On an idiosyncratic faith

Bear with me as I offer some thoughts on why I think so many criticisms of Christianity – along with so many versions of Christianity – miss the mark.

Consider this list:

  1. God (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) exists

  2. God is uniquely revealed to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead

  3. By having a relationship with God though Jesus, who is God’s own son, we can have eternal life, and know and enjoy God forever

  4. God is the ultimate basis of objective moral facts

  5. People to whom God revealed himself one way or another wrote the Bible, which on the whole presents a reliable picture of who God is

  6. When I talk about believing in Jesus “as a matter of faith,” that’s my way of saying that it’s not about having good grounds for belief, or accepting evidence for the truth of those beliefs.

  7. A big part of my conviction that Christianity is true arose (and maybe is still sustained) by powerful, moving religious experiences that I attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit.

  8. In addition to my faith that I will have eternal life eventually, I trust that God will always “look after” me in this life because I am his child, and he has a wonderful plan for my life that will make me happy and fulfilled.

  9. When I pray, or even better, if I can get a lot of people to pray, and even better, if I can get them to pray really hard, God is more likely to give me what I ask for.

  10. It’s really important to me that my understanding of the origin of the universe or the precision with which the biblical writers recorded all the events that they record is correct, otherwise the way that I think about my whole worldview could be mistaken.

  11. It’s important to me that I know and can explain why X exists (where X is some feature of the universe, whether something in biology intersecting with the question of design, or X is the existence of suffering, or the existence of widespread ignorance or disbelief in my God). Otherwise, there’s a serious hole in my view of God.

That’s a list of eleven claims. If you believed them all, and called that whole list “Christianity,” and then at some point you came to doubt the validity of the last six of these claims, then you’ve come to doubt most of what you consider Christianity to be about. If you find yourself in that position, where one after another of your cherished beliefs have fallen to criticism that you couldn’t address, you might well start to think that the whole thing is a house of cards and give it up entirely. You shouldn’t, but you can perhaps see why somebody might think that. Imagine that you had eleven cards face down on the table in front of you and you previously thought that they were all aces. Your friend sits down opposite you and tells you that they’re not aces, so you decide to prove him wrong. One at a time, you start turning the cards over: Not an ace. Not an ace. Not an ace. Not an ace. Not an ace. Not an ace. That’s six in a row! Stop, you’re just embarrassing yourself. These cards aren’t aces after all. Now imagine that each card represents what is, in your view, an essential element of your Christian faith. Six in a row – all false. You can see why some might be tempted to quit at that point.

As I look around at common online criticisms of the Christian faith at popular level blogs or at comments on social media websites (like one that I saw when I started writing this blog entry where somebody, quite incredibly in my view, firmly claimed that I hold to “faith” which is just a matter of believing without logical reasons), it occurs to me that by far most of the criticisms I see have to do with claims 6-11. Maybe it’s a mockery of “faith,” where faith is depicted as little more than the tenacious will to believe without good reasons (which is simply not how Christians generally think of faith, as I have explained before), although strictly speaking, mockery is not criticism. Maybe its an explanation of the unreliability of religious experience, explaining how their own experience was likely self or peer induced. Or maybe it’s a collection of evidence against some form of creationism, or evidence that bad stuff happens to people who pray and love God. What’s more – it also appears to me (and I could be wrong in some cases, I admit) that in many or even most such cases, these criticisms, where they come from “ex-Christians” (and if they’re “ex” then they must have a credible inside scoop, right?) are referring to beliefs such as 6-11 that they themselves once held. They are reacting to and rejecting, not your set of beliefs or my set of beliefs, but their own set of former beliefs. It’s almost like a grieving or burial process for their former self when they find themselves needing to continually say, as it were, “I’m ashamed that I believed these things. I want you all to know that I repent! I’m now committed to telling other people not to be the fool I was.”

But what happens when those criticisms are lobbed in the direction of a Christian who literally wouldn’t make any of the claims listed from 6 to 11? A Christian like me, for example. Obviously very little will happen. I may even agree with those criticisms – they could even have been criticisms that I’ve used myself! Now, what I’ve found is that when the critic starts to realise that their game plan just isn’t working, the frustration sets in and they start to become insistent – “No, you must understand, you really do believe in this groundless thing that I’m calling faith” or “but you should expect that God will do X in your life if you’re a Christian. And stop saying that stuff about faith. Faith is just believing without evidence and that’s that!” etc. Of course none of that is going to be terribly productive – they don’t tell me what I believe, I tell them what I believe and they’re just going to have to live with it.

But here’s the point: It’s usually only once they’ve run out of arrows and they realise that I just don’t believe in all these things they want to criticise that they realise that they need a new tactic, so they decide to wade into the territory of actually arguing that there are no good reasons to believe in God, or that the historical arguments for the resurrection of Jesus fail (i.e. the issues that matter). Since they spent all their effort being prepared to shoot down claims that I never made to begin with, the more important issues often end up being unfamiliar territory, so the whole discussion ends up as a bit of a shallow mess where one side is just insisting that it can’t be so because, well, it’s just illogical and unscientific, or because sky daddies aren’t real, or Christians believe in a zombie from Nazareth.

Now, beyond sharing anecdotes (without being too specific about examples), what’s the point of all this? The point is twofold.

First, the most vocal “ex Christian” opponents of the Christian faith that I know of are still now, as before, fundamentalists. They insisted on a fundamentalist, idiosyncratic version of Christianity that had all the answers to everything before, and although they gave that faith up, they still insist today that this is what Christianity is like (or else they simply don’t realise that this generally isn’t what it’s like). They may now be in a process of publicly repenting of their previous fundamentalism, but they are merely doing so via another form. The first step that many of them really need to take is to actually begin to understand that the many objections that crowd their arsenal of arguments aren’t objections to the Christian faith at all. They may be objections to things that they believed when they were Christians. Yes there are, of course, more serious objections to Christian belief. Those are the subject of other discussions and other blog posts. But these sorts of objections, often the first resort of ex-Christians, are not objections to Christianity, however much they might feel like objections to the Christian faith in the heat of the moment.

Secondly, the kind of faith that I have summarised above, where people embrace a list of beliefs like this as the essentials of “the Christian worldview,” and who believe that they must come to the defence of that worldview whenever it is perceived to be under fire, are setting themselves up to later become one of the fundamentalists I have describe above. It’s depressingly common to see public defenders of the Christian faith say “according to the Christian worldview…” and then to describe a tenet of their own belief which they must surely know Christians of various stripes do not agree on. Whether you like it or not, it is not a tenet of the Christian faith that God created the world in six literal days. It is not a tenet of the Christian faith that God unconditionally predestines some people to eternal life (even if it’s true). It’s not a tenet of the Christian faith that God will do what you ask, or that God will always see to it that you are blessed and cared for and so on. It is profoundly unwise to think that you can be assured of a way to explain every phenomenon in existence and that there will not be any cause for doubt or struggle (with, say, the problem of suffering) because God will give you the answers. And it’s nigh-on self-worship to assume that your view of God’s method of revelation in Scripture (e.g. your particular take on the nature of biblical inspiration) is a crucial aspect of the faith and a yardstick for discerning whether or not other people are really proper “evangelicals.” As you build your tower of essentials higher and higher, it sways more and more, and is much more easily collapsed. All it would take is evidence for the slightest mistake anywhere in the biblical authors’ words, the first hint of “I don’t know” in your handling of a philosophical problem involving, say, omniscience, the first case of a Christian whose life starts to unravel, whose marriage ends, who dies of illness etc in spite of constant prayer, to bring that tower crashing down.

So there are two lessons, and they are both simple: When a former Christian rattles off a list of things like 6-11 as examples of why you shouldn’t be a Christian, only to end up floundering in an attempt to offer more substantial arguments against the truths that really matter, recognise what is going on. It’s tempting to want to rush in and address every point, but if this is what is really happening, you will likely be wasting your time. Sometimes explaining the psychology of the situation will get people to pause for a moment and look at what they’re doing. Sometimes. This is the point where you say: “Those claims that you’re trying to dismantle may be what you once believed, granted. You might now want to distance yourself from your Christian past as vocally as possible, so you may feel that you have to attack all those beliefs, and that in doing so you’re attacking my faith. You’re not. You’re attacking a former version of yourself. That’s not what we believe.” You might not convince them. They might be so wedded to their rejection of everything they once believed that they will insist that these really are arguments against Christianity. You can’t do anything about that, but you’ve told them what they need to know. But do recognise that they are rejecting their old faith rather than the Christian faith, even if you do happen to hold some of those beliefs that they are now rejecting. We all hold to some beliefs, after all, that are not essential to the Christian faith.

This leads on to the second lesson. Don’t become a future ex-Christian who does this. Recognise the difference between an idiosyncratic faith and mere Christianity. An idiosyncratic faith has little or no ability to discern between what I happen to believe, and what is actually an integral feature of the Christian faith. An idiosyncratic faith is where you place yourself and your immediate community at the centre. Have an idiosyncratic faith and you’re setting yourself up to lose. An idiosyncratic faith decides that its opponents needs some help, so instead of holding up one target, they hold up fifty, any one of which counts as a fatal shot. Of course, a fatal shot is then avoided when the person with an idiosyncratic faith wriggles, contorts themselves and bends over backwards in the ungainly effort required to deny that a hit has been made (“no, no, I insist, that’s not evidence against my view of God and science and thus against the Christian worldview, because just look what happens if I tack on an extra ten ad-hoc hypotheses…”). This, as you will later come to see after your de-conversion, will serve as yet more evidence of how “deluded” Christians must be to hold together such absurd beliefs in the first place. Don’t contribute to that problem.

Glenn Peoples

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  • Lion_IRC

    To avoid the daunting TLDR commitment issues I have when seeing a 2000+ word internet article, (I’m time poor) I say to myself, relax, it’s OK I don’t HAVE to read the whole thing. I’m probably only gonna read the 1st paragraph anyway.

    Needless to say, I read all the way to the end and what a FANTASTIC piece!

    Thanks Glenn Peoples. I nodded and applauded throughout.

    My take home messages;

    – The strawman being attacked by atheists is often their former-self and usually consists in items 6-11 which are the apologetic equivalent of quicksand.

    - Conflating the phrase ‘’Belief in Gods existence’’ with the phrase ‘’Trust in God or ‘’Faith in God’’ is a common mistake made by atheist counter-apologists. (God’s existence can be a matter of certain knowledge to some people even though those these same people exercise faith and probabalistic belief in relation to things they don’t know about God.)

    - The biblical commission is simply to make your best effort to evangelize the Gospel and if that’s not sufficient to meet the atheists empirical burden of “proof” then as Glenn says, …they’re just going to have to live with it.

  • Zach S

    Insightful, clear, and relevant. Puts into words what many CHristians think and feel.

    We feel overwhelmed when encountering opposition, so we assume every potential false move to be a slippery slope. Forgetting how Christians through the centuries have often never drawn the lines in the sand that we do.

  • Sojourning Whyman

    Another strawman attack on fundamentalism and thusly wilfully ignorant on what it *actually* entails.