Winning Hearts and Minds

In the post Should Atheists Evangelize?, back in March, I argued for the conclusion that nonbelievers should, in fact, seek to spread the good news of atheism under certain circumstances. Since then, I have built on this foundation by proposing a plan for how best to achieve that. In previous posts of this series, I have addressed how to respond to religious distortions (Shattering Stereotypes) and how to present atheism to an audience unacquainted with it (Atheism as a Positive Worldview). In this post, I will sum up the series by suggesting what effect we should seek to produce in our listeners and what our goals should be.

First and most important, I have this to say to any would-be atheist evangelists: have realistic expectations. The classic story of a great crowd of people listening to an eloquent speaker and being so inspired that they convert by the hundreds only happens in the Bible and other works of fiction. No matter how passionate your speech or forceful your arguments, the vast majority of religious people who hear them will go on believing exactly as before, and we should anticipate this and be prepared for it. (I do not mean to suggest that Christians or other religious proselytizers do any better at this: conversions of any type are vanishingly rare events.) At most, one should expect that a small handful of people may be sufficiently impressed to change their minds or deconvert, and often not even that.

But this is not a reason to despair, and my second point explains why: The point of evangelism is not to win converts, but to win understanding. If our grand plan as atheists was to win enough deconverts to command a majority in society, we would be in trouble; such a scheme could take a hundred years to come to fruition, if it ever did, and that assumes the existence of a large network of dedicated, persuasive atheist missionaries that does not come close to existing right now. Although our numbers are growing, we are still a minority, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

But, as I said, becoming a raw majority should not be our goal, at least not now. Instead, our goal should be to win hearts and minds – to show the good-hearted, honest and reasonable people among the religious that we are not the bad people we have been made out to be by the fundamentalists and zealots, that we are ordinary people like everyone else with honest opinions of our own that are worth listening to and considering. The greatest achievement of religious extremists over the past several decades has been to successfully camouflage themselves among the more reasonable moderates – to pass themselves off as part of that larger group, so that they can freely spread their poisonous message within it. We must work to undo that, and part of the way in which we can achieve that is to show principled, moral religious people the truth: that they actually have more in common with us than with the dangerous fanatics among their number. If we can show this to be true, we can forge a powerful coalition of religious and non-religious people. Though we may never agree on matters of belief, we can work together on issues of ethics and social justice on which we agree in order to defeat the evils of religious extremism and achieve goals for the betterment of humanity.

This goal is eminently achievable. Winning converts is hard, but winning hearts and minds is much easier. It takes a great deal of effort and is often impossible to convince people to give up their most deeply held religious beliefs, but persuading them to adjust their views on atheists is far simpler. However, to do this we must avoid playing into fundamentalist stereotypes, and I have some advice on how to do that.

First, do not deal harshly with religious people who approach you in good faith. As I have stressed before, calling all religious people “insane” or their beliefs “lies”, or using similar terms of insult and abuse, accomplishes nothing except to set people’s minds against us and foster a polarized atmosphere in which a productive exchange of ideas can never take place. I recommend treating people with civility even if they become angry or hostile – not because they have earned such treatment, but because it will help our image in the eyes of onlookers. Becoming abusive is a sure way, in public debates, to lose the crowd.

Second, when engaging a religious person in a public setting, take pains to point out to the audience what common ground you share. Especially when an opponent brings up some obnoxious stereotype, it is important to emphasize strongly that atheists are ordinary, decent people who want the same things everyone wants – peace, security, the company of friends and family and loved ones, a stable and free society, and the right to direct our own lives free of interference by meddlesome outsiders. Make it clear that you do not want to demolish churches or persecute believers, but that you are part of the same society as they are and that you insist on equal treatment free of discrimination by the government or anyone else. Express clearly your lament that you cannot have a fair discussion without being attacked with these ridiculous distortions, and set your opponent firmly straight that he has no right to speak for atheists or define for everyone what they “really” want. Make it clear that the many atheists you know are nothing like the religious stereotypes. I have used this technique myself on several occasions, and it is often very effective in forcing an obnoxious fundamentalist to back down.

In the same vein, another effective tactic is to contrast your moral beliefs with those of the fundamentalists. Most ordinary religious people are unaware of the atrocities the Bible contains and the other cruelties of religious doctrine, and react with shock when those evils are made known to them. Strike hard at your opponent’s weak points; bring up these verses and others and demand that he defend them. Point out to the audience that you know they are decent people and know better than to call these evils good, and point out that your opponent believes these horrors are what God wants. If your opponent tries to divert attention by setting up a false equivalence with atheists who have committed misdeeds, offer to unequivocally condemn all evils committed by atheists, and demand that he similarly disavow the evils of the Bible. (On the other hand, do not let them get away with blatant falsehoods such as calling the Nazis atheists. The Nazis were not atheists; their language was explicitly Christian, and they wore belt buckles that said “God With Us”. Hitler made reference to stamping out atheism in public speeches.) If your opponent has actually endorsed such evils in the past, so much the better; bring that up and do not let him dodge it. Your intent should be to drive a wedge between the majority of ordinary, reasonable religious people and the evils and cruelties of their own tradition.

Fourth, when practical, use humor to convey your message. There is probably no better way to break the tension of a debate and win your audience over. Humor should only be used when appropriate, of course, and I recommend against overly subtle satire or any other joke whose point is easy to miss; but people almost universally react favorably to someone who makes them laugh, and few things drive home the message more strongly or effectively that we are ordinary, likable people just like everyone else. Conversely, if we bore or depress people, it is much likelier that they will turn against us.

Finally, I urge atheists to speak with fire and passion. People respond favorably to sincerity and conviction. Making it clear that you hold the beliefs you do because your conscience permits you to do nothing else, and that you will not back down or apologize for speaking up, can be a surprisingly potent tactic in gaining the approval of people who would otherwise strongly disagree with you. Do not accept or internalize opponents’ stereotypes, and make your anger clear and plain – again, with force but without undue abuse or hostility – when they resort to tactics that are particularly outrageous. When your opponents are plainly being motivated for self-serving reasons, say so. In particular, point out that as an atheist, you stand to gain nothing personally from speaking an unpopular message, but rather are compelled to do so because it is the truth. Point out that it takes little courage to stand with the crowd, but much to depart from it, and that you would not be here before them if you did not truly believe in the merits of your message.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/index.php Siamang

    Good post. I think a lot of good can be done with the goal in mind that we should change people’s minds about atheists. I’ve been trying to do that.

    I think you are on the right track, but you miss it a small bit in terms of trying to put in that we should attack the moral problems with the Bible. Think big picture here, and take a psychological tip: If you attack the Bible, you will not succeed. Why? Because people react with hostility toward threats, and they don’t listen to a word you say. If you attack the Bible in the same speech where you say “atheists are good, honest people just like you” that message will be lost, and the only thing people will remember is that atheists hate the bible.

    Instead, use emotions to highlight Commonalities, not differences. Show a picture of your child, your grandma, your dog. Get self-righteous about freedom of religion in a case where you have commonality with Christians rather than differences, like religious oppression in China or Afghanistan.

    Draw comparisons to religious freedom. Talk about the child custody cases where the religious parent got the child and the atheist parent didn’t, just because of a difference in beliefs. http://atheism.about.com/b/a/256589.htm

    I’ve been a part of a respectful atheist/christian dialogue on this site:

    http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/index.php

    I recommend it. It started from the ebay atheist story. I’m thinking the way of the “Friendly Atheist” is the key to wider acceptance in society.

  • Interested Atheist

    thanks, Adam and Siamang. I think they’re both approaches that will work – and I agree, it’s very important to raise the public profile of atheism.

  • Johan S

    Is this really the situation in the US? That atheists are a small minority that is ridiculed and considered strange? That is so sad. Here in Sweden it’s quite the opposite. To meet someone with a strong religious faith here is very rare, and this person will often have to defend themselves and explain why they feel that way.

    Anyway, using some of these tips in this excellent post, hopefully the philosophy of reason and atheism will spread and be strengthened, and more people will see the truth.

  • Archi Medez

    I second that–both Adam’s and Siamang’s suggestions appear to me to be sound overall. Just a couple of comments:

    The Hitler issue often comes up, so, if you are planning on getting into discussions with Christians and others, it is worth doing some background research on it. Those who claim Hitler and the Nazis were atheists are certainly incorrect. On the other hand, those who insist that Hitler and the Nazis were Christians, in the normal sense of the word, are not accurate. (Adam’s sentence, which uses the word “language” and implies public presentation is accurate). The Nazis (most of them, including Hitler himself) had their own version of Christianity that was so warped that it cannot fairly be called Christianity in the familiar sense. Hitler himself talked (privately) about destroying “Christianity” (i.e., meaning, the existing Christian sects), and was in the process of destroying it in the later years of his life, by imposing his version. He had rewritten parts of the Bible and had even added his own chapter called ‘the Gospel according to Adolf’. He referred to his religion as ‘the German Faith.’ Though Hitler did have some Christians’ support, there was also clear resistance to Hitler’s reforms from some Christians in Germany. There was a significant undeniable Christian element, including a tradition of anti-Semitism in Germany (and in Europe more broadly), originating in part from some statements in the New Testament. Hate can lead to action. However, the New Testament does not authorize anyone to harm or kill, or exterminate the Jews. Nor does the New Testament authorize humans to use violent imperialism in the name of religion. Given that the New Testament does not authorize humans* to carry out any of the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, it would be misleading to attribute them to Christianity. *(Hitler did not consider himself a normal human but a Messiah or Messiah-like figure; nevertheless the New Testament does not claim that a Messiah will carry out the expulsion, subjugation, or extermination of the Jews).

    Re attacking the Bible, I agree partly with Siamang, but at some point the Bible needs to be attacked. This may not be advisable up front if the initial goal is to establish a friendly rapport, but, even if we aren’t necessarily looking to have an argument, sooner or later the discussions must get down to the fundamental substantive issues. I believe the Bible can be attacked effectively in the manner suggested by Adam. Any friendships that do form out of such discussions should not be based on avoidance of key issues. I think atheists should resist the temptation to be too accommodating.

    At the same time, it’s important to point out that we aren’t just picking on Christianity; that we disagree with major aspects of theism generally. It is also useful to cite examples of problems from multiple religions, rather than just criticizing Christianity. A person of religion X can often more objectively identify a problem if it occurs in religion Y. Identifying a problem in Y can be a step toward acknowledging its existence in X. Also, it’s important to be discriminating in what we criticize. Christianity is not 100% bad; there are some good elements in the scripture. I think it’s important to make surgically precise criticism, acknowledging the good, but being steadfast in criticizing the bad.

    Whereas many discussions of this issue focus purely on issues of evidence, logical fallacies, specific types of arguments, and so on, both Adam’s and Siamang’s suggestions above deal with the human factors of persuasion. I think it will be useful for all of us to go beyond our personal experience and have a look at the empirical research (or a review of it) on this important topic.

  • Archi Medez

    Johan S.,

    Really? In Sweden, are strict Muslims called upon to defend their beliefs, or are they given a free pass because it is considered politically incorrect to criticize Islam?

  • http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/index.php Siamang

    I find a better way to go, rather than attacking the Bible, which can take you on a long trip down the rabbit hole of “proper interpretation,” is to attack the problem of interpretation itself.

    Use something that christians no longer believe, such as the curse of ham, and slavery. Point out that with no tools to tell a true interpretation from a false interpretation, human interpretation of the Bible is morally unreliable.

  • andrea

    I would argue that the Nazis are as much Christian as any other sect of Christianity. They may not be the poster boys for it but that’s what happens when your deity refuses to show that some practitioners are totally wrong. The NT is very anti-Semetic (and homosexual, etc)IMO. And humans are indeed told to kill those who aren’t “right”. If you add this to the admonition that *all* worldly rulers are put there by God and that “render unto Caesar”, you have, IMO, a fairly neat excuse for all the Nazis did, all within Christian beliefs.

  • Andreas

    Archi Medez,

    Judging from what I have read in the newspapers the last couple of years, I don’t think it’s really that bad. However, I’m not sure if you can critizise Islam without mentioning that “most musilms are of course moderate and do therefore not support X”.

  • SpeirM

    “I would argue that the Nazis are as much Christian as any other sect of Christianity.”

    I have given up trying to figure out what a True Christian is. Christians themselves claim to be able to tell the true from the false. The qualification is easy: the true ones tend to agree with them. Myself, a Christian is somebody who thinks he is.

    Having said that, I think it’s clear Christians aren’t all of a kind. Surely, Christians who would accept Hitler as one of their own are rare. Most of them are as revolted by Naziism as we are. It really isn’t fair to lump them all together with him.

  • Archi Medez

    Andreas,

    Yes, when criticizing Islam, there is some social pressure to make the qualification that most Muslims are moderate. (I’m in Canada). I attribute this mostly to a misplaced political correctness and to Muslim activists’ attempts to put hurdles in the way critics. (There is also, of course, the fear of being killed, which inhibits criticism of Islam). My view is that if someone holds an ideology and perpetuates it, and in particular tries to impose it in the society, the ideology must be subject to criticism. Those who hold the ideology, whether they are moderate or not, have an intellectual and moral responsibility to defend the ideology from criticism through legitimate argument.

    siamang,

    Raising the interpretation issue is also a good point (e.g., why would the deity allow such an ambiguous text regarding important issues?). This is one of the main atheistic arguments. It should be raised, but it is applicable to criticizing (i.e., “attacking”) the Bible–which your example (re slavery, ham prohibition) demonstrates. Also, parts of the Bible are reasonably clear on moral and factual issues. For example, the Bible contains clear commands to slay apostates, blasphemers, homosexuals, and so on; and makes specific empirical claims about curing illnesses, etc. In debates, all kinds of defensive arguments have been raised by theists, and there is an atheist counterargument for each one. I see no problem in letting a theist raise a defence, because it provides the opportunity for counterargument, and therefore for creating doubt in association with each defence.

    andrea,

    I think that’s stretching it quite a bit, to say that Nazism is as valid as any other interpretation of Christianity. To the extent that the institution departs from religious text, I think it’s fair to say that the institution decreases its representativeness of the religion. Nazism not only departs from the Bible, but it adds elements that aren’t in the Bible. The New Testament does not contain any commands for any person to kill Jews in the name of religion, nor in the interests of some racial supremacist theory. As I said, the tradition of anti-Semitic attitude in Europe does have some original basis in the NT scriptures, but none of those statements gives any person instructions to kill Jews, wipe them out, expell them, subjugate them, etc. In other words, the main things that the Nazis did are not commanded by the Bible.

    Re the interpretation of killing anyone who is not “right.” We are back to the issue of doctrinal support: The meaning of “right” would have to come from Biblical sources for this to be applicable to the Nazism-Christianity connection.

    Re your interpretation that the Bible says that all leaders are appointed by God, I think that is a fair interpretation of the belief system given certain commonly-accepted assumptions about it (e.g., that God controls everything). The problem is that if Hitler et al were actually following this, they would have seen all other leaders as also having been appointed by God. For them to ‘justify’ their actions using the Bible, there would have to be something in the scriptures that identifies them as right and the others wrong, but nothing in it does.

    The most violent part of the NT is the hallucinogenic Book of Revelation, but even that states that among the few people saved by God in the end are a small number of Jews (144000, which the writers of the scriptures probably thought was a large number). This is obviously incompatible with the main point of Hitler’s plan, which is why he had to rewrite the Bible according to what he wanted it to say.

    A useful contrast is Islam. The Islamic texts describe and prescribe the subjugation, expulsion, and extermination of the Jews (i.e., those of the Jews who refuse to convert to Islam). This example shows where a religious doctrine supports atrocities against a particular group. Islamic texts also mandates violent imperialism in the name of religion. The New Testament doesn’t prescribe or mandate any of these.

    Lack of doctrinal support does not absolve Christians who supported the Nazis, nor does it absolve those Christians who remained “neutral” and allowed the Nazis to move forward unchallenged. But there were also non-Christians who either supported the Nazis (indeed, there were some in the Nazi party who were explicitly not Christian), or who remained neutral. And there were Christians, and non-Christians, who opposed Hitler.

    The bottom line is that all of these considerations need to be taken onto account when examining the role of Christianity in the Holocaust.

  • http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/index.php Siamang

    Thanks, Archi. I’m enjoying your comments.

  • Archi Medez

    “a Christian is somebody who thinks he is”

    –SpeirM

    I disagree with this approach, as well as Andrea’s, because, although it allows for variety within the category, it does not provide any clear limits for the category.

    Your definition permits membership of someone who may think they are a member of the category ‘Christian’, but they may not actually believe anything contained in Christian doctrine. Moreover, they may hold multiple beliefs that are in clear contradiction to the Christian doctrine. That allows a delusional person to be a Christian, simply on the belief that he is a Christian (or Napoleon, etc). In addition, the person may simply be mistaken. Self-classification would also, theoretically, permit one to exclude oneself from a category for which one may, by other criteria, qualify as a member. These same problems in classification arise at the institutional level.

    Of course, classifying religious beliefs is complex. Each religion contains a package of elements, and many of these elements overlap with elements of other religions. Some of the elements also overlap with those of non-religious ideologies. Most if not all category members do not accept or even know all elements of the package. So the solution to the classification problem lies in deciding which elements are most important. Certainly, a self-classification is one element of membership (I’m not sure if it is an essential element), but we need other elements to make the classification more useful and objective. If person X says “I am a Christian”, and person Y says “No you are not,” we need an objective way to decide which of those is closer to the truth.

  • SpeirM

    Well, Archi, I’m not really in a position to define somebody’s religion for them. The trouble is, there’s probably not a Christian in the world today whose beliefs accord exactly with either the Bible or tradition. (I even doubt that any one Christian’s beliefs agree 100% with those of the guy in the pew next to him.) In fact, the Bible is so inconsistent that this wouldn’t be possible. In light of that, which “objective” standards do we go by?

    Philip hasn’t been around for a while, but you remember how hard it was to pin him down on specific beliefs. Was he not a Christian? David’s been coming around a little recently. His beliefs seem more definite. Is he the True Christian? Really, who am I to say?

    The problem I see with your approach, I think, is that it almost seems to beg the question of whether there is such a thing as True Christianity. If you assume there is, then there’s probably an objective standard we can use to qualify or disqualify someone. On the other hand, if, as most of us here would agree, Christianity is a human invention, then any human is pretty much free to reinvent it.

    Seems to me that to make Christianity objectifiable we would have to concede that there is a defining reality behind it.

  • andrea

    “We need an objective way to decide which of those is closer to the truth”.

    Indeed we do, Archi, but how? Since “God” doesn’t seem interested to show us who’s the “real” believers, we’re left with comparing actions with the Bible. Since the writings are mostly, if not totally, up to individual interpretation (helped with historical and literary context), IMO, there is no way to do so. As far as I know, there are no Christians who keep all of the laws and strictures. They all pick and choose what they believe and all add what they want to the Bible, from whole new passages to selective editing. This is why I say that Nazi Christianity is no different than LDS or JW, or Southern Baptist, etc.

  • lpetrich

    I’ve never heard of any alleged “Gospel of Adolf” — what’s it supposed to be?

    Hitler considered himself a good Catholic, and he remained on good terms with the Church, even if he wasn’t much of a practicing one. He also cited “the Lord” Jesus Christ’s Temple temper tantrum as a prototypical example of fighting the Jews.

    I find it very curious that the Catholic Church has never excommunicated any Catholic Nazi officials, even after the Nazis’ defeat, though it has excommunicated Communists. Even the Nazis’ cruelties to heavily Catholic nations like Poland and France didn’t bother the Church’s leaders enough.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    This issue is frequently raised on my blog, usually with the perspective that one adopt the opponents’ frame of reference and “argue” on their terms. Frankly, I think it both impossible and wasteful and entirely useless. If the “frame of reference” is irrational, and the means of persuasion (i.e., Bible) is irrational, what can a rational empiricist “appeal” to in an effort to dissuade? The fact that 10,000 Protestant denominations exist, each with a different understanding of what the Bible “plainly” says, suggests any effort is futile.

    Rather, my objective, if I have any, is to keep those who are still attached to planet earth thinking, talking, and considering matters in an earthly, human manner. I have no intent of “converting,” but of “containing.” The parallels to the Truman Doctrine may elucidate. Liberalism could survive only if communism was “contained,” and once contained, it was hoped that communism’s internal incoherencies would implode. Unfortunately, MMD (mutually-mass destruction) because a tool in this doctrine, which I consider entirely extrinsic (and, in fact, counter-productive).

    But one politician saw an opportunity to exploit the absurdity and achieve the goals of the Truman Doctrine by using the absurdity. Whatever else one may say about Ronald Reagan, and I cannot muster much enthusiasm, I give credit where credit is due. By deliberately escalating the arms race, RR knew the USSR would have to counter, but in order to counter, they’d have to reallocate resources to their immense detriment. The U.S. would have to do likewise, but the U.S. had greater stability and resources to draw on than the USSR, having a far less impact on resource reallocation.

    It worked. The U.S. did not have to “defeat” the USSR, it just created the circumstances that forced its hand to implode. Not a single shot was fired, and a half-century wall, a 3/4 century totalitarianism, and an implausible economy collapsed. Darwinists and atheists might learn from this tactic. No amount of proselytizing will accomplish anything other than strengthen resistance. So instead of a frontal assault, create the condtions for their inevitable implosion. The added “plus” is that further enmity is not agitated. Self-defeat can only be blamed on the defeated self.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    Additional observation. The Reformation reoriented Historical Christianity. Almost all the above claims are addressed to post-Reformation Christianity, while sizeable in the U.S., is largely invisible outside it.

    In Historical Christianity, the Church is ontological, instituted by Jesus himself, and the Bible is derivative of the Church, thus, only the Church can be a faithful interpreter of its own tools. Moreover, the Bible is “one” of many of the Church’s tools; episcopal collegiality (is superior and ontologically instituted), consensus of the faithful (lower, but also ontologically instituted), tradition, and scripture. In Historical Christianity, there is a dynamic (although the institution likes to codify it as often as possible).

    In post-Reformation Christianity, the Bible is ontological (even though it arose over some time and did not become canonized until the 15th C.). When a text becomes ontological, the hermeneutics of polysemy will defeat “Authority.” Even the most basic reader-response system suggests a vast plurality of interpretations, each of which is valid to the interpreter, even if the interpretation is not “valid” to the author’s intent (intentional fallacy). Consequently, division rather than unity, dispute rather than consensus, primacy of derivative over its source. That incoherence, unintelligibility, and conflict would arise makes the “target” too slippery to pin down. It is a hopeless muddle that those who accept this frame of reference cannot make work for themselves, how can anyone inside/outside that frame do any better?

  • SpeirM

    While I agree with the thrust of your posts, The Gay Species, I do think I’d quibble with your definitions of “Historical Christianity” vs. “post-Reformation Christianity.” In fact, Christianity was a hodgepodge pretty much from the beginning. Like a powerful warlord who gradually displaces his rivals among a people and unifies them, the “catholic” church gained the upper hand only over time and with a considerable amount of coercion. I don’t know that I’d call the result “Historical Christianity.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    For Siamang:

    I think you are on the right track, but you miss it a small bit in terms of trying to put in that we should attack the moral problems with the Bible. Think big picture here, and take a psychological tip: If you attack the Bible, you will not succeed. Why? Because people react with hostility toward threats, and they don’t listen to a word you say. If you attack the Bible in the same speech where you say “atheists are good, honest people just like you” that message will be lost, and the only thing people will remember is that atheists hate the bible.

    I disagree with this. While presenting atheism in a positive light is important, if we don’t get around to explaining the reasons not to be a Christian, we haven’t given people any incentive to change their minds. We need to show society more than just that we are good people; we need to show them why we are atheists, and that just can’t be done without criticizing religion directly at some point. It need not turn them against us, if done well.

    The key, as I argued in my post, is to avoid attacking the believer together with the Bible (as in, “You must be an evil [or stupid, or ignorant] person because you believe this!”). That only encourages people to cling to their beliefs more tightly. Instead, we should try to drive a wedge between the believer and the Bible, as in, “I know you’re a good person – you don’t believe this, do you?” Most Christians are not so brainwashed that they will defend the Bible no matter what immoralities it contains. On the contrary, I find that most of them are unaware of what it actually contains, and will react with horror and disgust when they are made aware. And that is the best time to win their support and get them on our side.

    I wrote another recent post, “Watch This Space,” to criticize a reporter who asserted that atheists should stop defending evolution because speaking out only encourages people to become creationists. I claimed there that this kind of mistake comes from unconsciously internalizing the rhetoric of the other side. (Another example would be the widespread belief among politicians of the Democratic party in America that they can be elected simply by hyping their own positive qualities, without ever mentioning or condemning the destructive insanity of the Bush administration. This is a false belief, as the results of the last few elections show quite well.) The claim that we must not criticize the Bible is just what Christian fundamentalists want us to think. On the contrary, I think knowledgeable Christian apologists are deathly afraid of a strong and well-founded public criticism of the Bible, and so they try to prevent this by telling atheists that doing so will only drive people away, and claiming they’re giving us this advice for our own good. But what atheist in their right mind would believe that they really want to help us?

  • http://off-the-map.org/ebayatheist/index.php Siamang

    You make good points.

    I think that answering why we’re not Christians can be more effectively argued not morally, but evidentially. “I am not a Christian because the Bible describes a world that doesn’t resemble the real world I see outside my window. If God is real, how come He didn’t open up the sea and release the Jews from the Holocaust? In the old days, magic was happening right and left, and now it stopped? God certainly has seen a drastic reduction in His special effects budget. It used to be he could make the skies rain fire and frogs and turn people into salt or bring them back from the dead. Now it’s all He can muster to appear on a tortilla. I’m not a Christian because the Bible is unbelievable. I’m sorry, but I just cannot force myself to believe those things happened.”

    I understand the idea of swallowing their own framing. But Gay Species suggests a more Aikido move.

    Myself, I do like the idea of looking for respect and dialogue and co-existence. I’m not looking to change their minds TO atheism, but changing their minds about atheists.

  • http://gayspecies.blogspot.com The Gay Species

    The responses, whether intentionally or not, validate my point.

    First, I concede that Historical Christianity is “messy.” To say the least! But it had a remarkable ability in spite of its messiness to keep itself together for centuries, during its deepest struggles, and it did so because it posited its ontology in the Church, not the Bible. Ironically, the Bible itself validates that ontology, which is not that ironic if you consider the ontology “birthed” the Bible. For at least FOUR centuries, there was NO Bible. So ask yourself, what held “Christianity” together? The ontology of the Church, which is ontologically rooted in the disciples, which is ontologically rooted in Jesus, which ontologically created “bishops” (overseers) to keep the unity. In this ontological genealogy, the Bible (when it appears) is pretty low on the genealogy! And to Historical Christians, it was understood to be derivative, a tool, one of many. The Miracle of Theism, to use Mackey’s great phrase, is that Historical Christianity understood ontology!!! And used it!!! However Hellenistic the notion might be.

    Post-Reformation Christianity is more like Islam than Historical Christianity! It believes a “book fell from heaven,” and the book is ontological (although they had no idea what “ontological” meant, only the more primitive notion of “absolute primitive.”) The Bible, like the Quran, is God’s literal and inerrant word. The Historical Christian was obviously illiterate, but he was not THAT gullible. Jesus might have fallen to earth, a person could be GOD Incarnate, but books barely existed, and someone wants us to believe that a Book, before books, is God’s literal and inerrant Word? What does that do to JESUS? (Marginalize would be an appropriate “modern” response.)

    I’m not defending either! But if I had to choose, between Islamic Christianity (Protestantism) and Historical Christianity (Hellenistic Catholicism), as much as I despise Plato, I’d choose the latter without hesitation. Have you ever wondered why “reasoning” with a biblical fundamentalist is about as useful as reasoning with a fundamentalist Muslim? However different their beliefs, they both begin and end with a book. At least by Mohammad, books existed.

  • Archi Medez

    Well, Archi, I’m not really in a position to define somebody’s religion for them. The trouble is, there’s probably not a Christian in the world today whose beliefs accord exactly with either the Bible or tradition. (I even doubt that any one Christian’s beliefs agree 100% with those of the guy in the pew next to him.) In fact, the Bible is so inconsistent that this wouldn’t be possible. In light of that, which “objective” standards do we go by?

    If someone tells me he thinks he’s Napoleon, I don’t know about you, but I am in a position to tell him he’s not!

    I find your statement puzzling because we define other people’s religion every time we criticize it. Every time we criticize Christianity or Islam or whatever, we are using a set of assumptions about what is constitutive of those categories. To even have this conversation, “Christianity” must mean something to us. There is variation between us in our concepts, probably, but there is sufficient overlap that we can carry on a meaningful conversation about Christianity.

    From a scientific persepctive, it is even more critical that we define, or classify, other people according to their beliefs. (Otherwise, forget about studying all kinds of interesting phenomena viz people’s different religious beliefs).

    None of what I propose assumes that there is 100% agreement among adherents. Scientists must deal with real people, the problems of interpretation, and a set of statements in a set of scriptures. Also, I stated that most (if not all) adherents themselves either don’t know or don’t accept all of the propositions in the doctrine. But the adherents generally accept some key propositions, propositions that distinguish those of religion X from religion (or ideology) Y. In categorizing ideologies, the first observation is that they are not mutually exclusive categories but are packages that contain elements, some of which overlap with those of other ideologies. (This is also the case, BTW, for most natural categories—we can distinguish humans from chimps, even though there is considerable physical similarity and their genetic overlap is 97% or 99%). This is a practical problem for scientists studying religion; this is not some inherently insurmountable philosophical conundrum.

    The problem I see with your approach, I think, is that it almost seems to beg the question of whether there is such a thing as True Christianity. If you assume there is, then there’s probably an objective standard we can use to qualify or disqualify someone.

    It doesn’t beg the question; it seeks to answer it from a practical, scientific perspective, for the purposes of carrying out research. We can qualify or disqualify people according to expression of certain key elements.

    On the other hand, if, as most of us here would agree, Christianity is a human invention, then any human is pretty much free to reinvent it.

    The wheel is an invention, and it may be reinvented, but that doesn’t mean that all inventions are wheels. As I noted, you have not proposed any way of determining boundaries for the categories. Without boundaries, it is useless to use the word “wheel” or “Christian” because they are meaningless. Even to distinguish a new invention of a wheel, we need to be able to identify what is different about it compared to the previous versions, and this requires using criteria and identifying a set of features. Likewise, it is necessary to distinguish Christianity from other ideologies, and different Christian sects from one another.

    Seems to me that to make Christianity objectifiable we would have to concede that there is a defining reality behind it.

    Not at all. To study religious beliefs, we don’t have to assume that they contain emprically-true propositions. (Nor in studying someone’s belief that they are Napoleon do I have to believe that the person is Napoleon). What we are studying and talking about is a set of beliefs instantiated in the brain and expressed in words and behaviour. To the extent that the propositions held to be true by the adherent match those in the Christian doctrine (Bible, esp. NT), we can or cannot classify that person as a Christian. More precisely, we can give an estimate as to the the number of matching elements between the person’s beliefs and deeds and statements in the scriptures. So it is not simply a matter of declaring someone a Christian or not, but it is rather a question of the extent to which they adhere to the scriptures. As I said, we can apply the same measurement to institutions. Also, with regard to specific issues, we can identify whether or not a particular element belongs to a scripture or not. For example, the NT contains some statements whose attitude is anti-Semitic, but—and I think this point bears repeating—it does not contain statements that authorize or order the actions of the Nazis (subjugation, plunder, expulsion, attempted extermination of the Jews). Therefore, we can say clearly that the key actions of the Nazis do not match anything in the Christian scriptures. The most we can say is that anti-Semitic attitude in some parts of the NT (and in instituted in some parts of European culture). Thus, anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany had a Christian origin. To that statement we need to add all of the other considerations that I noted earlier, and more.

    Andrea,

    “…we’re left with comparing actions with the Bible. Since the writings are mostly, if not totally, up to individual interpretation (helped with historical and literary context), IMO, there is no way to do so. As far as I know, there are no Christians who keep all of the laws and strictures. They all pick and choose what they believe and all add what they want to the Bible, from whole new passages to selective editing. This is why I say that Nazi Christianity is no different than LDS or JW, or Southern Baptist, etc.”

    Yes, up to individual interpretation, but they (and we) are not interpreting blank pages or ink blots (though some do interpret patterns on toast and the like!). The statements in the Bible do vary on the clarity-ambiguity scale, and ambiguity is often a problem, but there is enough clarity that we can identify some clear propositions. We can also identify what is not contained in the scripture. Once again, to criticize Christianity, we are not criticizing an inkblot either. We are criticizing an ideology that contains and does not contain certain elements.

    Unless there is evidence that these different Christian sects advocate the extermination of Jews, and advocate violent imperialism in spreading their ideology, and have a racial supremacist theory, then it is inaccurate to equate Nazism with those sects.

    lpetrich,

    I’ve never heard of any alleged “Gospel of Adolf” — what’s it supposed to be?

    It is has been shown in recent research (within the past decade). You should be able to find something on the net about it.

    Hitler considered himself a good Catholic,

    This is not precise. Hitler made some public statements about Catholicism, yes. These statements are at odds with his private statements.

    and he remained on good terms with the Church, even if he wasn’t much of a practicing one. He also cited “the Lord” Jesus Christ’s Temple temper tantrum as a prototypical example of fighting the Jews.

    In that incident, the people were not punished for being Jews, they were punished for some financial practices that Christ didn’t like. Moreover, no Jews were subjugated, expelled, killed, or exterminated in that incident, nor in any incident, anywhere, in the NT.

    I find it very curious that the Catholic Church has never excommunicated any Catholic Nazi officials, even after the Nazis’ defeat, though it has excommunicated Communists. Even the Nazis’ cruelties to heavily Catholic nations like Poland and France didn’t bother the Church’s leaders enough.

    If what you’re saying is true, it is curious. But it’s irrelevant to the point being addressed. That something is “curious” hardly translates into clear Christian support for the Holocaust. The issue comes down to this: The Nazis subjugated, plundered, expelled, tortured, mass-murdered, and tried to exterminate, the Jews. The Nazis had a theory of white supremacy. None of this is instructed in the NT.

    Other Christians, inside and outside Germany, opposed what Hitler and the Nazis were doing, and some non-Christians supported what Hitler was doing.

    Atheists should make more precise statements and begin to look into the Nazi-Christian connection more critically and objectively.

  • SpeirM

    “If someone tells me he thinks he’s Napoleon, I don’t know about you, but I am in a position to tell him he’s not!

    I find your statement puzzling because we define other people’s religion every time we criticize it. Every time we criticize Christianity or Islam or whatever, we are using a set of assumptions about what is constitutive of those categories. To even have this conversation, “Christianity” must mean something to us. There is variation between us in our concepts, probably, but there is sufficient overlap that we can carry on a meaningful conversation about Christianity.”

    I think you’re way off base here, Archi. We don’t define other people’s religions. What we define is how to view reality and how to use reason to interpret it. Only the person himself can tell us what his religion is. What we do is demonstrate how well or how poorly his beliefs square with reality.

    “It doesn’t beg the question; it seeks to answer it from a practical, scientific perspective, for the purposes of carrying out research. We can qualify or disqualify people according to expression of certain key elements.”

    But to do that you’re going to have to have an objectifiable quantity to begin with. Where do you propose to get this objectifiable quantity? What beliefs do you propose should define the Christian faith? Why should Christians pay any attention to what you believe their beliefs should be?

    “The wheel is an invention, and it may be reinvented, but that doesn’t mean that all inventions are wheels. As I noted, you have not proposed any way of determining boundaries for the categories. Without boundaries, it is useless to use the word “wheel” or “Christian” because they are meaningless. Even to distinguish a new invention of a wheel, we need to be able to identify what is different about it compared to the previous versions, and this requires using criteria and identifying a set of features. Likewise, it is necessary to distinguish Christianity from other ideologies, and different Christian sects from one another.”

    Take a hard look at your last line there. By your way of looking at things, there could be no multiplicity of Christian sects. There couldn’t be, because they wouldn’t all conform to your objective standard. Again, who defines this standard for you? What I think you’re missing is that we tell one from the other not by comparing them to an objective standard, but by contrasting them with one another.

    “Not at all. To study religious beliefs, we don’t have to assume that they contain emprically-true propositions.”

    But we do have to assume there’s something concrete behind them. Objectivity demands it–even if we make, say, the Pope the arbiter of what Christianity should be. (But how do we justify that?) What is this something in your opinion? I keep asking the question, but I want to make sure you answer it: Where do you get your definition of Christianity?

    Here’s the definition of “objectivity” from my WordWeb:

    “Judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices”

    What “observable phenomena … uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices” are you referencing to make a judgment about what Christianity should be?

    Napoleon isn’t a good analogy here. Napoleon really is a known quantity. We know that Joe Blow down in the asylum isn’t Napoleon because Napoleon was a man. Men, unlike religions, aren’t handed down, honed, and polished from age to age. Napoleon’s dead. That’s an incontrovertible fact of history. Christianity, apparently, is not. It’s not dead and it has survived by reinventing itself over and over and over. Which of these inventions or reinventions is “objective” Christianity?

  • SpeirM

    The Gay Species,

    You wrote: “So ask yourself, what held “Christianity” together? The ontology of the Church, which is ontologically rooted in the disciples, which is ontologically rooted in Jesus, which ontologically created “bishops” (overseers) to keep the unity. In this ontological genealogy, the Bible (when it appears) is pretty low on the genealogy!”

    I’d find that a lot more convincing if Christianity in its earliest years had been a monolithic whole. It was not–not even as to questions of ontology. Jesus, of course, tended to be the central issue. They couldn’t agree about just who he was. Was he a man? A man in the flesh and God in the Spirit? Was his flesh an illusion? Next up was the resurrection. The didn’t agree on whether that was physical or spiritual. These are issues of ontology. They were central to the formation of the Christian faith.

  • Archi Medez

    SpeirM,

    I don’t think you’ve understood my posts, but I will do my best to try and clarify. (I’m not sure if your objections are merely about my proposals per se, or rather stem from a more generalized objection to psychological or human sciences delving into religious subject matter).

    “I think you’re way off base here, Archi. We don’t define other people’s religions. What we define is how to view reality and how to use reason to interpret it. Only the person himself can tell us what his religion is. What we do is demonstrate how well or how poorly his beliefs square with reality.”

    Off base? What base? Aren’t you saying there is no base, except self-classification? Do you mean you can’t tell me what a Christian is, independently of someone saying or explicitly indicating “I am a Christian”? The fact is, we make assumptions all the time when we talk about Christians. I don’t have to wait for someone to say “I am a Christian” before I can identify them as such (at least provisionally) from their statements.

    We check the person’s actions and beliefs against the statements in the scriptures. If the scriptures say “Do X”, and the person doesn’t do X, then he is not acting in accordance with the scriptures with respect to X. If the scriptures say “Believe in C,” and the person doesn’t believe in C, then he is again not in accordance with the scriptures regarding C. We can keep going on down the list, checking the matches between statements in the scriptures and what the person believes and does. The issue of what percentage of agreement is required, or of how much weight should be given to each element, in determining whether the person is or is not a member of the religion, purely for descriptive or scientific purposes, can be dealt with.

    “But to do that you’re going to have to have an objectifiable quantity to begin with. Where do you propose to get this objectifiable quantity? What beliefs do you propose should define the Christian faith? Why should Christians pay any attention to what you believe their beliefs should be?”

    1. The scriptures.
    2. Those beliefs asserted as propositions in the scriptures.
    3. They would pay attention (or not) to a classification that was based on propositions contained in their scriptures.

    If a person said to you, SpeirM, “I believe I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in Christ, I don’t believe in Christ’s teachings as reported in any source, and I don’t believe the New Testament,” your method of classification (exclusively based on self-classification) doesn’t allow us to say “Wait a minute, this guy says he’s a Christian, but according to certain basic criteria he’s not.”

    Self-classification is not all that helpful in the case of Hitler, which is what I initially discussed. Hitler called his ideology Christianity at times, and at other times called it the German faith, and said that Christianity was incompatible with the German faith. Well, which is he, according to self-classification? Both, one or the other, or neither? To find out what Hitler was ideologically, we have to examine his beliefs in detail, going beyond explicit self-classification statements. This examination is more complex, and more time-consuming, but it gives us a more accurate picture.

    Arch: “Even to distinguish a new invention of a wheel, we need to be able to identify what is different about it compared to the previous versions, and this requires using criteria and identifying a set of features. Likewise, it is necessary to distinguish Christianity from other ideologies, and different Christian sects from one another.”

    “Take a hard look at your last line there. By your way of looking at things, there could be no multiplicity of Christian sects. There couldn’t be, because they wouldn’t all conform to your objective standard.

    Nonsense. Take a look at my post, my previous posts, and indeed the sentence prior to the last and note the word “Likewise” which links the last sentence to the previous. I had already explained that most if not all members of a religion X do not believe or even know about all of the propositions contained in the scriptures of religion X. I also pointed out that sects overlap with one another on some elements (features, propositions) but not on others. We can distinguish them from each other based on the elements upon which they do not overlap. I also pointed out that self-classification (an observable behaviour—circling a choice on a questionnaire, giving a verbal statement, engaging in some set of actions, etc.) could be one piece of evidence that is taken into consideration in making the classification. However, I pointed out that self-classification alone is not sufficient for scientific purposes, due to various factors, including that it is not necessarily precise (it all depends on the person’s competence and knowledge of religion X, whether they have correctly classified themselves as a member. Again, the person may be mistaken, ignorant, or they may be delusional. They may differ in the amount of agreement with propositions contained in the scriptures, and so on).

    “Again, who defines this standard for you? What I think you’re missing is that we tell one from the other not by comparing them to an objective standard, but by contrasting them with one another.

    1. The standard would be decided by scientists studying the phenomena, not one person. I assume there would be lots of debate on the issue, as is the norm in science.

    2. Re distinctions, you missed my earlier statements re sects. They can be (and are) contrasted with regard to their stance viz endorsement/rejection of specific elements (propositions).

    Suppose the Bible contains elements {a, b, c, d, e, f…z}. Suppose Catholicism contains most of a through z, but rejects k, m, l, and adds two new elements % (pope) and # (purgatory). Suppose Protestantism contains most of a through z (though differing from Catholicism’s sampling on a few elements), but also adds a couple of new elements that are not contained in the Bible or in Catholicism. Obviously, we can distinguish between Catholicism and Protestantism, even though they are both members of Christianity (i.e., have elements that overlap with Christianity), because they do not accept all of the same elements and they add different elements from each other.
    Arch: “Not at all. To study religious beliefs, we don’t have to assume that they contain emprically-true propositions.”

    But we do have to assume there’s something concrete behind them.

    Are you saying we must believe that the ressurection actually took place to study the belief in the ressurection? Surely you don’t mean that, otherwise such empirically-false religious beliefs are off limits for scientific inquiry. What we study are the beliefs, actions, and words.

    Objectivity demands it–even if we make, say, the Pope the arbiter of what Christianity should be. (But how do we justify that?) What is this something in your opinion? I keep asking the question, but I want to make sure you answer it: Where do you get your definition of Christianity?

    From the dictionary, and from doctrinal support (Bible, esp. New Testament). The Pope is not contained in the New Testament, but, like Purgatory, is added to Catholicism. This doesn’t mean that a classification scheme would register the Pope or Catholicism as not Christian. Rather, it simply means that, although the propositions contained in Catholic doctrine overlap with the Bible to some extent, they do not overlap on all elements (and, as I said, they don’t need to overlap on all elements, just some of them, for category membership to be registered).

    “Here’s the definition of “objectivity” from my WordWeb: “Judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices” What “observable phenomena … uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices” are you referencing to make a judgment about what Christianity should be?

    Propositions contained in the scriptures. The approach is taxonomical, descriptive, not prescriptive.

    “Napoleon isn’t a good analogy here. Napoleon really is a known quantity.

    The analogy was good enough to make the point that what a person believes about themself is not necessarily true.

    Men, unlike religions, aren’t handed down, honed, and polished from age to age. Napoleon’s dead. That’s an incontrovertible fact of history. Christianity, apparently, is not. It’s not dead and it has survived by reinventing itself over and over and over. Which of these inventions or reinventions is “objective” Christianity?

    Any resulting forms that still overlap with the scriptures on certain key propositions that are contained in the original package (Bible, esp. NT). For example, some key general propositions (though by no means an exhaustive list) are (a) Christ existed on earth, (b) Christ was divine, (c) Christ’s advice should be followed, (d) temptation/devil should not be followed. There is a degree of overlap between propositions contained in the scriptures and propositions held by adherents. When we get into inventions and reinventions, there is a departure from some of the propositions in the ‘original’ scriptures. Again, I think a genetic analogy is useful: these evolving species of Christianity can be traced to a common ancestor by examining (not DNA) but the propositions contained in the scriptures. There is a degree of overlap between propositions contained in the scriptures and propositions held by adherents (i.e., the type of classification scheme involves fuzzy sets).
    With continued inventions and reinventions, and additions of other elements, and rejection of others, a different religion results. Islam is an example of this. Christianity itself is an example of this. Judaism is also an example. All of these religions contain elements that come from previous religions. Yet each significantly departs from the previous in some important ways, by rejecting elements of the previous and adding elements not found in the previous. (For example, Islam rejects the idea that Christ was divine and adds Mohammad as another prophet (the main and most important one), and adds the assumption that much of the Jewish and Christian scriptures had been “corrupted.” It is by identifying these key elements that we can differentiate between the different sects.

  • Archi Medez

    Ipetrich,

    The research on Hitler and the Nazis that I referred to can be found here

    Andrea,

    This is why I say that Nazi Christianity is no different than LDS or JW, or Southern Baptist, etc.”

    I’m not sure about the LDS and Southern Baptists of the era in question, but the JWs (Jehovas Witnesses) did oppose Nazism.
    http://atheism.about.com/b/a/248279.htm
    In any case, it is not accurate to say that Nazi Christianity is no different than other forms.

  • andrea

    Archi, you miss my point. Other religions do not have to espouse the same ideology as the Nazis to be similar to them. I was indicating that all religions have their own interpretations of what the Bible says. One religion may think that no one should drink alcohol by their interpretation. Another may think that women should be totally subjugated. And another may think that all Jews should be blamed for Christ’s death and that their leader was chosen by God because the Bible says so and that anything that he commands is directly God’s will. That’s how they are the same, the individual interpretation of the Bible, not that they share the same ideology. BTW, things doesn’t have to be “instructed” for people to do it. IMO, if God doesn’t stop them, many people think that is a tacit approval.

  • SpeirM

    Dang, Archi, I’m really not going to respond to all that point-by-point.

    “Aren’t you saying there is no base, except self-classification?”

    Not quite. For instance, I truly doubt anyone *could* even call himself a Christian except that he has some concept of Christ. Someone who had never heard of Jesus or Christianity simply would not refer to himself as a Christian. Aside from that, pretty much, if he calls himself a Christian I am in no position to say he’s not.

    Does that mean I don’t *try* to call him on his differences with *my perceptions* of what the Bible says? It does not. But if he chooses to interpret it differently or dismisses the bulk of it, that doesn’t mean I charge him with not being a Christian. I might think he’s a awfully peculiar kind of Christian. But, then, there have been Christian sects throughout history so different from one another that it is sometimes hard to understand how they are related at all. Still, which one is (was) True Christianity? Maybe True Chrisitanity isn’t even extant anymore.

    Using the Bible as a reference has another drawback. It was cobbled together by the winners. As The Gay Species has pointed out, there wasn’t any agreed-upon Bible before about the fifth century. And the notion of “sola scriptura” didn’t develop until the Protestant Reformation. Until Constantine there wouldn’t have been a standardized Bible to refer to so that judgments could be made about what was and what was not a True Christian on the basis of what it said.

    ‘If a person said to you, SpeirM, “I believe I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in Christ, I don’t believe in Christ’s teachings as reported in any source, and I don’t believe the New Testament,” your method of classification (exclusively based on self-classification) doesn’t allow us to say “Wait a minute, this guy says he’s a Christian, but according to certain basic criteria he’s not.”’

    The above should answer much of this; however, I will add that there have been Christians who don’t go much by the Bible at all. They go by an “inner light.” Where the Bible just happens to correspond to that inner light, they believe the Bible. But it’s not the Bible that provides the criteria for their faith. Indeed, in the earliest days of Christianity this was very common. Alternatively, they went by the words of apostles and prophets–and I don’t necessarily mean the ones found in the NT or even ones who would agree with much of the NT.

    “Are you saying we must believe that the ressurection actually took place to study the belief in the ressurection?”

    No, I don’t mean that. That misses my point altogether. Why I mean is that there must be some concrete standard–human contrived is fine–from which we can derive the kind of criteria you want. But what is that standard? You, apparently, want to use the Bible. But, as I’ve pointed out, the Bible, as such, wasn’t even around during the formative years of Christianity. And even since it has been present Christians have reserved the right to accept or reject portions almost at will. Christianity has clearly not defined itself altogether by the Bible. Why do you insist it must?

    “Again, I think a genetic analogy is useful: these evolving species of Christianity can be traced to a common ancestor by examining (not DNA) but the propositions contained in the scriptures.”

    Then what of Christianity before the Bible was finished? Of course, there was the OT, but the likes of Marcion rejected that. Many unbelievers have come to suspected that Jesus himself never actually lived. This, if accepted, would leave the earliest shoots of the Faith unrecognizable to us. Is that what defines Christianity? If so, we’re not even sure what “that” was.

    Ultimately, though (and it’s become more clear just as I’ve been writing this), I think a lot of our dispute comes from approaching this from opposite ways. As you suggest, you want to approach it as a taxonomist. You want to look at the Faith as a whole and see what common, defining attributes you can find. Fair enough. (Although how you initially pigeonhole this sect or that as Christian or otherwise so you know where to look for your criteria still escapes me. Seems very circular unless you take Sect A’a word that their beliefs are Christian and are, therefore, a de facto part of the definition of what Christianity is.)

    But my original statement to which you took exception was this: “Myself, a Christian is somebody who thinks he is.” You, as a taxonomist, are perfectly free to call this person or that a Christian or not, but the person himself is in no way obliged to agree. All he has to do is say something to the effect of, “No, there’s a part of my faith that also should be considered a criterion in making your determination.” After that, I’m not sure what you’d do.

  • andrea

    BTW, I can’t find a single thing on the “Gospel of Adolph” other than in reference to it being Mein Kampf.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Many faiths have particular rules, regulations and creeds. I think it is valid to use these when evaluating a person’s claim to belong to a particular religion. For example, the Nicene Creed is recited at the Roman Catholic mass. If a person’s beliefs deviated significantly from the creed, I would have a good case in concluding that person was not Roman Catholic – even though the individual might be convinced he/she was of that faith. Likewise if a declared Mormon believed that Joseph Smith was a fraud and Jesus never appeared in North America, I would have a good case in claiming that person was not a Mormon. My point is that I don’t see that it is up to the believer to define in which faith he/she belongs. There are objective measures to determine if the membership is valid.

    Now with a claim of a type of general Christianity, more people could be included under that umbrella, and we may not have a particular governing body. Yet I am concerned with the assertion that leads to basically anyone calling themselves a Christian, simply because at any point in time there is a possibility that some group calling themselves Christian believed something similar. With that assertion, it seems the definition of Christianity essentially becomes meaningless. For example, I happen to count as very good advice some of the teachings attributed to Jesus. Can I now call myself a Christian?

    I would also ask, if we are going to leave membership up to the person claiming to be a Christian, why should we consider that person’s claim any more valid than ours – since that person likely has no better definition of Christianity than we do? As a result I think one area to evaluate is the historical evidences, as muddled as those can often be.

    So in answer to the question posed, of what to do if someone claimed that a component of his/her beliefs gave eligibility to be defined as a Christian – I would look at the evidences. For example, if the person claimed Christ never existed in the flesh, but only as a spirit in the mind, I would look at the evidences both historical and current. Was this “spirit Christ” a mainstream view in historical Christianity and did it seem to be supported by the originators, or was it more of an offshoot by a sect that wanted to glom on to Christianity? And how does it jive with our understanding of mainstream Christianity today? I think in this manner one can swing a “wide loop”, but at a minimum classify someone as outside the bounds of mainstream Christianity, and at a maximum provide a decent case on why a person does not fit the definition.

  • Philip Thomas

    The key issue for me is belief in Christ. Something that takes many forms. But for instance, I would say admiring or even following the teachings of Jesus of Nazereth but denying that he is the Christ would not be enough to make one a Christian.

  • SpeirM

    “For example, I happen to count as very good advice some of the teachings attributed to Jesus. Can I now call myself a Christian?”

    Do you claim to be a Christian, EnigmaOfSteel? Do you know there are people who call themselves Christians simply because they see the purported teachings of Jesus good? Will you tell such people that they aren’t Christians?

    “So in answer to the question posed, of what to do if someone claimed that a component of his/her beliefs gave eligibility to be defined as a Christian – I would look at the evidences.”

    What evidences? You answer the question this way: “And how does it jive with our understanding of mainstream Christianity today?” Who said a system of beliefs has to jive with mainstream Christianity to be considered Christian. And just what is “mainstream Christianity” to you? If you were raised Roman Catholic, that might very well be your conception of what Christianity is. I was raised a Pentecostal. At a gut level, whether rationally supportable or not, Pentecostalism is the True Christianity to me. I have to fight the tendency to just assume Pentecostalism is what defines Christianity. But no matter. The first Christians probably couldn’t be called “Christian” by any modern-day definition of the term.

    “Was this “spirit Christ” a mainstream view in historical Christianity and did it seem to be supported by the originators, or was it more of an offshoot by a sect that wanted to glom on to Christianity?”

    The problem is, there’s much debate about just what that spirit was.

    I’ll confess to being mystified by the need of the argument you and Archi are making. What purpose does it serve? Will it win any points in a debate to tell the man who fervently believes he’s a Christian that, in fact, he is not because of some technicality that, in his mind, you are trying to impose on his faith?

    When I gave up Christianity I also gave up any participation in it. I forfeited the right to define what a Christian is. Frankly, I don’t much care who calls himself Christian. My object in a debate is to establish what my opponent believes and address that. How he classifies himself, while interesting, is hardly critical. The beliefs themselves either accord with how I perceive reality or they don’t. If they don’t, I’ll try to convince him of that. I’m not going to waste any time trying to convince him he’s not a Christian.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Regarding the Nazis and Christianity (and don’t all discussion threads segue into talking about the Nazis, sooner or later?), I have a few points to make.

    Although there is no verse in the New Testament that explicitly says “Christians should go and kill Jews,” there are many verses that are so bloodcurdling in their invective that it’s not at all difficult to see how some Christians got that impression. For example, John 8:44, Jesus addressing the Jews:

    Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

    Even worse, Matthew 27:25, in which the Jewish crowd at Jesus’ trial explicitly takes responsibility for his death:

    Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.

    Does anyone seriously believe that the crowd at Jesus’ trial said this? Or is it more likely that it is an invention intended to rouse the gospel’s readers to enmity?

    Also, violent anti-Semitism has a long and sorry history rooted in medieval Christianity. During the Middle Ages, Jews throughout Europe were regularly seized, tortured and executed for imaginary crimes such as “host-nailing” (allegedly stealing consecrated wafers from churches and stabbing them to re-crucify Jesus), or kidnapping Christian children to murder them and drain their blood. Adolf Hitler was successful in large part because he didn’t have to create anti-Semitic passions from scratch. They were always there, thanks to the actions of the medieval church, awaiting a demagogue who could stir them up and once again rouse the populace to hate.

  • Archi Medez

    Archi, you miss my point. Other religions do not have to espouse the same ideology as the Nazis to be similar to them. I was indicating that all religions have their own interpretations of what the Bible says. One religion may think that no one should drink alcohol by their interpretation. Another may think that women should be totally subjugated. And another may think that all Jews should be blamed for Christ’s death and that their leader was chosen by God because the Bible says so and that anything that he commands is directly God’s will. That’s how they are the same, the individual interpretation of the Bible, not that they share the same ideology. BTW, things doesn’t have to be “instructed” for people to do it. IMO, if God doesn’t stop them, many people think that is a tacit approval.

    Andrea,

    1. I did address the interpretation issue.

    2. Religions do have to espouse some of the same propositions as endorsed by the Nazis to be linked to the Nazi ideology. Otherwise, (1) any ideology could be linked to Nazism, and (2) linking the entire religion (“Christianity”), and uniquely, to Nazism, goes beyond unfair interpretation; it is adding material that just isn’t there. For such an indictment to stick, explicit policies and actions of the magnitude carried out by the Nazis would have to be ordered fairly clearly, even if only in general terms (e.g., “Fight the Jews”), but there is no such permission given to believers in the NT to engage in violence against Jews, even though other parts of the Bible do call for violence against various groups.

    Anti-Semitic statements, particularly from the apostles, can be identified in the NT, and this sentiment, established historically in European culture, can be blamed as one of the key factors. Beyond that, the case for an indictment of the Christian religion as responsible for the Holocaust is weak.

    3. Re doctrine according to Adolf. I had read about this several months ago, but have lost track of the original reference. There’s no question that Hitler had his own bizarre version of Christianity, and had added stuff that just wasn’t in the Bible. (Lots of material on the Nazis’ forceful attempts to convert extant Christian Churches to “the German Faith” can be found in the link I posted for Ipetrich. This material is quite extensive, and unfortunately I am not aware of any articles online that give a good scholarly summary of it (independent of religious and political biases), but it is worth taking a look at some of it (esp. see Installment 1, which deals with Nazi persecution of the Churches).

    SpeirM,

    “Does that mean I don’t *try* to call him on his differences with *my perceptions* of what the Bible says? It does not. But if he chooses to interpret it differently or dismisses the bulk of it, that doesn’t mean I charge him with not being a Christian. I might think he’s a awfully peculiar kind of Christian.”

    Whether the criterion is such that we conclude that he is a non-Christian or bad Christian, or partial Christian, Christian-hybrid-with-something-else, atypical Christian, etc., doesn’t concern me all that much. These types of descriptions are all rather casual, crude, rough, and that needs to recognized. I think the important thing, particularly when dealing with a subject such as the Nazi-Christian connection, is to get an accurate classification, that identifies key elemental propositions that are expressed in the scriptures. Dealing with gross nominal categories is not particularly informative and only leads to confusion.

    “Still, which one is (was) True Christianity? Maybe True Chrisitanity isn’t even extant anymore.”

    I wouldn’t phrase the classification in that way. Rather, I would phrase it in terms of degree of elemental propositional overlap with the “common ancestor.”

    “Using the Bible as a reference has another drawback. It was cobbled together by the winners.”

    There certainly are numerous drawbacks, e.g., the conventionally-accepted scriptures are probably incomplete, and there is material added that probably wasn’t there in the original oral transmissions (if they existed). But the scriptures are the single-most important and decisive source, the repository of the elemental propositions.

    You are dealing with the period in which the Bible was put together, but the Bible is not in any significant way being built today today, and there are no significant renovations. Since the original assembly of the Bible as text, the fact is that most of it has remained relatively constant after the original assembly. While there are on-going changes suggested or recommended (e.g., Catholic Church has declared some passages invalid), to my knowledge no significant Christian group is calling for parts of the Bible to be exised, nor are they calling for material to be added. The Bible that was available to the Nazis is the same as the one available today.

    “Then what of Christianity before the Bible was finished?”

    Propositions are ideas, interpretations even, that can be encoded in formats such as natural languages. Propositions may be transmitted orally, or through customs, or through writing. The Bible is simply the standard repository, or encoding, of these ideas in a format that tends to be less flexible, and more permanent, than the other formats. The Bible is not the only standard that should be taken into account, but it the most useful, most decisive, and most important source of Christianity.

    “”Myself, a Christian is somebody who thinks he is.” You, as a taxonomist, are perfectly free to call this person or that a Christian or not, but the person himself is in no way obliged to agree. All he has to do is say something to the effect of, “No, there’s a part of my faith that also should be considered a criterion in making your determination.” After that, I’m not sure what you’d do.”

    According to the rudiments of the classification scheme suggested in previous posts, I would say he meets the self-classification criterion (i.e., he is a nominal Christian). Whether he matches other criteria is an empirical question. If he wants to add criteria, he would have to show that these are contained in the scriptures*, but that somehow the researcher has missed them in developing the classification scheme. These are the sorts of issues that would be addressed in developing the questionnaire and research procedures. *Otherwise, there’d need to be strong historical evidence that these criteria were in the original Christian teachings but had somehow been omitted.

    “I’ll confess to being mystified by the need of the argument you and Archi are making. What purpose does it serve?”

    Scientific research, and hopefully more precise discussions such as surrounding such contentious issues as the Nazi-Christian connection. One must distinguish between ‘self-declareds’ on the basis of the extent to which they endorse the key elements of Christianity as distinguished from other ideologies (within sects, the same approach would be used).

  • SpeirM

    Well, Archi, this could go on forever.

    Let me make it perfectly clear that I am not arguing that Nazis were Christians. I am not arguing that Hitler was a Christian. Like I said earlier, I think Christians who would consider him part of their number are rare. Did he call himself a Christian? Well, that’s debatable. He certainly used some of the language of Christianity in regard to himself. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he considered himself a Christian. That issue, as far as I’m concerned, it moot.

    The broader issue, completely independent of Hitler and the Nazis, it what defines a Christian. For the reasons I’ve given above, I continue to insist that no one can define his religion except himself. I don’t really see that in all your words where you’ve ever convincingly given you, me, or anyone else the right to say to someone “You’re a Christian,” and to another, “You’re not.” You continue to hammer home the Bible as the criterion despite what I’ve pointed out about it being completely unsutiable when pressed into that service. It doesn’t matter what “mainstream Christianity” says today. Christianity is in a constant state of flux. What is says today doesn’t agree very well at all with what it said 1000 years ago. The Christianity of 1000 years from now will undoubtedly not agree with the Christianity of today. Clearly–clearly!–you cannot set an objective standard for all time. And if you can’t, your standard is all but worthless. It won’t match the Christianity of tomorrow and it doesn’t match the Christianity of yesterday.

    Now, I’d like to think I’m missing your point. I’d like to because I really can’t imagine you mean what I see you as meaning. So I’ll tell you what. Rather than go round and round repeating things I’ve already said, I’m going to hold off for now. If further comment here illuminates me to an appreciable degree either way, I might throw myself back into the fray.

  • Archi Medez

    SpeirM,

    Once you have a look at fuzzy set classification schemes (see “fuzzy sets”), you will get a better idea of what I’m trying to explain here in terms of classifying ideologies, religions, and sects.

  • SpeirM

    I do hope others will weigh in on the discussion, Archi. The issue in my mind isn’t classification schemes. (While I’m hardly an expert, fuzzy classification is hardly foreign to me.) It’s how we as atheists can arrogate to ourselves the right to tell a believer what his religion is or is not.

  • Archi Medez

    SpeirM,

    “It’s how we as atheists can arrogate to ourselves the right to tell a believer what his religion is or is not.”

    If it bothers you to classify other people according to their beliefs, then try an experiment: Try not to do it. Over the next several threads in which you post on religious topics, see how long you can go without making a classification of someone else’s beliefs. (I’m not being rhetorical. I’m suggesting that you actually try it).

    I approach this largely from a scientific standpoint. From that perspective, one of the sub-goals is to classify people according to religious belief, and the goal is to study those beliefs and how they relate to other variables. Now, either you want to achieve that goal, or you don’t; but achieving the sub-goal of classification is needed before reaching the goal of understanding (at least provisionally, in the scientific sense) how people’s beliefs relate to other variables.

    It is the scientist’s responsibility to obtain the most accurate classification possible given the time constraints and financial limitations of the study. The problems and drawbacks of self-report and self-classification are well-known. They are discussed in any intro text of psychological research methods. Due to these various problems and limitations, additional forms of classification are used, wherever possible, to achieve a more accurate, more reliable, or more comprehensive classification. From a scientific standpoint, relying exclusively on self-classification is not preferable to having, in addition, some other (usually more rigorous) measures/classification scheme.

    1. Arrogance has nothing to do with what I’m saying. This is about science and understanding. In science and in everyday discussions, we classify other people all the time, and our classifications do not necessarily match 100% to a person’s self-classification. Most aspects of the human sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, political science) would be impossible if we did not classify other people, or if we relied exclusively on people’s self-classification. Sometimes people are offended or disagree with the way they’ve been classified. To some extent this has to be respected*, but not to the extent that the science is compromised. The bottom line from a scientific standpoint is that the scientist (or other researchers, assistants, etc., working with the scientist), not the research participant, is responsible for the classification scheme.

    *Ethics committees, at least in North American universities, make very sure that people’s rights aren’t infringed upon and that people aren’t unduly distressed by participating in research.

  • Philip Thomas

    So, the question at issue is: Where someone claims to be a member of a class which is defined by beleif, can they be mistaken? (and, as corollary, can someone who is not a member of that class tell whether or not they are mistaken?)

    Now, I think the answer to both questions is yes. It is clearly possible to lie about membership of such classes (for example, to avoid persecution). One can recognise such a lie without having to be a member of the class. It is also possible to be deluded about membership of such classes (due to mental illness) and again their is no problem about non-members recognising such a delusion. I think it equally possible to be mistaken about membership.

    For example, suppose someone says to me (a theist): “I am an atheist, I beleive in a personal God who intervenes directly in human history”. I think that, despite my not being an atheist, I can correctly say to him. “No, you are not an atheist.”

    There is a further problem with self-definition classification schemes. If all that is necessary to be a Christian is the belief that one is a Christian, then that beleif need only consist of the beleif that one is a Christian: to be a Christian is then to believe that one believes one is a Christian, and so on ad infinitum…

  • SpeirM

    “If it bothers you to classify other people according to their beliefs, then try an experiment: Try not to do it.”

    How can you miss such an obvious point, Archi? It’s not that I don’t classify people. I do it without thinking. Everybody does.

    Again, the issue is, Do I have a right to tell somebody his religion is not what he says it is because his beliefs don’t conform to what my preconceptions of what people of that religion believe?

    “I approach this largely from a scientific standpoint.”

    You’re welcome to try, but I’ll be skeptical of the result. Religions aren’t like bears. A bear is only a bear to us because we describe the critter as a bear. It doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t much care. (Obviously, at an instinctual level it does, but it couldn’t understand the word “bear” if we tried to teach it.)

    Religions are altogether different animals. Religions MUST be defined from within. It’s hard for me to imagine you could think otherwise.

    Say you’re looking at Sect A, Sect B, and Sect C. What you’re trying to do is derive a common core of beliefs that, at the most elemental level, define what Christianitity is….

    Whoa! You’ve already gone too far! Who says Sect A, Sect B, and Sect C contain ANY beliefs that define Christianity? What makes you think they do? What tells you that Sect A, Sect B, and Sect C are Christian in the first place? If you say it’s because they all three confirm to your notion of what Christianity is, you’re going in circles. You don’t yet KNOW what Christianity is. Your intent is to DEFINE what Christianity is. You have no criteria on hand yet to tell you that Sects A, B, and C are Christian. So, how do you know they are? *Only because they tell you they are.*

    Surely, this is self evident.

    But what happens later if you run across Sect D? Sect D tells you it’s Christian, too. You apply the criteria you discovered in the other sects to determine if it really is Christian. But what if Sect D’s beliefs vary widely from those of Sects A, B, and C? How can you automatically assume that the first three are really Christian and the last one is not? At root, all you have to go on are the assertions of the devotees of all four that they are Christians. But what if Sect D embodies the True Christian beliefs? Can you really insist it doesn’t just because you ran across it last and you’ve already made up your mind about what defines Christianity?

    Now, granted, when I go into a debate with a Christian I carry with me a set of preconceptions. We simply can’t work any other way. But almost invariably I find that all of my preconceptions don’t apply. Sometimes I’m surprised to find they hardly apply at all. But that doesn’t entitle me to say to my opponent, “You’re not a Christian because your beliefs don’t agree with what I KNOW Christian beliefs ought to be.” He doesn’t CARE what *I KNOW* Christian beliefs ought to be. Why should he? If I waste time trying to convince him he’s not a Christian, I’ll only end up banging my head against the wall, and to no good end.

    “Arrogance has nothing to do with what I’m saying.”

    Let’s not get off on that. Although I do think your approach could be arrogant, I’m not accusing you personally of being arrogant. Like I said, we all classify. Just because you take a systematic approach to it doesn’t make you any more arrogant than those who do it otherwise.

  • SpeirM

    ‘”I am an atheist, I beleive in a personal God who intervenes directly in human history”. I think that, despite my not being an atheist, I can correctly say to him. “No, you are not an atheist.”‘

    You go wrong here immediately, Philip. An “atheist,” by definition, is someone who doesn’t believe in God. For someone to claim that he’s an atheist and at the same time that he believes in God would be like our proverbial round square. It’s incoherent.

    Now, you might be tempted to come back and say that “Christian” just as necessarily embodies a belief in God. But you couldn’t argue that on the basis of definition as I have with “atheist.” It would be possible to be a devotee of the man Jesus without believing in God at all. Granted, that would be a little strange, but it wouldn’t be incoherent.

    “If all that is necessary to be a Christian is the belief that one is a Christian, then that beleif need only consist of the beleif that one is a Christian: to be a Christian is then to believe that one believes one is a Christian, and so on ad infinitum…”

    Yes, so?

    You know, Philip, you of all people shouldn’t be arguing this way. Your beliefs don’t even accord with those of your own Church. In fact, after fairly extensive discussion with you, about the ONLY way I can say you’re a Christian is on the basis of your assertion that you are.

  • Philip Thomas

    Right, so there are some belief-defined propositions people can be mistaken about. At least one, anyway: people can be mistaken about being atheists, even though atheism is merely a question of beleif (or lack thereof).

    Now, does this apply to theism? Is it possible to be mistaken about being a theist? Can one legitimately say to someone who claims both that they are a theist and that they do not believe in any form of God that they are mistaken about one of those statements?

    The reduction ad absurdum does indeed have a point. If self-definition is all that is necessary to define oneself as belonging to a religion, then clearly the only difference between, say, Christianity and Islam, is the name. One is beleif that one believes that one is a Christian, and the other is belief that one believes one is a Moslem. Indeed, one might beleive that one believed one was a marshmallow with the same sort of logic.

    Aha, but surely there is a difference between a Christian and a marshmallow? Perhaps. Defining the difference is going to be difficult on the Christian side though- since by your system Christianity can have no conceptual content whatsoever!

  • SpeirM

    “In fact, after fairly extensive discussion with you, about the ONLY way I can say you’re a Christian is on the basis of your assertion that you are.”

    On second thought, I take that part back. There are Christians who don’t even believe in the Resurrection as you do. If I have any right to rate the claims, yours is probably stronger than theirs.

    Still, because your beliefs are so at variance with what the Roman Catholic Church teaches that if I were of the mind to disqualify you, I could do it on the basis of that. Your beliefs certainly don’t agree with what I was taught in the Assemblies of God. (To them, Roman Catholicism is apostate. [Not to say they believe Roman Catholics can't be saved, but it'll be in spite of their Church, not because of it.]) I could use AG tenets to disqualify you if I accepted its teaching as definitional of Christianity.

    So, why do I call you a Christian? Because you tell me you are. I don’t have the right to tell you you’re not.

  • SpeirM

    “Right, so there are some belief-defined propositions people can be mistaken about. At least one, anyway: people can be mistaken about being atheists, even though atheism is merely a question of beleif (or lack thereof).”

    This doesn’t argue against me. I was speaking of incoherence. I’ve already made it clear above that I certainly do argue on the basis of what I perceive reality to be. This isn’t a matter of what religion a person claims for himself. It’s a matter of his assertions not conforming to reality. I will debate with him about that.

    “Now, does this apply to theism? Is it possible to be mistaken about being a theist? Can one legitimately say to someone who claims both that they are a theist and that they do not believe in any form of God that they are mistaken about one of those statements?”

    How do I know a person is mistaken about being a theist? If he tells me he believes in some kind of god, why should I doubt him? HOW can I doubt him?

    “The reduction ad absurdum does indeed have a point. If self-definition is all that is necessary to define oneself as belonging to a religion, then clearly the only difference between, say, Christianity and Islam, is the name. One is beleif that one believes that one is a Christian, and the other is belief that one believes one is a Moslem.”

    That’s a problem. So what? I still can’t say a person who tells me he’s a Christian that he’s not. There are Muslims who have a greater belief in Jesus than some Christians. Why do I allow that the Muslim who believes Jesus was a prophet of God is, in fact, a Muslim while the Methodist who just thinks Jesus was only a good man is, in fact, a Christian? Because the Muslim tells me he’s a Muslim and the Methodist tells me he’s a Christian.

    Keep in mind, Philip, that I’m looking in from the outside. If a person claims to be a Christian while holding beliefs that HE PERSONALLY does not consider to be definitionally Christian, I have no way of knowing. What I’m arguing against is any right OF MINE to say he’s not a Christian based upon my presuppositions about what a Christian should believe.

    “Indeed, one might beleive that one believed one was a marshmallow with the same sort of logic.

    Aha, but surely there is a difference between a Christian and a marshmallow? Perhaps. Defining the difference is going to be difficult on the Christian side though- since by your system Christianity can have no conceptual content whatsoever!”

    Now we’re bumping up against defintions again. A person, by defintion, is not a marshmallow. If he claims to be, his claim doesn’t conform to reality. There is no such perceptually necessary (I’m making up a term for want of a functioning brain) definition of what a Christian should be.

  • Philip Thomas

    “Now, does this apply to theism? Is it possible to be mistaken about being a theist? Can one legitimately say to someone who claims both that they are a theist and that they do not believe in any form of God that they are mistaken about one of those statements?”

    How do I know a person is mistaken about being a theist? If he tells me he believes in some kind of god, why should I doubt him? HOW can I doubt him?

    You appear to have misread the paragraph above your one. In it, the person who (says he) believes he is a theist tells you he DOESN’T beleive in any kind of god. How can you doubt him? If you don’t doubt him, surely you are driven to the conclusion he is not a theist.

    To give a more religious example, suppose someone says. “I am a Hindu: I believe that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” Surely the most obvious conclusion is that he has got his words muddled?

  • SpeirM

    “You appear to have misread the paragraph above your one. In it, the person who (says he) believes he is a theist tells you he DOESN’T beleive in any kind of god. How can you doubt him?”

    Philip, that’s incoherent! On the one hand he says he’s a theist and on the other hand he says he’s not. How does that argue your case? I’ve told you I have to accept that a person believes what he tells me he believes. (I can’t read minds.) If he makes one statement that he believes in God and then turns around and tells me he does not, one of those propositions he clearly does not believe. (Because in this case it’s literally impossible for him to really believe both.) That doesn’t help you at all.

    That’s not the same thing at all as him claiming to be Christian and then telling me he doesn’t hold to all the things I might consider definitional of Christianity.

    “To give a more religious example, suppose someone says. “I am a Hindu: I believe that there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” Surely the most obvious conclusion is that he has got his words muddled?”

    This is not necessarily the same thing. I would have to ask him to explain himself. Perhaps I haven’t understood. Perhaps he has reasoning I haven’t thought of. For instance, I once tried to convince a Hindu that he wasn’t really a Hindu because he believed in one god. I pointed to Hindu website after Hindu website that said there were multiple gods. He wasn’t fazed. He said that all of these “gods” were no more actually separate gods than were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Christian theology. His opinion was that Christians and Hindus really worshipped the same God but just used different terminology and had different rites. I rather suspect he would have seen Allah the same way. (I was a Christian at the time. That issue didn’t come up.)

    Now, I’ll grant it would be strange for someone who calls himself a Hindu to use “Allah” as the name for his god, but it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. (Unlike the man who claims to be a theist who doesn’t believe in a god.) Again, I might ask him some questions, just to see if I’ve misunderstood. Still, if he insists, who am I do say he’s not a Hindu? No, his religion doesn’t accord well with what I think of when I hear “Hindu,” but his conception of what a Hindu is doesn’t depend on me at all. He doesn’t care what I think. And I’m not going to tell him he’s not a Hindu. Now, maybe other Hindus will take issue with him, but that’s none of my concern. Being Hindus themselves, they would likely think they own some rights to the definition. Not being a Hindu, I do not.

  • Philip Thomas

    Your objection to denying the non-believing theist* is a theist seems to be equally sound as an objection to denying a believing atheist* is an atheist. But you seem to think atheism is different somehow.

    *believing here meaning the person believes in God of some sort.

    In any case it does not matter whether one says that he is mistaken or that he is claiming to hold contradictory beliefs: the point is substantially the same. And just as there are no beleiving atheists, so there are no Christians who do not believe in Christ (in some sense).

    There are also no Muslims who do not believe that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.

    I do not have sufficient knowledge to classify Hindus in this way.

    Such a classification scheme can happily be applied whether you fall within it or not. This is fortunate: it has happened in England that people have left money to others on condition that they be of a certain religion, and the courts have generally not voided the will for vagueness, but have even taken upon it to make the direction themselves.

  • SpeirM

    No, Philip. First of all, it’s not just “believing.” Atheists have their beliefs, too. But the word “atheist” means “not believing in a god.” Therefore, it is, by definition, impossible for a person to be both an atheist and believe in a god. That’s incoherent.

    A Hindu believing in Allah, while wierd, is not impossible.

    “There are also no Muslims who do not believe that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.”

    How do you know that? In fact, it isn’t true. However, even if it were, what good would that do you? It still wouldn’t tell me it’s impossible for a Muslim to believe in other gods or that he, like some Muslims do, think Allah is the manifestation of the One True God that many religions worship. (Remember, Baha’i was started by a Muslim and is largely Muslim to this day.)

    “Such a classification scheme can happily be applied whether you fall within it or not. This is fortunate: it has happened in England that people have left money to others on condition that they be of a certain religion, and the courts have generally not voided the will for vagueness, but have even taken upon it to make the direction themselves.”

    I think it would be interesting to look at the proceedings of such cases. I rather expect what we would find is that the will has specified, in detail, the beliefs to which the potential heir must hold if he is to receive the inheritance. I would be surprised if it says simply “He must profess to be a Muslim.” It could, perhaps, be demonstrated that the heir didn’t meet the specific requirements. But I doubt any court would declare that a person is not a Muslim who claims to be. (At least, not in the West.)

  • Philip Thomas

    I did indicate that I was using the word “beleiving” in a technical sense…

    I don’t deny that a Hindu could believe in Allah- but you yourself seem to think such a statement would prompt further questioning before you would believe it!

    Muslim means “one who believes that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet”. Indeed, all that is necessary to become a Muslim is to affirm that belief in front of witnesses.

    The cases generally said something like “practising Jew”, but they were no clearer than that. Admittedly in at least one case the will said resort was to be had to the Cheif Rabbi in case of uncertainty, but the court in that case decided to make the award without reference to him. Its possible the burden of proof would be on those challenging the will, though.

  • Archi Medez

    SpeirM,

    “Again, the issue is, Do I have a right to tell somebody his religion is not what he says it is because his beliefs don’t conform to what my preconceptions of what people of that religion believe?”

    To sum up my views: Yes, we have not only a right but a responsibility to classify other people. We have a responsibility to classify people as accurately as possible, given the evidence. I see self-classification as merely one of several attributes useful for the purposes of classifying people.

    You are saying you have no right to classify people contrary to their own classification. Why do you say you don’t have this right?

    You also have not dealt with the obvious and well-known problems with exclusive reliance on self-classification. It is subject to ignorance, delusion, error, bias, miscommunication, multiple meanings of simple labels, etc. In my own case, for example, for many years, I did not explicitly realize that the term “atheist” applied to me (i.e., that atheist was the most accurate classification of me with regard to religious belief/non-belief) until I actually did a bit of research on the definitions. I realized I was a non-believer of some sort, but didn’t really attach much importance to getting a more exacting definition. During that time, if I had been asked, point-blank, “Are you an atheist?”, I might have said (automatically) “No,” or (perhaps with more thought) “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure…what is the general definition of atheist and how does it differ from agnostic, etc.?”

    Nevertheless, if someone had said to me, “You believe XYZ and don’t believe JKL…you are most probably an atheist,” I would not have reacted indignantly by saying “How dare you! You arrogant fool! You have no right to call me an atheist!” Instead, I would, ideally, listen to what they had to say, consider whether the definitions applied to me, and then give a provisional response (“Gee, you may be right”) pending checking of the known definitions.

    “You go wrong here immediately, Philip. An “atheist,” by definition, is someone who doesn’t believe in God. For someone to claim that he’s an atheist and at the same time that he believes in God would be like our proverbial round square. It’s incoherent.”

    In this case you are now using criteria other than, or in addition to, self-classification. That’s fine with me.

    Arch says: “I approach this largely from a scientific standpoint.” SpeirM says: “You’re welcome to try, but I’ll be skeptical of the result. Religions aren’t like bears. A bear is only a bear to us because we describe the critter as a bear. It doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t much care. (Obviously, at an instinctual level it does, but it couldn’t understand the word “bear” if we tried to teach it.)”

    I can assure you that this is not merely a pet project of mine; others are carrying it out. You’re skeptical? It’s already been done, many, many times. Take a look at how researchers classify people according to belief. I suspect what could be behind all your objections is a rejection of the very notion of human sciences, at least with regard to religions.

    “I’ve told you I have to accept that a person believes what he tells me he believes. (I can’t read minds.)”

    You don’t have to accept it. You choose to accept it as a valid classification of the person’s religious beliefs. I take it as a self-classification, merely one of the considerations to be taken into account in classifying a person’s religious beliefs.

    “If he makes one statement that he believes in God and then turns around and tells me he does not, one of those propositions he clearly does not believe. (Because in this case it’s literally impossible for him to really believe both.) That doesn’t help you at all.”

    Actually, SpeirM, it is the self-classification scheme that is stumped by precisely this scenario. That’s why you had to turn to logic—a scheme other than self-classification—to solve the problem.

    It doesn’t help your scheme of relying exclusively on a person’s self-classification. (And yes, that is your decision, your method, as proposed in this thread. Do you assume that each person would be so confident in their own personal classification that they would not consult other people and in particular expert opinion, the religious texts, etc.?).

    “Whoa! You’ve already gone too far! Who says Sect A, Sect B, and Sect C contain ANY beliefs that define Christianity? What makes you think they do? What tells you that Sect A, Sect B, and Sect C are Christian in the first place? If you say it’s because they all three confirm to your notion of what Christianity is, you’re going in circles. You don’t yet KNOW what Christianity is. Your intent is to DEFINE what Christianity is. You have no criteria on hand yet to tell you that Sects A, B, and C are Christian. So, how do you know they are? *Only because they tell you they are.*”

    (I illustrated how to deal with sects, and do so again a few paragraphs down). I already told you, the normative criteria relies heavily on the NT. I have no problem replacing the word “Christian” with “One who endorses propositions a, b, c from the NT.” I have no particular attachment to the word, other than that it is often useful (in a limited and imperfect way) for communications purposes. I also will reject the idea that the the NT should be used as some kind of standard repository of elemental propositions, if a better one can be found.
    Earlier I said: “For example, some key general propositions (though by no means an exhaustive list) are (a) Christ existed on earth, (b) Christ was divine, (c] that Christ’s advice should be followed, (d) temptation/devil should not be followed.”
    Certainly, propositions a, b, and c are held by all or nearly all who self-declare as Christians. This itself indicates that there are some elemental propositions that are shared by all or nearly all Christians. Nevertheless, the descriptive classificatory scheme I propose does not assume a priori that there is a even single element upon which all members of a religion must agree (see below).

    “But what happens later if you run across Sect D? Sect D tells you it’s Christian, too. You apply the criteria you discovered in the other sects to determine if it really is Christian. But what if Sect D’s beliefs vary widely from those of Sects A, B, and C? How can you automatically assume that the first three are really Christian and the last one is not? At root, all you have to go on are the assertions of the devotees of all four that they are Christians. But what if Sect D embodies the True Christian beliefs? Can you really insist it doesn’t just because you ran across it last and you’ve already made up your mind about what defines Christianity?”

    You’re using the terms “really Christian” and “True Christian”. That suggests an essentialist approach that differs from the one I propose. I’m only using the utterly crude term “Christian” for convenience. I don’t have to assume anything about what a Christian “really” is. I’m talking about categories “defined” by overlapping elements, family resemblance. “Christian” is a package whereas I am talking about the elements in the package. To describe the above sects, one could easily use the terms or sets {a, b, c, d, e, f, ~m, s}, {b, e, c, f, g, j, ~a, s}, {f, k, l, m, a, g, ~e, s}, and {k, l, d, b, j, ~g, s}. The “last” one may be more or less a member of the loosely-defined group of 4 sects than the others, (one can in fact tally up a similarity score for each of the sets in terms of how many overlapping elements they have with all the other sets under consideration. One can, conversely, calculate a difference score) . One can also give more weight to some propositions over others.
    In reality, there would be historical considerations to be taken into account if we are talking about a “last” or later entity in a series of related entities. Also, we need to use more criteria, other than self-classification, to determine why, for example, the second and second-last sets contain g but the last set contains ~g.
    In this scheme, of course, one can abandon the NT altogether, and just look at the amount of overlap/non-overlap between the various sets under consideration. Nevertheless, the NT is useful for normative classification purposes, and as I said, I don’t think there is a single better standard today. Although I think it is misleading to talk about “true” or “real” Christians, one can certainly look at the amount of overlap with a standard, such as the NT.
    (I should add, by the way, I did not make up this method of classification. I do, however, think it would be very useful as applied in the area of classifying ideologies)
    Let’s say that s stands for self-classification in religion X. The difference between your view and mine is that I say s can be removed from the above exercise without causing a total failure in classification. That is, we can still deal with overlapping (and non-overlapping) elements in order to carry out descriptive classification. Thus, we can still look at and indeed quantify the overlap between the above sets and this one: {g, c, f, m, k, a, ~d, ~s}.
    I also say that taking other elements (other than s) into account can greatly enhance the accuracy of the classification. Also, perhaps most importantly, we are unable to ascertain the validity of a self-classification without validating it against other measures, including more objective measures.
    We can have a set that contains no elements that overlap with another set, but in the context of a historical tracing we can see it is related in some way, indirectly, to a “previous” set (compare with the first set listed above, {a, b, c, d, e, f, ~m, s}): {g, k, l, j, n, o, ~w, t}. Thus, elements g, k, l, and j are found in the “family” under consideration, but no elements are found in the “first” set.

  • Archi Medez

    a couple of notes of clarification:

    -by (b) “Christ was divine” I mean the belief that Christ was the deity, or mainfestation of one, not just a prophet. Islam explicitly rejects this idea (i.e., the Koran rejects it).

    -by “the very notion of human sciences, at least with regard to religions.” should say at the end “with regard to the study of religions.”

  • SpeirM

    “I don’t deny that a Hindu could believe in Allah- but you yourself seem to think such a statement would prompt further questioning before you would believe it!”

    My belief about his beliefs is irrelevant to this particular discussion. He may be putting me on. If his assertion is at asignificant variance with my preconceptions, of course I’m going wonder if he’s pulling my leg. But once I feel he is sincere I’ll ask further questions to gain a better understanding of his beliefs.

    “The cases generally said something like “practising Jew”, but they were no clearer than that. Admittedly in at least one case the will said resort was to be had to the Cheif Rabbi in case of uncertainty, but the court in that case decided to make the award without reference to him. Its possible the burden of proof would be on those challenging the will, though.”

    Are you telling me that if one of these civil courts ruled that you were not a Christian you’d quit using “Christian” to describe yourself? I doubt that. That’s not the job of a civil court and no believer would ever allow his religion to be defined by one.

  • Philip Thomas

    I would not cease to call myself a Christian merely because of a court ruling. My point was that the court had no conceptual problem working out who was a member of a religion and who wasn’t.

    You’d suspect he was pulling your leg? But why? After all, in your view, all that it means to be a Hindu is that one believes one believes one is a Hindu. Its hardly a very funny joke to say “Hey, I believe I believe I’m a Hindu, but actually I believe I believe I’m not Hindu, Ha Ha Ha”. What could lead you to associate one group of concepts with Hinduism and another with non-Hinduism so that you would be suprised by his comment?

  • SpeirM

    Okay, Archi, I don’t know if you’re just trying to snow me under with these impossibly long posts, but there’s no way I’m going to answer you point for point.

    For all the words, you don’t deal with the heart of my objection. (Added later–Although now it seems I’ve written a tome of my own.) Let me try it another way–one more time.

    Say you were an alien. You come in from outer space. You’re surprised there’s a planet here at all. It’s a further surprise that there’s not only life, but intelligent life. You’ve always been interested in religion, so you decide you’re going to investigate the religions of these intelligent beings.

    You go down an abduct some unfortunate. You ask him what he believes. He tells you Tenet A , B, and C. Now you have a list of beliefs. What religion do these beliefs belong to? How are you going to find out? Are you going to reference the Bible? Hey, ADHERENCE TO THE BIBLE IS ONE OF THOSE BELIEFS! (I’m not shouting. I just want to be sure that’s not overlooked. We’ll call it Tenet A.) You still don’t have the name of the religion. Where do you go to get this information, Alien Archi?

    I submit that you’re going to ask the guy and he’s going to tell you “Christian.” Indeed, that’s the only way you’ll know. Now you know that Tenets A, B, and C are “Christian” beliefs. I say “know” because it’s all the information you’ve got. Maybe the guy’s lying to you. Maybe any number of things. But, still, he has defined himself as “Christian.” You simply have no choice but to accept that.

    You quickly find it’s not simple at all. You kidnap a woman now. She says she believes Tenets C, D, and E. Obviously, this isn’t the same religion. But to your astonisment, she calls herself “Christian,” too. How could that be? Is one of them lying? Which one? Unless you’ve got some mind probing device (which we don’t) to prove that one or the other is lying, you simply don’t know. You’re really left with no choice but to conclude that they’re both Christians, but just define the Christian religion in strikingly different ways.

    Now, you’ve dealt with the variations of the Christian religion, Archi. That’s not what I mean to focus on. I want to point you to the impossibility of telling which one is the True Christian. (And I only mean “true” in the sense that you’ve got something definite enough to disqualify one or the other. I don’t mean “true” in an absolute sense.) You–Alien Archi–simply have no way of knowing.

    But we’re at a 2000-year remove, right? We’ve got two millennia of history to help us define the Christian religion, an advantage the alien doesn’t have. But I’ve pointed out how nebulous–indeed dubious–the earliest forms of that religion are to us. Our history isn’t provably reliable. Thus, when a person holds to a religion, markedly different from our conception of Christianity, and claims his is the recovered, “true” faith, what are we going to say? That he’s not a Christian? Don’t you realize the same could have been said about the Protestants early on? (And was.)

    No matter how you slice it, you’ve got no real choice but to let the adherents of a religion define it. To say that now we have an accumulated definition will not answer. That’s because Christianity hasn’t “arrived.” It never has and never will. It’s constantly being redefined. And it’s being redefined by the people who call themselves Christians, not by outsiders like you and me. That’s why “s” cannot be removed. Indeed, Christianity cannot be rightly defined without it.

    You’ll probably say I’m missing your point. I don’t think I really am. It’s perfectly within your rights to categorize. Like I said, we all do. And, in fact, your method is not a problem for me–as far as it goes. But the Christian himself is under no obligation to submit to your definition. Regardless how you challenge him, he’s going to call himself a Christian. I, for one, am content to take him at his word–primarily because I don’t see that I have any choice.

    Now, let’s conclude this quickly. In a couple of days I’ll be leaving for an indefinite period of time. Pains me that I have to. I’ve enjoyed this interaction. But, alas, things are as they are.

  • SpeirM

    “I would not cease to call myself a Christian merely because of a court ruling. My point was that the court had no conceptual problem working out who was a member of a religion and who wasn’t.”

    And that illustrates, I suspect, why this conversation is going on at all. You, like Archi, are approaching this from the perspective of an external observer trying to pigeonhole systems of beliefs. I, on the other hand, am coming from the standpoint of the believer himself and am wondering where you get the nerve to tell me I’m not a Christian when I know very well I am. (Speaking as though I were a believer. I’m not, of course.) For that reason, we’re talking past each other to some degree, although I think issues have been raised that should be discussed.

    “You’d suspect he was pulling your leg? But why? After all, in your view, all that it means to be a Hindu is that one believes one believes one is a Hindu. Its hardly a very funny joke to say “Hey, I believe I believe I’m a Hindu, but actually I believe I believe I’m not Hindu, Ha Ha Ha”.”

    Have you read what I’ve written to Archi? Of course I categorize. I do it without thinking. The difference is that I’m willing to broaden my defintion when I meet up with situations like this.

    And you need to understand that for a Hindu to say he believes in Allah is not automatically the same as saying, “I’m not a Hindu.” I’m sure I pointed that out. Yes, I’ll grant it’s wierd–certainly unexpected–but not impossible, as it would be for a person to both claim to be an atheist and a believer in a god or gods at the same time.

    “What could lead you to associate one group of concepts with Hinduism and another with non-Hinduism so that you would be suprised by his comment?”

    That’s not for me to say. Let me ask you, where do you get your definition of what a Hindu is? From a textbook? Where did the writers of the textbook get it? Take it as far back as you like, but at some point the information had to originate with Hindu’s themselves. Somebody had to take their word for the fact that they were Hindus. The people who call themselves Hindus are the only ones who could define Hinduism. But now you’d deny this same right to another just because he comes up with tenets you personally don’t think agree with Hinduism?

  • Philip Thomas

    A Hindu could easily believe in Allah, its just one god among many. The belief there is no God but Allah is rather more difficult for Hindus to hold, Hindus being polytheists.

    The people who call themselves Hindus are not the only ones who could define Hinduis. They aren’t in my schema, because an outside obsever can devise meaningful categories, and they aren’t in your schema because the definition of Hinduism in your eyes is “the beleifs held by that body of people which self-defines as Hindu”, a definition you can arrive out without being a Hindu.

  • SpeirM

    “A Hindu could easily believe in Allah, its just one god among many. The belief there is no God but Allah is rather more difficult for Hindus to hold, Hindus being polytheists.”

    Don’t make me go back over old material, Philip. I started out by showing you that some Hindus believe in only one god. They think what we would call multiple gods are simply different expressions of the same god. It would be a new element to the religion to call this god Allah, granted. But religions are adding new elements all the time. Gandhi, for instance, was a Hindu who believed in one divine manifestation. It would hardly be an incredible step for an Indian Hindu who lives in the midst of Muslims to simply call this divine manifestation Allah.

    “The people who call themselves Hindus are not the only ones who could define Hinduis.”

    Okay, I’m not going to keep going back over the same stuff. Go back and read my last post. Ultimately, we would have no concept of “Hindu” except for Hindus. The word “Hindu” wouldn’t even come to mind except for Hindus.

    “They aren’t in my schema, because an outside obsever can devise meaningful categories, and they aren’t in your schema because the definition of Hinduism in your eyes is “the beleifs held by that body of people which self-defines as Hindu”, a definition you can arrive out without being a Hindu.”

    Huh? Why would I have to be a Hindu to call Hinduism a system of beliefs held by self-defined Hindus? That isn’t anything close to the same thing as defining a set of beliefs to which a person has to subscribe in order to rightly call himself a Hindu. I don’t have any right to do that. But what you seem to be having me say is that I can’t even recognize that there’s such a thing as Hinduism. Of course I can! I just can’t define the religion for Hindus. They have to define it for me.

  • Philip Thomas

    but SpeirM, you do define Hinduism, by saying anyone who self-defines as a Hindu is a Hindu. That is you imposing a definition from outside!

  • SpeirM

    “but SpeirM, you do define Hinduism, by saying anyone who self-defines as a Hindu is a Hindu. That is you imposing a definition from outside!”

    No. I’m accepting the claim of a self-professing Hindu that he is a Hindu. (Notice that I don’t even have to have a clue what what he thinks “Hindu” means. In fact, I don’t need to have any defintion at all in mind.) I’m calling him a Hindu because he calls himself a Hindu. Furthermore, knowing that some people call themselves Hindu does not consititute a definition of “Hindu” such that I am qualified to tell someone who claims to be a Hindu that he is, in fact, not a Hindu. For that matter, I don’t have the right to tell anyone he’s not a Hindu who claims to be–but, then, I’ve already covered that ground, haven’t I?

  • Philip Thomas

    The point remains that many Hindus do not accept that all people who self-define as Hindus are Hindus: by insisting that people who self-define as Hindus must be Hindus, you are going against the intentions of the wider Hindu community. The same could be said for Christians, of course.

  • SpeirM

    “The point remains that many Hindus do not accept that all people who self-define as Hindus are Hindus: by insisting that people who self-define as Hindus must be Hindus, you are going against the intentions of the wider Hindu community.”

    But does the wider Hindu community define Hinduism for everyone? If it disagrees that a particular person who claims to be is a Hindu, does that oblige me to call him a liar?

    “The same could be said for Christians, of course.”

    Indeed! Let me go back to where I started with you. The consensus of those in the Assemblies of God would be that you’re not a Christian. Do you care what the AG thinks? Aren’t you a Christian anyway? Indeed, your beliefs often clash with the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. If another Catholic said you’re not a Christian because of that, would it change your opinion of yourself? Would you appreciate it very much if I said, “Philip, you’re not a Christian because I KNOW Christians believe thus, thus, and thus and you don’t”? No, I suspect that in all three cases you would continue to call yourself a Christian and believe deeply that you were. If anything, you would likely say that the opposing defintions are wrong.

  • Philip Thomas

    You are not obliged to call anyone a liar, and you shouldn’t call them a liar unless you think they are lying. In this instance, maybe they are merely mistaken.

    I would ask the Assemblies of God how they define a Christian, and if I don’t meet their definition then I’m not a Christian by their definition. I’m not quite sure who they are, but I care what humanity in general thinks, so I care what they think.

    If another Catholic said I wasn’t a Christian I would point to the Creed and say I believe that, what else do you want? I’m still open to the possibility I’m not actually a Christian: stranger things have happened. And there are certainly authorities whom I might believe if they told me a particular view of mine was against Christian doctrine.

    If you want to tell me I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe something, thats fine. Of course, if I actually do believe it I would point that out. In fact, which of my beliefs do your regard as particularly non-Christian anyway?

  • SpeirM

    “You are not obliged to call anyone a liar, and you shouldn’t call them a liar unless you think they are lying. In this instance, maybe they are merely mistaken.”

    It’s not even up to me to decide if they’re mistaken.

    “And there are certainly authorities whom I might believe if they told me a particular view of mine was against Christian doctrine.”

    And you’ll decide who those authorities are, won’t you? You define your own religion, among other ways, but deciding what authorities you’ll submit to.

    “If you want to tell me I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe something, thats fine. Of course, if I actually do believe it I would point that out. In fact, which of my beliefs do your regard as particularly non-Christian anyway?”

    I’m not telling you you’re not a Christian. I’m not telling you you don’t measure up to my definition of what a Christian is. I’m telling you I DON’T HAVE ANY RIGHT TO DO THAT. *I don’t define Christianity for believers.* What do you think this discussion has been about?

  • SpeirM

    That shoud be “You define your own religion, among other ways, BY deciding what authorities you’ll submit to.”

  • Philip Thomas

    Yes, I choose what authorities to believe and what evidence to believe. And so do you: everyone’s perception of reality includes a choice of what to believe, including what sort of thing to believe. This does not mean we cannot classify different methods of perceiving reality!

    When I said “If you want to tell me I’m not a Christian thats fine.”, I was referring to this quote- I realised it isn’t your general approach.

    Would you appreciate it very much if I said, “Philip, you’re not a Christian because I KNOW Christians believe thus, thus, and thus and you don’t”? No, I suspect that in all three cases you would continue to call yourself a Christian and believe deeply that you were. If anything, you would likely say that the opposing defintions are wrong.

  • SpeirM

    “Yes, I choose what authorities to believe and what evidence to believe. And so do you: everyone’s perception of reality includes a choice of what to believe, including what sort of thing to believe. This does not mean we cannot classify different methods of perceiving reality!”

    You’ve missed the point again. I’m arguing that I don’t have the right to say whether you’re a Christian or not. Furthermore–and this is what I was trying to get across specifically–you won’t cede that right to me *or anyone else.* You won’t even submit to authorities that you don’t approve in advance. You’re certainly not going to let anyone like me tell you whether you’re a Christian or not.

    And, yes, I do classify. I’ve said that over and over to both you and Archi. The difference is, I don’t EXCLUDE a person from a category when his beliefs don’t match my preconceptions. I BROADEN the category.

    “When I said “If you want to tell me I’m not a Christian thats fine.”, I was referring to this quote- I realised it isn’t your general approach.”

    The quote was HYPOTHETICAL. It was designed to get you see my point that I don’t have the right to decide whether you’re a Christian or not. It was not a statement that I KNOW you’re not a Christian. To me, you’re a Christian if you say you are.

    Now I’ve got to bug out. Sadly (for me, anyway), I won’t be back. Probably not. It’s been fun.

  • Philip Thomas

    Thankyou for the dialogue. I will probably bow out myself, for a while at least.

  • Archi Medez

    SpeirM,

    I composed most of this response before I saw your most recent post in which you state you probably won’t be back. This may be of interest for those who are (still!) following this thread.

    “I want to point you to the impossibility of telling which one is the True Christian.”

    I had already addressed this issue. (It might, in fact, help to address my posts point-by-point—see below). I’m not arguing over what a “true” Christian is. Moreover, as I stated, the label “Christian” can be abandoned altogether and the classification scheme I described can be carried out. Some classification schemes rely on a label, others don’t. All I can say is do some research on classification schemes and you will see that many schemes do not require a label. Indeed, simple categorizations based on a label are often quite inaccurate.

    “Okay, Archi, I don’t know if you’re just trying to snow me under with these impossibly long posts, but there’s no way I’m going to answer you point for point.”

    Well, I do try to address points. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into trying to explain my views to you, and it has seemed to me that task requires longer posts. I would not waste my time trying to pull something fraudulent like trying to “snow someone under”.

    “For all the words, you don’t deal with the heart of my objection. (Added later–Although now it seems I’ve written a tome of my own.) Let me try it another way–one more time.”

    I have now dealt with your objections multiple times. As for what you call “the heart” of your objection, you find it somehow outrageous or offensive or a violation of human rights if the researcher arrives at a different classification than the self-declared one. Why is this so unacceptable from a moral standpoint? Because it just is, you say. Well, I’ve asked at least twice now for you to explain why you think this, or how the person’s rights are being violated, but you haven’t provided this explanation.

    “I submit that you’re going to ask the guy and he’s going to tell you “Christian.” Indeed, that’s the only way you’ll know. Now you know that Tenets A, B, and C are “Christian” beliefs. I say “know” because it’s all the information you’ve got. Maybe the guy’s lying to you. Maybe any number of things. But, still, he has defined himself as “Christian.” You simply have no choice but to accept that.”

    I do have many choices, as a scientist. If I can obtain additional information, I will. If I can’t, I must acknowledge that the self-classification can only be accepted with less confidence than if we have collected additional information. Moreover, I don’t conclude that he is a Christian; rather the tentative probabilistic conclusion is that he had self-classified with the Christian label.

    “You quickly find it’s not simple at all. You kidnap a woman now. She says she believes Tenets C, D, and E. Obviously, this isn’t the same religion. But to your astonisment, she calls herself “Christian,” too.”

    (I’ve already addressed this scenario, in previous posts). I would not draw the conclusion that her religion is not “the same” as the previous guy’s religion. All I would conclude (tentatively and probabilistically), based on your example, is that she overlaps with the other guy on self-classification and on tenet C, and does not overlap with him on tenets D and E.

    “How could that be? Is one of them lying? Which one? Unless you’ve got some mind probing device (which we don’t) to prove that one or the other is lying, you simply don’t know. You’re really left with no choice but to conclude that they’re both Christians, but just define the Christian religion in strikingly different ways.”

    No, you conclude “They’re both Christians.” I conclude “They appear to have both self-classified with the label ‘Christian’ in the study.” I already described essentially this same scenario (see above; though I don’t invoke aliens, kidnapping, etc.). I’ve told you that the “I’m a Christian” is expendable. It is useful, helpful, in some respects, but it is has drawbacks, and it is expendable in the task of precise classification. In dealing with sets of propositions, one does not need to label the sets. (It is often handy, but it is not absolutely necessary).
    As for popular opinion, which changes in some respects from generation to generation, that too can be inserted as a variable in the classification scheme. No problem.
    In fact, we can use popular opinion as a criterion. We just conduct large normative studies sampling people’s beliefs, output a normative profile of the beliefs according to popularity, and work from there. We can do the same for each generation and document the changes. This is very useful, very informative. In using it as one (among other) standards, the researcher does not seek to answer the question of who is a true Christian. The researcher is simply ascertaining the popularity of beliefs associated with a particular variable within the set of variables. That variable may be self-classification, but it need not be. One may use various mathematical techniques on the data to identify categories (e.g., see multi-dimensional scaling) without ever even using a category label.
    One can observe that some significant number of these successive generations endorse some of the elemental propositions that happen to be contained in the scriptures. Thus, the NT is also useful as a standard. Again, the researcher is not using the NT to determine who is a “true Christian”. Rather, the researcher is simply documenting the various aspects of overlap/non-overlap between person’s beliefs and the elements in the NT.

    “But the Christian himself is under no obligation to submit to your definition. Regardless how you challenge him, he’s going to call himself a Christian. I, for one, am content to take him at his word–primarily because I don’t see that I have any choice.”

    Of course he is not obligated to “submit”. I never did ask or imply that anyone “submit” to a scientific classification of religious belief. If they participate in the study, they can keep calling themselves whatever they want, regardless of what the researcher concludes. You are simply attributing to me a claim that I did not make.

    “And that illustrates, I suspect, why this conversation is going on at all. You, like Archi, are approaching this from the perspective of an external observer trying to pigeonhole systems of beliefs. I, on the other hand, am coming from the standpoint of the believer himself and am wondering where you get the nerve to tell me I’m not a Christian when I know very well I am.”

    1. Your use of the word “pigeonhole” suggests that you have missed major parts of my previous posts. The classification scheme which I illustrated, involving overlapping elements, is obviously not pigeonholing. On the other hand, if a crude pigeonholing scheme is all that we have to work with, perhaps due to time and financial constraints, I have no problem with that other than the inaccuracies introduced.

    2. What’s “nerve” got to do with it? You make it sound like classifying others’ religious category membership, purely for intellectual or scientific purposes, is illicit or immoral. I’ve already explained that self-classification is normally a variable that is taken into account by researchers. They just don’t rely on it exclusively when they have additional information available.
    (SpeirM to Philip)

    “You’ve missed the point again. I’m arguing that I don’t have the right to say whether you’re a Christian or not. Furthermore–and this is what I was trying to get across specifically–you won’t cede that right to me *or anyone else.* You won’t even submit to authorities that you don’t approve in advance. You’re certainly not going to let anyone like me tell you whether you’re a Christian or not.”

    The researcher (or outside observer) has a classification, and the person studied has his/her own classification. For various reasons, the researcher may take the self-classification into account, or may ignore it. So what? How is this a violation of somebody’s rights? In our society, they are free to go on classifying themselves by whatever religion label they want.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Just checking back in on this thread, and it certainly has grown. Although it seems some people are taking a break from the discussion, I would like to respond to some questions asked directly of me by SpeirM, regarding my previous post from a couple days ago. Also I would say SpeirM, that I hope you are only taking a break from posting, because I have found your participation in the various discussions, as I have others, very beneficial. Although given all the posts this weekend I think you deserve a vacation.

    Do you claim to be a Christian, EnigmaOfSteel? Do you know there are people who call themselves Christians simply because they see the purported teachings of Jesus good? Will you tell such people that they aren’t Christians?

    I could claim to be a Christian, but that would not necessarily make it so. One would first have to arrive at a definition of Christianity, and then determine the extent to which my beliefs fit the definition. If we can’t define Christianity independent of what any individual happens to define it as, then the term it seems is essentially meaningless. But I do not think Christianity is meaningless, and so if someone were claiming to be a Christian and the evidences indicated otherwise, I could envision a situation where I would express my opinion on the matter.

    What evidences? You answer the question this way: “And how does it jive with our understanding of mainstream Christianity today?” Who said a system of beliefs has to jive with mainstream Christianity to be considered Christian.

    I didn’t claim that a system of beliefs “has” to jive with mainstream Christianity to be called Christian. I suggested that “how” it jives is one way of understanding, along with a number of other avenues of investigation. Examining how majorities of Christians understood and practiced the faith in the past and present is a legitimate part of the process in defining Christianity. As is looking at the sacred texts and various writings on the subject.

    And just what is “mainstream Christianity” to you? If you were raised Roman Catholic, that might very well be your conception of what Christianity is. I was raised a Pentecostal. At a gut level, whether rationally supportable or not, Pentecostalism is the True Christianity to me. I have to fight the tendency to just assume Pentecostalism is what defines Christianity.

    Does it matter what I happen to consider is mainstream, if my view is not as you say “rationally supported”? What matters is what can be considered mainstream through objective evaluation. Although I agree this can be easier said then done.

    I’ll confess to being mystified by the need of the argument you and Archi are making. What purpose does it serve? Will it win any points in a debate to tell the man who fervently believes he’s a Christian that, in fact, he is not because of some technicality that, in his mind, you are trying to impose on his faith?

    Is it not logical that if a person claims to be part of a group, that person should actually be a part of that group? Do we not want to understand group participation and dynamics? I don’t see this as being about trying to disqualify someone from Christianity on a technicality. I would like to clarify that I am not advocating trying to claim someone is not a Christian as a sort of “gotcha” moment.

    Reading through the various posts on the subject, I think this really goes to a larger philosophical question – is truth relative to the individual. If a person claims he/she is a Christian, and others cannot evaluate the truth of that claim, then it seems to me there is no truth outside of the individual. One can see why that view, if continued outside of this discussion on Christianity, can lead to all sorts of problems.