Monday, August 13, 2007

Arguing against Christianity by assuming it

There are sites on the Internet devoted to almost everything, which accounts for a site called "De-Conversion," which provides resources for "skeptical, de-converting, or former Christians." I'm not sure I completely understand the psychology of those who get religion about losing theirs, but, hey, it's the Internet.

In a recent post, someone identifying himself as "a Thinking Man" discusses some of the reasons he has now grown skeptical about the whole God thing, having experienced a conversion earlier in life. He discusses two issues in the post which he apparently sees as part of the same narrative, but which in fact are strangely inconsistent--something you would think a "Thinking Man" would have thought about.

He says, first, that he began having doubts about Christianity through his counseling experience, which resulted, he says, in his coming into contact with the "Christian underbelly": Christians who do bad things:
From within the Christian community I have personally come across ’senior’ Christians involved in multiple affairs, anal rape, child sex abuse, cottaging in the local toilets, visiting male and female prostitutes, physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse, wife beating, and bullying.
In other words, our "Thinking Man" apparently hit upon a great discovery: Christians sin--some pretty brazenly. One wonders: is this something that he did not know before? Or, more to the point, does he really think this is inconsistent with Christianity? Does Christianity proclaim that Christians do not sin, so that when we find they do we can press charges when we find out they do?

In fact, not only is the fact that Christians sin not inconsistent with Christianity, it is, in fact, a confirmation of it. The thought that "Thinking Man" had not apparently had before is one that is familiar to every Christian pastor with the least amount of counseling experience: Christians sin too. Had "Thinking Man" been paying attention on Sunday morning, he would have noticed that this is one of the reasons they get together every Sunday morning to confess and ask forgiveness.

To try to blame Christianity because some Christians do bad things is sort of like blaming the law for the fact that people violate it. We don't hold it against the laws on homicide that some people engage in murder; we don't blame the rules of accounting when some people engage in fraudulent business practices; and we don't fuss at the police officer who pulls us over for running a red light that the real problem is that there are laws against red lights. So why are we blaming Christianity for the fact that some Christians sin?

In fact, without Christianity, there is no such thing as sin at all. In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton points out that the next best thing to being completely inside Christianity is being completely outside of it. The problem that critics of Christianity have is that they are neither completely inside or completely outside of it. They criticize it from a philosophical position somewhere in between. They stay just close enough to it to trade upon the qualities they need to oppose it.

In trying to destroy something without being far enough away, you end up destroying yourself along with it. If you decided to blow up the Empire State Building, you better not be hanging around just outside the lobby when you do; otherwise, you're in for it. But this is exactly the position of someone like our "Thinking Man". If he were really outside Christianity, he would criticize it not because its adherents did bad things, but because there were no bad things for its adherents to do. He would criticize it not because it was wrong, but because there was no such thing as right or wrong.

But as it is, in criticizing Christianity, he is forced to borrow Christian ideas in order to accomplish his purpose, and as soon as he does that, he has undermined his own criticism. When he says that there is something wrong with Christianity because of sin, he is assuming the very notion of sin--something quite nonsensical outside the Christian view of the world.

And if his first point doesn't defeat itself, his second point will do the job quite nicely:
As part of my counsellor training I did a 3 year course that forced me to confront a very difficult issue that I had been wanting to avoid. Up until this point I had taken an evangelical view of homosexuality. Homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so. I was to be compassionate towards gays, but not condone their practice. That was easy as I didn’t personally know any gays. On my course, two of the three tutors were gay. During the three years I got to know them, deeply respect them, and grew increasingly confused and ashamed as I listened to their stories of their inner struggles. I also started to read up-to-date research on homosexuality (Wilson, G. and Rahman, Q. (2005) Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation. London: Peter Owen) and concluded that I could no longer toe the party line. And if my party line was wrong on this, it could no longer be trusted and was probably wrong on lots of other things as well.
His first argument is that Christianity is bad because some Christians do bad things. His second argument is that Christianity is bad because it calls some of the things Christians do bad. In other words, his two arguments against Christianity are exactly opposite each other. He says on the one hand that Christianity allows too much, and on the other that it condemns too much: that it is wrong because some of its actions are evil and, at the same time, that it is wrong because some of the actions it calls evil are not wrong. It is at once too tolerant and too intolerant--sometimes about the same things.

When someone criticizes something because it does one thing, and also because it does the exact opposite, it is usually a sign, not that there is something wrong with the thing, but that there is something wrong with the critic.

His treatment of homosexuality is especially interesting. Somehow, despite the same experience with several different kinds of sin, his view of homosexuality changes, but his view of other sexual behavior does not. He comes to an acceptance of homosexuality when he gets to know homosexuals better, and finds out about their "inner struggles". Did he not get to know his heterosexual patients, and find out about their "inner struggles"? And if so, why does he come to accept homosexuality, but continue to reject heterosexual deviance?

I have gotten to know homosexuals as well. They've all been nice people. I've also met nice adulterers. I've probably even met nice child abusers and wife beaters for all I know. I'm sure many of them have inner struggles of which I am not aware. But what exactly does that have to do with whether the behavior is these nice people engage in is right or wrong?

The same experience with one behavior results in acceptance, and with another continued rejection. Why?

I don't begrudge our Thinking Man for rejecting Christianity. But if he's going to reject it, then he ought to reject it on some kind of consistent basis--and for reasons that don't assume the very position he is arguing against.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the "crux" of your argument where you call a seemingly contradictory statement (Christians sin and Christians damn sin) as a sign of faulty argument and accuse him of analytical failure when it is you who fail to see a basic premise that any "thinking" person recognizes.

Did you ever assume that Christian leaders are not only hypocrites, but are knowing and careless hypocrites. What I mean is this: Christian leaders are concerned about their "flock" sinning while they could care less how much they sin.. that is, until they get caught. Obviously, this is not every Christian pastor or leader (nor is it likely every major Christian leader) but it happens frequently. They're men, they're addicted to power, and religion gives them access to that power.

Martin Cothran said...

In fact, I did assume that Christian leaders are hypocrites. I'm a hypocrite, and every Christian I know is a hypocrite. So is every non-Christian I know. I don't know a single person who isn't a hypocrite to a certain extent (especially those who condemn hypocrisy).

The question is not whether religious leaders are bad Christians (which is what you mean when you say they are hypocrites--they profess Christianity and don't live up to it). Everyone agrees that they are bad Christians. The question is whether the fact that they are bad Christians is the fault of Christianity. That's what the poster was arguing.

Now you're doing the same thing.

You can't say that the thing someone doesn't live up to is at fault for someone not living up to it.

And, as in the original post, you want assume a fundamentally Christian ethical position to condemn Christianity. Now I think hypocrisy is wrong only because I subscribe to a religious system whose founder condemned hypocrisy. The question is on what basis do you condemn it?

Unknown said...

I was about to leave a comment here, but deleted it. If ATM finds such a debate worth his time, I will let him defend himself.

I would just like to note that your post seems defensive - there is little need for cheeky comments like "something you would think a 'Thinking Man' would have thought about." I encourage you, if you have a heart for truth rather than that of a condescending religionist, to read some of our others posts - attack a position, not a person.

Josh Autry said...

Thanks for the post. Well thought out and well put.

Slapdash said...

***The question is whether the fact that they are bad Christians is the fault of Christianity. That's what the poster was arguing.*** (martin)

The question that springs to my mind is that if the gospel of Christ is really so transformational, wouldn't we at least see some kind of positive difference in the behaviors of Christians, as compared to the behaviors of those who do not know Christ? I wouldn't expect sinlessness in Christians, but I would expect to see, for example, statistically significant differences in the divorce rate of Christians as compared to non-Christians. Which I don't think exists at this point in time.

On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else. Where's the evidence of transformation?

Martin Cothran said...

Thinking Ape,

I appreciate the sentiment in your post. However, I meant it seriously, not condescendingly, although I understand how it could be taken that way. If you are going to use a presumptuous moniker like "Thinking Man" you're going to have to take some hits for it if your not doing it well. That's not condescension, that's just holding someone to a standard they have have implicitly set up for themselves.

I have had a few people who disagree with something I've said on this blog take swipes at me for my blog title, which means "truly speaking" when they disagree with me. I think they are mostly mistaken, but I don't consider it condescending. It's perfectly fair.

Besides, I think I leveled a fair argument and spent 99 percent of the article doing it. So I don't think you could say that I substituting condescension for argument.

And by the way, if you're so opposed ton condescension, isn't it a little condescending to say that it isn't worth your time to respond to my post? But I'll ignore it, since, in fact, you DID respond to my post.

Martin Cothran said...


I think that is a good and very perceptive question. I had actually thought of addressing it in the post, but it was getting too long as it was. I thought someone might bring it up.

In fact, I think it is an important enough question that I'm going to respond to it on the main blog page later today.


Anonymous said...

" The question is whether the fact that they are bad Christians is the fault of Christianity. That's what the poster was arguing.

Now you're doing the same thing. "

Perhaps I didn't explain my argument well enough.

My concern is that many hypocritical Christian leaders are aware of their hypocrisy yet knowingly and willingly engage in it. For them, Christianity is a source of power in which they can assert themselves over others, which was the original intent for the religion of Christianity.

And I'm not condemning hypocrisy. Rather, I take an indifferent, perhaps even favorable, approach to it when it aids in self assertion. I know you want me to condemn it, but I think that is a result of your religiosly infused system of morality.

Anonymous said...

anonymous wrote: "My concern is that many hypocritical Christian leaders are aware of their hypocrisy yet knowingly and willingly engage in it. For them, Christianity is a source of power in which they can assert themselves over others, which was the original intent for the religion of Christianity."

i think that to make such a broad generalization as "MANY hypocritical leaders are aware of their hypocrisy" is rather presumptive and irresponsible. the only Christian leaders you are aware of are the ones you see on TV or hear on radio, and the ones you are personally acquanted with. very tiny percentages compared to the thousands and thousands (if not millions) of Christians around the world who are in some type of leadership position or another. you cannot possibly know whether the vast majority of "Christian leaders" are hypocritical (intentionally or otherwise) or not. while i would agree that there are some who abuse their position, neither you nor i can make such a statement as to whether it's many or few, or if they engae in this behavior knowingly or not.

i would also take great exception to the second part of your statement above, concerning the intent of theorigins of Christianity (it being a source of power in which hypocritical leaders can assert themselves.) one of the basic tenets of Christianity put forth by Jesus Himself is that the "last shall be first, and the first shall be last." HUMILITY is the operative word here, and any person who sets himself up within Christianity as someone who must assert himself over others is surely going against the true Head of the body, and shouldnt be considered as much of a leader of anything.

Anonymous said...


Isn't it easier to control a group of people who allow themselves to be walked on because they believe it is "right"? If you believe that being last will allow you to be rewarded in a non-existant afterlife and those who are leading you don't believe in such an afterlife, you set yourself up to succumb to the tenants of those leading you who know that you will not get any sort of spiritual reward or revenge.

As for your second paragraph (which, forgive me for sounding rude, I thought was a complete cop-out) I would refer you to my first post: "Obviously, this is not every Christian pastor or leader (nor is it likely every major Christian leader) but it happens frequently. They're men, they're addicted to power, and religion gives them access to that power."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cothram, I was glad to see that you responded to the post, because I read it and eventually responded to it, though I'm just an ordinary Christian with no talent for words or reasoning. I just wanted to stand up for what I believe in. If I'd have known someone like you had responded I wouldn't have attempted anything because you said it pretty straight. (I pretty much skipped reading the comments because they were mostly in favor of the guy writing the post.) It wasn't until later that a friend told me about your response and I found the link. I appreciated everything you said,and it was helpful to me personally for future conversations.

I just have one comment about what you said about hypocrites. I've always believed that a hypocrite is someone who is putting on a front, or play-acting. For example, a person who goes to church and says he is a Christian when he really knows he is not; or even someone who says he or she is a Christian and lies, steals, cheats, etc., but has no intention of ever changing. Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites because He knew their hearts were cold toward Him. I don't think that just because our human nature is the way it is (prone to sin)that that means we are hypocrites, if we really love God and are trying to obey His teachings. So I was just wondering about that.

Anyway, thanks so much for your great post. It's wonderful to know that people like you are defending the faith in the blogosphere. (It just so happens that I ordered your logic books a year ago to use in teaching my children, so I recognized your name when my friend told me to read your post. We'll use the books next year, they weren't ready for it yet.)

Anonymous said...

P.S. Sorry about the typo in mis-spelling your name.