Recently, I’ve been showing you various reasons Christians give for believing in their god. We looked first at Billy Graham’s #1 reason to believe: the biography of Jesus Christ as given in the Gospels. Then, we looked at some apologetics arguments from various Christian leaders. Today, I’m going to show you the third major reason Christians think they have to believe in their god: how their devotions make them feel. Unfortunately, those feelings don’t work either. I’ll show you why.
The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle.
A couple of years ago, I showed y’all an anti-apologetics book written by a Christian. In it, author Myron Penner made a distinction between a genius and an apostle. He felt that apologetics, as an industry, creates geniuses. These geniuses then try to argue people into Christianity. They deploy fancy arguments and rhetorical techniques to win arguments. Then, they get mad when they declare victory but don’t gain a new convert.
Obviously, as an approach this one suffers quite a few flaws–or at least, it does if one actually believes that Christians take seriously their stated goal of converting people.
What Penner suggested instead was for Christians to go about soulwinning in another way. He suggested that they make themselves into apostles. In that guise, they share their experiences with Christianity rather than try to argue people into belief.
Penner’s suggestion deeply displeased his tribe. They reacted in exactly the way we’d expect: they turned on him.
This I Know.
Myron Penner didn’t say anything shockingly new about his preferred style of evangelism. At some point, most evangelism-minded Christians have spoken about how their religion makes them feel. They’ve even used those feelings as part of their evangelism pitch:
Don’t you want to gain what I claim to have? You totally can, if you join my group and do what I do.
It’s a powerful pitch, especially when paired with a show of extreme joy and happiness. These days, a Christian exuding happiness can really stand out. If someone doesn’t realize that that show of happiness is part of the sales pitch itself, it can sound effective.
Christians have evolved an astonishing number of different ways to sell their religion. One of those ways, lifestyle evangelism, centers around “living out” one’s faith. The Christians doing this hope to arouse curiosity in others about what makes them seem so, I don’t know, just different, y’all, from the crowd. Offering their feelings as evidence for their religion fits into this style of evangelism.
We see this attitude on full display in the writing of (Not-Rowdy) John Piper, who gushes at length on the topic of the “jarring” love he professes to feel from his god:
This is a world of love that is different than anything we know among men. To fathom this love, to feel this love, is not natural. To know this love, to feel this love for what it is, requires the experience of this love, which is the acting of this love itself. Do you want to be loved like this?
It’s so funny when Christians offer something they categorically do not have to give.
Their Feelings Are First.
Mormons famously use their feelings as a witness to their religion’s veracity. On that link, we find Mormon teens saying stuff like:
I know God hears us because prayer produces a feeling of peace, relief, and love in my heart. . . I know He is listening because I feel the Spirit and His infinite love for me. . . After your prayer, you can listen to the feelings and intents that come to your heart.
But they’re hardly the only ones that go this route.
Some Christian leaders pooh-pooh at the idea of using feelings as an indication of their god’s existence and love. However, a great many others do exactly that. Our favorite moral failure William Lane Craig dissed feelings back in 1998 as a way to know if his god is real or not–and then immediately followed that disdainful sniff with the revelation that he himself began to believe because of “[his] own immediate experience of God,” which sounds a heck of a lot like feelings to me.
For their part, Cru proudly offers up on its site a great many Christians (like this gal) who warble at length about how their feelings affected their decisions to convert to Cru’s brand of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. And here’s our pal Natasha Crain erroneously comparing the existence of her god to that of emotions. Even progressive Christian John Shore relates a conversion story that includes an emotional punch.
How the Argument from Feelings Works.
Here’s the logic involved.
- I feel something grand and sublime.
- There’s no way this feeling could be produced through natural causes.
- It must be supernatural in nature. No other explanation suffices.
- Specifically, it is evidence supporting the existence of the particular god described by the Christian Bible.
- STOP BRINGING UP PAGANISM, DAMMIT
- Therefore, the particular god described by the Christian Bible totally exists.
- Checkmate, atheists!
- Gosh, how sad you seem right now! You don’t ever feel what I feel!
- You want a piece of this joy unspeakable and full of glory? The first hit’s free!
I can see why so many Christian leaders dislike this line of thinking. Feelings–the feelings that spring forth from being loved by a divine parent–represent a profound form of evidence for many Christians.
That said, anybody who’s ever been Christian for long already knows exactly why feelings constitute a uniquely fallible and unstable base for faith in anything.
Why the Argument Fails Miserably.
First, obviously intense feelings are not an indication of the truth of anything. We feel intense emotions around all kinds of stuff that isn’t true and isn’t good for us. Most of us can point back to times when we felt very certain of stuff that turned out to be untrue, or plunged headlong into love affairs with people who weren’t right for us.
Second, our feelings fluctuate. That’s probably what eeks out all those Christian leaders. Even the most fervent, ultra-connected-seeming Christians eventually hit periods where it feels like their prayers are “bouncing off the ceiling” instead of reaching their intended destination, as my old crowd used to say.
Third, lots of situations produce the same sublime-feeling, grand-feeling emotional highs. I mentioned paganism above, but some folks get that exact same rush after climbing a mountain and sitting atop its peak to gaze out at the landscape below. Some people feel that rush after having really good sex. Christians don’t usually have the opportunity to pursue those sorts of opportunities, and if they do it’s probably going to be within the confines of their religious bubble (f.e.: ziplining at Ken Ham’s Pseudoscience Monument, or going abroad on a short-term missions trip). Thus, they associate the feeling with their faith.Second-to-last, it’s a purely subjective feeling. Sure, it’s very meaningful to the person enjoying it right then. I’ll never dismiss the importance of that feeling to that person or tell them they’re not really feeling that way. That’s rude and presumptuous, which are traits I leave to Christian salesbots. But if I can’t experience the same feeling, hearing about it second-hand won’t persuade me of any claims they’re hanging on that feeling. Even if I can, chances are good that I won’t attach it to the existence of any gods because I know how ephemeral and untrustworthy my feelings can be.
And the #1 Problem Here.
I’ve saved the worst for last–and its very own subsection–because to me this is what matters the most when we talk about Christians basing their faith on how they think their god makes them feel. Here it is:
For a god who passionately loves his followers (and all humankind, by some Christians’ reckoning), and who craves two-way communication and a relationship with each and every person on Earth, this god seems singularly incompetent at showing either of those things. In fact, enough Christians ask why they don’t feel their god’s love that the ones claiming to feel that love open cans of worms they can’t ever hope to re-contain again.
I speak now not only to the devastated Younger Cas in mid-deconversion, but also to many others who knelt in the same spot I once did. We’d have killed or died to have been touched by our god, as the Christianese goes. We begged for some tangible reason to keep believing, for some sign that we weren’t simply talking to the ceiling. And we got bupkis.
The same wearisome immorality I see in Christians’ miracle claims applies here, as well. How nice that this god wraps some of his fervent, faithful followers in his love and showers them with divine two-way communication. He’s certainly not doing that for everyone, however, even though according to Christians’ ideology he absolutely could and should be.
Talk about the most one-sided “relationship” in the history of forever! If I had a boyfriend who communicated that little with me, I’d assume he’d broken up with me without telling me!
Oh, sure, I realize that Christians will simply insist that this silence is “a test.” If a Christian gets upset about not feeling their god’s love, that Christian flunks the test. Others insist that those Christians are doing something wrong.
(Ta da! That’s your lesson in Christian Victim-Blaming for the day here at Fundagelical U.)
I’m leaving out the weirdos who think their god ghosts people who have really tough times ahead for themselves because he’s just super-bad at giving bad news to his followers. That is more screwed-up than I can even deal with right now. We’ll stick with the usual explanations: he’s silent because he’s testing his followers or they’re Jesus-ing all wrong. But those are the silliest explanations they could possibly come up with and both actually backfire hard on them.
Why does an omnipresent god need his people to be able to function without any signs from him–sometimes for years on end? And what on earth does an omnipotent god need with
a starship juvenile, drama-stirring “tests” like that? Dude created a universe, but he can’t lift himself off the potty long enough to make a sick grandma somewhere feel loved as she deals with disease and infirmity at the end of her long and faithful service to a god who ignored her for most of it?
These obviously ad hoc explanations (and the screwed-up one too, for that matter) sound a lot like Christians flailing to explain why reality isn’t lining up with their beliefs on yet another front. Here, like in many other places, it really should be lining up. There’d be no reason at all for it not to line up, if their claims were true.
If it did, of course, that’d be a potent point in Christians’ favor. But it isn’t, so instead they resort to demonizing those who expect the exact feeling they were promised–or trying to minimize the promise itself so Christians maybe don’t expect it so much.
The Razor Cuts.
Applying Occam’s Razor to cut away explanations resorting to fluff that isn’t supported in the least, we arrive at the simplest reason why some Christians feel intensely loved while others cry out and beg for years without a single “touch” from their god: the feeling isn’t divine at all.
Invoking emotions in people can be painfully easy. Some people’s personalities make this task even easier. Given how often people feel intense emotions outside of Christianity, and how often people do not feel those emotions while believing in Christianity, it seems clear that the emotions themselves cannot and do not constitute evidence in their own right for the existence of anything supernatural or divine.
No wonder Christian evangelists go for fear so much more often than love in selling their religion. Fear’s a lot easier to invoke, is far more consistent an emotion, creates more predictable results in behavior, and will keep someone in the pews long after they’ve stopped feeling their god’s supposed love. As Machiavelli himself knew, if you can’t manage to invoke both fear and love, always go for fear.
NEXT UP: I’ve shown you three common lines of “evidence” that Christians give for believing as they do. Now let me show you what would compel my own belief. Join me next time for Captain Cassidy’s Big Introspection!
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Endnote: Myron Penner himself wrote to me not too long ago to express his thanks for how I explained his ideas. Apparently, I was more accurate–and more generous–in describing them than most Christians were. He was very sweet to me, and I hope he manages to reach a few of his more toxic bunkmates. He’s one of those folks I think are way too good for Christianity.