A general suspicion of religion comes to mind easily enough. Hell, even religious people frequently exhibit this suspicion (tempered as it is with whatever thoughts they’ve assembled into their own beliefs). There is something about the whole range of religious beliefs as such that invites a degree of doubt, even contempt. It would be easy to believe religion could be refuted.
Just like nailing jelly to a wall.
What makes this seemingly easy task so frustrating is the sense that any generalization one might make about religion will most certainly have its counterexamples, and most of these exceptions are anything but marginal. Even belief in God or gods which seems such a no-brainer falls apart when we consider various branches of Buddhism. Belief in the supernatural is rather complicated by those who think of spirits as part of the natural world. Some of us may regard the notion of spirits in a mountain top as falling outside the natural world, but it doesn’t really work to maintain that belief in a supernatural world is a defining feature of religion if that belief itself isn’t all that universal. The particulars just don’t rescue the narrative. …and so-on with any other effort to sweep the lot of religious beliefs into the same been-there-refuted-that bin. What is religion? Hard to say. Harder still if you’re answering that question in the midst of a polemic moment.
Luckily, this problem is easily solved by focusing on one set of religious traditions instead of trying to drop a truth bomb on the lot of them. Can’t nail down every faith out there with one stroke of the hammer? No problem. Just pick one. Specificity will save us all!
…except that it won’t.
Let’s say you think the God of Abraham is a right cruel bastard, and so that’s your main objection to the whole of Christianity (along with Islam and Judaism). You can even throw in a few scriptures to back this up (cause that seems to be how the Biblical game is played), and we non-believers are often happy to play along, arguendo, so to speak. The godless corners of the net are filled with various references to God’s more dickish behavior, all documented nicely in the ‘Good Book’, and wielded well, these can form the basis for reasonably compelling arguments. We can even extend the critique into any number of horrible things Christians have done in the name of the great big bastard in the sky. We can work up a real parade or horribles and say ‘that’s it1’ That’s why the God of Abraham isn’t welcome in our lives and our thoughts. We can do this. Hell, I have done it. I”ve made this argument quite a few times since going godless many decades ago. And I will say, that I think this approach can be used to skewer a particular brand of believer, one I’m pretty sure I’ve met in person more than a few times.
But what about those Christians who seem to find in the Bible a story of hope, love, and kindness? No, I don’t mean the footnote kind of godly affection that accompanies homophobic politics, paternalistic family norms, or just plain idiotic theodicies. I mean the kind of compassion that actually does put some believers in the streets fighting for the rights of others and defending the dignity of all manner of people. Those Christians do exist and they have their scriptures too, their theories, their angle on God, the universe, and even that annoying wasp nest under the front porch.
What are we to make of these Christians?
The Christian left was once a powerful force in American life, and we could do worse than to see it rise again. Don’t get me wrong; at his best Jesus is an ambiguous story for me, and not one containing a lot of factual weight, but if i was to pick a fight it wouldn’t be with the peace-love-dove set of Christians. When it comes to the things that matter most to me, I am as likely as not going to count them as allies. Damned good ones at that!
For the present, though, the question is what to make of the Christians who don’t fit the yer-a-jerk-and-so-is-yourGod narrative? How do we sort their significance in relation to the buggers who actually make life hard for those ‘sinner’s they claim to love after all. If the notion that God and his fan club are all a bunch of jerks is your go-to argument when explaining active resistance to religion, then these guys are actually kind of a problem.
…which is ironic to say the least.
A believer may have an out for this problem. She can tell us one version of Christianity (presumably her own) is genuine and the other is just bullshit. How we may ask? And scripture, she may answer, which theoretically means the whole issue stands or falls on those passages Christians are find if quoting at each other and the rest of us. A believer can insist that the right answer is contained in those scriptures (or something else in her faith), and that the rest is simply noise. Whether she is right or not about the nature of that correct view is another question, but so long as someone affirms a particular faith, this approach isn’t glaringly inconsistent. But as a man who denies the authority of scripture (among other religious authorities) I’m not really in a position to do that. Sure, I can formulate ideas as to whether or not any given interpretation of scripture is plausible given the text and its historical significance, but I can find no authority with which to say anyone oughtta give a damn about that assessment.
More than that, I see no reason to believe there is any consistency to scripture with which to settle questions about what is and what isn’t a truly Christian take on the subject. Really, I think it far more likely, that the whole mess of scripture really is just that full of contradiction because what the hell else would you expect if a giant text cobbled together from a vast range of different authors writing at different times and places?
…which reminds me of one of those teachable moments a high school student once handed me. (In this case, I was the teachee.) I can’t remember how the subject came up, but I asked an orthodox Jewish kid something about how he viewed some particular theme in the Bible. He responded by telling me that there is no ‘the Bible’. To him, that phrase denoted an odd collection of texts, some of which might bear some relation to those his own people valued and some clearly didn’t, but the notion that the whole collection could be meaningfully referenced as though it were a single book seemed rather foreign to him.
It should have been foreign to me too.
We unbelievers give up far too much ground by speaking about ‘the Bible’ in this way.
This is of course a very incomplete account of the variation, even within Christianity. The whole mess gets meta-messy when we start adding differences of opinion as to whether or not scripture is the sole source of authority on what is right and what isn’t. What do we make of those who recognize the authority of the Pope? …of the Mormon Prophets? …or even the notion that one must be filled with the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture properly? All of these can turn the tables on any attempt to arrive at a fixed notion of just what it is we are rejecting when we say ‘no’ no God.
In any event, I see no reason to believe we can find a consistent message in the myriad scriptures folks are prone to cite in the effort to decide what a Christian ought to believe. For me, there is no ought to the matter. There is only what different believers do in fact believe and the mix of reasons and choices that go into their professions of belief. (Hell, I’m not even sure how much to make of beliefs, to be honest. What counts as doctrine on Wednesday is easily forgotten on Thursday. …on Friday it r-emerges as the subject of debate.) Anyway, I don’t see any hope of resolving questions about which is the true nature of Christianity.
…or of Islam.
…or even pastafarianism for that matter.
I’m not saying the critique of Christian cruelty is a straw man. I am saying its relevance to any given believer depends on assumptions any given Christian may or may not hold.
This is often frustrating for an unbeliever. We have the goods on Tom and Jack, so to speak, so it just seems unfair to let Alice and Eric slide on account of a few disclaimers. But of course mere disclaimers aren’t the issue. It’s the very real possibility that someone’s faith may genuinely differ from that for which we have a ready critique. Of course we can ask any number of questions to see if someone really does envision Christianity in positive terms (as opposed to those who merely parrot the rhetoric of love and compassion all the while wielding the Prince of Peace like a well-balanced weapon, but at the end of the day? Some folks escape the criticism. Some folks really do seem to see in Christ a message that genuinely inspires love and compassion.
So what’s a godless bastard to do?
Unfortunately, I think the temptation exists to force the issue, to pretend we have some way of sorting the real thing from the imitation believer after all. It should come as no surprise that this rhetorical strategy usually means declaring the least defensible version of Christianity that we can imagine to be the real thing. All other variations, and in particular the more palatable variations on belief are then the product of personal whim. The kind Christian, so this narrative goes, is the one who really hasn’t read her Bible. She is the one who hasn’t really thought her doctrines through to their logical conclusions. I expect this kind of narrative from conservative Christians, but it’s a little more odd to hear it coming from the godless. It’s odd, yes, but it’s not rare. Unbelievers often take the view that Christians liberal in theology and politics aren’t the real ones. Thus, we turn virtues into vices and snub allies away into likely resentment. (Who could blame them?) At worst, the effort to delegitimize moderate or liberal believers may well nudge one or three of them the other direction. It’s a kind of proxy-fundamentalism, a refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of people whose views don’t fit the vision of Christianity we mean to attack.
A variation of this approach can be seen in the oft-repeated refrain that the only real Muslims are the militants. Those Muslims (indeed, the vast majority) who seem to get along with the rest of us haven’t got their own faith right, so the argument goes. And thus peaceful Muslims and violent extremists all falter beneath the weight of the same criticism. We can treat every Muslim as a would-be terrorist, so it seems, because those who haven’t come around to it simply aren’t doing their religion right.
Once again this approach assumes an objective limit on the range of legitimate variation within the faith in question. And once again, no such objective limit exists. You can haul out whatever quotes you want in support of it, but once again, the significance of those quotes rests on a number of assumptions, assumptions that just aren’t uniform throughout the Muslim world. So, why advocate for the bastards when we could support decent folks who just want to get through the day.
There is simply no way around it. If ever there was a term for which ‘family resemblance’ provided a more suitable account of its meaning I don’t know what that is (maybe ‘culture’). Religion as a whole can take many different forms, as can just about every individual religion. We can respond to each individual variant as we like, but there is no use shoring up the authority of those who serve as the main targets of our criticism. We certainly shouldn’t be helping the greatest assholes in God’s many fan clubs to marginalize decent people. The plasticity of religion is itself a potential objection in itself, at least to those who think it a bastion of objective morality, but that too is just another subset of believers out there. My point is simply that the variation is there, and that those of us who say ‘no’ shouldn’t be too quick to add our own voices to those seeking to impose orthodoxy on the faithful.