Christianity: The One-True-Faith…One of Many

When skepticism languishes, apologetics flourishes

Imagine, if you will, a gigantic Religious Apologists Quilt, large enough to cover a football field, including the end zones. There are more than 6,000 squares—each a square yard—representing each of the religions of the world, past and present. For Christianity alone, because it has splintered endlessly, there aren’t enough squares on the entire field. Certainly, for example, the Baptist, Catholic, and Quaker brands cannot be the same religion. But let’s allot 500 squares to the quarrelsome Christians.

The chief apologist for each religion stands in the middle of his or her square, having attained that privilege by possessing certainty about the faith—and being fiercely committed to defending it at all costs and against all critics. It’s their job, their profession, and they are not about to budge or waver. Skepticism is treason.

But this privilege of standing on their patch of quilt—where they can’t help seeing all of the other apologists—never seems to provide a crucial insight to these defenders of the faith, one that is obvious to skeptics: they can’t ALL be right. Their slick, contorted, convoluted arguments in favor of their version of god would be laughed off the quilt by thousands of the other apologists.

Why are these hired guns so blind to this reality? Jason Long has pointed out that myopia is installed early:

“The Mormons taught themselves it’s normal to believe in a prehistoric Jewish kingdom in America, and they are constantly able to find scholars who will attest to its existence. Christians taught themselves it’s normal to pray to an earthly savior who miraculously rose from the dead, and they are constantly able to find “evidence” of his benevolence. Members of each group have their faiths because they are lifelong members of a society that has continually reinforced the ‘special’ nature of their belief. What one society perceives as normal, another perceives as a collection delusion.”

So, truth be told, each apologist on the Big Quilt is confident that all the other patches represent “collective delusion.” Well, of course, they wouldn’t say that. It’s dangerous for these pots to call the other kettles black; besides, it sounds better to say that “…there are different paths to the divine truth.” But who are they trying to kid? With just a little scrutiny we can see that this line is a diversionary tactic—and can’t possibly be correct. The Catholic apologists, for example, would concede that only tiny scraps of Islam have much claim to truth.

How in the world did this jumble of religious “truths” come about? Jason Long gives helpful insight into this is the essay that the above quote is taken from, “The Malleability of the Human Mind,” in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. This article is paired with one by Dr. Valerie Tarico, “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science.”

Why is it so hard for devout folks to come to terms with the fact that religion is a function of the human mind? As far as we know, religion doesn’t afflict animal minds, and there is no evidence whatever that God is manipulating human brain cells—people aren’t actually channeling gods through prayers and vision—if so, there wouldn’t be thousands of other apologists on thousands of other patches. Wouldn’t an All-powerful, Omni-competent God have just one message—and the skills to prevent it from becoming so garbled in human brains?

And at outset of his essay, Dr. Long expresses his frustration that religion is a part of the human condition:

“It is a curious thing that most of us ardently believe that we solved the ultimate question of the universe before we even learned how to tie our shoelaces. If philosophers, theologians, and scientists have struggled with the concept of existence for millennia without arriving at a definite solution, our naïve assessment from childhood that a divine entity simply wished it were so certainly requires a reevaluation. It is nothing short of an incomprehensible tragedy that anyone in this age of reason would have to write a book debunking a collection of ridiculous fantasies from an era of rampant superstition.”

A collection of ridiculous fantasies from an era of rampant superstition

Hey, that sounds like a pretty good description of religion to me—Christianity especially—and defending the ridiculous fantasies is what apologists live for. Long’s essay includes a critique of the apologetic adventure, and these comments stand out:

• “Just as the used car salesperson will be hesitant to acknowledge and relay information that is damaging to the quality of his vehicles, the Christian scholar will be hesitant to acknowledge and relay information that is damaging to the veracity of his religion. We have no reason to think that belief in Christianity provides a special insight into the veracity of it, because every religion can make a parallel claim.”

• “…people shun dispassionate critical thought when justifying their most important beliefs and personal values.”

• “What good is a biblical scholar who refuses to consider that his point of view may simply be wrong?”

• “Should we honestly believe that a biblical apologist who began with the notion of an inspired Bible would readily consider the possibility that his holy book is fundamentally flawed?”

• “[Apologists] will begin by presuming that certain premises are true and mold explanations to patch the apparent problems, no matter how insulting the explanations are to common sense. This is how religions thrive in an age of scrutiny and reason.”

“No matter how insulting the explanations are to common sense.” Can that possibly be the case? Long includes this damning quote— i.e., evidence be damned—from William Lane Craig: “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith, and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former that must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.”

All those apologists for other faiths are pretty sure that the Holy Spirit—known by other names perhaps—guarantees the truth of their faiths. Nobody really looks for hard evidence and data about the gods. Touchy-feely holy-spirit stuff seems to drive the game, and Long explains why it is so successful:

• “The realization that rational skepticism is not as interesting, promising, or comforting as optimistic romanticism is perhaps more formidable than any other obstacle. It’s only human to believe in things that make us happier.”

• “Human beings are surprisingly gullible creatures. The ability to think skeptically is not innate; it requires practice.”

• “Hardly any conceivable message could be more motivating than the threat of Hell, and we have good reason to conclude that such a message can be upsetting enough to deter critical thinking.”

One of the most common frustrations for those of us who push back against Christianity is the massive ignorance among laypeople about what they profess to believe. Long asks: “How can these people believe they are enlightened enough to insist on the veracity of these outlandish beliefs when studies show that they know so little about them?” I suspect you’d get blank stares from most Christians if you ask them to explain the differences between Mark’s gospel and John’s.

Long’s blunt description of the challenge of getting around the roadblocks put up by the brain to favor religion is based on his 2008 book, The Religious Condition: Answering and Explaining Christian Reasoning.

Back to the football field and the Big Quilt. Let’s pack the stadium with a hundred thousand devout folks from hundreds of different religious traditions. Maybe we could screen for people who test well for curiosity. And there, right in front of them, is the absurd spectacle: thousands of dead-certain apologists, each one insisting that they possess superior god-knowledge—superior to all the others. Maybe this would be a first step in sparking suspicion that there’s a con game going on, and that skepticism isn’t treason after 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.