I have been a Christian for a looong ass time. Doubt has always been a feature of my faith. I remember being a kid and feeling embarrassed, scared to say anything, and so my doubts lurked in shadows. As I matured, it became clear that my doubt was legitimate and not uncommon. My doubts are rooted in very objective weaknesses in the faith, and plenty of other believers wrestle with them too. Faith is a thing that exists in the presence of doubt. Faith is that property of mind or spirit that allows fidelity to an idea in spite of compulsion to believe otherwise, either imposed by an external force or exposed by the doubt within us. If you read that sentence carefully, you should ask yourself, is faith a good thing?
Dear reader, I have no fucking clue.
Why do we believe in the first place?
I’ll speak to the Christian faith–the one I’m most acquainted with–but I’m sure the criticisms can be parlayed toward other faiths. Most people of faith are children of people of faith. So, it emerges out of culture and context. There are certainly converts. I can only comment anecdotally, but it really seems like faith is inspired by need: emotional or practical. People turn to faith in the presence of tragedy, or they require it as a way of interacting with the world. Imagine you want to believe in the idea of the good, that is, a transcendental value of which we should be advocates. For example, all men are equal. How do you sell that? You might, say, hey, isn’t a world where we treat all men equal better than any alternative? That would be practical, but not convincing in all circumstances. But how history sold it was a little more epic. The idea was we all descend from the same human pair, and that we are relationally part of a brotherhood/sisterhood, and God loves us equally. That’s way more compelling.
Believing in moral values arguably gets you to a god, but it doesn’t get you to any given god. If you ask a Christian why anyone should believe in their God, they might cite any number of BS reasons, but there is one semi-compelling reason.
Ok, why is this compelling. Well–it’s not. It’s semi-compelling.
Imagine you’re an archaeologist, and you stumble upon some writings about some dude that got crucified, but then rose again. After some study and research, you conclude the following:
- The author thought he was writing non-fiction, i.e. he believed what he wrote.
- The author believed what he wrote so much, that based on external sources, he probably died for it.
- That author is one of a dozen.
Look, the resurrection is weird. It appears that a number of people experienced something that made them think their executed teacher became alive again. A number of them believed it so much that they endured executions. On the other hand, these understandings are based on events that occurred over 2000 years ago, so maybe we’ve lost something. Is the resurrection compelling?
I dunno. I think not, because most people that study the bible or the resurrection are not converted. I am unaware of any clean explanation for why a bunch of people would have become advocates for a resurrected dude without any clear gain, but it was so long ago, maybe we just lost that knowledge.
What makes faith incoherent?
Let’s start with the text. Almost every faith leverages some text as a building block. Christians have The Bible. Now, the Bible is a meaty text, filled with interesting, even thrilling stories on one hand and rote, lifeless diction on the other that might make you want to crucify yourself. Overall, in spite of some ugly asides, the big picture themes are quite beautiful and inspiring, hence the faith’s success.
When a faith subscribes to a text, the expectation is that the text is useful. For most Protestant Christians, the Bible is paramount. It’s called inerrant or infallible. Those that call it that will say that the Bible would have no power without it being consummately trustworthy.
Christianity has no greater weakness than the claim that its text is without fault.
Think for a second. What could that possibly mean, that a text has no error. Language is intrinsically subjective and in flux. To say that a text is without fault probably means that there is an approach to the text that would result in meaning that we could count on. What approach would that be?
A common approach–although unanimously rejected by academics–is that meaning out of a scripture is whatever is interpreted by a reader. Obviously, this cannot be true, because readers come to contradictory conclusions. Some Bible readers conclude that men and women are equal in gifts and talent and leadership. Others claim that men must be more authoritarian. Some understood slavery to be morally permitted, whereas others declared it anathema. Clearly, this approach is broken.
A more compelling rationale is that the text means whatever it meant to the original hearers. That is, the Bible was a thing crafted for us in the present, but not to us. It was written to a people group in the past.
That sounds great. It also solves the problem of parts of the text being copied, reproduced, and translated–clearly we ought to go back to the original texts insofar as we are able. What’s wrong with this?
Well, other than having no clear rationale why this approach is the right one, who are the original hearers? It’s really not obvious. Some of these texts evolved in an oral tradition, or cemented over time in script. Which original hearer are we talking about? The average hearer? The first hearer? Is it the meaning we think they would have obtained without bias, or the meaning history points to them obtaining based on the context they lived in? Who the hell knows?
I’ve been doing this Christian thing for 30+ years, and I have no idea what scripture being reliable means. I promise you–it’s unlikely anyone does. We don’t believe it because it makes sense. We believe it because we have to. What’s a faith without a text you can count on? It could be art, but it couldn’t be truth.
Maybe that’s a false dichotomy. The Bible is really just a bunch of documents compiled in history. Were we to stumble upon them as archaeologists, we would imagine there would be some truths to be gleaned, but figuring that out would be hard work and probabilistic at best. I think all of Christendom would be afraid of a faith that is so fragile. I know I am.
Today is the day after Donald Trump got elected for President.
Christendom is largely to blame. It is very unclear how my peers could conclude that Donald Trump was its best representative. I very much doubt anyone sees a resemblance between Jesus Christ and Donald Tump. And yet, here we are. My people elected him. It’s embarrassing.
It makes me not want to be their peers. It affirms all the doubts that are so compelling. But what’s the alternative? Believe in another god(s) with another set of weakness, or believe in no god and have no rationale for advocacy of any kind. I know, reader, that sounds absurd, but look: it’s not that people that don’t believe in god can’t be moral. It’s that what moral means without a god is very hard to say. It’s feels arbitrary. It’s the difference between:
- Gay men are valuable because God created them and gave them significance
- Gay men are valuable because I met a gay dude and he was super, and a world in which they have equal dignity would be a nicer world to me
Without a god, it feels so subjective.
So, I dunno. At the end of the day, the world feels absurd. But to interpret it that way means surrendering to despair. But there is also a despair in having hope that is crushed by thoughts without rigor.
And that is all I see among my Christian peers: thoughts without rigor. We were supposed to be heroes.