused on them given the peculiarity of our subculture. We should be, by the power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit, literally divinely better. Unambiguous salt and light.
When I was deconverting this simple realization had a big impact on me. I called it the “X Factor”. As much as I cherished my bubbles of loving Christian community, it hit me that we didn’t have an “X Factor”, something that made us qualitatively any different than other people on account of a divine agency at work in us. Even as some of us may have been extraordinary people, I knew plenty of Christians simply weren’t, not any more than anyone else in the world.
The lazily simplistic answer I get from some Christians is Augustine’s conveniently unfalsifiable distinction between the invisible church and the visible church. The visible church may seem like it’s filled with an ordinary mixture of people, no different from anyone in the world, but if you saw only the invisible church you’d see they’re all totally transformed by the Holy Spirit. This metaphor is amusing considering Jesus called the true church to be a source of light, not invisible.
But it’s also just a silly and arbitrary thing to do to say the Holy Spirit has the power to transform all those who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ and then every time you find people who are not so radically transformed you just infer, “Oh, well, the Holy Spirit must have not really saved that person” or “Ah ha! They just didn’t believe after all!” This is basically like me saying the ghost of a perfect baseball player resides within me and all my homeruns are his doing and every at bat where I don’t hit a homerun but a mere single or (worse) an out, it’s me and not the ghost.
If you really want to argue that accepting Jesus into your heart (or being baptized and/or confirmed, or whatever else it is that you think makes someone a Christian) leads to your being born again, or filled with the spirit, or regularly infused with sacramental grace, or in some other way, divinely transformed and guided, then you need a serious account of why God gives some people the full refurbish plan and not others.
You need to explain why, statistically speaking, Christians wind up mostly indistinguishable from everyone else ethically and the only real variances have to do with things that could much more simply be chalked up to culture/sub-culture, the structure of church life, the psychology and biology that dispose some people towards Christian ethics and beliefs as preferable in the first place, etc. The null hypothesis when testing for the Holy Spirit is to assume there is no special effect of the Holy Spirit that works within Christians and that, on the contrary, all their peculiarities as a group are as naturalistically explicable as countless other groups’ and religions’ own idiosyncrasies are. That’s what you need to disprove before the Holy Spirit can be a plausible explanation for anything.
By contrast, eschewing this naturalistic account of things and claiming supernatural guidance to the church, while just claiming supernatural things are afoot while self-servingly counting all the good Christians as evidence for your faith and dismissing all the bad Christians as not really Christians proves nothing except that you’re refusing to think. And this is dubious especially given what we know about group psychology. You think it’s clear Christians are more loving and wonderful than non-Christians? You do know that psychological research shows that this sort of tribal bias towards people in your own group is universal. Why do you think a supernatural explanation of the Holy Spirit making Christians superior is a more likely explanation for Christian goodness than your own confirmation bias and susceptibility to the fundamental attribution error when assessing Christians as opposed to non-Christians? Or are you immune from prejudices, (Praise the Lord)?
Or if you say, “no, Christians are no better but we no one ever said we would be–we’re just forgiven sinners, not perfect people”, then is that you admitting that being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit or infused with sacramental grace, or whatever it is your denomination teaches, makes pretty much no demonstrable difference in one’s moral competency? Or is it just a marginal improvement? Where again is the supposed need for becoming a Christian in that case? What’s the point again? “Sacrifice your life to Christ and surrender your mind and body to our interpretation of the Bible in order to become…an indiscernibly small bit better as a moral person!” Or is the claim that becoming a better person is not the point? That would be trying to be “saved by works”, not by faith! But isn’t the proof of faith supposed to be in the works? Didn’t Jesus say something about knowing a tree by its fruits? If you’re really saved, where are the fruits?
To make the extraordinary claim that Christians are infused with the Holy Spirit or with supernatural grace or even just that they are in some special way in touch with the divine source of all goodness in a way that non-Christians aren’t, you would need to have extraordinary evidence through the power of Christians’ behaviors and thinking that they inexplicably, massively superior (by the grace of God alone) to everyone else.
And yet ignorant, parochial, authoritarian, backward looking, fearful, regressive, traditionalistic, small-minded, outright immoral attitudes favoring the subordination of women, the denunciation of homosexuality as sinful, the “loving” beating of children, the dehumanization of prisoners, the xenophobic contempt for immigrants, the Randian contempt for the poor, the demonization of sex, and the rehabilitation of the image of America’s slavery era are all, in America, most at home among the church. If you want to find hostility to science or philosophy, your best bet is a church. That’s not to say that all Christians are misogynists, homophobes, racists, science deniers, or bad philosophers. It is to say that your odds of finding these moral and intellectual failures go up when you start surveying Christians.
If I want to find an American who will defend genocide, child sacrifice, the treatment of women and children as property, slavery, theocracy, the stoning of disobedient children, the grossly disproportionate infinite punishment of finite misdeeds with hell, etc., my first stop will be a church and my first questions will be about the Old Testament and how it could possibly be the story of a righteous God. And suddenly, the faucet will flow with rationalizations for every atrocity under the sun from goodhearted modern people who just happen to be more invested in maintaining their religious identities than actually sticking to their moral consciences and renouncing the wickedness in their own holy books.
Of course, these aren’t everyone. Some liberal believers and even the occasionally honest evangelical will go so far as to admit the Bible was wrong to condone the subordination of women, that the Bible is wrong where it adamantly insists on genocide or slavery or theocracy or stonings for trivial crimes or hell or the subordination of women, gays, and foreigners. But to all of you quickly trying to change the subject by saying, “we’re not all like that”, you’re missing the whole point. Why are so many of your brethren like that? Why is your Bible like that? Why were most or all of these rotten attitudes the norm for millennia in your faith back to Old Testament days? How could a loving and just God be guiding a church that clings to ancient barbarian values as divine? Why should anyone believe that?
And, no, saying that God is just working with imperfect humans and teaching them at the pace they need to take is not an answer. See my post on why progressive readings of the Bible and church history are inadequate.
The number of people whose consciences on these matters are so corroded by their loyalties to their faith are significant enough to convince me that no divinely perfect moral agent supernaturally guides them. Not only are they not more likely to come up with supernaturally better moral and intellectual ideas, they are even verifiably less likely to think or feel clearly on a whole range of moral or intellectual matters. And this is not for any inherent failure of natural intelligence. The explanation is far simpler. Their minds are captive to the very petty and earthly and unremarkable snare of culture, not liberated to travel to new heights by any divine possession.
Finally, the thing that drives me battiest about Christians when they say, I used to be wont to do, “while the church may fail you, Jesus never does” is that it blithely absolves Jesus from all responsibility for his own freaking church. Jesus can do no wrong–even if he can barely make his own followers do anything right. Some God Jesus supposedly is–he fails in his promises and he gets his followers to profusely take the blame on themselves.
No. If the church fails you, Jesus fails you. The church is the body of Christ. Even as atheist I can accept that statement (metaphorically anyway). That means that Christians are Christianity and if they suck, Christianity sucks. If they are Christ’s body, then Christ sucks. Dear Christians, stop promising that if people just come back to the fold, the church will stop sucking. Stop sucking first. Then make that your selling point. Enough with insisting the invisible church (that, curiously enough, no one can see) is as perfect as your invisible God (that, curiously enough, no one can see). You’re supposed to be light, not invisible. You’re supposed to model supernatural moral enlightenment, not moral incompetency.
Your God has had several thousands of years to prove Himself through you. All that’s been proven is you are nothing special and He, by extension, does not exist.
And anyone who does leave the church because this inference was driven home through their own harmful experience with the pitifully undivine church, is not being emotional. They’re simply being empirical and drawing the only rational inference.
For more on related themes, read my popular post from November, No True Christian Would Do That.