In one of his “My Answer” columns, Billy Graham replies to a correspondent who doesn’t see the need for organized religion:
Don’t make up your own ideas about God, but understand from the Bible who He really is, and commit your life to Christ.
“Don’t make up your own ideas” – this is Billy Graham’s advice to the seeker. Instead, presumably, we should read the Bible and believe exactly what it says, without bringing any of our own imagination or independent thought to the subject.
My friend Erich Vieth at Dangerous Intersection had a similar experience visiting an evangelical megachurch:
“A good way to get into heresy is to read books about religion other than the Bible. Don’t do this! Any book beyond the Bible is false. Everything in the Bible is true.”
The Roman Catholic church, of course, has been one of the most reliable users of this tactic – with the added wrinkle that the church authorities are the only ones competent to interpret the Bible and tell lay believers what it really means. A Catholic commenter on this site put the point quite explicitly:
The Magisterium is also necessary. It is needed as a living and infallible authority to determine the authentic meaning of both Scripture and Tradition. Such a living authority is necessary to settle disputes concerning both Scripture and Tradition. Tradition and Scripture alone would be insufficient to guarantee the unity of the faith and of the Church, for violent disagreements could arise over the content of Tradition as well as of Scripture. There can be no private judgment either of Scripture or of Tradition.
My essay “Thoughts in Captivity” lists many more examples of this type, including apologists who proclaim that their holy scriptures should be believed over all contrary evidence and that believers do not need to know what outsiders are saying about their faith to know that it is not true.
All these warnings given by religious leaders to their followers, like the ones quoted above, center around the danger of independent thought. Making up your own mind, they proclaim, is a recipe for disaster (and the Bible agrees, in Proverbs 14:12). Instead, believers are repeatedly told that the only way to safety is to believe what has been handed down exactly as it has been handed down, and trust the religious authorities and texts to keep them on the safe path of orthodoxy. They must shut their minds and their eyes to all contrary evidence, all outside viewpoints, and believe regardless of what the facts or their own reason may tell them. The authorities, by definition, are infallible, and if you disagree with them the problem is with you.
This dictum occurs not just in religion, but also in dogmatic non-religious ideologies, such as can be found among communists or the devotees of Ayn Rand. However, its fullest flowering and most sophisticated defenders are unquestionably to be found among the ranks of religious believers.
As an atheist, I’m not surprised by this. This attitude, after all, is one of the surest signs of a false belief. The truth can endure limitless scrutiny; only false beliefs will crumble if looked at too closely. Thus, only the leaders of an incorrect belief system have reason to fear their followers investigating their beliefs and examining the alternatives. This is not to say that high-powered religious authorities know their faiths are false, but rather, there’s a Darwinian competition among memes: false beliefs which encourage their holders to question and debate them are unlikely to survive. False beliefs which try to discourage critical scrutiny by any means possible are much more likely to endure.
As atheists, by contrast, our mission should be to get people to make up their own minds, not tell them what to think. We are not the ones who have to warn people about the dangers of making up their own minds and coming to their own conclusions. Instead, we have a far better message: you can and should think for yourself. We all live in the same universe, and sufficiently diligent investigation will lead to the realization of its true nature – and that, unlike religious myths and wishful thinking, is a conclusion we can all agree on.