How Religious Are Religious People?

It’s an argument made by Sam Harris and others: The religious fundamentalists, crazy as they are, are the most dedicated to following their faith the way in which it was always intended.

It is the religious moderates who shape and mold their faith to fit their way of life. (And if you’re going to do that, why claim to be religious at all?)

Jamie Whyte, author of Bad Thoughts: A Guide to Clear Thinking, makes a similar claim in an article in the Times Online (UK):

That the world was created by an invisible deity, that He later impregnated a virgin who then bore a son who was His own father, that we have immortal souls and will live for ever in Heaven if we are good and love Jesus – how can anyone who has even attended high school believe such things?

And how can agreement with this nonsense be a prerequisite for winning the support of the American electorate? It defies belief.

The real test for genuine belief is not what people say, but what they do. To believe something is to be disposed to act upon it. The vast majority of Western Christians fail this test. Imagine this. Recognising that many people find their children an unwelcome burden, the Government creates a network of slaughterhouses. Each year, about a million unwanted children are dropped off for extermination.

… To do nothing while millions of children are murdered would display despicable moral complacency.

Yet British Roman Catholics allegedly believe that such slaughter is really happening. They claim that humans have immortal souls from conception, and that killing a foetus is no less murder than killing a ten-year-old. From the Catholic point of view, abortion clinics are slaughterhouses for children.

Is the lack of anti-abortion militancy — at least in Britain — not then strange? If they believe what they claim to, they are no better than those who turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. But I do not think they are that wicked. It is just that they don’t really believe the things they say about foetuses and immortal souls…

And what about death and the afterlife?

Suppose you believed that Heaven exists and that only some of us will qualify to live in it for ever, as the vast majority of Christians claim to. How would this affect your behaviour?

It would depend on what you thought were the admission criteria for Heaven. But whatever you took these virtues to be, they would utterly dominate your life. When everlasting bliss is on offer, nothing else matters at all. People who believed in Heaven would surely act quite unlike those who do not.

Yet the expected behavioural difference is not to be observed. The vast majority of Christians display a remarkably blasé attitude toward their approaching day of judgment, leading lives almost indistinguishable from those of us open non-believers. Put simply, they fail the behavioural test for belief.

This isn’t necessarily hypocrisy.

It’s a mix of ignorance, wishful thinking of what a person thinks his religion ought to be, and a re-interpretation of what the person’s holy book says.

Is this wrong?

Should we at least be satisfied that religion is less potent than it could be?

Should we encourage more moderate religious positions given the alternatives for a religious person?

Let’s not forget: This type of thinking is not just reserved for the religious,

For example, we all know we’re going to die. We’re always told we should live our lives as if we only had 24 hours to live. And yet, we ignore that and waste away plenty of hours each week.

Does that make us hypocrites?

Or does it just mean we need to get away from the seriousness of it all every once in a while?

  • Brian E

    “We’re always told we should live our lives as if we only had 24 hours to live”

    Who’s been telling you this? That’s a ridiculous way to think. You can’t go through life under this mentality. If I believed I had 24 hours to live, I would be snorting coke and banging hookers. I don’t think my wife and kids would appreciate this after 24 hours and I’m still around.

    I prefer the mentality ‘Hope for the best but prepare for the worst’. In this case, I am prepared to die in 24 hours.

  • Eric

    We’re always told we should live our lives as if we only had 24 hours to live. And yet, we ignore that and waste away plenty of hours each week.
    Exactly – because we don’t really believe it. As Eliezer Yudkowski says, your beliefs pay rent in anticipated experiences. If you anticipate nothing differently because of a belief, then that’s the same as not having the belief. You just believe in belief.

  • http://complexzeta.wordpress.com Simon

    As Brian pointed out, living as though we had 24 hours left to live is absurd. Does anyone really think that we should act as though there were no consequences to our actions? That’s what living as though we only had 24 hours left means to me.

  • http://lifebeforedeath.blogsome.com Felicia Gilljam

    Jumping on the bandwagon here, the one day to live thing is ridiculous. Greta Christina explained why recently.

  • Brendan D.

    Politically speaking, I really don’t see the value in agitating moderate religious people, who could potentially be our allies on church-state issues, to adopt more radical positions on a matter of intellectual principle. It seems to me to be the type of endeavor that someone with no concern for practical reality would pursue. If someone is serious about their faith, I suspect they’d sooner keep the faith and become more radical than abandon it for logic’s sake. Why encourage fanaticism? There’s no reason, unless you only care about proving how clever you are, and not about the sociopolitical consequences.

  • Richard Wade

    Exactly, exactly to what Brendan says. This baiting of religious moderates by saying that they are not really true to their creed because they’re not extremists is very foolish in practical terms.

  • mikespeir

    I never live as though I only had 24 hours. I live as I think I ought to right now. And, to be frank, if I knew I had 24 hours, except for tying up a few loose ends I’m not sure I’d spend that last day much different from the way I’m spending this one.

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    Ignorance is a good word to describe this odd way of living life.

    I think the scary thing about all this is how nothing of daily importance: human health, financial stability and general kindness for all is completely ignored when a candidate always defers to his/her belief in God.

    Like that’s going to put food on everyone’s tables, solve the mortgage crisis and keep people healthy without taking each and every last dollar from each American.

    Not to mention this blind acceptance based on said beliefs in the invisible sky pixie.

  • http://newref.blogspot.com/ James

    I like what Christian author Brian McLaren has said; “I can take the Bible seriously because I DON’T take it literally.” Christian moderates seem to take more seriously the actual teachings of the Bible (“love your neighbor, help the least of these, etc.”) than the so-called fundamentalists who want to bicker about the scientific aspects of the Creation parable. They say they take the whole Bible literally, but in reality they cherry pick a few obscure verses here and there and try to build a political policy around their literal interpretation of those select verses. Liberal/moderate Christians seek to take a holistic view of the message of the Bible and base their world view on a modern understanding and interpretation of scripture.

  • http://brownjs.blogspot.com/ J.S.Brown

    Concerning beliefs versus actions, I have often said that most religious people don’t live as if they actually believe what they claim. In this sense, given religious belief and presupposition, a fundamental approach is the most reasonable. At least they walk the walk, even if their positions are demonstrably contradictory to reality. I must say, however, that I’m glad most religious people lack such conviction. Otherwise I’d have been stoned to death long ago.

  • http://liberteegalitetrivialite.blogspot.com/ Patrick

    Religious moderation is something I’ve always had a hard time understanding. I mean, I like religious moderation. It’s much more preferable to go out for a work lunch with your moderately religious friend than, say, get stoned to death as a heathen and adulterer by them… But for me, either the Bible/Quran/Dianetics/etc. is the infallible word of god or not. And if it’s not, they why believe in it?

    It’s something that has definitely stuck me in regards to the gay marriage debate. A lot of fundamentalists lament that god will punish this nation for its acceptance of homosexuality, that God calls for the death of all homosexuals (well, at least gay men)… And you know what? If you believe the Bible to be true, then you’re right? The Bible is pretty clear on how homosexuals should be treated.

    In my opinion (as I recount here, in a blog post responding the the film For the Bible Tells Me So), attempts to reconcile what one morally feels is right (e.g., not murdering gay people, allowing everyone the right to love who they love) with what the Bible says (god destroys entire cities for letting gay people exist, it’s better to let a sex-thirsty mob rape your teenage daughters than rape a man) is a step in the right direction, but so many of the justifications for what the Bible REALLY says seems just as disingenuous as the readings of PMDers like Tim LaHaye (in the film mentioned, one biblical scholar after another states that the bible doesn’t REALLY condemn homosexuality, which is clearly untrue).

    Why not just recognize the book for what it is? A collection of stories, laws and myths originating from iron-age nomads, then later added to, modified and reinterpreted by Roman- and post-Roman-era people. Maybe some of the stories are fun to read, some of them may even have useful morals, but why grant it special “truth” status over other myths, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Kalevala, Superman or the Metamorphasis (Ovid’s, not Kafka’s)?

  • http://bornagainblog.wordpress.com Justin

    “The real test for genuine belief is not what people say, but what they do. To believe something is to be disposed to act upon it.”

    Yes. Exactly. Which is why I say there aren’t any theists, or not many. (In fact, I just wrote a blog about this.)

    This new Christianity – Bible as metaphor and so forth – has absolutely nothing to do with the perspective of the earliest Christians. Christianity is evolving into something else, but the transition is still new enough that the old language is still being used to describe a new paradigm.

    Theists would line up in from of an oncoming hurricane and pray that it be dissipated before landfall. A-theists would find that silly, if not insane. Most Christians seem to fall in the latter category.

    Ok, well, unless the god the theists believe in was Loki, in which case they might not get in the way ’cause Loki’d have no problem sending that hurricane right on in. And in which case they might have a point. If there is a god, it’s Loki.

  • Pseudonym

    On behalf of the non-fundies of the world, I appreciate those who think that baiting non-fundies is a waste of time, and I’ll be very pleased to sit next to you all at the next bible belt school board sit-in.

    Hemant wrote:

    It’s a mix of ignorance, wishful thinking of what a person thinks his religion ought to be [...]

    It’s also Sam Harris’ wishful thinking about what a particular religion was “always intended” to be. Which raises a point brought up by several people, but I’m going with Justin’s wording for the moment:

    This new Christianity – Bible as metaphor and so forth – has absolutely nothing to do with the perspective of the earliest Christians. Christianity is evolving into something else, but the transition is still new enough that the old language is still being used to describe a new paradigm.

    The subtext seems to be that Christianity has been a static thing for 1800 years, then all of a sudden Darwin comes along and Christianity has to change, or something.

    I think we all know that isn’t true. Hell, Christianity evolves before the Bible has finished being written. Paul of Tarsus, afer all, took a small Jewish sect and turned it into something acceptable for the Greek world.

    Unlike most religions, Christianity was not created with a single ethnic group or state in mind. It has always changed as it came into contact with new cultures and new philosophies. It’s not new, it’s not surprising, and it’s not compromising anything at all that is essentially “Christian”, despite what fundies would have you believe.

    One more thing, from Patrick:

    But for me, either the Bible/Quran/Dianetics/etc. is the infallible word of god or not. And if it’s not, they why believe in it?

    First off, please don’t put Dianetics in the same category as the Bible and the Quran. The Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, Ovid etc are capital-M Mythology. Dianetics is just bad science fiction.

    Secondly, most mainline Christians, and all liberal ones, have a problem with the idea of “believing in” the Bible. Many consider that bordering on, if not actually being, idolatry.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Ditto to Brendan’s post. It’s not a good idea to try to convince people that they have to give up their most cherished beliefs, or behave like intolerant lunatics. If you really convince them that they have to choose, most will probably choose the latter.

    Nor do I see the logic in acting as if the way that fundamentalists have picked and chosen among the contradictions in the Bible is the only “true” way to pick and choose. The Christians who focus on the Sermon on the Mount are picking and choosing too, of course, but I like their choices much better.

  • Miko

    The way I see it, this sort of religion is based more on laziness than on wishful-thinking. And while I do find it to be preferred over the alternative, I don’t see how you can really encourage someone to be lazy.

  • Pseudonym

    Autumnal Harvest:

    It’s not a good idea to try to convince people that they have to give up their most cherished beliefs, or behave like intolerant lunatics. If you really convince them that they have to choose, most will probably choose the latter.

    More likely, trying to tell a religious moderate that being a religious moderate is not valid will get you written off as an intolerant lunatic.

    To put it another way: How do you like being told that atheists can’t possibly be moral? It’s the same thing. Like pretty much every religion says: Do unto others, and all that.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Pete, I said “if you really convince them.” I agree that your scenario is more likely.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I’ll tell you what this looks like to the more liberal Christian. First atheists create a straw man of religion. And then they wonder why most people aren’t like the straw man. For example, why aren’t there more pro-life terrorists? (THEY MUST REALLY BE ATHEISTS!!!)

    More compelling arguments, please.

  • cipher

    Pseudonym,

    I don’t think Christianity changed all that much prior to the late 19th century. The core beliefs remained pretty consistent – substitutionary atonement, eternal damnation for all those outside the “club”, etc. In fact, I’ll take it a step further; whenever one of the important figures or great intellects showed up – Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther – it became even more hateful. When it did change, all that ever happened was that someone came along, took a bad idea and made it worse.

    Yes, there were mystics who emphasized direct experience of the divine and downplayed dogma, but they were few and far between and they had to be very careful about how they expressed themselves.

    It may very well be changing for the better now – but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s too little, too late.

  • Adrian

    Is abortion murder? Many activists say ‘yes’, yet how many of them would support 25 years imprisonment or the death penalty for the mother? What is the right penalty? I don’t think we’d find more than a handful of people advocating for more than a slap on the wrist making abortion closer to shoplifting or jaywalking than murder.

    And as for living each day like it’s our last – if the planet’s species and ecosystems are to survive, we better not think like that.

  • Steven

    The best example I have of a “moderate Christian” is my mom – someone who believes in God and occasionally goes to church but is irritated by those who are “too religious”.
    Does her behaviour match her beliefs? Well, she hasn’t stoned anyone and her morality is based on common sense and the greater good rather than ancient texts. Like most folks, she hasn’t given her beliefs a lot of thought. Her parents believed in God, so she believes in God.
    Despite all the advances in science there comes the inevitable “we don’t know”. I happen to see that as an exciting opportunity for further study but for most people an “explanation”, even one that makes little sense, is far more satisfying.
    That may be the chief reason why even “moderate” Christians will not embrace atheism.

  • mikespeir

    Is abortion murder? Many activists say ‘yes’, yet how many of them would support 25 years imprisonment or the death penalty for the mother?

    That’s a question I just can’t get these people to answer. If abortion is murder, it’s premeditated murder. It warrants the worst penalty we can impose. Now, I know some people who wouldn’t mind throwing the book at abortion doctors, but why not the mothers? Have you ever seen an abortion doctor beating the bushes trying to get pregnant women to have abortions? It’s the mother who initiates the process. She’s the one “premeditating.” And yet, the worst anybody suggests doing to her is getting her into grief counseling. (After getting “saved,” of course.)

  • Pseudonym

    cipher:

    I don’t think Christianity changed all that much prior to the late 19th century.

    So you don’t think that the evolution of Christianity from a Jewish sect to one more compatible with Greek philosophy (as was done by Paul of Tarsus) was a big change? What about Constantine? Not a big change there?

    The core beliefs remained pretty consistent – substitutionary atonement, eternal damnation for all those outside the “club”, etc.

    History is not on your side there. The phrase “substitutionary atonement” doesn’t appear until… probably Aquinas, I’m not sure about that. Certainly, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches have never believed in it, and can’t find the idea anywhere in their tradition, so it probably arose some time after the schism.

    As for “eternal damnation”, the idea is not known until after the Bible, and certainly you won’t find in the Bible any descriptions of eternal punishment for humans (as opposed to eternal destruction; not the same thing at all).

    (OK, that’s not entirely true. There is one controversial verse which hints at the possibility. But that’s got to be weighed against all of the bits which fail to mention it.)

    I think that this idea arose when Christianity discovered Plato’s idea of the soul. Nobody can be entirely sure, but certainly the idea came into Christianity later than most people think.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Pseudonym is clearly correct, there have been many significant changes in Christianity prior to the 19th century. Sola Scriptura in the West, and ikons in the East, come to mind.

    I agree that the authors of the New Testament had diverse views about the afterlife, but surely at least some believed in eternal punishment. Jude 7 strikes me as unambiguous, and the authors of Mark 9:48 and Luke 16:23 probably also believed in it.

  • Pseudonym

    Autumnal Harvest: Jude 7 seems to refer to destruction to me, not eternal punishment. After all, it’s not like Sodom and Gomorrha are still burning.

    Luke 16 is interesting because it refers not to the usual synoptic gospel word translated “hell” (i.e. Gehenna, a word with an interesting meaning), but rather Hades, the Greek world of the dead. Even so, this story is pretty fairly obviously allegorical and quite apocalyptic in nature.

    The only place in the Bible which is problematic, in case you’re curious, is Matt 25:46. This is the only place where the words “eternal” and “punishment” appear together. The reason why it’s controversial is that the word translated “eternal” or “everlasting” has multiple meanings, and it’s not clear which is meant.

    I agree that perhaps some of the New Testament authors (or later editors) believed in eternal punishment, but at the very least, even if you think it’s taught by the Bible, it is in no way as emphasised as some so-called “Christians” would have you believe. The vibe of the New Testament is much more about living in the here-and-now.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Pseudonym, my translation (NRSV) of Jude 7 says “Sodom and Gomorrah. . .serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire,” which seems at least as strong as Matt 25:46. But I agree that even if my reading is correct, this is minutiae, and that hellfire is not a strong theme in the New Testament.

    I’m guessing (perhaps incorrectly) from your posts that you’re a Christian, and that you think that interpreting the Bible is important in learning about morals and God, but that you also see the Bible as a human product, with contradictions between different human authors, and the assorted human cultural biases. Is this correct? If so, I wonder if you could suggest a book or essay that talks about how someone with your viewpoint goes about interpreting the Bible. For example, if some authors have one view of the afterlife, and some have another, how do you decide which is right? Is it just a numerical count, or are there other weighting factors? And if you discount some views as the result of the cultural biases of the authors, rather than universal truths, how do you know which ones it’s safe to discount? How do you prevent yourself from unintentionally discounting all the views that don’t agree with your modern beliefs? I’m not asking you to explain all these things, since I think you would be stuck writing for pages and pages, but if you can recommend a good Christian author who discusses these things, I’d appreciate it.

  • cipher

    Pseudonym,

    So you don’t think that the evolution of Christianity from a Jewish sect to one more compatible with Greek philosophy (as was done by Paul of Tarsus) was a big change? What about Constantine? Not a big change there?

    Paul – I’m not even counting the first Jewish messianists. It was a small group prior to him; I suppose you could even call it a “study group”! We aren’t even certain about what they believed. It didn’t begin to become what we think of as “Christianity” until he came along. In fact, I should have included him in the list of people who really fucked it up.

    Constantine – His biggest “contribution” was to make it the state religion. The triumphalist overtones, the antisemitism – they were already there. He merely sanctioned them. Should have included him, too.

    The phrase “substitutionary atonement” doesn’t appear until… probably Aquinas, I’m not sure about that.

    Anselm, about the turn of the first millennium – but the idea was there already. It’s right there in the NT! He merely codified it, basing it on the feudal model, and gave it a philosophical pedigree. He was opposed by Abelard, who wanted to emphasize God’s love for humanity, and you know what happened to him – they castrated him! (All right, that wasn’t the reason – but I think it’s highly symbolic nevertheless.)

    As for “eternal damnation”, the idea is not known until after the Bible, and certainly you won’t find in the Bible any descriptions of eternal punishment for humans (as opposed to eternal destruction; not the same thing at all).

    That is highly contentious, but I see it as the same sort of controversy as that concerning homosexuality – liberals want to read it a certain way, and I don’t want to discourage all of you, but I don’t feel it’s supported by the text. In Revelations, it says that those not found in the Book of Life will be cast into the lake of fire, and “the smoke of their torment goes up forever”. I know there are those among you – annihilationists, conditionalists, universalists – who want to play with the wording, want to believe it means that death itself will be destroyed, or that it doesn’t say the torment goes on forever, or some damn thing – but I think it’s pretty plain. And this is only one example that comes to mind; refute it, and we can find a dozen more.

    Autmunal Harvest,

    Re: icons – that’s a matter of form. The basic underlying beliefs are the same.

    Re: sola scriptura – along with the examples cited above, this pretty much illustrates my point, actually. The really interesting thing going on here is that you guys are doing more to prove my point than you are your own – what changes have occurred, as time has gone by, have only served to make it worse.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Prior to the 19th century? Are you kidding? The reformation wasn’t a significant change?

  • cipher

    Prior to the 19th century? Are you kidding? The reformation wasn’t a significant change?

    Not in the way that I mean. The underlying beliefs were the same. The biggest change was that they did away with the magisterium of the church. And, again, insofar as it did change, my contention is that it got worse.

    Prior to Luther, if you went to mass and confessed your sins regularly, you’d get into heaven. Faith was considered a gift from God. If it came, well and good; if it didn’t – just go through the motions, and you’ll be taken care of.

    Luther did away with all that. A Protestant had to find faith within himself first, then he’d be saved. How could you know you were saved? You couldn’t – so Calvin came along and threw the whole thing back into God’s lap. The bottom line became that God created the vast majority of humans for no other reason than to torture them for eternity. Calvinism is an abomination so obscene that I deny its right even to exist, yet it may be the single most influential doctrinal strain in fundamentalism today.

    And – under the old system, most people were going to Purgatory, and you knew you’d get into heaven eventually. Luther ditched that as well. Now, it’s either heaven or hell, for eternity, no second chance. Thanks, Marty.

    I’ll also point out that antisemitism increased, for two reasons: 1. Because Luther himself had some lovely thoughts concerning the Jews, and 2. Because, with the Reformation (and, subsequently, the Counter-Reformation), the feudal system broke down, upward mobility became a possibility, Christians were allowed to fill societal niches they hadn’t been allowed to before, and the Jews, who had operated more or less outside of the system for centuries, got herded into ghettos.

    I’m sorry, but from my perspective, the whole thing is a train wreck. As you can see, I’m really not generous when it comes to Christianity.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Cipher, I don’t agree with your characterization of all the changes as negative, but more importantly, I don’t see why this characterization is relevant. None of what you say contradicts Pseudonym’s point. He/she was saying that Christianity has not been a static religion, and so liberal/moderate Christians are not doing anything illicit or “un-Christian” when they change it. If past Christians really made a number of changes for the worse, that’s so much more incentive for liberal/moderate Christians to change it for the better.

  • Pseudonym

    Autumnal Harvest:

    I’m guessing (perhaps incorrectly) from your posts that you’re a Christian, and that you think that interpreting the Bible is important in learning about morals and God, but that you also see the Bible as a human product, with contradictions between different human authors, and the assorted human cultural biases. Is this correct?

    That’s fairly accurate. I was brought up as a liberal Christian, and I still identify as such, even though I lean a little closer towards some mix of omnism and theistic rationalism with a strong dose of Joseph Campbell.

    My opinion of the Bible, incidentally, is not very different from my opinion of other “good” sacred texts in the world. “Good” is subjective, but I would include, say, the Bhagavad Gita but exclude Dianetics. There is some grey area here, but I think most sensible people can tell the difference.

    Sacred texts were written by humans who came into contact with “the divine”, and are an attempt to make sense of what they experienced. I furthermore believe that mythology is a good and noble thing, and that it’s a shame that more people don’t appreciate this.

    If so, I wonder if you could suggest a book or essay that talks about how someone with your viewpoint goes about interpreting the Bible. For example, if some authors have one view of the afterlife, and some have another, how do you decide which is right?

    That’s a hard question to answer.

    Part of the problem is that while liberal Christianity is big on scholarship, and trying to find out what the author intended, that’s actually not the basis of what we do. Liberal Christanity is much more about practice than doctrine. That’s why, for example, while anything by John Shelby Spong is worth reading, you might find it disappointing if you’re interested in Biblical interpretation; he’s far more interested in doing.

    If you want some authors, I’d be looking at J.B. Phillips, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and anything from the Jesus Seminar (e.g. John Dominic Crossan). I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things about Richard Holloway’s How to Read the Bible; it’s only 120 pages, so it can hardly be a good technical survey, but from the reviews, it looks like it gives a good overview.

    cipher:

    That is highly contentious, but I see it as the same sort of controversy as that concerning homosexuality – liberals want to read it a certain way, and I don’t want to discourage all of you, but I don’t feel it’s supported by the text.

    Just to be clear: The mainstream liberal position on hell and homosexuality is that the text doesn’t really support either, but it doesn’t directly contradict it either.

    Taking homosexuality as an example, Paul of Tarsus would be considered a homophobe today, as would any other thinking person of the age. However, he never really said anything about what we understand today as “sexual orientation”. That is, calling homosexuality a “choice” or “lifestyle”, or advocating change-of-sexual-orientation therapy, or making it illegal, is also not supported by the text.

    Putting it more simply: What I believe about homosexuality may have no direct support in the Bible, but what Pat Robertson believes doesn’t either.

    The reason why liberal Christians have a strong emphasis on scholarship is that we’re far more interested in what the Bible actually does emphasise, such as the many words expended on the evils of greed.

    This is where I partly agree with Jamie Whyte. The “scriptural support” for the popular idea of “hell” is a couple of hard-to-understand verses here and there. If it were that important, the Bible would talk about little else. So I guess that means the Bible isn’t very religious.

  • cipher

    Autumnal Harvest,

    Your unedited version appeared in my inbox, and I’d actually rather respond to that:

    Cipher, I thought when you said “I don’t think Christianity changed all that much prior to the late 19th century,” you meant that it hadn’t changed that much. Apparently you mean that it’s changed in many ways, but some changes don’t count for you, because they’re only important to the practice of the religion, rather than doctrinal, and others don’t count because you see them as changes for the worse. I must say, this is a rather odd definition of “not changing.”

    That is my point – the doctrine hasn’t changed very much. What change has occurred has been largely in matters of outward form and societal impact.

    I don’t agree with your characterization of all the changes as negative

    Obviously, I disagree. It was a bad idea that degenerated over time, until, as I said, the late 19th century, when the liberals began to become more influential.

    If past Christians really made a number of changes for the worse, that’s so much more incentive for liberal/moderate Christians to change it for the better.

    You’re welcome to try to change it. I’d rather have you be liberals than fundamentalists. I just don’t think you’ll have much success. I don’t agree with people like Christine Wicker and our own Mike Clawson – I think the fundamentalists are far more numerous and influential than they want to believe. Christianity will continue to polarize, then it becomes a matter of “Who owns the label?” (There’s a similar problem in Judaism.) I don’t think we have much time left as a civilization, or probably as a species, and I think that religious fundamentalism, more than any other single factor, will be responsible for our demise. If we do manage to survive, it will have to be in a far more secular format.

  • cipher

    Pseudonym,

    Just to be clear: The mainstream liberal position on hell and homosexuality is that the text doesn’t really support either, but it doesn’t directly contradict it either.

    Taking homosexuality as an example, Paul of Tarsus would be considered a homophobe today, as would any other thinking person of the age. However, he never really said anything about what we understand today as “sexual orientation”.

    Again, this is a liberal interpretation: “They didn’t understand sexual orientation, mutual consent… ” And, it doesn’t take into account the two Levitical injunctions, which are pretty clear: if two men lie together, it’s an abomination, and both shall be put to death.

    The “scriptural support” for the popular idea of “hell” is a couple of hard-to-understand verses here and there. If it were that important, the Bible would talk about little else. So I guess that means the Bible isn’t very religious.

    Again, I disagree. It’ all over the place. It may be that the authors didn’t want it to be the main focus, but the ideas of etrnal damantion and salvific exclusivism are there from the beginning (of the NT).

    If they hadn’t included Revelation in the final draft (I understand that Luther considered it a mistake), it might have made something of a difference – but they did.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Pseudonym, thank you for the book recommendations. Holloway’s book looks perfect. Actually, despite your warning that I might be disappointed by John Shelby Spong, I’m intrigued enough by his Wikipedia description (how can a bishop not believe in the physical resurrection of Christ?), that I’ll probably give “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” a shot too.

    cipher:

    . . . it becomes a matter of “Who owns the label?

    Yes. My view is that no one “rightfully” owns the label. (BTW, I’m an atheist, not a Chrisitian.) Some people who consider themselves Christian take a book that’s full of contradictions, use convoluted arguments to pretend that there are no contradictions, and then selectively pick some of the worst passages to justify being horrible. Others consider themselves Christian, take a book full of contradictions, and focus on certain messages to practice social justice. I think both of these groups are properly called Christian. Given that the starting point is a book full of contradictions, it’s hardly a math exercise with a clear correct answer. The fundamentalists like to claim that they own the label, and that the former approach is the only way that’s true to being “Christian.” The eagerness of some atheists to let fundamentalists define what constitutes being Christian is funny, but I don’t think it’s a good idea, and I also don’t think it makes sense.

  • Pseudonym

    cipher:

    Again, this is a liberal interpretation: “They didn’t understand sexual orientation, mutual consent… ” And, it doesn’t take into account the two Levitical injunctions, which are pretty clear: if two men lie together, it’s an abomination, and both shall be put to death.

    Leviticus is also pretty clear on the matter of wearing wool blend socks and eating shellfish.

    We’ve discussed the Leviticus passage here in the past. If you look at it, it’s in the middle of a big section on the religious practices of the surrounding pagan cultures, which suggests (though doesn’t conclusively prove) that there is some specific misbehaviour that this passage is speaking against. (Large parts of Leviticus seem to be about that.)

    Once again, I’m not saying that Leviticus is all good from a modern perspective. It isn’t. What I’m saying is that saying that this is a “pretty clear” statement against all homosexual practice is a conservative interpretation. Stepping back, there’s not very much that’s “pretty clear” about it.

    Again, I disagree. It’ all over the place. It may be that the authors didn’t want it to be the main focus, but the ideas of etrnal damantion and salvific exclusivism are there from the beginning (of the NT).

    I just re-read the first couple of chapters of Matthew, just to be sure, and couldn’t find anything. :-)

    Perhaps this is a classic case of eisegesis. If you have hell and damnation on your mind, you’ll see it everywhere. If you’re convinced that devils are behind everything, you’ll see them everywhere.

    I personally see very little about the popular conservative notion of hell anywhere in Jesus’ preaching. It really is “a verse here and a verse there”, and even then, you need to squint a bit.

    This is why I’m trying to emphasise what textual critics (whether Biblical or otherwise) refer to as higher criticism. I’d rather understand what someone was trying to say before dismissing them as worthless. (I may still dismiss them as worthless, but at least I have a legitimate reason why!)

    If they hadn’t included Revelation in the final draft (I understand that Luther considered it a mistake), it might have made something of a difference – but they did.

    Anyone who tells you they understand what Revelation says is probably lying.

    OK, that’s a bit unfair. We do know the general idea of the book. It basically says “Caesar is not Lord, Christ is Lord”. The rest is just expanding on that theme.

    Partly, it’s a form of literature that we don’t fully understand. (It’s like trying to understand a screenplay if you’ve never seen a movie before, only much harder.) Partly, it’s highly, highly symbolic, and we don’t get all the references. (That’s like someone from the 1930s trying to understand an episode of Seinfeld.)

    One thing we can be sure of is that Revelation is the one book of the Bible that was certainly not meant to be read literally in any way whatsoever, simply by virtue of the literary form. Kind of how if you look at the page and “see” that it’s a poem, you know that you’re not reading a newspaper report, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

    I happen to agree that we’d probably be better off if Revelation weren’t included in the canon. It almost wasn’t, after all. But then I’d be discounting the generations of persecuted people who gained a lot of comfort from that book, so who knows.

    But again, I really don’t see anything about eternal punishment for humans in there. To see it, I think you need to be thinking it first.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X