Who Sets the Boundaries of Orthodoxy?

Who Sets the Boundaries of Orthodoxy? October 10, 2018

How do the advocates of organized religion decide who’s in and who’s out? What’s the best way to defend the boundaries of orthodoxy against doubters from within and skeptics from without?

It’s a problem that’s vexed religious authorities, inquisitors and heresy hunters for centuries. Today I want to look at a new argument from Jackson Wu on the Patheos evangelical channel, “A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements” (HT: Secular Voices).

Although he seemingly wants to come off as sincere and approachable, Wu opens with a harsh jab at atheism, asserting that people become atheists for emotional rather than rational reasons:

Few people are atheists for intellectual reasons. They might find reasons to justify their (non-)belief, but people rarely become atheists because they have methodically considered all the options and evidence before concluding, “God does not exist.”

If that’s the turf he wants to fight on, we can just as well turn it back on him: How many people are theists for intellectual reasons? Whatever apologetics they cite to justify their belief, how many of them have engaged in a methodical survey of the evidence for all the world’s religions before concluding that God exists and that one particular church has all the right beliefs about what he wants?

If there are any people like that, their numbers must be microscopic. The vast majority join the religion they were taught about as children, or the one that happens to be dominant in the culture they live in, without any critical thinking or skepticism.

Among the various reasons why do people become atheists, here is one of the biggest: Christians do not allow disagreement and dialogue. The latest case-in-point is Michael Gungor, lead singer of former Christian music group “Gungor.”

Wu quotes an article from Relevant magazine about the Christian musicians Michael and Lisa Gungor. When Michael started voicing doubts about whether the Book of Genesis was intended to describe a literal six-day creation, he met with a ferocious crackdown from other members of his church, to the point where both of them were kicked out. Michael now describes himself as an atheist, whereas Lisa doesn’t go that far but no longer believes in Christianity as she used to.

Wu says:

The monologue-style of interaction, which earns Christians the label “preachy”, has multiple sources. One reason seems to be fear of disagreement. Differences in opinion threaten people. The way some people deal with disagreement is creating distance, whether verbally or physically.

We should keep in mind another unhelpful factor that influences the way Christians look at doubters, “outsiders,” especially atheists. Rather than people struggling to answer questions, they can be perceived as weak or dangerous.

He says that doctrines such as young-earth creationism are debated even among theologians, so it hardly seems fair for churches to exclude laypeople for not holding to a single approved interpretation. The self-appointed enforcers of orthodoxy are trying to prevent atheism from spreading, but when they attack so ferociously over the slightest whiff of doubt, they end up driving people away and turning them into atheists.

He closes with a plea for Christians to be tolerant of each other’s doctrinal difference:

If Christians do not learn the empathy and humility to embrace doubt and dialogue about disagreement, we can accept more people to follow in Gungor into atheism.

I’m always curious to hear what Christians say to each other about why people become atheists, and this one is more honest than most. Rather than straw-clutching answers like “they’re sinners who want to have sex and do drugs,” he acknowledges that Christians’ behavior toward each other is part of the problem.

But there’s a followup question he doesn’t answer: if this isn’t the place where the line should be, what is? The age of the earth or belief in a global flood may not be essential to Christianity, but something must be. Which beliefs are up for debate and which ones aren’t?

This is the problem that all religious believers face. You can draw a circle around some set of beliefs and proclaim that these are the essential ones and everything else is optional. But in the absence of hard evidence, anywhere you draw that line will be arbitrary.

Traditionally, Christians are defined by belief in Jesus’ divinity (Wu’s article hints at “the primacy of Christ or the gospel” as the essential elements). But even that isn’t a bright line. It’s a spectrum that shades off at the edges.

There have been sects who believed that Jesus was an ordinary mortal man who was “adopted” by God and became his son. There have been sects who believed Jesus was pure divinity in the semblance of a human being, never flesh and blood at all. There have been sects who believed that the deity of the Old Testament was a wicked demiurge and Jesus was an emissary of the true, higher, previously unknown god. There are Mormons who believe that God is a glorified human being and Jesus was one of many spirit children he conceived with a heavenly harem.

Are any of these views “Christianity”? There’s no right or wrong answer to that question. It’s a matter of tradition and convention, nothing more. Much the same way, Wu cites Christian theologians who take various positions on the historicity of the six-day creation and the Genesis flood, but what is it that makes all these people Christian? Nothing, except that they call themselves Christian.

If religious beliefs were supported by evidence, this wouldn’t be a problem. You could devise tests to figure out which beliefs were true and which ones were false, and the ones that were falsified would be winnowed out. Only the surviving ones, which had been tested and had proven their worth, would go on to become part of the canon. (Of course, this is exactly how scientific progress happens.)

On the other hand, if you’re not confident that any of your beliefs are supported by evidence, then people who ask too many questions pose a danger to you. If there’s nothing to differentiate the true from the false, other than subjective faith – if all the different variants of Christianity are castles floating in the air with no foundation – then once you question one belief, there’s nothing to stop you from questioning all of them, and you’ll be on a greased slide into atheism. That’s the logic that fundamentalists are using, implicitly or explicitly, whenever they try to berate wavering members out of their doubts. It’s an admission that their own beliefs lack any basis that could be used to sift the true from the false.

And they’re not wrong. It does happen that way sometimes. That’s the point of an excellent comment by Lark62 on Wu’s article:

Background – since before I was a teen, I simply assumed christianity was true and God existed. I liked being a christian.

First step, something happens that makes a person sit up and pay attention. In my case, it was the Boston abuse scandal. Not the perps – they can be found anywhere – but hundreds or thousands of priests surrounded by bibles and prayer and all things Jesus acted exactly like members of any other human group and protected their friends no matter how many children were raped. There were no new creations. There was no power in the blood.

Note – this is not what made me discard my faith, it is what first made me examine my faith. It made me sit up and look at the promises of christianity.

Second step, people examine the claims of christianity. Now I read the bible without skimming over the unpleasant bits. I had memorized hundreds of bible verses. Carefully chosen sound bites it turns out. Now I read and paid attention to the rest. That is one absurd, illogical and messed up book. At some point it clicked that all of christianity rests on blood sacrifice. “Deity angry, something gotta die.” It was all over. I wasn’t angry or hurt. I just felt a little silly for believing nonsense for so long.

In this commenter’s case, as in many others, they started out with an experience that gave them a flicker of doubt, something that made them question what they were taught. That initial skepticism isn’t the whole reason they walk away from faith, but it’s the key that opens the locked door to further investigation. Once the seed is planted, they give themselves permission to ask questions they’d once have dismissed as heretical or unimportant, and discover that religion has no good answers.

The fundamentalist solution is to decree that everything is mandatory and nothing may be questioned, in an attempt to stop people from taking that first step. But this leads to a brittle faith, one that tends to shatter as soon as a person can no longer suppress questions or doubts.

However, for the record, this isn’t only a problem for fundamentalists. Religious liberals face a mirror image of it. If a person identifies as Christian but enthusiastically supports the Bible’s directives about slavery or women’s subjugation or killing gay people, should they be treated as a fellow believer? Should they be welcomed in a liberal congregation, should we form bonds of fellowship with them? As evangelical Christians flock to the banner of white supremacy, this is a dilemma more and more moderates will have to confront.

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