Everybody who reads this blog knows I am an atheist, but I try to avoid attacking core Christian doctrines. Ultimately, I believe in co-operation. I would like to work with reasonable Christian people to build a model of education which is agreeable for everyone. I don’t (usually) see any benefit in attacking beliefs.
Yes, I attack Young Earth Creationism, but this is not a core Christian doctrine. It is not even a core fundamentalist doctrine, historically. Fundamentalism was kickstarted by The Fundamentals, a collection of essays affirming Christian beliefs. Not everyone who contributed was a Creationist. It did contain a Creationist essay by George Frederick Wright, but Wright’s views were complicated. In many writings, he expressed support for Darwin, and his Creationism was far from that expressed by Ken Ham, Duane Gish, Henry Morris, or Ray Comfort.
Plus, Young Earth Creationism is demonstrably false. So if you want to make that a core Christian doctrine, then I can say unequivocally that Christianity is untrue, and we can stop the conversation right here.
In general, I do not find the concept of God either plausible or useful. But there are certain expressions of God that, while I don’t believe them, I can see how an intelligent person could hold them.
But, I’m sorry, salvation through faith alone, the cornerstone of the Reformation, of fundamentalism, and of conservative Protestantism, is a pernicious, poisonous doctrine. I really want to co-operate with Christians, but if that’s your view, I don’t think we’re going to find common ground.
Here’s fundamentalist doctrine on salvation: Your eternal fate, heaven or hell, has nothing to do with your good works or sins in this lifetime. Everyone has sinned, and therefore, by default, everyone is going to hell. But if you believe in your heart that Jesus is the Son of God, and that God has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved. No matter what else you do, if you believe this and confess it, you will go to heaven. Salvation is through faith only.
This is a wonderful doctrine, say evangelicals. Every other religion requires you to work for your salvation, when it’s really a free gift from God! And no one can say they are better than anyone else, because salvation isn’t due to any merit on our part.
Two reasons why Martin Luther ruined everything
1) It creates “us” and “them”
Salvation through faith alone makes Christianity a brutally exclusive religion. There is no possibility of anyone of a different faith going to heaven. Everyone who is not in this branch of Christianity – not just a Christian, but a True Christian – is unregenerate and does not know God. There is no possibility of them having anything worthwhile to say, because Wisdom comes from God, and they don’t know God. As Donald Howard, founder of ACE, writes in staff training for all ACE supervisors that non-Christians are “incapable of reasoning to truth.”
The words of people like Gandhi, Buddha, and almost every great western philosopher become worthless, because they were not the right kind of Christian.
This leads to what Protestants call the doctrine of Biblical Separation – that Christians should have no fellowship with the World (and, in many cases, Christians who don’t believe the right stuff). And that inevitably leads to ignorance, intolerance, and negative ideas about the “others”. Humanity is naturally fearful of unfamiliar groups, and historically we’ve dealt with strangers in rather unfriendly ways. Sealing yourself off is not going to help this.
Seeing people who are not part of your group as “other” is divisive. However tolerant you think you are, seeing most of the world as “not my tribe” is primitive and maladaptive. That’s going to be even worse if you think that doctrinal purity makes the difference between eternal bliss and eternal torture. Then you have to be really careful who you listen to.
Whereas if you believe that God looks at the heart, at intentions, and at whether you’ve done your best in life – well, there’s just a possibility that we’re all the same.
2) Evil people go to heaven while good people go to hell
Of course, the fundamentalist would say we’re all evil, and there’s no hierarchy of sin. But this is bollocks, and we all know it (in fact, it’s another pernicious doctrine, because it makes good people feel crippling guilt over trivial offences). If Martin Luther was right, a serial child rapist can repent on his deathbed and go to heaven scot-free.
This is just evidence of the great forgiveness and mercy of God, you may say. Fair enough. But this also means that a sincere person who dedicates her life to helping the poor (the victims of the above serial rapist, perhaps), and who earnestly seeks God, but who finds she cannot accept Jesus as Saviour, would spend eternity in hell.
This is not justice.
(And incidentally, the fundamentalist concept of hell is logically impossible, as William Bradley demonstrates in this sterling debate performance against William Lane Craig.)
3) Doubt becomes something to fear
For the majority of religious experience, doubt is perfectly natural. Many devout religious leaders are honest about their experience of doubt. Indeed, doubt is part and parcel of faith – if there’s no doubt, there’s no need for faith, because you’re certain.
But if faith is the sole criterion for salvation – if you can burn in hell for all eternity just because you stopped believing – then doubt is something to fight at every turn. Doubt is something to squash, to run from, and to feel guilty about.
This makes salvation through faith anti-intellectual. You begin to fear asking questions. Let’s say you’re a faith-only Christian who beings to doubt. You certainly don’t want to pursue that doubt. What if you uncover evidence which casts more doubt on your faith? Then you might stop believing.
Then you would be damned.
This makes ignorance a good thing. It stops education cold.
With salvation through faith, true education is impossible
It’s the third point that is most important to this blog. I met a classmate from my ACE days recently, and we discussed Creationism. He said (it was a few months ago, so this isn’t verbatim), “There are some things that don’t make sense, so I just don’t want to ask those questions.” He even implied that God would not want him to ask. I was disarmed by his honesty, and appalled by what fundamentalist education had done to his mind.
My two take-away points, then:
If God made the human mind, He probably intended for us to use it.
Salvation through faith makes the truth something to fear. This is a problem.
Update: I didn’t actually mean to post this today! I was still working on the draft, and I’d forgotten that I’d scheduled it to go live. While I would stand behind much of what I said, there are ways in which my argument doesn’t hang together. Oh well, it’s public now so I’ll leave it, but you’re all very welcome to tear my thoughts to pieces.