Stupid Christians

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This article is based on an article by Amina Olander Lap. It explains the common errors of what might be referred to as "American atheism" and proposes a foundation for sound criticism. The text addresses the common atheist attitude towards the Christian beliefs, but the discussion applies to any religion or belief system.

Buzzword Criticism

The atheism that is found in the US is the kind of atheism that can be expected in a country where religion is widespread and deeply ingrained in the population's minds. It's the kind of atheism that considers the religious people stupid, and nonetheless takes the debates onto the religious turf where the believers have the edge. "Celebrity atheist" Richard Dawkins represents this kind of atheism.

crucifix2.jpgThe critical view on Christianity is one thing that virtually all atheists can agree on, but the criticism is not always well targeted.

Part of the reason that the criticism often misses the point is that many atheists copy the slogans of famous atheists and the rhetoric of old philosophers, and this can easily place the criticism out of context. People often misunderstand the original meaning behind the powerful statements.

Another problem with anti-Christian slogans is a confusion between personal opinions and what can be accepted as valid arguments based on factual evidence, valid methods, and logic.

It requires no background study or field knowledge to consider Christians stupid, but if you want to propose a generally valid criticism of specific Christian teachings or historical actions, then you must keep your facts straight and your arguments tight. Otherwise you'll soon find yourself being wrong on several accounts, rendering you the ignorant person, which probably isn't what you had in mind.

Modern Christianity without God and Bible

It is Christianity itself that gave birth to the critical view of religion, and it is Christianity that mostly eliminated the concept of a highly present and tangible God by means of philosophy and theology. God was once seen as the architect of plagues and master of miracles but is now mostly viewed as a somewhat nebulous entity with an influence that escapes definition. The Christian God has become a remote God that can no longer be seen and heard.

But in so doing, Christianity has also created a refuge for superstition which Christianity today shares with all kinds of religions and spirituality. The distinction between knowledge and faith has not only banned religion from science, it has also sealed the borders of religion from science, and its mythical inhabitants can neither be proven or destroyed by scientific evidence or philosophical arguments. The Christian God may have been weakened, but has found a safe haven in a metaphysical realm beyond the reach of science, logic, arguments, and philosophy.

Once a reference for the framework of society, religion has become one of many contributors to each individual's view of life and ethics, and its relevance is a question of personal choice. The contributions from religion are usually found as segments that require little or no involvement from the individual. The idea of "all or nothing" doesn't suit modern man; if something "feels right," then it is used. Bible study and church attendance is replaced with the daily horoscope, numerology, and magical beliefs in the power of healing and homeopathy, but no one feels any less Christian about that. This is the kind of Christianity that is found in my country.

Atheists are used to the common Christian mistake of portraying atheists as immoral, destructive, and subversive, and have often heard Christians contend that atheism would lead to the horrors of communism or Nazism, referring to their atheistic stances. (It is known that Hitler originally considered himself a Christian and later became critical of Christianity as he began to believe in a "higher being," but this certainly does not make him an atheist!) Yet it is the very same mistake atheists make when they renounce Christianity, believing or claiming that all of Christianity is like that of fundamentalist minorities, or that it is, or should be, like the Christianity of ages long past. Such an approach is ideological or religious, and makes sense only to the "initiates" of the sub-culture that defines this proprietary view.

Silly Superstition

Many claims of divine cause have been either refuted or become irrelevant by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology. In addition, since Christians are fully aware why other gods do not exist, one would think them capable of applying the same rules to their own belief.

Hence, a Christian must be stupid to believe in the superstitious nonsense of entities that do not exist, some atheists argue. The entire religion is patently absurd in its reliance on metaphysics and miracles. Indeed, if anyone else made similarly outrageous claims, one would probably be stupid, or at least immensely gullible, to believe in them.

It is tempting to rely on the natural sciences to show better explanations than divine intervention, but since Christians themselves have debated what their god is and isn't for centuries and evidently become none the wiser in terms of belief, it will not help to thus further refine the image of their god.

The key is that the existence of the Christian god, the credibility of the miracles, and the veracity of the myths are entirely moot points as arguments against Christianity. Christians would disagree strongly on this issue, of course, but considering the nature of their other claims, one would hardly be wise to take their word for that.

One should instead take the word of the fields of science that study religions and religious people: sociology and psychology. These sciences teach us that Christianity, like any religion, encompasses a variety of feelings, morals, ethics, social structures, and paradigms. It is a frame of reference that helps organize one's perception of the world. The god is merely the "team mascot" of this frame of reference that is attributed great importance but in reality has very little to say, even if a team can be rather hysteric about its mascot.

It means that a person can be highly intelligent, as indeed some Christians are, and yet believe in mythical creatures and divine miracles, because this belief is the "executive summary" of the way they perceive the world. The belief in the divinity does not make any difference to his Weltanschauung; the belief is just an expression of his communication and systematization of his perception of the world.

For example, the concept of a Last Judgment should be recognized as an abstraction that summarizes some set of moral values and the belief that morals are intrinsic to the universe and cannot be escaped. A Christian may honestly believe that the abstraction exists, but since it is not the abstraction itself but rather the concept of moral it encompasses that is important, it makes no difference to this Christian if any number of predicted judgment days have passed unnoticed. The same Christian will be setting aside money for his children's college in spite of the impending doom that he believes in. It seems hypocritical, but it isn't: it is just his "language," and it is his morals that guide him through the day, not the anticipation of the Last Judgment.

Often the person can easily acknowledge inconsistencies between his belief and physical evidence, and yet believe in both, because religion encompasses an orthogonal set of issues to him which are in fact not contradicted by any physical evidence. A baseball team will abandon neither the mascot nor their game if you inform them that their team mascot is just a dressed-up actor, and the religious person will not leave his god behind either, because challenging the mascot has nothing to do with the game.

It follows that the many failed returns of Christ, the questions of whether God cares, or other such matters, are also irrelevant, except to a few fundamentalists.

Finally, both atheists and Christians agree that a miracle and supernatural events or beings are defined as impossible events and beings. The Christian can be fully knowledgeable in any field of science, and may happily embrace any natural explanation. To this Christian, miracles are miracles because they are not covered or governed by science and the laws of nature.

Biblical Errors

It is another common criticism of Christianity that the religion cannot be taken seriously because errors and contradictions in their Bible abound. If Christians insist on their faith in the light of glaring errors, then either it must be a result of ignorance or downright stupidity, the argument goes. But like before, stupidity is not the issue.

It is evident that the Bible includes its share of issues that are contradicted by today's science, issues that clash with modern moral, and passages that contradict each other. But, it requires a number of presumptions that one must be aware of to use this fact as reason to reject Christianity as a valid religion.

One must presume that Christians really believe that the Bible is of such holy character that it cannot be riddled with errors or omissions. If this were true, the argument would be valid. However, it is only a diminutive minority of Christians that deny the presence of errors in the Bible. Also, many of the biblical problems emphasized by American atheists are moral and ethical issues with the Old Testament laws, which according to Christian teachings were rendered obsolete by the inception of Christianity and thus do not apply to Christianity.

So, when atheists hold Christians accountable for biblical errors, not only do the atheists choose a theological approach that they share only with Christian fundamentalists, they also demonstrate lacking knowledge of the actual Christian use of the Bible.

A better approach to the Bible question is, again, to apply sociology. By recognizing Christianity as a religion, we can categorize it and analyze it using the tools for analyzing any other religion. We know that religion, and hence Christianity, needs no scientific proofs or elaborate philosophical arguments to fulfill its role as Weltanschauung for religious people. We know that, on the contrary, religion exists without these things. We know that religion deals with concepts that cannot be proven or rejected within the scientific framework. We know that it makes no sense to counter religious people with arguments that don't apply to religion.

The Bible is a very old Historical document, and it is not meaningful to discuss such a document by modern scientific and ethical standards. If nonetheless a biblical discussion is desired, then it is relevant to consider the fact that although Christians have used the same scripture for more than a millennium, the text has been interpreted widely different and used for highly different reasons throughout the ages. This means that as a critic, one can reject the statement that the Bible has a univocal message, and one can reject the statement that today's use is any more valid than those of the past.

Christians may also be challenged on the fact that they appropriate some sections of the Bible and leave others out according to personal taste; for example, the Bible's condonation of slavery is ignored today. This selective use of passages from the scriptures shows that the Christians themselves decide what is right and wrong rather than relying on their God's supposed authority on those matters: it is evidence that Christianity is only what Christians make of it. Like the wooden idols of long ago, it is the work of human hands.

The Murky Waters of Morals

Another common idiom states that knowledge is better than faith, and that religion therefore should be replaced with science.

It is certainly important to insist on knowledge within the cores of science, but the situation becomes complicated when one debates morals or discusses issues such as scientific ethics. Science can tell us much about our world, but it cannot explain how to live in it or what to think of it. Even if atheists attempt to find support in science, atheism is just as man-made as any other philosophy, religion, and ideology. Science and ideology cover distinct and mostly non-overlapping fields, and the atheist that claims that moral is derived from scientific data proves himself or herself unable to recognize which fields are covered by science and which fields are covered by ideology.

It is also worth noting that the atheists that are the most aggressive proponents of scientific superiority over the stupid spiritualists are often people that react ideologically rather than scholarly. One often finds atheists that on one hand consider themselves superior to those that believe in the Bible, but on the other side have a faith in science that is equally characterized by blind faith in authority, cultural background, and habit. They may be more right than the religious people, but their understanding and insight is not necessarily any greater. These atheists were just plain lucky to have more enlightened teachers.

A proper approach to moral questions must be the denial of objective truths that are independent of human beings, and one must deny religious statements as authoritative, that is, as statements that one should necessarily conform to. This does not imply that religious people are disqualified in social debates or as masters of their own lives, unless one wishes to (and is able to!) deny them their right of personal choice and personal opinion.

Modern Criticism

The above discards much of the present criticism of Christianity as obsolete, as it refers to a form of Christianity that does not exist. Today's Christianity is such a rubbery and vague concept that it is difficult to construct a modern and fitting criticism of the religion itself.

That does not mean that criticism per se has become obsolete. It only means that criticism must adapt as Christianity changes. Our most important task is not to denounce Christianity for what it was, or what it is among a few fundamentalists, but to remind people of what Christianity is not.

It is not relevant to discuss the veracity of the myths, the authenticity of the gospels, or the existence of God. Christianity must instead be challenged on its effect on society. If you were discussing Santa Claus, you would know it has no impact to conclude that Santa Claus cannot visit each home in the world within hours, and that the only issue worth debating and studying is what the myth of Santa Claus means to, says about, or impacts our culture. This is also the case for the Christian beliefs.

We must prevent Christians from claiming that Christianity and Western culture are synonymous. Christianity has played an important role in our History, but Christianity is neither the only nor an undebatedly positive or constructive contributor to our culture. Christianity itself has been influenced and changed many times since its conception as a Jewish sect. Greek philosophy, Roman schools, humanism, science, philosophy, and art have made significant contributions that have shaped both culture and Christianity itself, more often in spite of Christianity than because of it.

We must also remind Christians that although they may preach peace and love, the belief has not prevented Christian nations from declaring wars or performing massacres, not even to victims that were Christians, too. History has ample evidence that Christianity is no guarantee that individuals or states behave sensibly or humanely, and that a meek and humble Christian is a rare sight.

Atheists have no need to declare a war on God. The Christians themselves defanged their God long ago. But more than ever, we need watchdogs to keep a watchful eye on Christianity to prevent it from appropriating undeserved credit, and that requires a level of criticism that is founded on skill and knowledge rather than personal feelings.
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This page contains a single entry by Ole Wolf published on October 2, 2007 8:10 AM.

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