What is Christianity? – Part 1

Since I am planning to invest the next ten years (or more) of my life in an effort to investigate and answer the question “Is Christianity true or false?”,  I need to start out by clarifying and defining the word “Christianity”.

There are those who would argue that Christianity is not the sort of thing that could be true, and is not the sort of thing that could be false.  If Christianity is not the sort of thing that could be true, and is not the sort of thing that could be false, then I would be investing ten years (or more) of my life on a wild-goose chase, so it is important to do a bit of thinking now about the meaning of my basic question, and whether this question even makes any sense.

[Note: “As wild-goose chase literally means ‘a chase for wild geese’, it is usually hyphenated as shown for clarity. The form without the hyphen is also commonly seen, and can be construed as a ‘wild chase’, not an inevitably fruitless one, after a possibly domesticated and flightless goose, rather than after a wild goose.”Wiktionary article on wild-goose chase.]

What sort of a thing is “Christianity”?  The genus seems fairly obvious: Christianity is a religion.  There are many different religions, and Christianity is one of them.  What is a religion?  Is a religion the sort of thing that can be true or false?  People sometimes talk about the question “Which religion, if any, is the true religion?”.  Does this question make any sense?

I am a cognitivist when it comes to the concept of a “religion”.  To me, a religion is fundamentally a point of view, a philosophy of life, a worldview.  I focus in on the intellectual or cognitive aspect of religion.  This way of looking at religion is somewhat controversial.  Not everyone thinks about religion in terms of claims, ideas, and beliefs.  Some people are opposed to a cognitivist view of religion, so I need to consider some of the main objections to my cognitivist view of religion, and consider alternative views of the nature of religion, to see whether there is a different view about the nature of religion that is as plausible or perhaps more plausible and more reasonable than my cognitivist view.

If religion is fundamentally about ideas, claims, and beliefs, and if Christianity is a religion, then it would make sense to ask the question “Is Christianity true or false?”  Ideas, claims, and beliefs are the sorts of things that can be evaluated as true or false, so if religions are fundamentally sets of ideas, claims, or beliefs, then we can evaluate the ideas, claims, or beliefs that constitute a particular religion, and make an overall evaluation of the truth of the whole religion that way.

Suppose that my cognitivist view of religion is correct, and that a religion is fundamentally a collection or system of beliefs.  There are at least two dimensions of evaluation that can be applied to a set or system of beliefs: (1) each individual belief can be evaluated as true or false, and (2) the logical relationships between the beliefs can be evaluated to determine whether some beliefs contradict or disconfirm other beliefs in that system (and whether some beliefs imply or support other beliefs in that system).  Note that if we discover that one belief in a system of beliefs contradicts another belief in that system, this should cause us to reconsider previous judgments that both of these individual beliefs were true.

Ideally, we would find a system of beliefs such that (1) every belief in that system is true (as far as we can tell, based on a careful evaluation of each individual belief), and (2) none of the beliefs contradict or disconfirm any of the other beliefs.  However, reality is rarely so kind to us.  It seems reasonable to suppose that in virtually every human system of beliefs there are some beliefs that are false (as far as we can tell, based on a careful evaluation of each individual belief), and that in virtually every human system of beliefs there are some beliefs that contradict or disconfirm other beliefs in that system.  I don’t expect to ever come across a human system of beliefs that is completely flawless.

If there is no such thing as a flawless human system of beliefs, does that mean that ALL human systems of belief are FALSE?  Should we conclude that all religions are false? and that all secular worldviews and philosophies are false?  I don’t think so.   Everything we touch, see, hear, smell and taste is imperfect and flawed in some way and to some degree.  Nevertheless, there is a difference between eating a delicious steak hot off the grill and eating a dry moldy crust of bread.  The steak might not be absolutely perfect, but it is clearly better than the dry moldy crust of bread.  I see no reason to have a different view about imperfection in the intellectual realm.  Given a choice between two systems of beliefs, even if neither one is perfect or flawless, one might well be much better than the other, much closer to the truth.

This is partly a matter of quantity.  If 95% of the beliefs in system X are true, and only 75% of beliefs in system Y are true (as far as we can tell), then system X is to be preferred over system Y, other things being equal.  But quality is also important.  A set or system of trivial beliefs that was 100% true might well be less desirable than a system of significant beliefs where only 80% of the beliefs are true.  Thus, truth is not the only relevant consideration in evaluating a system of beliefs.

In any case, declaring ANY particular system of human beliefs to be TRUE will require some degree of qualification and some degree of sophistication in spelling out what that means, since it presumably does NOT mean that every single belief in that system of beliefs is true and that no belief in that system contradicts or disconfirms any other belief.  We need to allow some room for imperfection in systems of belief, while still drawing a line between systems that are epistemically GOOD and systems that are epistemically BAD, with probably a significant portion of systems of belief residing in a gray area between epistemically GOOD and epistemically BAD.

While composing this post, a few objections against my cognitivist view of religion have come to mind: (1) What about the important role of rituals and symbols in religions?  Doesn’t that imply that a religion is more than just a system of beliefs?  (2) What about the importance of ethics and morality in religions?  R.B. Braithwaite, for example,  argued that the primary function of religious assertions was not to make factual statements, but to express a personal commitment to a certain ethic or way of life.  Doesn’t that imply that religion is not the sort of thing that can be evaluated as true or false?  (3) What about Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of religious language?  If Wittgenstein or philosophers of religion who follow in his footsteps (e.g. D.Z. Phillips) are correct, then religious assertions that appear to be making factual claims actually have a different purpose and meaning, and thus are not the sort of assertions that can be evaluated as true or false. (4) “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.”  – I cannot neglect responding to this popular little bit of stupidity.

I will start dealing with objections to my cognitivist view of religion in the next post in this series.

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