One of the big mistakes non-believers make–especially those who’ve never been believers themselves–is to assume that all Christians are Biblical literalists. Most Christians are not literalists and would find the idea of the entire Bible being literally true to be purely nonsensical. When a non-Christian tries to whammy them with a quick “AHA! There wasn’t ever really an Exodus!” they feel very evolved indeed to be able to nod in total agreement and then go on to say that this knowledge doesn’t get in the way of their being Christian so they don’t see why it’s such a problem for anybody else.
We’re going to be talking soon about some of the claims Christians make that aren’t so mythological, but first I wanted to briefly mention something that I think could otherwise get lost in the shuffle: there isn’t really any form of Christianity that I can agree with.
Even Christians who take some of the Bible literally reject other parts of it. I once talked to a very nice (and somewhat famous) Christian who was trying to grow past his fundamentalist views. He’d made some baby steps in that direction, but he still clung fast to a belief in a literal Crucifixion and Resurrection. All the rest of it might be purely mythical, but he’d drawn his line and refused to cross it. It reminded me of this scene from a Star Trek movie:
And I, in my own time as a Christian, saw the Creation myth as an allegory of human development and a metaphor for why people needed the later sacrifice of Jesus Christ. I knew the world was very old and that humans had evolved from a common ancestor and all that. I wasn’t one of those Christians, even though I belonged to a denomination that was very solidly Creationist and heard Creationist preachers pound their Bibles up on the dais many times. (That sounded kind of lurid, but to hell with it, I like it, it’s stayin’.)
It’s funny, isn’t it, where that line gets drawn for each individual Christian? Even among evangelicals, who are the most ferocious (one might even say vicious) about defending their groupthink ideas, their leaders were simply horrified a few years back to discover that the flocks don’t actually subscribe to the entire set of evangelical ideas. Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Convention, in that first link, had kittens over the idea of Americans liking the idea of good things happening “to good people,” and even more so over the idea of his own tribemates regarding the Bible as a non-divine document penned by just people, not a god.
But he can’t force his sheep to believe something they know isn’t true. He can’t shame them into conjuring belief when their knowledge tells them otherwise. Belief isn’t a choice; it’s something that grows or fades based on what we learn and discover. If I know perfectly well that the balance of historical research shows that the Bible is a document with many, many flaws that was written to fulfill a number of political and religious agendas, revising history as necessary to suit those agendas and revealing a decidedly non-divine base of scientific knowledge on par with what people of that era would have known, I’m not going to be able to force myself to believe that the Bible is divine or flawless. At best all Al Mohler is going to get out of someone in such a situation is them saying they believe what they know to be untrue and going through the motions of belief. These statements and motions might well induce a sort of belief, but it won’t be the same, ever, as knowledge-induced belief.
Over the years since my deconversion, I’ve had more than a few Christians ask me (in all seriousness and sincerity) why I didn’t consider a more liberal form of Christianity, because obviously ex-Christians have never thought about any of the other tens of thousands of denominations out there while coming to our conclusions about the religion.
I did consider a more liberal form of Christianity. I didn’t find that end of the religion any more compelling than the more childish forms of it, is all.
What would this religion look like if it didn’t make a bunch of ludicrous, unsupported claims?
Though evangelical Christians have adopted Thomas Jefferson as One of Us, they do so only after extensively revising real history. He profoundly was not in the slightest evangelical. He famously created his own version of the Bible by using a razor and glue to cut out and re-assemble a Bible that excluded supernatural events and claims. This “Jefferson Bible” didn’t gain widespread popularity or anything, but it showed that even many years ago some folks at least were thinking about what a religion would look like if it could be freed of dubious claims and power grabs.
Imagine, if you will, a Christianity that doesn’t use threats of Hell or promises of Heaven to gain compliance from others.
Imagine a Christianity that doesn’t make false promises of health, wealth, power, or safety to people.
Imagine a Christianity that looks at its sourcebook as a set of myths written by people who were trying to make a little sense out of the glorious and scary world around themselves and to maintain a bit of order for themselves in it–but not as a prescription for modern behavior or assertions of science or history that must be believed at risk of eternal, punitive torture at the hands of a “loving” god.
That’d be a Christianity focused on the here and now, not on the future, because the future isn’t actually knowable by anybody. It’d be a Christianity that values this life rather than relegating it to that little tiny and meaningless shred of one’s human experience that has to be slogged through before the main event of eternity.
I can say this about this kind of Christianity because I know Christians who try to be like that. They’d be decent folks no matter what they ended up thinking about the supernatural, and what I’ve described is what most of them seem to be like. They’re loving, compassionate, charitable people who know that if they’re not trying to help others, then there’s not a whole lot of point to being involved in a religion centered around love, compassion, and charity.
What would drive Al Mohler the craziest is that this group of Christians is, without question, doing a thousand thousand times more of that boring stuff Jesus told Christians to do than his entire denomination has done since its inception. He and his pals are working so hard to force their point of view onto others and to showboat their religiosity that they’ve all but forgotten about the central stuff they were always supposed to be doing.
It must be embarrassing to see liberal Christians out there doing all that stuff.
There’s still a sentiment at the bottom of this kind of Christianity that I can’t get on board with.
At the very core of this alarmingly-liberal Christianity is still a worldview that I simply don’t believe after my 40-odd years on this planet, an assertion that even the most liberal Christians I know believe at their cores:
The idea of a god reaching down to “help” human beings in some way, and the idea that humans need this help and can’t do for themselves whatever they need to do.
The hilarious thing about the kind of Christianity I just described above is that it’s not uniquely Christian at all. There’s nothing in it that non-Christians can’t do and more, since they’re not saddled with beliefs that can’t be credibly supported and a worldview that, even if it’s kinder than what the Religious Right preaches, still doesn’t mesh with reality.
Even the most liberal Christians (like this group, or this one) still get into the idea of a divine atonement for humankind’s sins, and celebrate that their god allowed his own son to die for humankind’s sake. I’ve never met a liberal Christian who thought that humans could do just fine on their own; even recognizing that people are shouldering through life just fine without Christianity, these liberal Christians still think that their religion would be a vast improvement for everyone if they’d only follow it.
They view being human as ultimately a bad thing, and human beings as needing divine help and guidance. They see humans as “trapped” in sin and doomed to be terrible even if they try hard to be good–because they can’t do anything good on their own.
In other words, liberal Christianity is still a business model. It just sells something slightly different than Biblical literalists sell. It tells people that they are sick, and then offers them a cure. Their cure might seem less expensive than the one offered by the Al Mohlers of the world, but it’s still a cure that humans wouldn’t ever know they needed if they hadn’t been told so. They make fewer supernatural claims than the Religious Right, yes, but they still make some–and theirs can’t be supported any more than those of their more conservative peers.
Like the Christians in that survey that made Al Mohler so upset, I can’t believe that any group has a monopoly on goodness. Nor can I believe that people need belief in anything supernatural to be better people. There are too many people who have religious belief and are still terrible–like, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the Religious Right’s loudest voices–while there are too many people in other religions and following no religion who are wonderful and giving people who are making this world a better place for many others.
The simple truth.
You know what makes people better people?
Empathy and compassion.
Christianity doesn’t automatically deliver empathy and compassion. Lots of Christians lack those qualities.
Not being Christian doesn’t preclude someone from being empathetic or compassionate. Lots of non-Christians have those qualities.
So why should anybody buy into this religion when people can cultivate those qualities without it and when even liberal Christianity doesn’t guarantee its adherents will have those qualities?
Why should I buy their “cure” when I don’t think that humans as a whole are actually sick, and when I don’t see their “cure” as doing anything more than people can get for themselves without subscribing to Christianity?
Little wonder liberal denominations are losing people faster than conservative denominations are. Without terror and greed to use as selling points to the unwary, liberal groups don’t offer much that people can’t get with plain old humanism–and what they offer that cannot be gotten with humanism isn’t something I’d want anyway. I’ve heard a lot of ex-Christians say they tried to join liberal groups after being in very conservative ones, and ended up just leaving the religion altogether once they noticed what I just described. I reckon you could say I just skipped the middle step and went right to the end with my own deconversion.
I got asked this question again recently, so I thought this would be a good time to jot down why I never joined any liberal groups after deconverting. I saw that Christianity’s supernatural claims were false, and that even liberal Christians make at least some supernatural claims. I don’t ever want to get involved with any other group that makes untrue claims. Even if the group is largely benign (and I do think that liberal Christians are generally benign; I get along fine with them and have no beef with them), belief in untrue stuff opens the door to all kinds of problems–not the least of which is that such a group can’t recognize other untrue claims when confronted with them.
I’ve simply got no time left to waste on stuff that isn’t true.
And I’d encourage others to think carefully about how brief and finite our time on this planet is. The time we waste on stuff that isn’t true isn’t time we can ever get back, and it leaves us way too open to buying into other stuff that isn’t true.
There might not be a cosmic do-over after we die. Anyone who says they know for sure what the afterlife looks like is lying or speaking from false confidence–and probably trying to sell you something to boot. Instead of focusing on an afterlife that might not ever be, let’s instead use this one lifetime we know we’ve got in the best way we can, and stand for values like truth, compassion, and kindness–without fluffing it all up with totally superfluous stuff that isn’t true and just slows us down.