Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So, What Do Christians Really Believe, Anyway?

I had a discussion recently with a fellow non-believer in which he said that he didn’t think Christians truly believed as they say they do.  I found this to be an interesting assertion.  It is something I have actually considered before and the conclusion that I came to was that yes, people do truly believe but they don’t necessarily believe in what they say or even what they think they do.

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Let’s begin by looking at the basis of Christianity, the Bible.  There are two ways to interpret the Bible; literally and non-literally.  In following a literal interpretation, one can be consistent but must perform a fair amount of mental acrobatics to make it work within the framework of society’s knowledge as it stands.  You have to be willing to deny all evidence in the world around you to maintain that faith.  To be consistent with literalism, one must believe that the world is flat, the sun goes around the earth, light was created before the sun, billions of critters fit on a boat and eight people were able to care for them and other statements that defy logic including reconciling the many inconsistencies that exist within the Bible itself.

Literalists believe because it simply must be true.  They cannot accept that they could be wrong; nor do they even allow themselves to consider the possibility.  They know in their hearts that God loves them and that if they follow his laws, even when they contradict the laws of man or are hurtful to others, they will be rewarded in the afterlife.  Some feel their faith so strongly, that they are willing to deny all logic and reason and accept all of this in the name of faith.  I would go as far as to say that I think these people are living in a state of delusion where God is the final answer to every question.  It seems to me that these people have the most sincere and consistent beliefs but also the most illogical and least in line with reality. 

Those who follow a non-literal interpretation are able to apply their logic to varying degrees but lose the consistency of their belief.  I often wonder if these people have even read the entire Bible.  They seem to choose which pieces to believe based on their own personal biases.  For example, many choose to believe that homosexuality is wrong but eating shellfish and getting tattoos is fine or might accept that the earth is vaguely spherical but believe in divine creation.  They might believe that God is loving and forgiving but not remember the parts that say he is vengeful and jealous.  The Bible offers no guide as to which passages should be taken literally and which might be up for interpretation.  How do these believers know that they have chosen the “right” rules to follow?  These individuals may believe deeply but they fail to recognize the way they compartmentalize their thoughts in order to allow their religion to conform to their knowledge of the world and the rest of their beliefs.

Some non-literalists will go as far as to say that the Bible is simply a collection of stories to live by; a guide for how to act humbly and charitably.  They might even recognize that many of the stories such as creation, the flood and Christ’s death and subsequent rising are themes that have been repeated for many millennia in hundreds if not thousands of cultures differing only in names and specific details.  I am particularly baffled by these people because I do not understand, if one does not believe that the Bible was divinely inspired or that God has a personal interest in their lives or that Jesus died for man’s sins, how one can possibly call oneself a Christian. 

It has been my experience overall (with a few notable exceptions) that the Christians I know are incredibly good people.  They are honest, caring, thoughtful and generous.  They want the best for those they love.  They want to help others and improve the world around them.  They think that it is “good” to believe in God because believing in God makes them “good people”.  They believe that God is taking care of them and that he listens to their prayers.  They believe that God gives them comfort and guidance.  They believe that it is arrogant to think that there is “nothing greater than ourselves”.  And they believe that their goodness will be rewarded.  To stop believing would mean they were immoral, they and those around them would suffer and they would be left powerless and unloved.

What they do not allow themselves to see is that the things they consider to be “good” are coming from within themselves.  If belief in God were the only thing making people “good”, then we should see those who de-convert resorting to all kinds of immoral behavior but this just doesn’t happen.  Atheists are not running rampant, a stream of crime following in their wake.  Would these believers really stop caring for others if they gave up the sacred or would they continue to care for those in need because it is the right thing to do?  Would their loved ones fall apart if the prayers of the faithful were not bestowed upon them or would they continue to experience the ebb and flow of life with its triumphs and tragedies?  Would they feel alone or would they realize that as human beings, we are all in this together and are inherently connected to one another?  Would they really think that there is “nothing greater than ourselves” or would they find themselves incredibly humbled by the vastness of our universe and our place within it?  I submit to you that they would come to understand that being a “good person” does not require God.

So while many people call themselves Christians, the space between different Christian’s belief systems is often not just a jump but a chasm with some teetering on the brink of Godlessness.  Some believe that the Bible is communication direct from God, some view it as a divinely inspired guideline and some just believe in belief.  I think that the ones who fall off of that brink may find that the drop isn’t too far at all. 

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