Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why Evangelical Christians shouldn’t Think too much

Once in a while I rummage through the detritus of the internet to see if I can spark a worthwhile discussion with someone with whom I strongly disagree. Recently, I found a blog called Thinking Christian, written by Tom Gilson who worked for Campus Crusade for Christ for over 30 years and who is senior editor of a Christian news website, The Stream, which says its aim is to champion the causes of “freedom, smaller government, and human dignity.” I read several articles on Thinking Christian and posted some comments, assuming Gilson would take the opportunity discuss the issues I raised. It didn’t go so well, but instead of letting the experience fade entirely from memory, I’ll use it as a launching pad to illustrate a larger point.

Here, first, is some of the back and forth, after which I’ll talk about the very notion of a thinking Christian.

The Problem with Old Testament Tribalism

Gilson wrote an article, Atheists Rejecting the Bible Due to OT Morality: Bound To Be a Bad Tradeoff, which presents a Pascalian wager to the skeptic who dismisses Christianity based on apparently immoral passages in the Old Testament, such as Exodus 21:7-11, which is about how Jews regulated their practice of sex slavery. Gilson argues that there may be an innocent explanation of such a troubling passage, whereas “We can know that the Bible presents the highest example of moral character in all history: Jesus Christ,” “that God revealed himself thoroughly and uniquely as a God of love,” and “that he expressed that love through the highest possible means, self-sacrifice on the Cross,” among other dubious Christian doctrines. So Gilson concludes, “An atheist who rejects all the outrageous good that we do know, based on some questionable, unknown passage about which we can’t know nearly enough, is making a bad tradeoff, rationally, morally, and experientially.”

Here’s the comment I posted beneath that article:

'I don’t think this article gets at the skeptic’s real problem with a biblical passage like the one above that’s meant to regulate slavery. The problem is that a unique book containing revelations from a personal creator of the universe wouldn’t contain any such passage. The book itself would be miraculous; otherwise, Occam’s Razor dictates that a thinking person should opt for the simpler, more familiar interpretation that the Bible is a library produced entirely by fallible people, containing books assembled and edited over some centuries which reflect only the human interests at those times and places. 

'No skeptic would dispute that a harmonizer can conceive of an interpretation that smooths over a problematic biblical passage. Our species is highly imaginative and intelligent. We can see things like the shapes of trains and rabbits in the clouds even though the shapes are accidental concatenations of water vapor. We can find Jesus’s face on a piece of burnt toast. So of course we can imagine possible defenses of a preferred view of the Bible. The interpretation will be more or less plausible depending on the Christian’s and the skeptic’s underlying beliefs, and these they don’t share. 

'So when the thinking Christian author here says we can know that Jesus is the paragon of morality and that God revealed himself in a loving act of sacrifice on the cross, he’s begging the question. We’re supposed to know these things from the Bible, but if the Bible reads more like one of many other human-made, historical records of a particular ancient culture’s beliefs and practices, not like miraculous divine revelation, we know nothing of the kind. You can choose to believe what you want based on faith or a religious experience, but the fact is that the above passage that merely regulates slavery doesn’t read as if it were inspired by a god who hates slavery. Sex slavery was widespread because humans are animals, male humans are stronger and more aggressive than female ones, and so societies tend to be patriarchal. It doesn’t take rocket science to explain the prevalence of sex slavery or sexism in an ancient religion. So this is evidence for the skeptic’s view of the Bible as a mere historical, literary document. 

'As to how a Christian can explain away the ancient Jewish view of slavery, that’s easy. The Jewish view of God evolved from the tribal one that distinguishes itself by its antisocial monotheism (its denial of the existence of other gods), to Christian universalism. That transition was obviously influenced by the fact that the early Christians were Jews living under occupation by the Roman Empire. The drive to evangelize, to spread Christianity around the world derives from Jewish syncretism with Roman imperialism and from Alexander the Great. After all, those pagans likewise wanted to spread their way of life everywhere, the difference being that they left alone the harmless idiosyncrasies of the foreign cultures they conquered, whereas Judaism added the antisocial element, the interest in controlling everyone’s mind and ethics rather than demanding only minimal displays of respect for Rome. 

'So there were two covenants between Jews and their god, and thus we have the two testaments, and the second one is less tribal and more universal in its morality. So a Christian will read the tribal parts of the Old Testament and thank God for finally sending his Son to die on the cross to teach everyone the importance of love. A skeptic will interpret the difference between the two testaments and religions as having arisen without the need of any divine intervention at all. 

'As I said, Jews finally made their peace with their occupiers, by compromising with them, injecting monotheism into their secular empire. The pagans (especially Paul) modified Judaism, in turn, by ditching the stringent concern with elaborate ethics and rituals, and making Judaism universal by putting all that hard stuff on Jesus. Jesus did us the service of perfecting Jewish behaviour and sacrificing himself so no one else would have to live like a perfect Jew. All we have to do is trust in Jesus’s sacrifice to receive those benefits. 

'So it’s a dumbing down of Jews’ absolutist ethics, and we know that dumbing things down does wonders in spreading a message far and wide. Today, the most popular songs, books, movies, and YouTube videos aren’t the ones that are the greatest in quality; on the contrary, they’re almost all dumbed down to reach the widest possible audience. It’s the same with comedy: the stand-up or late night comedy that pleases the most people is the kind that taxes their mental powers the least, that simplifies things the most to reach only the lowest standards. That’s also why Fox News is more popular than its competitors, and why most people watch TV rather than read anything. The majority normally goes with the easier option, because critical thinking and intellectual integrity are hard and rare. 

'Indeed, the above article itself is dumbed down for the sake of SEO optimization. The needless headings and short words, sentences, paragraphs, and article length are all simplifications to cater to the low standards needed to reach the widest possible audience on the internet. That’s what the Roman Empire did for Judaism: it packaged Jewish monotheism and ethics in a more appealing form (Jesus did all the work so you don’t have to) to reach the lower-quality masses. 

'That’s how a skeptic understands these matters, and the above article doesn’t really address the heart of the matter.'
Gilson’s response:

'“The problem is that a unique book containing revelations from a personal creator of the universe wouldn’t contain any such passage.” 

'Oh. So the book should be so miraculous that every person in every culture in every period of history would be able to understand its meaning without needing to know its original historical context. 

'Actually, that could work if the book were a systematic theology. It’s much more relational than that; more of a story. It’s a story with theology embedded, not vice versa. 

'“If the Bible reads more like one of many other human-made, historical records of a particular ancient culture’s beliefs and practices…” 

'In some ways it does, but in several very significant ways it is utterly unique. I can specify some of those if you’re interested.'

So Gilson ignored most of what I said, but suggested that he can expand on ways in which Judeo-Christianity stands out as historically unique, and that’s supposed to be important because he takes that historical uniqueness to count as evidence of the veracity of Jews’ and Christians’ claims to have a special bond with God.

However, there's an amusing postscript since several days later, after I posted this article, I received an email alert that Gilson had responded again to my comment. (After you comment on his articles, you can check a box to receive email updates when more comments are added to the thread.) Here's his further reply:

'Benjamin Cain, I just re-read and noticed this:

'“So when the thinking Christian author here says we can know that Jesus is the paragon of morality and that God revealed himself in a loving act of sacrifice on the cross, he’s begging the question. We’re supposed to know these things from the Bible, but if the Bible reads more like one of many other human-made, historical records of a particular ancient culture’s beliefs and practices, not like miraculous divine revelation, we know nothing of the kind.”

'What you’ve displayed there is that you didn’t read the article. I framed it specifically to head off that objection. Very specifically.

'Your dismissive condescension here can’t hide the fact that you are in fact blowing smoke.'

When I checked his blog, however, I discovered that this new comment of his had been withdrawn. (So see the screenshot to the left to confirm that that comment had in fact been posted.) I'm not sure why he's been rereading my comments or why he posted this and then deleted it, but it shows just the opposite of what he suggests. I did read his little baby articles carefully, and he plainly hasn't thought hard about my comments, so he's the one pretending to be a thinker or blowing smoke. 

To see why he deleted his comment, I need to provide some more details of his argument in the article. His point is that there's much uncertainty in how the Old Testament should be interpreted, because most skeptics aren't experts in Hebrew or ancient history, for example. So Gilson writes that the skeptic is saying, there's an irresolvable problem there” or at best that it's not resolvable given what we know, which leaves the door open to new information that might mitigate the appearance of wickedness in ancient Judaism. Meanwhile, the Christian apologist is wiser in thinking, that it's better to look at what we can know than what we cannot.” And so Gilson goes ahead and lists those elements of Christianity that we allegedly know for certain. Oblivious to the problem, he even states the first one on his list as I quoted it above: “We can know that the Bible presents the highest example of moral character in all history: Jesus Christ” (my emphasis).

So the obvious problem is the one I stated in my comment, which Gilson even quoted in his deleted reply: the Christian is supposed to know the truth of those Christian doctrines from the Bible. If the moral status of the Bible is uncertain, because of passages like the one on how to regulate sex slavery, we don't know that those doctrines are true after all. Gilson is only begging the question at issue. Presumably, he now understands my objection, he sees how it renders his whole argument unsound, and so he deleted his obtuse reply. Maybe he's thinking of another response. More likely, he'll ignore the problem and leave his article to speak for itself, hoping that his Evangelical readers aren't so thoughtful. 

The Alleged Historical Uniqueness of Judeo-Christianity

In any case, I had already responded to another of Gilson’s articles on that subject of Judeo-Christianity's uniqueness, called The Overlooked Apologetic Significance of Two Very Bible Familiar Verses, in which he argues that Gen.1:1 and Exod.3:13-14 demonstrate that the “ancient Hebrews did some advanced thinking, centuries ahead of their time. Either that or they had help: God’s revelation.” The first passage implies that God created the universe from nothing, and in the second Yahweh tells Moses that his name is the self-referential mystery, “I am who I am.”

Here’s the response I posted:

'Exodus 3:14 is indeed interesting for supplying God with a self-referential name. The same mystical and even cosmicist perspective is apparent in the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes. This philosophically sophisticated view of God is not unique, however. The ideal you’re looking for is the God of the philosophers found in the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle says the First Cause thinks only about himself and doesn’t sully himself by intervening in the less perfect world. Instead, lesser things are affected indirectly by being attracted to the more perfect thing. Thus, says Aristotle, philosophers who are able to sustain themselves by contemplating abstract matters are the most godlike. But only a perfect being, a god, could be fully self-sufficient. 

'So this idea of a largely impersonal, self-sufficient cause of the universe isn’t unique to Judaism. And notice how it implies deism, not theism, as is clear from the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato calls his deity the Good, not God. Jews came close to the subversive philosophical insight in texts like Genesis, Job, and Ecclesiastes, but they obviously backed away from the atheistic and cosmicist implications of saying that a higher being would clearly treat us the way we treat ants. But to go on and on about how God loves us as a father loves his children, in the evangelical Christian manner, is to backtrack much further even than Judaism, falling far short of the philosophical, mystical understanding, and anthropomorphizing ultimate matters in a way that was well-satirized as far back as Xenophanes. 

'And if we’re talking about sophisticated views of God, Judaism falls far short of the Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism. (It goes without saying that Christianity doesn’t hold a candle even to Judaism on this question of theological sophistication.) Original Buddhism, for example, ignores metaphysics in general and gets right to the central ethical question: How to avoid suffering in life? 

'Hindus tell all sorts of mythical stories about all sorts of gods, but they also have a philosophical system which puts those myths into perspective. They’re meant to appeal to people who haven’t reached a level of maturity to appreciate the more profound truth that Atman equals Brahman (as in the monist Advaita Vedanta). Hindus were sophisticated enough to realize that “one size fits all” might not be a wise rule when it comes to religion. 

'And Daoism is very similar to Aristotelianism. The Way of nature is more like the impersonal Force of Star Wars than the sort of tribal anthropomorphic deity we find throughout most of Jewish scripture, let alone Christianity’s version of pagan apotheosis. (Typically in the ancient world, it was only kings and emperors who were considered literally divine, but thanks to the synthesis of Judaism and the pagan tradition, early Christians could think of the ethically supreme person who lacked any secular power as a god.) 

'As for the account of Creation in Genesis, I don’t think its sophistication is miraculous. The relatively austere picture of God in Jewish scripture flows from the antisocial aspect of monotheism. Jews declined to respect foreign religions and they likewise declined to respect their own naïve theological questions. That’s why Yahweh mocks Job for demanding answers to the problem of evil (even though the text has it both ways in a rather ironic, postmodern manner, by supplying the reader with the answer that Yahweh made a bet with Satan). Jewish monotheism is misanthropic in this respect: any attempt to substitute an idol for the holy, ultimate cause of everything is deemed blasphemous and foolish. For Jews, that goes for gentiles and Jews alike. So there’s little cosmological detail in Genesis, in terms of God’s assigning different tasks to different angels or sub-deities, and so forth. 

'Again, Jews didn’t take the even more sophisticated route of realizing that this rejection of the more naïve myths leads to atheism or to something like Buddhism or Daoism. (As in Zen Buddhism’s proverb, “if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him,” or in Daoism: “The Dao which can be named is not the ultimate Dao.”) And Jews had it both ways even in their own terms, since their apocryphal Book of Enoch indulges in all sorts of theological speculation. 

'The point is that Jews didn’t invent mysticism. Hindus did. And Christianity is arguably the least sophisticated, mystical, or philosophical of the major religions. What distinguishes Christianity is the politics of welding a version of Judaism to various secular empires from Rome’s to America’s.'

Gilson didn’t reply to that, so he ignored my refutation of his insinuation that Judaism or Christianity is unusually or miraculously unique. I’d add that mere historical uniqueness is of no consequence. As Nietzsche pointed out in “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” every single thing in the world is technically unique, notwithstanding the generalizations made by our concepts. Even each egg, for example, is slightly different from every other one, although they all seem exactly alike from a distance. Likewise, each religion will stand out in some ways from every other religion. The point Gilson wants to make is that Christianity is uncannily unique, that Christian origins and history are somehow miraculous so that merely to learn how Christianity came to be is to discover proof of the profundity of Christianity’s creed. Unfortunately, the dogmatic, orthodox telling of that history—which prevailed up until the critical examination of the Bible, beginning in the Enlightenment period with Reimarus and d’Holbach and continuing with Schweitzer, Barth, Bultmann, and the Jesus Seminar—need no longer be taken for granted. There’s a social scientific account of the origin and history of Christianity which explains the religion well without appealing to God’s existence or to miracles.

Why Atheistic Morality is Superior to the Theistic Kind

I next responded to one of what Gilson calls his “core articles,” called Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian? in which Gilson grapples with the suggestion that atheistic morality is superior to the theistic kind because the atheist supposedly tries to act well “for its own sake” rather than for a reward. Gilson points out that certain consequences of moral action are inevitable and don’t discredit the action.

The comment section of that article was closed, so I posted my reply under the article about sex slavery and the atheist’s bad tradeoff:

'May I comment on your article, “Being Good “For Nothing” — Does That Make Atheist Ethics Better Than Christian?” even though its comments section is closed? 

'I believe that article misses the point of the common saying that atheistic morality is superior to the theistic kind. It’s a mistake to think of atheistic morality as doing well for its own sake, as if that morality were equal to deontology. Acting according to a categorical imperative, or because the action is good in itself, is only one of three main approaches to nontheistic ethics. Mill’s utilitarianism, for example, is explicitly consequentialist, meaning that the utilitarian acts for the purpose of maximizing happiness in terms of certain pleasures.

'So the issue isn’t whether the atheist tries to do well without the thought of any reward. That’s a red herring.

'The issue instead is that atheists are typically philosophical naturalists, and so their morality operates in a tragic context, regardless of the metatheory. The problem for the atheist is roughly as Ecclesiastes puts it: all is vanity, because everyone dies just the same. Purely natural life is in some sense absurd, and if there’s no hope of divine salvation, the atheist is faced with the threat of despair. If the atheist finds a way to be good under those circumstances, that’s a case of heroism. It’s the context of tragic heroism that lends atheistic morality its nobility, which was one of Nietzsche’s main points.

'By contrast, the theist is a supernaturalist, so she thinks natural death isn’t the end and that the world is perfectly just rather than absurd. The good are ultimately rewarded and the bad are punished in the afterlife, and no deed goes unseen by God. Theistic morality, then, is more like a comedy than a tragedy. The theist thinks everything will be alright in the end so that when she acts selflessly, she’s only following what she believes is the underlying program. She’s obeying God’s laws and she thinks God rules the universe.

'Atheistic morality is antinatural: the atheist carves her own path against genetic inclinations and in spite of what she thinks is our common, tragic end in death. Comedies are light and lack gravitas compared to tragedies, which is why Shakespeare’s tragedies are hailed as his greatest works. And that’s why atheistic morality seems nobler than the theistic kind.'

Instead of replying, within a day or two Gilson cut out all but the first paragraph of my reply, in which I asked if I can comment on that article even though the comments section is closed, and he answered simply “No.” So apparently once the comment section is closed on his website, the issue itself goes away and Gilson doesn’t have to worry about it anymore because it becomes “Off Topic.”

The Anachronism of Christianity

I next commented on a misleading article of Gilson’s, called Street Epistemology: Deceit on the Street, in which Gilson decries what he considers the devious methods of persuasion used by the philosopher Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. Gilson focuses on a YouTube video in which Boghossian questions a pair of Christians about their faith, and manages to one of the young campus Christian leaders out of his religion. According to Gilson, “persuasion without honesty is deceitful manipulation. That’s what SE [Boghossian’s street epistemology] does, so very effectively.” Hence the need for the Campus Crusade for Christ and for Gilson’s Thinking Christian blog, which teach Christians how to defend themselves against wily atheists. Amusingly, Gilson introduces the video by writing “The first 4 1/2 minutes are all you need to watch.” I decided to keep watching and learned that right at that point, at 4:30 minutes, one of those two young Christians meets up again with Boghossian sometime later and, well, here’s the comment I posted:

'Tom Gilson, I think it’s a little strange that you suggest your readers stop watching the video at 4:30 minutes into it, since it’s just after that point that the Christian who lost his faith explains that his conversation with Boghossian was at best a catalyst, that he had actually lost his religious faith before that time, that he was holding on only because of peer pressure and he wanted to use that opportunity with Boghossian as a final test of the vestige of his Christian faith. 

'So I think this street epistemology business is a red herring. The reason young Americans are leaving Christianity is because Christianity is an anachronism. 

'Advanced industrial countries all over the world tend not to be fervently Christian. The United States was an exception until recently, but it’s finally joining the ranks of most of Europe (outside Vatican City, Romania, and Greece), Canada, and Australia, with its rise in numbers of those who check off “none” when answering a poll about their religious preference. Christian beliefs are most strongly held in poor, less educated places in Mexico, Russia, Central and South America and southern Africa. You see this split even within the United States, where Christianity has only recently begun to wane in popularity: the more educated parts of that country are less Christian than the rural, less educated parts. According to Pew Research, 43 percent of American Christians have high school education or less, and 36 percent make less than $30,000 a year. (See the links below.) 

'So this emphasis on style over substance, on being able to defend the faith in a debate reminds me a little of politicians who pretend to reform their policies after their party has been soundly defeated at the polls, when all they really do is repackage the same dogmas. 

'Again, the deeper problem is that Christianity has no obvious place in the modern world. The only reason Christianity has lasted so long in the United States, for example, is that most fervent American Christians have very, very badly distorted the plain message of the New Testament, to make Christianity consistent with Republican values, that is, with cutthroat capitalism, plutocracy, war-mongering, economic imperialism, consumerism, and this-worldly happiness with a 1950s-style family complete with a dog, a two-car garage, and a white picket fence. Christianity is only nominally the majority worldview in the US. If you look at behaviour as the indicator of people’s real values, Americans are overwhelmingly materialistic, just like the rest of the developed world.' 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_by_country 

http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/christians/christian/

Gilson’s reply:

'Try to stay on topic here, okay? As I wrote in another recent comment, please see the comment guidelines link below. You like using my site as a jumping-off point for your own editorializing. That’s not what it’s here for. 

'I suggested listeners stop there because by then they had the context to know what I was talking about in this post. Street Epistemology is no red herring when the topic of the post is Street Epistemology. If you’re not interested in SE, you don’t have to be; but I wrote the post because I’m interested in it, and I think others might be, too. 

'SE is style over substance, I can very solidly assure you. Being unable to defend the faith in debate is indeed a problem for many less well-educated Christians, but SE isn’t a debate, it’s an unnatural conversational style that depends for its strength (what little strength it has, that is) on most persons’ not knowing what to do when “why” questions are repeated incessantly. Everyone reaches a point where they don’t know an answer. Not everyone knows that this often means something other than “there is no answer.” And in actual debate, Christianity holds its own quite well. 

'But I’m not going to debate any of the tangential topics you’ve tossed in here like it’s your trash can for anti-Christian scorn. Just not going to play that game.'

The Hypocrisy of American Evangelicals

Judging from the end of his reply, it didn’t look like Gilson wanted to discuss that matter further. So, finally, I commented on another of Gilson’s articles, on a nauseating one called, The Truth Holds Us, in which Gilson argues or insinuates that Christians have special access to absolute truth; that they’re actually possessed by that truth; that the relativist is arrogant in deigning “to think we can build our own personal truth” as opposed to submitting “humbly to one that’s bigger than ourselves”; that Christians are Christ-like for thusly swimming “against the currents of our age”; and that Christians should be confident rather than humble in presenting their religious message.

Here’s the reply I posted:

'I appreciate how you use the contrast between postmodern relativism and Christian absolutism to depict Christians as Christ-like for going against the flow, and I see that you acknowledge there are modern challenges that call for some Christian re-thinking. But I must say that this article’s message comes across as hollow, coming from a senior editor of The Stream, a conservative Christian and largely American website. 

'Far from letting a greater truth take hold of him or her instead of making stuff up, the conservative American Christian typically embraces an empty version of Protestantism that expects mainly lip service to an ancient creed so that this “Christian” can get on with the more important business of living as a Republican. Far from holding steadfast to absolute truth, this “Christian” has embraced Donald Trump’s presidency, making a political calculation that Trump will appoint conservative judges even though Trump himself is manifestly antithetical to basic moral values and is a total disgrace from anything like a Christian perspective. 

'I don’t see The Stream holding Trump accountable in Christian terms. Just take the tax bill that favours the top one percent with permanent tax cuts (even after the American superrich have practically turned the US into a plutocracy, as shown by the Princeton study below), that repeals the part of Obama’s healthcare reform that had a chance of giving better healthcare to the poor, and that will create a deficit that Republicans will fix by calling for spending cuts on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that will further harm average Americans. Do you really think Jesus would approve of this tax bill or of the social Darwinism that’s at the heart of Republican libertarianism? 

'“Woe to you hypocrites,” Jesus said to the Pharisees. If he were alive today, the Jesus of the New Testament would obviously be saying the same thing to the evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump and to Republican “Christians” in general. 

'Even putting politics aside, it still rings hollow for any Christian today to claim to hold onto an absolute, objective truth, because the Jesus of the New Testament was sold out long ago, beginning in the fourth century, by the founders of Catholicism who had to find some way to square Jesus’s radicalism with the business of running the Roman Empire. Paul’s faith-over-works doctrine provided the key, and so in assembling Christian scriptures they favoured the documents that asked as little as possible from Christians, excluding the more demanding, Gnostic or heavily Jewish works from the canon. 

'So after two thousand years of Christian compromising with empires, what does it mean for a Christian today to speak of laying hold to immutable truth? Why should an outsider respect that claim? Where’s the merit in a “Truth” that calls only for faith in some ancient act of sacrifice and that’s evidently so hollow that this faith permits the “Christian” to publicly idolize Donald Trump? Donald Trump!' 

https://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/is-america-an-oligarchy

To which Gilson replied:

'Mr. Cain, Free-flowing ad hominems, and virtual stream-of-consciousness dismissive scorn of this type isn’t welcome here. 

'You’re quite wrong about The Stream, me, and our views on Trump. But this isn’t the place to argue that. It’s off topic. If you want to editorialize on such things, find your own website. 

'I’ve just restored the comment guidelines link that was apparently removed in some automatic update or something. You’ll find it under the combox now. I understand you didn’t know about it before, but please read it now. Pay attention especially to numbers 2, 3, and 7. Thank you.'

Several hours later, he posted this:

'Some notes on Benjamin Cain’s post at 12:16 pm today: 

'The first paragraph nods toward the topic of the blog post, then says it “comes across as hollow” given my role with The Stream. How so? 

'In paragraph 2 we read a series of complaints, mainly “an empty version of Protestantism” that covers over the real thing, which is to “get on with … living as aRepublican.” 

'Well, that’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Let’s mark that one “Duly Noted.” 

'Continuing, Cain criticizes “the conservative American Christian” for “embrac[ing] Donald Trump’s presidency.” Apparently this shadowy, stereotyped Christian has set aside absolute truth for a “political calculation” in favor of conservative judges, in spite of Trump’s antithetical moral values. 

'That’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted. 

'Next he takes The Stream to task for not holding Trump accountable. 

'That’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted. Easily rebutted, except it’s just a statement, made without argument and way off the OP’s topic, and on this website, we don’t bother rebutting those. We leave them as “Duly Noted.” 

'Cain goes on to say he doesn’t see The Stream holding Trump accountable. He goes on with language that typically leads toward a supporting statement: “Just take the tax bill…” Then he completely forgets he was ever even talking about The Stream. 

'So his opinion about The Stream is one person’s view. Just a bare, unsupported statement. Duly Noted. 

'He goes on from there to argue a view that Jesus would disapprove of a tax bill that doesn’t serve the poor via governmental redistribution of wealth. We’re hypocrites! Now, I don’t recall Jesus ever saying the government should serve the poor in that way. Cain demonstrates no awareness of how many Christians, especially but not exclusively at The Stream, voted not so much for Trump but against the far greater danger to our country and our faith, Hillary Clinton. but I don’t want to get off topic, so let’s simply assess his argument. But wait! There isn’t one! 

'It’s one man’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted. 

'Then, not content with ripping apart Christians in our day, he claims the founders of Catholicism “sold out, beginning in the fourth century,” and “assembl[ed] Christian scriptures … that asked as little as possible from Christians.” 

'That’s his opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted. 

'He closes by saying this all means we have no commitment to immutable truth. He grapples with no argument we might put forward. He ignores all the actual works done by Christians for the poor. He ignores all the actual reasons we believe and work as we do. He ignores the reality that one can believe in absolute truth yet live it imperfectly. 

'But wait! He’s not done yet! He still has time to distort Christian doctrine! Our truth “calls only for faith in some ancient act of sacrifice”! As if Christians don’t actually accomplish any good in the world. 

'But he says this without any argument. It’s his opinion. A bare, unsupported statement. Duly Noted. 

'Here’s what we do on this website with bare statements lacking any supporting argument. We note them. Duly. Then we move on from them as quickly as possible, for these kinds of comments are completely lacking in intellectual rigor or even intellectual interest. 

'We’re moving on. Benjamin, if you have more to say on these matters, you have your own website. No free-flowing editorializing here. We want discussions, not soliloquies. Discussions interact with prior input, and they add to it with thoughts supported by information and argument. 

'You’ve got a Ph.D. in philosophy, you tell us. You really ought to know how it works.'

Note that his reference to my Ph.D. comes from one of my comments to another reader on the sex slavery and atheistic tradeoff article. So I typed up the following reply which I decided not to post, because judging from his second-last paragraph, Gilson wants to move on and likely wouldn’t allow the comment to be posted. Here’s the reply:

'Thanks for noting that I didn’t mistake a comment on an article for an article, and so I didn’t spam your website by loading my comment with arguments and explanations to support every assertion I made, most of which were obvious. 

'In turn, I’ve noted that most of your due notes about my assertions are non-denial denials.

'Is conservative American Christianity in general hollow if it can be twisted to support the likes of Donald Trump? You pretend the issue is irrelevant to whether Christians are bonded to absolute truth, thus begging the question to give you an excuse not to answer. Obviously, if conservative American Christians are hypocrites and their religious beliefs are effectively empty because they feel free to distort them beyond recognition to serve a political, Republican and thus manifestly capitalistic and plutocratic agenda, which is antithetical to New Testament altruism, the claim that Christian truth is absolute is likewise empty.

'The Republican Party serves the rich whereas the Democratic Party is supposed to protect the poor and the middle class (and its neoliberal establishment fails to do so, as the progressives point out). Christians are supposed to protect the poor and the downtrodden, not focus on aiding the superrich or exacerbating grotesque economic inequalities. But Evangelical Christians largely support Trump and the Republicans rather than, say, Bernie Sanders. Now you can go ahead and hide behind the fact that I’m not going to bother supporting this argument with all sorts of data and sub-arguments, as if I have an obligation to prove the obvious.

'Does Trump’s tax bill violate basic Christian morality and the New Testament emphasis on helping the poor? I duly note how you hide behind Jesus’ lack of reference to what modern democratic governments should do, as if Jesus’ lack of reference to fetuses has stopped Evangelical Christians from pontificating about abortion on Christian grounds. 

'The Stream says it’s dedicated to championing such Republican talking points as “freedom” and “smaller government” but also “human dignity.” Does the latter value conflict with the former two values? Specifically, is there a conflict between the individualism and social Darwinism of Republican libertarianism and the apocalyptic urgency of New Testament altruism? Another nondenial denial from you, which I duly note.

'Is The Stream opposed to Donald Trump’s presidency on Christian grounds? Again, you note that I don’t prove my assertion by providing all sorts of evidence, but neither do you answer the question.

'Your Thinking Christian blog doesn’t seem to have any articles on Trump even though you’d think a thinking Christian would be interested in whether Christians should support him and the current Republican Party in general. Out of the 221 articles on The Stream that mention “Trump” and “Christianity,” the articles are mixed in supporting or criticizing Trump. Certainly, the website as a whole isn’t raging against Trump along with the never-Trumpers. But neither does the website blindly support him. The bulk of the critical articles appear to have been posted before the 2016 election, which means Trump’s victory has silenced some of the critics. 

'One of The Stream articles that seem to sum up that website’s stance, though, and that’s directly on point is, “Have Evangelicals Lost Their Credibility by Voting for Trump?” by Michael Brown. This article echoes your defense that Evangelicals were more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump, that the fear of a de facto third term for Obama posed more of a threat to Christianity than would a Trump presidency. All that means is that these Christians care more about culture war wedge issues like abortion, homosexuality, and feminism than they do about the damage done by Republican-style capitalism and about the specific dangers Trump poses to America and the world: his compromised position with America’s rival Russia, his family’s corrupt use of the White House on an unprecedented scale, his ignorance and malignant narcissism which could start a nuclear war on a whim, his isolationism which cedes global leadership to China, the apocalyptic anarchism of his brain trust Steve Bannon who is explicit about wanting to destroy the American establishment, his manifest unfitness to serve in any high office due to the above, his destruction of America’s reputation and moral standing in the world.

'Whatever you think about those issues, my point was that Evangelicals made a political calculation instead of holding to some absolute truth. The real world is gray and messy, so absolute truth is practically irrelevant. Moreover, Evangelicals will be held accountable for siding with Trump against Clinton or Sanders and for standing with Trump as the extent of his scandals became more fully known. If Mueller’s investigation should show that Trump is culpable in many appalling ways, Evangelicals will have no moral high ground to speak of. So they can declare that their religious truth is absolute and that all that matters is defeating liberals on wedge issues, but the sufficient refutation would be: “You sided with Trump against the never-Trump Republicans and democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders, so you too are a laughing stock and a pariah. Lie in the bed you made.”

'Indeed, you wrote a 2016 article called, What Explains These Conservative Christians’ Lack of Support for Donald Trump? in which you tackle this issue of Trump’s manifest unfitness for office from a Christian perspective, and you say, “A uniquely right answer concerning Christians and Donald Trump is hardly obvious, if it exists at all.” The answer for each American Christian should turn, you say, on whether his or her “witness” is “a higher priority than, say, the appointment of pro-life justices,” which was exactly my point about the need for a political calculation.

'Another factor, you say, is whether Trump’s presidency would “damage our witness to express vocal support for Trump,” and your answer is “Probably — but how much; and how much is too much?” What happened to moral absolutes, if you can entertain the thought of accepting some damage to the Christian brand? Then you ask, ‘To what extent is it possible to finesse our support, to support “the policies, not the person,” for example?’ That’s not the sort of question a moral absolutist should be asking. Likewise, you ask, “And what about voting for him privately without supporting him publicly? Surely the analysts will be able to discern something about Christians’ support for Trump through voting patterns.” So you actually considered whether Christians could successfully hide their support for Trump. Again, it doesn’t sound to me like the Christian has much of a special connection to absolute truth, if he or she needs to engage in some Machiavellian maneuvers to be a Republican, let alone a Trump supporter.'

Cornering a Fake Christian Thinker

So much for my exchange with Tom Gilson. Gilson disappointed me, because I was hoping to converse with a thinking Christian, that is, with someone who’s enthusiastic about discussing intellectual matters, not with someone looking for excuses to ignore them. Of course he has the right to run his website however he wants, and if he deems some comments abusive or irrelevant, he doesn’t have to reply. But I’d have a thought a “thinking Christian” would be much more inclined to address the issues I raised. As you can tell if you read Gilson’s articles and my comments, my comments were hardly off-topic. Maybe Gilson could judge my last comment on hypocrisy and the Trump connection as ad hominem, but his article introduced the personal issues by insisting that those who speak only of subjective or relative truth are “arrogant,” whereas Christians are allegedly heroic for standing against the modern tide. No they’re not, by the way, not if they’re Republicans and especially not if they’re Trump supporters. Evangelicals clearly make gray-area choices too, and they’re forced to dissemble so often, to make Christianity compatible with Republican policies, that there’s nothing left of their religion except vacuous slogans and mantras.

Although his Comment Guidelines weren’t available at the time I was reading and posting comments to his blog, I note that the seventh guideline states, “Political discussion is off limits.” By way of explanation, Gilson adds, “because it is not helpful to the topics brought up here, political discussion is strictly off limits. This applies to comments regarding political parties or candidates, and to specific pending legislation.” Translation: because conservative American Christians would rather not be exposed as wildly hypocritical, the thinking Christian’s website should deal only with what Christians say (the phony absolutes of their creed), not with what they do (their support for the rapacious Republican Party and the troglodyte Trump). How convenient!

Gilson has another discussion rule which he thinks justifies his lack of response to certain comments: his rule against what he calls the argumentum ad fragenblitzen. This, he says, is the fallacy in which “The blogger makes point A about topic x; the commenter in response brings up points B, C, D, E about x.” Thus, “by bringing up one topic I open the door for you to make me responsible to answer and explain a half-dozen others, whether they’re related to my topic or not.” Since “questions are quicker than answers,” it’s unfair to expect an author to address every question a commenter might raise. And of course this is correct as far as it goes: just because an author refuses to be overwhelmed by irrelevant issues brought up by a commenter, doesn’t mean the author’s original article is at fault. Indeed, the fallacy in question reduces to the practice of spamming a website.

So the all-important question is whether the commenter’s question or issue is in fact irrelevant to the article, and here Gilson drops the ball in Nixonian fashion. He allows that “Not every new topic counts as Fragenblitzen. If you branch off into a new topic and I pick up on it, then it’s fair game. If I respond to B, then B is part of the discussion, for the time being at least.” This is like Nixon’s infamous remark that when the president acts, that means the action isn’t illegal. So Gilson is confusing objective relevance with the author’s potentially biased judgment of what’s relevant. For example, whether Evangelical Christians are whopping hypocrites for being Republicans or for supporting Trump is objectively relevant to the claim that conservative Christian beliefs are absolutely, immutably true.

Gilson wants to distinguish between Christian beliefs and practice so that the former can be perfect and absolute while latter may be flawed, as in the case of hypocrisy. But this defense won’t work, because the theological beliefs about God and Jesus either mean nothing when they contradict the conservative Christian’s political beliefs, since the Christian’s whole worldview then becomes incoherent, or they’re twisted to make the New Testament compatible with flagrantly anti-Jesus beliefs and practices such as social Darwinian libertarianism and supply-side economics. See, for example, Osteen’s prosperity gospel which makes nice with capitalism. In any case, just because Gilson disagrees about something’s relevance doesn’t make him right. Granted, just because I bring up that issue of hypocrisy in my comment doesn’t make me right. That’s what a discussion is for, to help us determine who is right. But like a tango, a discussion takes two participants.

Gilson seemed to be looking for excuses not to have to answer for himself, which means that the title of his blog, “Thinking Christian,” looks like a misnomer. I understand that the above exchange or lack thereof doesn’t prove much, since Gilson and I are only two individuals who don’t represent our respective groups. Maybe Gilson was too busy to say more and maybe the tone of my comments was too dismissive and scornful for him to endure responding to their substantive criticisms. But Gilson’s articles and responses strengthen the suspicion that there’s something fishy about the Evangelical Christian’s attempt to modernize her faith, to show that the Christian needn’t back down from a debate, because Christianity is rationally defensible.

The New Testament’s View of Critical Thinking

So laying aside the above exchange, what I want now to consider is what we should expect from a thinking Christian in general. There’s a mystery here, because there’s nothing especially rational about the New Testament. On the contrary, the story of Jesus’ life and death is apocalyptic: the character Jesus is of this world but also belongs to a transcendent realm, so while he excels at witty exchanges with the Pharisees and at stirring up trouble for the Romans, he also performs miracles. A miracle is an awesome event, a proof that nature-bound commonsense is limited. All at once a miracle bypasses everything we take for granted and lands the witness in a higher reality. By contrast, reason is a method of puzzling out the truth in a careful stepwise fashion. We argue or explain by reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar. Critical thinking is pragmatic and conservative in that the goal is to responsibly and reliably branch out in our beliefs from the known to the less well known. We want to learn new truths by piecing together a picture that makes sense according to our experience, not just to our intuitions which may be biased or fallacious. Thus, critical thinking is also empirically grounded.

The New Testament’s attitude towards this kind of critical thinking is best displayed in the story of doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29). Thomas was apart from the other disciples when Jesus’ resurrected body first appeared to them, but they assured Thomas that they had witnessed the miracle of Jesus’ return from the grave. Thomas, however, appears to understand the problem with hearsay evidence, and so he says, “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands, and put my finger where the nails have been, and put my hand into His side, I will never believe.” Some days later, the resurrected Jesus shows up again, Thomas is allowed to assuage his doubts by putting his finger into the wound, to make sure the wound is real, and Thomas confesses that Jesus is now his Lord and God. But the moral of this tale is told in 20:29, when Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Notice how that lesson is opposed to critical thinking: a critical thinker would indeed resist being swayed by hearsay testimony and would demand firsthand evidence, because the rational goal is to extend common experience in the attempt to learn new truths. But Jesus’s point is that Thomas deserves less praise for his confession of faith than does someone whose faith is blind, who has had no such direct evidence or a miraculous experience. Jesus doesn’t bless Thomas for his faith, but only makes the causal point that because he saw the resurrected Jesus, he naturally believed. That in itself is mistaken, because a truly miraculous experience wouldn’t merely cause the witness to understand it in a particular way. Instead, as Rudolph Otto explains, an experience of the numinous would be terrifying and would send the witness into shock. How she’d eventually understand the miracle would be determined after her natural period of suffering through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Witnessing a miracle should be a traumatic experience for any sane individual. For Thomas to learn firsthand once and for all that death is not the end and that God came to earth in human form should have sent him into mourning for the irrelevance of his entire life’s experience up to that point. Indeed, a miracle should provoke the witness to spit upon pragmatic and conservative reason itself as being a childish and misleading trick. In any case, Jesus offers extra praise to those who have believed that he was resurrected, without their having had any such empirical evidence, by blessing them. The Gospel of John would have been written decades after Jesus was said to have stopped his regular appearances as a zombie and to have ascended to heaven, so the Christian needed some such response to skeptics. The upshot of this point in John was that just because Christianity became an ongoing concern doesn’t mean later Christians deserve less praise for their faith than the original disciples.

But John’s response is clearly specious. The story of doubting Thomas is meant to show that Christianity represents a victory over critical thinking, since Thomas the paradigmatic skeptic is led to confess the error of his doubts about the central Christian miracle. However, the logic of this victory is flawed. If we spell out the logic, it runs like this: a skeptic was once convinced about the resurrection, because he had direct experience of the miracle; therefore there’s no more need today for skepticism, but the good news is that believers today—whose belief in the resurrection can’t be as rational as Thomas’s, because Jesus’s resurrected form is gone from the earth—is especially meritorious, because, say, they have the courage to take a leap of faith. The obvious rejoinder is that today we have only the hearsay testimony from the New Testament that a skeptic was once indeed convinced about the resurrection. So while for Thomas reason was defeated as a limited method of understanding reality, since the resurrection transcended nature and empirical reason, for skeptics today, long after the New Testament was written, there’s no such defeat because the rational link between current skeptics and Thomas’ obtaining of empirical evidence was long ago severed. Only if we could verify the transmission of information from the first century CE to confirm that Thomas and Jesus even existed, let alone that Thomas was a skeptic who stopped doubting once he saw the miracle for himself would the Christian lesson of doubting Thomas be sound. If anything, the tale appears to have developed as a later embellishment, because it refers to Jesus as “God,” whereas the earlier strata of gospel materials aren’t so bold. John 20:17 itself contradicts Thomas’ overzealous proclamation, since Jesus there tells Mary Magdalene to go tell the other disciples that he’s ascending to his God and to your God. He doesn’t say he’s ascending to himself.

Another New Testament passage that shines light on the Christian view of critical thinking is the account of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. There the author provides the famous Christian definition of “faith,” according to which “faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Christians, of course, are encouraged to have faith in Jesus, not to think critically about their religion. And once more we see the break from empirical reality in that definition, since it posits paradoxical certainty about what is not seen. The author goes on to offer many examples from Jewish scriptures to support that definition, the point of which is that all the biblical heroes of faith “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” These heroes of faith “make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And these heroes typically suffered for their faith: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.  They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Instead of being rewarded in life for the confidence they displayed in their ideals, their merit was borne out in the success of their descendants. For example, Moses wandered through the desert searching for the promised land of Israel, but he died before stepping foot in it. Nevertheless, according to the Bible his confidence in God was vindicated by subsequent history.

So faith for the New Testament isn’t a matter of being rigorously rational, of staying true to the evidence only of what’s in front of us. On the contrary, faith is otherworldly and even anti-natural—and explicitly so. The biblical heroes of faith were made “strangers and exiles on the earth” and “the world was not worthy” of them. Ignoring the actual world, they set their sights on their religious ideal to build a better world. Instead of being a critical thinker who’s inclined to calculate how to efficiently achieve some goal, the Christian is supposed to have faith in that otherworldly sense, to live in her ideal world, at least in her imagination, even if that should mean her downfall in earthly terms. The character Jesus was another biblical hero in that sense, since he too sacrificed his natural life to achieve a greater good which arguably did come to pass, namely the creation of a global religion in Jesus’ name (although the character Jesus would likely have been ashamed of most so-called Christians).

Once again, though, the New Testament’s justification of this kind of faith is specious. We have here the fallacy of confirmation bias, in which the author of Hebrews cherry-picks numerous examples where faith was traditionally rewarded in the long term. The list the author produces might conceivably provide selfless individuals with a reason likewise to sacrifice themselves. Of course, we know that that list is bogus, because the biblical stories are mostly mythical, not historical. For example, the ancient Jews were never enslaved in Egypt, so there was no Moses who sacrificed himself wandering in the desert. But in any case, it would be ludicrous to allege that everyone who dies in obscurity with no such historical vindication never had any ideals in the first place or lacked sufficient faith in them. The fallacy here is to infer that the degree of confidence in our ideals determines the impact those ideals have on the real world.

To be sure, faith in that sense is one factor, since someone who lacks self-confidence won’t inspire the admiration of others and thus won’t initiate a mass movement. World leaders may, then, tend to be charismatic. But to say that this confidence suffices for historical success is extremely dubious, since there are many other factors that come into play. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century had nothing to do with the strength of Jesus’s faith. Had the Romans not destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, Judaism might have overwhelmed the Jewish sect that became Christianity, but Christianity was allowed to flourish in part thereafter because its Jewish competitors were scattered to the winds. And there would have been many reasons why history vindicated the other biblical heroes of faith, even assuming those individuals were historical. Moreover, if an ancient tale proved erroneous or counterproductive, it would have been left out of the canon or reworked to conform to what later happened in history. As is well understood in secular circles, history is written by the winners, and when the historical evidence is self-selected in this manner, you can sustain an optimistic view of human suffering, by interpreting it as a sacrifice for a greater good that vindicates the struggles. But this depends on the biased selection of evidence that doesn’t represent the true relation between idealism and history. Some ideals become reality, others are forgotten, and selfless confidence in the ideal is only one of many factors that will have to contribute to achieving the ultimate goal.  

The Monstrosity of American Christianity

Let’s return, then, to this goal of conservative American Christianity, of preparing young Christians to be “thinkers” about their religion, to be able to defend themselves against the onslaught of rational doubts such as are found on liberal college campuses. Judging from the New Testament’s view of reason, we should be highly suspicious when someone espouses critical thinking for Christian purposes. This Christian should be aware that critical thinking is, at best, inessential to a Christian life. You might think that one reason why Christians have had to resort to a more pragmatic, rigorous outlook, at least appearing to base their religious beliefs on logic and empirical evidence, is because the apocalyptic predictions of early Christianity proved to be bogus. Christians found themselves in the ironic position of having to replace Pharisaic orthodoxy with the Catholic kind, as they acquired power over the remnants of the Roman Empire. Two thousand years of Christian imperialism later, American Evangelicals find themselves in a position so much more compromised that it boggles the imagination. But perhaps they need to attempt to think critically because the world didn’t end after all, so there was no urgency to be ascetic or otherwise morally pure. Reason is needed to manage an empire, Christian faith being insufficient, because much of the world over which God is supposed to be sovereign is evidently natural and so it bows to reason and science, not to wishful thinking and prayer.

But this doesn’t quite solve the mystery of the Evangelical’s interest in rationally justifying her religious beliefs, because Christianity’s apocalyptic message isn’t tied to its eschatological statements. As the more Gnostic and mystical or psychological interpretations clarified, the world in general wasn’t supposed to end with signs and wonders, and the kingdom of heaven is spread out on the earth as an ideal unseen by the uninitiated (see Luke 17:20-21 and Gospel of Thomas 3, 77, 113). It’s the end of each individual’s subjective world in death that matters, not the objective end of everything. According to the New Testament, each person has only a limited number of decades to atone for his or her sins before the person dies and is reborn on Judgment Day, and thus the moral urgency remains for everyone, regardless of how long Jesus’s return is delayed. For that reason the Christian’s compromise with reason is still suspicious. 

A more likely explanation of this devil’s bargain with reason is that American Christians in particular, whose national culture is highly individualistic, are affronted by the broadsides against their religion by modern philosophers and scientists, from Nietzsche to Darwin to Dawkins. So the goal is only the childish one of not allowing skeptics to get the better of Christians, to show that God is sovereign over everything, including Reason, and so Christians need not fear logic or attention to empirical evidence. (Note that the medieval Christian, Scholastic emphasis on rationality was only superficial, since it operated within narrow limits set by a Christian interpretation of Plato and Aristotle, although the Christian elites’ obsession with ancient Greek philosophy eventually turned some Franciscan theologians into skeptics.) I say this rationale of Christian debating is “childish” because it’s impulsive and not thought through. When your founding documents are explicitly anti-rational in the ways I’ve just gone over, it’s foolhardy to pretend that they can be made to seem plainly reasonable. Indeed, this is precisely the vice of arrogance, and as Proverbs 16:18-19 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling. It is better to be humble in spirit with the lowly than to divide the spoil with the proud.” The whole point of Christianity is that Christ-like faith can help us build a better world. The character Jesus bested the Pharisees in contests of reason, and deemed the Pharisees hypocrites; at least, the Pharisees supposedly had no hope of defeating the Romans and improving the world for the downtrodden. Jesus’s apocalyptic, otherworldly asceticism at least made his character sufficiently charismatic to motivate his followers to maintain their movement until by chance it became globally important under the auspices of Rome. That gave the European power elites the opportunity, at least, to soften the edges of their rule, except that they typically ignored Jesus’s message and twisted the moralistic supernaturalism to demonize their opponents for political or other secular purposes.

Americans, though, are among the most arrogant people on the planet. They’ll describe themselves not as arrogant but as having a can-do spirit deriving from the toughness of the European settlers of the New World. The periods that shaped the modern American ethos were the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Wild West frontier. The first and the third were about standing up for individual rights against tyrants, and having the toughness to endure a bleak world in which it was every man for himself. Modern America began with a social Darwinian struggle in which the law of the jungle prevailed. In the name of Liberty, the Founders created a form of government that glorifies and thus only slightly reins in that struggle. Modern democracy and free market capitalism are thus quintessentially American institutions. The Civil War complicated matters by splitting the nation into progressives and regressives, into liberal secularists who put their faith in reason’s ability to create a better world for everyone through technoscience and technocracy, and the “conservatives” who revel in the social Darwinian struggle, who trust not in God (their empty slogans notwithstanding) but in their individual power and who fight for the right to enslave or at least to dominate the masses in a stealth oligarchy.

Evangelical Christianity combines an ancient moral vision with American conservatism, that is, with modern social Darwinism. The synthesis is predictably grotesque. So you’ll hear Evangelicals boasting of the rationality of their theism, and they’ll chastise atheists for being insufficiently rigorous or civil in their criticisms, as if any genuine Christian could conceivably have the upper hand in either regard. The Evangelical only pretends that her religion is eminently rational, because the combination of Christianity (apocalyptically urgent asceticism, pacifism, socialism, and irrational faith in a supernatural reality) and Americanism (selfish consumerism plus the winning combo of capitalism and democracy which periodically degenerates into plutocracy, recreating the default of extreme economic inequality against which Jesus railed) is an absurdity that can be papered over only with a fraud.

The self-proclaimed “thinking Christian” is necessarily a con artist, but it needn’t have been so because there’s a more mature and sustainable defense of irrationalism, such as the Christian mystic’s, the Zen Buddhist’s or, more recently, the existentialist’s or the postmodernist’s. What the Christian should say to the modern world that includes Americanism is, “We haven’t outgrown the ancient ideals for a better world and we should be humble enough to admit that there is no rational justification of any ideal. That’s what faith is for, to motivate us to sacrifice ourselves to work for a better tomorrow even when all the evidence is in and things look grim. Reason is amoral and so there’s no shame in admitting that the moral basis of Christianity isn’t rationally justified. But if we stand a chance of condemning the injustices of modernity, including those produced by rampant capitalism and democracy’s dumbing down of the majority, we need religious idealism.” This is indeed what you’ll hear from progressive Christians such as Martin Luther King Jr., Cornel West, and Chris Hedges.

But Evangelicals who support the Republican Party and even Donald Trump’s presidency are having none of it, because they’re all-too American. They don’t understand that the outlook of an ascetic like the character Jesus was universal, not crassly partisan, xenophobic, or jingoistic. The Christian who’s inspired by the New Testament’s view of faith should cry out with the Cynic Diogenes that he or she is a citizen of the world and thus is opposed to all forms of tribalism. The critical thinker takes up this mantle, too, since mathematics and scientific methods are transnational. Social outsiders likewise needn’t ingratiate themselves with their nation’s cultural norms, because they condemn the whole world as inferior to their ideal. A Christian therefore has no business rejoicing in her Americanism, nor should she identify even with modernity in general—as though Christianity could be rendered rational without massive fraud—because however socially progressive modernity has been, it’s still far from perfect, especially in its present American form.

Maybe this is why it’s exceedingly difficult to have a polite conversation with an American Evangelical. When faced with something so preposterous and dishonourable, restraining your righteous indignation becomes itself a stain on your character. I tried to be neutral in my criticisms of Gilson’s articles, although by the end I grew frustrated by the inadvertent signs that his website and his religion are shams, and so I didn’t flinch from getting to the bottom of the matter, to the issue of hypocrisy. I don’t have any easy answer about how interactions between Evangelicals and atheists or skeptics should be carried out, but I do think that at some point the gloves should be removed and the monstrosity of American “conservative Christianity” should, at a minimum, be called by its true name.  

6 comments:

  1. Fantastic piece Ben! I'm bummed that it's not in my copy of Cosmic Horror For Clever Animals. Maybe time for a 2.0? As a former Christian much of this is very familiar. The older I get, the more I become convinced that whether one retains the religious belief that one is raised with, has a lot to do with how that persons brain functions. Even at a young age, I simply could not understand why everyone was so serious about religion, or even life itself. Nearly all human activity seems to be motivated by fear/reward/pleasure. What we call "free will" is instead based on these simple emotions. Those who cling to the religion of their youth, tend to be more fearful people. Fear of being ostracized by their family, fear of burning in hell, fear of ceasing to exist etc. As you pointed out, there is also the issue of religion being used as a convenient excuse, to act out on the more barbaric nature of humans. The Old Testament is a perfect example of this. We NEED to do these horrible things, because it's gods will!

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    1. Thanks! Evangelicals, then, would be doubly annoying. Not only is their religion grounded in fear and fallacies that have been indoctrinated into them from a young age, but they can't even be true to that religion and must hypocritically morph it into something more convenient in today's world, into what I called above Americanism. They avoid taking existential responsibility for their formative religious commitment by merging their religion with nationalist and even social Darwinian ideologies.

      I do have enough material now for another big anthology or maybe for a more representative one that would include some of the older articles. But I'm working on something else now, because I think there's much more happening on YouTube than in the blogosphere. At least, I've tried to find similar blogs to mine to work with and have come up empty. So I'm working on a documentary on the meaning of life. It will aim for Adam Curtis's film style.

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    2. "So I'm working on a documentary on the meaning of life. It will aim for Adam Curtis's film style." Looking forward to it.

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    3. Note that I've added an amusing postscript to the section on Old Testament immorality, since Gilson subsequently replied again to my comment and then deleted that reply.

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  2. Religion is truly toxic.

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/op-ed-calls-on-israel-to-nuke-germany-iran/

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  3. Religion is also intolerant.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/tolerance-of-whom

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