The Christian Knack for Insulting Our Intelligence

Why in the world do they believe such things?

Sometimes even Sunday school kids have the presence of mind to ask, “But where did God come from?” To which the assurance is always given, “Well, God has always been there.” But rarely do the kids—or even the adults—ever ask, “But how do you know that?” How do you KNOW that about God? Without the evidence it’s just another assumption—one of so many that derail religious thinking. Bertrand Russell punctured this lazy conjecture when he pointed out that it’s just as easy to believe in a universe that has always existed—as it is to believe in a god that has been around, uncreated, forever.

But Christians don’t have a problem with God-just-always-was because—well, everything had to have been kicked off by a creator with a plan. That’s just common sense, right? And they look at atheists as if we’re crazy for not seeing that nature itself—with butterflies and sunsets—is proof of their god. When I hear that dodge, my word of caution is, “You don’t want to go there.” Because you have gained nothing, absolutely nothing, by giving a god the credit for “creating.”

There is an oh-so-common failure to grasp that you know a sum-total of zero about that creator deity—and the last thing we’re entitled to do is say that the Bible-God gets the credit. How could that connection possibly be made?

Christians descend into even more silliness when they offer puffed up certainties about the nature and personality of that Bible-flavored god. How can this not be silly since the biblical depictions of god are so horrific—which devout believers have to make excuses for—and which routine Christians could grasp if they gave more than lip service to Bible study. Dan Barker’s, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (2016) can help them snap out of it: the Bible god fails to measure up. In seminary we soon learned that it was impossible to write a Theology of the Bible because its mash-up of ideas about god are all over the map (to be sure, theologians who specialize in sophistry rise to the challenge).

A quick short-cut guide to the exhausting weirdness of Christianity can be found in John Loftus’ essay, “Christianity Is Wildly Improbable,” in his 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity. At the outset he wonders why anyone can take this juggernaut faith seriously—especially when we put it in perspective:

“There are many religions in the world we don’t take seriously enough to pay attention to them. There are also many dead religions of the past that we ignore in today’s world, including several dead Christianities. They do not merit our thought or discussion. They are dead. They have no relevance for our lives…When it comes to Christianity, two thousand years are enough. It’s time this ancient myth was put to rest.”

Loftus lists ten creedal affirmations to demonstrate his point, and admits that they apply mainly to Protestant Evangelicalism. Hence many moderate or liberal Christian might accuse him of presenting a caricature of the faith: they don’t buy all the creedal statements, e.g. Adam and Eve were real people, the Earth is only six to ten thousand years old, only those who believe all the right stuff will get into heaven. Oh yes, the moderates have moved beyond all that. But isn’t that just the problem? Christians have disputed endlessly about what to believe—or not believe.

But no brand of Christianity has managed to let go of Loftus’ Number 8: “God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all the evil that ever has or every will be.” Most Christians have ditched Adam and Eve because that story is wildly improbable, but a loving deity who permits so much suffering is the most wildly improbable god imaginable.

Loftus is rightly so fond of repeating, “We want evidence”—but there is none (“evidences from the sciences”) to justify any of the ten creedal affirmations. Well, what about philosophy?

“…Christians have the task of showing how philosophy can make coherent sense of their doctrines (like Trinitarianism, the incarnation, atonement, personal identity after death, and the goodness of an omnipotent God in the presence of massive and ubiquitous human and animal suffering). Accomplishing all these Herculean tasks is needed to defend what they believe. It cannot be done.”

Loftus adds more perspective: “Christian theism has no more credibility than Scientology, Mormonism, Haitian Voodoo, or the southwest Pacific Ocean cargo cults, because they are all based on faith.” Thus we’d like to be able to say, “We rest our case: Christianity can be flushed.” Nothing can rescue it from the realm of the wildly improbable.

But, of course, there are those who devote their careers to the effort. In the section of the essay titled, “Defending the Faith Makes Brilliant People Look Stupid,” Loftus turns to consideration of those who have mastered the art of “double standards, non sequiturs, special pleading, begging the question, or just plain ignorance.” These are the professional apologists who, like alchemists, try to transmute “wildly improbable” into “rationally believable.” He offers a survey of the work of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig and Richard G. Swinburne.

These guys are fond of chanting that the standard creedal statements fall into the realm of the possible—about on a par with Russell’s Cosmic Teapot, I suppose. But this falls far short of demonstrating probability. And their smooth talk—I have long referred to it as theobabble—is no doubt lapped up by the clergy eager to squirm out of doctrinal absurdities. I think that the prize has to go to one of Craig’s ultra slick excuses for a good God who seems to give a shrug to the billions of unsaved souls:

“It is possible that God has created a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost and that God has so providentially ordered the world that those who fail to hear the Gospel and be saved would not have freely responded affirmatively to it even if they had heard it.”

There’s an “optimal balance between saved and lost”? How could he possibly know that? And Craig is pretty confident that “the lost” who never hear the gospel would ignore it anyway. This is tidy, but evil. How can anyone stomach such ugly theology? See what I mean about the Christian knack for insulting our intelligence?

Under the heading, “Derivative Bizarre Beliefs,” Loftus offers consideration of other beliefs that fall off the chart, e.g.,

“Consider what kind of evidence could possibly convince you if a trusted friend said that last week he met a person in India who was God incarnate. I daresay nothing would convince you of this. Think about it. Now, when it comes to Jesus, we don’t personally know anyone who claims to have met him, nor do we know the authors of the Gospels, nor can we adequately judge their honesty (honest writing can easily be faked). But we do know that these authors lived in an era when people believed sons of gods walked the earth and that they had virgin births. So if we wouldn’t believe such an extraordinary claim today, how much more should we not believe one in the superstitious era of the first-century CE?”

To conclude the essay, Loftus offers “A Reality Check for Believers,” which is a well-annotated list of 15 more wildly improbable things that are held dear by conservative Christians especially. But I wonder how many Christians themselves would be startled that the faith encompasses so much nonsense—their intelligence might also be insulted.

I guess since criticizing Jesus is the unforgiveable sin—which is totally unjustified reverence—one of my favorites in the list of 15 is this (Number 9):

“…the textual evidence in the New Testament shows that at best the founder of the Jesus cult was a failed apocalyptic prophet who prophesized that the end of the world would take place in his generation, and would involve a total cosmic catastrophe, after which God would inaugurate a literal kingdom on earth with the ‘Son of Man” reigning from Jerusalem over all the world’s nations. This still has never happened.”

Nor has widespread critical analysis of the faith ever happened. But are they worried? The Christianity has a couple thousand years of momentum; it has a huge bureaucracy, zealous media-savvy promoters and vast real estate holdings; in so many places it enjoys prestige and influence in the halls of power. David Fitzgerald has said that it’s not too big to fail, but the wild improbability of the faith is matched by the wild improbability that this grand superstition—promising escape from death—will be abandoned anytime soon.

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.