Once a Christian, Always a Christian?

No. But there are many ties that bind….

It may be tempting to imagine that Christianity is losing its grip. Mainstream denominations have been taking a hit, and polls have shown that the “nones”—those that admit to no religious affiliation—have been increasing in recent years. Maybe the secular movement is making a dent, perhaps in part because of the amazing surge in atheist publishing in the last couple of decades—that has never happened before, ever.

But I am always yanked back to reality when I recall a statistic published in Christianity Today back in 2006: by some estimates, there will be one billion—yes, that’s with a “b”—Pentecostals in the world by 2025; most of this growth will be in countries south of the equator. And north of the equator, megachurches seem to have absorbed many of the folks who have forsaken the mainstream churches. Christianity is anything but dead—and we are na├»ve to suppose that it has either foot in the grave.

Cultural Momentum Alone Should Flatten Us

What would the Seventh Inning Stretch at Yankee Stadium be without Kate Smith singing God Bless America? This is just one fragment of evidence that Christianity is not really in much trouble; it has staying power because it is embedded in the culture—and we need to be constantly reminded what we’re up against.

Hence anyone seeking to be effective in the secular movement should study David Eller’s essay (Chapter One) in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

Let these few sentences sink in:

• “Religion is not only about, not even mostly about, ‘beliefs’ and ‘arguments’ but about a worldview, a way of life, and a learned and shared and produced and reproduced regiment of experience.”

• “The efforts to debunk and displace Christianity through evidence and logic—the atheist’s stock in trade—have been and will continue to be largely futile. Christians are not easily argued out of their religion because, since it is culture, they are not ordinarily argued into it in the first place.”

Eller notes that Christian missionaries, as they assault non-Christian audiences, have been savvy about the role of culture. They don’t try to reason the heathens into Christian salvation, so much as they size up the culture and its many manifestations, and make inroads accordingly. Most obviously, this includes translating scripture into local languages. Eller points out that Christian anthropologists have created “guidebooks” to help facilitate penetration. He disdains their arrogance and abuse of the profession: “Other cultures are cultures, you see, but Christian culture is ‘reality’—which betrays their actual intention and in so doing betrays the message of anthropology.”

It would be well for those of us in the secular/humanist/atheist movement to grasp that gearing up for rational debate about Bible texts and dogmas isn’t enough. Even though the US has significant Jewish and Muslim minorities, Christianity is something Americans do.

Eller describes the stark reality: “The United States and the wider Western world are heavily saturated with Christianity throughout their many large and small cultural arrangements… Christians and non-Christians alike are literally immersed in Christian cultural waters…” Yes, Kate Smith at Yankee Stadium is one tiny piece of it, but Eller devotes several pages to a detailed account of the full assault we face daily in terms of language, customs, secular rituals; it’s really depressing. His precise indictment:

“In times of illness or misfortune, religion may barge in and insist on a role, either as reason or remedy. In times of shared alarm, such as war or natural disasters or other tragedies, religion is almost certain to show up. And religion may simply invent its own occasions and events, such as baptisms or confirmations or bar mitzvahs or the ‘christening’ (Christ–ening) of a baby, a ship, or anything else that religion wants to lay its mitts on.”

After reviewing Eller’s catalogue of Christian privilege, we can rightly laugh at the suggestion that Christians are abused and persecuted; they benefit from a couple thousand years of cultural momentum. And they fail to notice the difference between persecution and criticism. Yes, we ridicule, but no one—no one—has suggested the revocation of their right to be Christian.

Eller also calls attention to the irony that Christianity has been diluted by its own aggressive assaults on other cultures; it has been changed by the cultures that it suppresses and absorbs. In fact, these countless encounters have contributed to the endless fracturing and splitting of Christianity, which “…has shown a nearly infinite capacity to multiply and morph to fit its environment; it can accommodate or integrate almost any influence.” This is one of the reasons, I suspect, that it’s hard to be confident that Christianity has been wounded by the rise of secularism. We can point to our wins (e.g. the rise of the ‘nones’), but, to offer one dreadful example, Christianity’s successful adaptation to the cult of prosperity and over-consumption (the megachurches) is truly cringeworthy and should hold our optimism about secularism in check.

One of the big take-ways from Eller’s essay is the importance of helping people see religion as one of many layers of the culture they were born into and accept uncritically—and that it offers grounding and comfort for that reason. Yes, we can marshal all the rational arguments showing that Christianity has been falsified, but it is just as vital to do what we can to show that religions are as relative as the cultures that house them. “Religions may think they are universal and eternal,” Eller says, “but they are not. Religions may think they are special, but they are not.” That’s a major hurdle to overcome. “The hope, the obligation, is that once people recognize the diversity, plasticity, and relativity of religion, they will see little merit in it: that which is no longer taken for granted is often not taken at all.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.