The Strongest Argument for Christianity

In a major departure from my usual debunking mode, I am going to offer what I consider the strongest argument in favor of Christianity. No, let me hasten to assure everyone, I am not going all “Tony Flew” here. I think the arguments for the existence of God, whether considered individually or cumulatively, are totally worthless. Some theistic arguments are inferior specimens of a very dubious genre, i.e., metaphysical argument. The rest are instances of an even worse genre: pure pseudoscience. As anyone can tell from reading my candid little tome Why I am not a Christian, available in the “modern library” of the Secular Web, I regard Christian apologetics as a travesty, a farrago of bad history, inept biblical scholarship, and rampant illogic. Most doctrines of orthodox Christianity to me are as bizarre and incredible as Greek or Norse mythology—and a lot less fun. That said, I think there is one very strong argument for Christianity: The argument from the endlessly astonishing rottenness of human beings.

The train of thought leading to this present essay was set in motion a couple of weeks ago when I was reading in the morning paper the debate before the Supreme Court concerning whether videos showing animals being killed or tortured could be suppressed or whether such restriction violates the first amendment free speech guarantees (I shall not take any position here on that question). The article said that one kind of “entertainment” they were trying to control was something called “crush videos.” Now, crush videos constitute one form of human depravity that I had never heard of, and I wish I still had not. According to the article, such videos feature women in high heels crushing tiny animals to death. I was nearly made violently ill by the idea that any creature biologically classifiable as Homo sapiens would derive pleasure, prurient pleasure, I assume, from watching whores stomp small, helpless animals to death. I really thought that by age 57 I had pretty much heard it all, but I had not.

Now maybe you regard cruelty to animals as deplorable, but just do not have the sort of visceral reaction I get to things like this. Maybe it is man’s inhumanity to man that really appalls you. Well, you don’t have to look far at all to find plenty of that. A friend and fellow WWII buff gave me a copy of Richard J. Evans’ outstanding The Third Reich at War. This is an excellent book that achieves the very rare combination of impeccable scholarship with page-turning readability. I could not read it however. I found it simply too disturbing. We hear so much about the Nazi’s big crimes, like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Babi Yar, etc., that we forget about their ordinary everyday atrocities. For instance, after the invasion of Poland (70 years ago last month), the Nazis began to enforce their policy of brutal racial oppression of the untermenschen, i.e., Jews and Slavs. Evans tells about an incident where a Polish peasant picked a fight with a German soldier and wounded him with a knife. In retaliation, the Germans killed everybody in the peasant’s village. However, it was only a small village, and so did not contain enough inhabitants to fill the quota of retaliatory murders that had been set. So, with Teutonic thoroughness, they stopped a passing train, pulled off enough passengers to meet the quota, and shot them on the spot. Such incidents were far from extraordinary. Indeed, they were quite mundane occurrences in Nazi-occupied territories, especially in the East.

A central, indispensable doctrine of Christianity has always been the inherent rottenness of human beings. More formally, this is the doctrine of original sin. Of course, the doctrine of original sin was originally construed by Augustine as a taint passed on biologically from parent to child, starting with Adam and Eve. As a theory of the genetics of sinfulness, the doctrine has always, understandably, elicited derisive howls from unbelievers. When removed from its pseudo-biological garb, however, the idea is quite profound. Augustine held that before the Fall, humans could choose either to sin or not sin. Since the Fall, we have lost the power to refrain from sin, and wallow in bondage to concupiscence, by which Augustine meant all evil desire, not merely the sexual sort. The Reformed tradition called the post-Fall human state one of “total depravity,” by which they did not mean that humans are incapable of any good, but that every aspect of human nature and human life has been infected by sin (see Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, Macmillan, 1964). In other words, nothing human is pristine. No human relationship, institution, or activity is free of corruption, and quite a few are rife with it (e.g., politics, business, religion, and—Dare I say it?—academe). Further, the fallen state is not only a psychological or sociological phenomenon, but a metaphysical one, said Augustine. Put plainly, that means that there is nothing human effort or striving can do to correct the situation; there is no going back to Eden.

The doctrine of original sin is quite ferocious and uncompromising, of course, and gentler souls such as liberal Protestants and humanists have always been appalled by it. Surely, it seems far too gloomy and pessimistic to view humans in general in terms of total depravity. Surely, the Nazis were exceptionally monstrous and those who make or enjoy crush videos are among the outer fringes of the most despicable degenerates. Such behaviors are outrageously offensive to decent people, of whom there are many everywhere. Right? Of course, one determined to portray the human race in a negative light will never lack supporting evidence. However, for all the innumerable infamies committed by humans, we can point to equally numerous acts of kindness, mercy, and compassion. Even heroic acts of goodness are well known and frequent. Surely, the vast majority must practice common decency, or there could be no organized, sustained society at all. If we were as bad as all that, we would be living in Hobbes’ state of nature—where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Right? Aren’t the doctrines of original sin and total depravity simply thinly disguised misanthropy?

At one time I would have answered that last question with a resounding “YES!” Actually, I might still answer the question in the affirmative; what has changed is that I increasingly regard misanthropy as a rational view. A recent show on the History Channel depicted what would happen to the earth if humans were to simply disappear and leave everything else intact. Now I can’t help thinking that the scenario is not a half bad idea. However, even if we concede the liberal and humanistic objections to the doctrine of original sin—i.e., that there are many decent people, and many acts of kindness, and generosity, etc.—that still does not refute the idea of total depravity. Again, total depravity does not mean that there is no good in humanity. It does not deny our ordinary distinctions between good people and bad. It even does deny that there could be moral progress, e.g., that someday we might end slavery worldwide. Rather, it implies that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, everybody is at least a bit rotten (Come on; ‘fess up), and very many are pretty awful (e.g., office tyrants and deadbeat dads), and some (e.g., Nazis and animal torturers) are unspeakably vile.

So, the Christian depiction of the human condition seems to be spot-on. This is one thing Christianity gets exactly right. There is something deeply and seemingly irremediably wrong with us. We stain everything we touch. Even the citadel of reason is breached. As an academic, I long regarded intellect as a very high if not quite the highest good. Now I think it is grossly overrated. I have come to realize that I.Q. and rationality are hardly correlated at all. On the contrary, I have discovered the appalling extent to which very many of the smartest people employ their intellectual gifts and high-powered intellectual tools (like analytic philosophy) to create and defend pernicious ideologies and towering lunacies. Maybe worse are those who sell their intellects to the service of the highest bidders. “Reason is a whore,” said Luther, and, by God, he was at least 90% right.

So, chalk one big one up for Christianity.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis

    I'm not really sure why pessimism about human nature should be chalked up as evidence for Christianity.

    Quite a few nontheists and humanists think the human species is pretty rotten for quite naturalistic reasons (read some Kurt Vonnegut for an example).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    DBE said: Quite a few nontheists and humanists think the human species is pretty rotten for quite naturalistic reasons.

    Indeed. Christianity has hardly cornered the market in thinking that we are not exactly a species you would want living in your neighbourhood.

    Oh.. and if that's the strongest argument for Christianity…. [weeps tears of laughter]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    Cautious Pessimism

    Buddhists hold that unsatisfactoriness in life is inevitable. Indeed this is almost trivially true. But then they posit an end to suffering.

    Christians posit that humans inevitably create suffering — again, trivially true, I would agree.

    Watching animal shows where animals hunt down each other and rip each other apart or eat each other from the inside out. If we could put microphones to pickup the carnage we would be horrified.

    The violence of stars exploding has its own sort of craziness.

    So, yes, Christians have that right, but the answer they propose is wrong. And your thinking the world would be better off without humans is ironically due to your narrow anthropocentric view.

    But I agree, a cautious pessimism about humans, animals and stars is healthy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10212971606135991995 Wes

    So, in your cumulative case, you're counting this as something like, the probability of misanthropy given Christian theism is greater than the probability of misanthropy given metaphysical naturalism?

    I guess that is plausible. I take it the probability of misanthropy given Christian theism is 1, while it is, at least, possible that humans would not be misanthropic given naturalism. I wonder how you might go about figuring out the latter probability. In other words, how improbable do you find this misanthropy given naturalism.

    And I wonder if the kind of misanthropy we see is the kind we would expect given Christian theism. In Bible College and seminary, we distinguished between total depravity and original sin. Original sin had nothing to do with our continued action; it only held that from birth humans were guilty before God because the sin of Adam affected all of his progeny, not in that they would all sin, but in that that one sin was their sin from the beginning. So, it really wasn't a propensity to sin; it was simply a state of being guilty before God.

    The doctrine of total depravity, on the other hand, does comment on our continued action, but it focuses on one type of action, viz. not humbling ourselves before God. It doesn't predict that humans will behave badly in any other areas.

    So, I wonder if either of these doctrines really predicts the kind of behavior that concerns you in this post. I'm not convinced they do. I'm pretty sure the standard conception of these doctrines do not speak to continued behavior, but rather to one's standing before or actions toward God.

    If I'm right (and I know I am, at least, in the Protestant tradition in which I was trained), Christian theism would not predict the kinds of action you discuss here. Though I'm not sure how to go about it, my suspicion would be that if I ran the subjective probabilities, naturalism would fair pretty well in its prediction of this kind of behavior.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers… in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannon see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it can be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can draw only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat, (pg. 28).

    G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12533263841520213358 William

    Immanuel Kant:

    "Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02494141255401096538 uzza

    Doesn't work for me. You can take the half-empty view that things are bad or the half-full view that things are good. Either way you then need to explain the 'problem of evil' or the 'problem of happiness' respectively. Both are kind of silly.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00380048898500411561 Corey

    We are not born the evil bastards we become…the world makes us this way….

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11675274701818800632 Chris

    So the meeting in heaven went something like this:

    "Hey, let's create some beings with evil natures and then punish them forever when they do evil things. Or we could declare them guilty before we even create them, if you want."

    Can you believe Augustine and Calvin wrote entire books about this shit?

    Also, did you know that an alternate working title for Christianity was Men Behaving Badly?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis


    Either way you then need to explain the 'problem of evil' or the 'problem of happiness' respectively. Both are kind of silly.

    How is there a problem of happiness? Naturalism does not entail that there would be no happiness.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09468191085576922813 David B. Ellis


    We are not born the evil bastards we become…the world makes us this way….

    But if the world shaped our genes and our genes shape us in a way that predisposes us to being evil bastards….

    It seems pretty obvious that both nature and nurture play a significant role in the matter.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10146911808761876985 HBT22

    Thank you for a great post!

    Please check out:

    http://freedomainradio.com/search/Default.aspx

    search "history of religion"

    and

    http://psychohistory.com/originsofwar/03_psychology_neurobiology.html

    wrote a longer mail but it erased, so now I'm putting it short:

    great post! please, check these sites out! peace out

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    If "sin" is defined as disobedience to God, then sin exists only if God exists. If there is no God to disobey, then there is no such thing as sin.

    I suppose there could be a human inclination towards disobedience to God, even if there were no such thing as God. For example, if there were a natural inclination to disobey authority, then that would imply an inclination to disobey God–that is, we would have an inclination such that if there were a God who issued commands we would tend to disregard or disobey those commands.

    But an important flaw in human behavior is, rather, the inclination to obey authority, even when the commands issued by the authority are unreasonable or unjust or even cruel. Nazi Germany, Facist Italy, Fanatic Japan, Communist China, and Communist Soviet Union all illustrate this unfortunate tendency.

    The Stanley Milgram experiments reveal that ordinary average westerners are more than happy to torture innocent people with a little bit of encouragement from a minor authority figure.

    Sociocentrism, egocentrism, and a marked tendency to obey authority even when the authority issues unreasonable or unjust commands are dark aspects of human behavior, but it appears to me that these are not unavoidable or genetically determined traits, but that there is a significant cultural aspect, and that there is the potential to make significant improvements in these areas of human behavior.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10146911808761876985 HBT22

    In answer to Bradley Bowen:

    Bradley Quote:

    "tendency to obey authority even when the authority issues unreasonable or unjust commands are dark aspects of human behavior, but it appears to me that these are not unavoidable or genetically determined traits, but that there is a significant cultural aspect"

    I disagree with that on a evolutionary basis, in that evolution is the grounds of which our behavior grows, i.e. obedience to our parents and other authority figures has been necessary for survival. Not doing what your parents demand may lead to the withdrawal of affection and care, which leads to certain death.

    In that perspective obedience to authority is hard wired into our psychology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Mammals and primates have "leaders" who exercise "authority" over other animals in the herd or group, so it appears that evolution has contributed something to our predicament.

    However, we can choose our leaders, and also un-choose them, as in the recent presidential election in the USA.

    Sartre pointed out that taking a moral dilemma to a priest can be a bit of bad faith, because one might desire to hand the problem off to some authority figure to resolve, yet in selecting a priest (and presumably a priest of a particular religion or denomination) one already predetermines (or shapes) the answer to the question.

    There might well be a natural human tendency to want to obey some authority or other, but Americans, British, French, and Canadians had no particular desire to follow Hitler, and Hitler had to use propaganda, threats of violence, and other more subtle psychological tools of manipulation to elicit obedience from the Germans. So, whatever natural tendency there was to obey some leader or other was not sufficient to put Hitler into power or to keep him there.

    Even if evolution predisposes us all to obey some dominant male leader or other, we at least have the ability to choose which one to follow.

    I think that our educational system and the mass media had a lot more to do with the election of Bush than some vague evolutionary tendency to follow a dominant male authority.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I have trouble understanding Keith Parson’s complex and dark post. Even if one accepts that humanity’s state is one of depravity, I don’t see where the argument for Christianity lies. Perhaps Keith’s idea is that humanity’s depravity is such that it can be better explained by the Christian dogma of the Fall than by naturalism’s premise that humanity is the result of unguided natural evolution.

    But I don’t believe that humanity’s state is one of depravity. Rather I think its state is one where there is a big gap between how we are and how we'd like to be. We feel drawn downwards but we wish to fly high. A few of us succeed, a few of us fall really low into the mud, but most of us kind of stay in between neither falling nor flying.

    Here I’d like to turn the table and suggest an argument against Christianity understood as theism encompassing the Christian dogmas about our origin in the Fall and the judgment at the eschaton, after which most of us will find themselves eternally in hell. Such a worldview posits a creation which suffers a catastrophic failure at the very beginning, and which will not be restored for the great majority of created persons who will eternally suffer. Now is it possible for a perfect creator to fail in this way? It’s like an engineer who designs and builds ten bridges all of which tumble down, then tries to repair them but succeeds in putting up again only one. No one would call such an engineer a perfect engineer. Similarly, a perfect creator wouldn’t fail so miserably. So either is God not perfect (which falsifies Christianity), or Christianity’s abovementioned dogmas are false.

    But Christianity does not really entail belief in the Fall or in the eternal damnation of many created persons. The latter is only entailed in the so-called Augustinian theodicy, which has unfortunately become the official dogma of most Christian churches. But there is also the older so-called Irenaean theodicy, recently and to good effect expounded by John Hick, according to which there was no Fall in creation. Rather God created us quite imperfect but gave us the opportunity to grow in perfection without limit, thus earning personal value and merit we couldn’t otherwise possess. Further, as becomes a perfectly good and loving parent, God will not ever abandon us but will work and wait until the last one of us grows into perfection. In the end all humanity will join God in what in the East is called “theosis”, at which time humanity will end its separate existence from God. In my judgment such a theodicy explains not only our current moral state (concisely described by “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”), but also the overall structure of our experience of life: our limited but fundamental freedom, the epistemic distance of God, our mechanistic environment, the existence of both moral and natural evil, the existence of death, etc. For example, here is the explanation for the existence of natural evil: In a world without natural evil we would only suffer as the result of our contact with other people, and would therefore tend to drift apart. But it is especially in our interaction with other people that we morally perfect ourselves, and therefore a world without natural evil would not be optimal in relation to God’s purpose.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10146911808761876985 HBT22

    we don't choose parents, we don't have the right to choose to select leaders, if so every person could choose their own leader and almost everybody would choose having no leader. taking a moral dilemma to a priest is to me like asking a murderer advice about hitting people, ie a person who lives a life based on lies does not have the right to preach to other people and advice other people without having a tatoo on their forehead that says "hypocrite". but that's neither here or there…

    through evolution the way to stay alive is to keep with the herd and the way you do that is obeying the leader of the herd. like a blueprint over our psychological life, the frame is obedience. because that means survival. I'm not saying you should obey, but that human beings have an innate tendency to do that.

    also, Hitler did not (off course) raise all the children in nazi-Germany. parents did that. parents and public schools taught the children that jews where evil and they had no reason or ability to think otherwise. and most americans, english, french and candadians did not follow Hitler, they followed their leaders. into war. just the same way germans followed Hitler into war!!!

    I'm not saying that the moment a person (Hitler) says "follow me" everybody goes "okey" because they can't help themselves. and if you don't see how people grow up to do exactly what their culture, parents, religion and leaders say then you have to have both eyes squeezed shut. and I'm not saying you're doing that, I'm just making a point!

    off course the education can make people do whatever attrocity in the world. but you bend down to your teachers and parents and priests and do whatever they say, because if you don't you do not get love and you do not survive.

    again, please check out : http://psychohistory.com/originsofwar/03_psychology_neurobiology.html

    yes, it is a long text but just read abit and see if you find it interesting!

    thank you so much for your time!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said:

    "So, the Christian depiction of the human condition seems to be spot-on. This is one thing Christianity gets exactly right. There is something deeply and seemingly irremediably wrong with us."
    =============

    I'm not sure that the Christian view is clear enough to evaluate.

    If "sin" is defined as disobedience to God, then the Christian view is false: since there is no God there is no sin.

    If "sin" is defined in terms of performing actions that are morally wrong, then the next question is: What counts as a morally wrong act?

    After that question is answered, then there is a second related question to consider: What precisely is the Christian claim about the tendency of humans to do things that are morally wrong?

    If the claim is merely that nobody is morally perfect, that seems to be a fairly trivial and uncontroversial claim. So, the claim needs to be stronger than that to be significant, but I'm not clear on what the stronger claim would be, so it is hard (for me) to evaluate the claim.

    I lean towards the Socratic view that human evils are largely the product of ignorance. Self-deception, egocentrism, sociocentrism, and uncritical thinking are the leading contributors to human-caused evils.

    If this Socratic view of human evil is correct, or if it explains a large portion of human evil, then this appears to be in conflict with Christian thinking about human evil.

    Submission and obedience to God and faith in God do not require rationality or critical thinking. This seems more in keeping with the saying: "Yours is not to reason why…"

    Strong-sense critical thinking involves a deliberate, disciplined, and sustained effort to conform thinking to the universal standards of critical thinking: clear, relevant, accurate, precise, significant, fair, logical, broad (encompassing a wide range of viewpoints), and deep (avoiding oversimplification, hasty generalization, and black-or-white thinking).

    If our education systems and our mass media focused on deliberate, disciplined, and sustained effort to conform thinking to the universal standards of critical thinking, then I believe this would put a very large dent in the widespread human tendency towards egocentrism, sociocentrism, self-deception, prejudice and other forms of human irrationality.

    On a Socratic view of human evil, a significant reduction in human irrationality would result in a significant reduction of human evil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12642092698398859527 Joshua Blanchard

    I think the reality of human depravity can count as evidence in at least two ways, and possibly a third:

    (1) Wes mentions the first way, which is to say that "the probability of misanthropy given Christian theism is greater than the probability of misanthropy given metaphysical naturalism."

    (2) The second way is in the spirit of C.S. Lewis' statement, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I say everything else." In the same way, the doctrine of human depravity helps illuminate a human reality; furthermore it just has good fit with the world as we experience it. It is important for some contributors in this threat to note that a doctrine like this can contribute to the rationality of the religious believer even if, say, Buddhists have alternative explanations. So much the better for them, but not so much the worse for the Christian.

    (3) A possible third way this could count as evidence is very weak, but to me underdeveloped in philosophy of religion. If we grant seemingly "irredeemable" depravity, those of a more religious persuasion will likely have an intuition regarding the need to fix this condition, combined with the intuition that we are not fit to do so, in ourselves or our fellows.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13061461731320511824 Mark

    pah..think is just "overthinking". equating one psychological aberration (animal cruelty) with the acts of the nazis is not logical. The acts don't stem from the same source. The mindset of the nazi soldier is not the same as the cretin who gaffer taped a cat because it was too noisy.

    In fact, we're repulsed by individual acts of meditated cruelty far more than we probably should be (I have 5 cats myself, so this is, so take this as it is intended). I saw a heart rending documentary where a tigress "adopted" an wildebeest calf, as a replacement for it's own cub which has been killed by a male tiger. The poor calf slowly starved to death, at which point the tigress took another to replace it.

    Why is our reaction to that scenario different to a person who deliberately starves an animal to death?

    Because we have the capacity to know better, not because the person who does such a thing is tainted with "original sin"

    Religion addles our brains.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01440673954889597501 Grandpa Rippel

    Admittedly, Christianity's concept of sin does seem to provide an easily comprehended explanation of evil. However, there are better analysis of the causes of evil. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments provide alternative perspectives. Zimbardo introduced the topic at TED http://danielmclaren.net/2009/08/27/are-situations-the-root-of-all-evil

    "The Dishonesty of Honest People" experiments also provides some interesting observations of everyday evil. See http://tinyurl.com/yayyhrr

  • shsnj

    If people aren’t *taught* to be considerate, selfless, kind, sacrificial, self-reliant … then they will naturally be inconsiderate, selfish, unkind, indulgent, dependent. If we don’t engage the cerebral cortex in our behavior, defaulting instead to the reptilian, survival mode part of the brain (“Can I eat it?/Can it eat me?/Can I mate with it?”), then our behavior will trend toward the reptile side.

    The flawed nature of humanity is certainly true, but based in our brain physiology — not in the fall of a remote ancestor. Still, Christianity deserves credit for calling upon people to consciously exercise their higher principle instead of their lower. I don’t see secularism or atheism doing much in that regard and so, as religious influence wanes in Western culture, we see more widespread lowlife behavior, dependency, me-first-ism.

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