Urban Legend Theology: An Open Letter

Urban Legend Theology: An Open Letter August 20, 2015

This is an open letter to my religious friends, with something of a Christian bent but certainly applicable beyond Christianity. Nonbelievers are welcomed to read – you might find something useful here as well.

photo Venture Vancouver (CC BY-ND 2.0)
photo Venture Vancouver (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Dear Religious Friends,

I’m sorry to say it, but it feels a little bit like you’ve been unfaithful. Not all of you, mind you, but too many of you.

To explain what I mean, I need to talk for a quick minute about urban legends.

I’ve mentioned and written before about how an urban legend was a pivotal moment in my journey out of religion, but the truth is that urban legends abound in religion. I’m not even talking about canonical religious narratives – I’m sure that you probably disagree with me on the mythic or legendary nature of at least some of your own religion’s stories – but about the stories that get told within religious communities.

I’m a preacher’s kid, so I’ve sat through a sermon or two in my life. I’ll admit that these are skewed somewhat evangelical and Baptist, but I’ve had a lot of opportunities to hear a lot of different preachers with different didactic and homiletic styles. As such, I’ve heard a lot of stories.

Sermon illustrations (and here I also speak somewhat from experience having filled the pulpit a time or two) are one of those necessary evils of sermons because, let’s face it, homilies and sermons are often one of the dullest ways to convey information or instruction. So you need something to liven it up and make the application of your instruction more palatable, and humans being what they are, stories are often one of the best ways to do that. Narratives are also incredibly common in religions for this purpose, so many (if not most) religions have a precedent for telling stories of their own.

Unfortunately, not everyone who gets the responsibility of sermonizing is also capable of a good story, nor is there always a suitable narrative readily available. So what do you do in that situation? Often, you make it up.

I don’t find this particularly problematic as a technique, provided there’s some agreement – even implicit – about the veracity of these stories. In my experience, there’s not. Or, perhaps more accurately, the understanding of the audience, regardless of the speaker’s awareness, is that these stories are true.

Since, as I hope you can admit, religious circles tend to be rather trusting (all too often to a fault) of the people they allow to preach at them, this feeds the impulse to then go and share these stories as well. Soon they become Facebook posts and E-mail forwards, et voilà! Urban legends are born.

And they get told, especially among those who place a strong value on evangelism. When I first encountered Mormon missionaries a few years ago, one of them told a story – which was presented as a secondhand, “friend of a friend” account – about another missionary who’d discovered a number of parallels between Mormon teachings about Jesus Christ in the New World and Quetzalcoatl. Guess what that turned out to be? Folklore. (Warning: PDF.)

Stories aren’t the only ways that this happens, either. I once sat through a sermon by a very well-spoken, likable, intelligent speaker about how America was a Christian nation, and I spent the service writing down facts and quotes to verify later (if I didn’t already recognize them as fraudulent), most of which didn’t check out at all.

I understand that misinformation is exceptionally common, including among atheists, nonbelievers, and even those who give lip service to skepticism. (The truth: Skepticism is hard.) But in many religious circles, this friend-of-a-friend, uncritical attitude rises to a new level. You might even call it urban legend theology: the practice of supplementing even the basic, often-unverifiable details of one’s theology with further modern mythic elements in order to bolster the faith and confidence of adherents in the active workings of their deity (or any associated supernatural forces).

Perhaps a religious narrative will help bring out the issue. In the parable of the talents in the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, Jesus tells a story of a master (in the Lukan analog, a ruler) who entrusts servants of various virtue with different amounts of money. Christians often focus on the servant who only receives a single talent and fails to get any return on investment for the master, but I’ve always been struck by what is said to each of the competent servants:

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

It is my contention, Religious Friends, that you are not being “faithful over a little” when you fall into this habit of uncritical, undiscerning acceptance. After all, no matter what your tradition, don’t you believe that you’re on the side of Truth – capital-T, ultimate, objective, timeless truth? Don’t you trust in the message of your faith? Then why would you need to lie to bolster it – or, perhaps worse, to be completely indifferent to the verifiable truth of even the little details?

I would ultimately like to see you take this same critical stance about every aspect of your religion, from the most supernatural to the most historical claims, but I’m not immune to pragmatism. Start here. Exercise even a little bit of skepticism about the ancillary stories you hear from an authority figure – especially if you have reason to think something particularly inflammatory or controversial (doubly so if it’s political in nature or implicates a suspect group like nonbelievers or a competing religion). Stop accepting on faith those stories you hear even from individuals you generally trust. Ask, “Are you sure about that? Where did you hear that from?”

You will be doing everyone – both inside your faith and outside it – a great service when you do this, in addition to showing that you have enough trust in your beliefs to allow them to be viewed with a critical lens.

Kindest regards,
Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist

P.S. If this seemed harsh at all, here's a picture of a cat to soften the blow. [photo anaa yoo (CC BY-ND 2.0)]
P.S. If this seemed harsh at all, here’s a picture of a cat to soften the blow.
[photo anaa yoo (CC BY-ND 2.0)]

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