Can We Send Christianity Packing…ASAP?

Not a chance. But steady erosion is still a plan…
The pious among us are so sure that religion improves the world. They can point to gazillions of examples of believers doing good, without granting that charitable behavior doesn’t have to be motivated by a god spying on you—or its spirit molding your character. It has often been pointed out that you’re a better person if you do good without being prodded by an imaginary friend.

Despite the unctuous pretense, religion is a threat—and it is hardly in retreat. We can see a gathering storm, a catastrophe barreling down on us. More than ten years ago, Christianity Today published an article that should snap secular folks to attention. You think we should worry about global warming? Well, yes, but add this to your disaster list:

“With more than 580 million adherents (growing by 19 million per year and 54,000 per day), the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has become, in just 100 years, the fastest growing and most globally diverse expression of worldwide Christianity. At the current rate of growth, some researchers predict there will be 1 billion Pentecostals by 2025, most located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”

The most globally diverse expression of worldwide Christianity.” One billion Pentecostals. Can anyone offer any glimpse of hope in this scenario? Are there progressive, science-minded Pentecostals, those who are committed to critical thinking and secular education? Please tell me it’s not as bleak as it sounds.

Meanwhile, north of the Equator—namely, in the U.S.—a virulent yahooism is trending—in the original meaning of that word, i.e., ignorant boorishness. How in the world did it come to pass that evangelicals, of all people, have aligned themselves with a man utterly lacking in religious sensibilities? They sold their souls to a racist misogynist who promised to back their anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-feminist agendas. He says all the right things found in their pious playbook. Their inexplicable fawning culminated in a group hug in the Oval Office.

What are we up against? A good place to get a grip of the realities is Sharon Nichols’ essay in the 2016 John Loftus anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. Her essay is titled, “What Science Tells Us About Religion, Or, Challenging Humanity to ‘Let It Go.’”

Nichols brings our attention in this essay to a phenomenon that other scientists have noted as well:

“We want to understand the underlying ultimate cause of belief in religion in humans and the proximate cause of the persistence thereof. To achieve this goal, we will explore the relationship between human cognition and hypersensitive (or hyperactive) agency detection (HADD), anthropomorphism, and religion.” So if this interests you, dive right into this essay.

A key point comes in her next sentence: “One way to understand belief in supernaturalism is to view it as an error in our brain’s ‘rush to judgment’ in attempting to explain the unknown.” Our ancient ancestors rushed to judgment, for example, that lightening, hurricanes, volcanoes, plagues were signs of angry gods at work.

Maybe H. L. Mencken was right too: “There must have been skeptics at the ringside when the first priest performed his hocus-pocus, and no doubt some of them, revolting against its transparent fraudulence, set themselves to find a better way to deal with flood, fire and famine” (Treatise on the Gods, 1930). Unfortunately the skeptics failed to master the razzle-dazzle that priests learned how to create (think St. Peter’s Basilica).

Here is the explanation for the success of the gods—Nichols puts it quite well: “Anthropomorphism is the brain’s tendency to attribute humanlike features, characteristics, or personalities to nonhuman entities in ambiguous situations.” What could be more ambiguous than the gods…unseen, unheard (outside the heads of the pious), undetectable by those who don’t buy into the faith claims.

“The brain’s systematic anthropomorphism, more often than not, makes false positives in the identification of an alleged agent. It’s an all-too-easy leap for the human mind to fill-in-the-gaps with mistaken and made-up entities, such as animistic spirits, ghosts, witches, and gods.” Children ascribe personalities to their teddy bears and talk to them; adults ascribe personalities to their gods…and pray.

In an important section of the essay, Nichols describes how culture becomes the main culprit in enabling religion, making it so difficult for people to evaluate beliefs objectively:

• “Once religions are invented, many cultural processes act to perpetuate them and from that point on, cultural evolution takes over.”

• “Each city-state, empire, or civilization enjoyed its own panoply of gods and traditional god-narratives, religious centers, and other landscape features.”

She points out that the god-narratives are of flimsy origin, and yet escape critical evaluation; the origins of Christianity and Judaism “are murky, with contradictory narratives from canonical texts that are of rather late origin, after the alleged events (by decades or even hundreds of years). These texts are of dubious provenance, and almost all of them were by anonymous authors writing about people and events for which evidence is almost nonexistent and uncorroborated by independent contemporaneous sources.”

Yet. People. Believe. How do humans remain in the grip of feeble nonsense? Nichols provides a list of the characteristics that hold appeal and fuel monotheism—among the faithful who can’t be bothered to think much about them (and that apologists work overtime to defend). Her list takes up almost three pages of bulleted points, including these techniques; a monotheist religion:

• is mystical; without mystery, there is nothing to catch the imagination
• uses a plethora of emotional triggers to reinforce the faith and control the faithful
• uses narratives that pretend to be revealed historical facts
• uses a sense of awe to incite or reinforce belief
• may provide a sense of (false) certainty in an uncertain world, working to reduce untenable ambiguity by insistence on belief without evidence—on faith alone

The final section of the essay is an appeal for critical thinking and scientific inquiry. Knowing what we’re up against—remember those billion Pentecostals and our home-grown evangelicals craving theocracy—we can’t afford to assume that we can easily put a brake on Christian momentum:

“There is no inoculation from believing in inane, silly, unreasonable, woo-laden, or even dangerous beliefs, including religion, but learning some basic skills, we hope, will help us suspend the tendency to believe without supporting evidence.” And she sums up pretty well the current crisis brought on by faith: “When something gets shrouded in the cloak of special pleading and dubious protectionism, then you know the world is in trouble.”

It is imperative to recognize that religion and honest inquiry don’t easily coexist:

• “The rational scientific model of thinking is an approach to problem-solving and gaining knowledge, and contrasts sharply with the non-rational and religious mode of operation (which rests its case solely on belief).”

• “Most people are ill-equipped to distinguish facts from opinions, or science (or history) from pseudoscience (and pseudohistory). They fail to understand that a claim or an assertion is not a fact.”

How to proceed? “It is incredibly frustrating to attempt to deal with anti-intellectualism and anti-science; they are so contrary to common sense and reason. A strategy that is less fraught with frustration is that of ‘planting seeds.’”

Hence her recommendation: “Exploit an opening and use communication skills to plant seeds of reason and doubt. Seeds can crack boulders; surely they can root out unreason. Have you ever seen a blade of grass growing in concrete? It is the same with doubt.”

For those of us who butt our heads daily against Christian boulders—whether in the form of laypeople panicked at flaws in the faith that even they notice, or hired-gun apologists—Nichols’ imagery offers some hope:

“Think of religion as a differential terrain: some of it will ‘wash away’ in the same way that weaker rock layers erode before stronger rock layers will. This can eventually lead to canyons of doubt. Every drop of doubt that is added erodes religion further, until religious belief is no longer tenable.”

So…we keep writing: “The more books and articles revealing religion’s weaknesses, pious lies, and evils, the more likely someone teetering on the edge of doubt will eschew religion, and step into the light of reason.”

But the purveyors of the hocus-pocus—preachers, priests, missionaries—have so much practice and tradition behind them. Of course momentum is on their side, and their skills at deception are well honed. The last thing they want is due-diligence aimed at their preposterous faith claims. John Loftus knows the game they play:

“New converts in different cultural contexts have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelists will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelists will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems that Christian scholars must solve? None that I know of.” (The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, 2010)

Religious expansion thrives on dishonest peddling. But hey, there are indeed those innumerable problems that we can use to expose the sham. It may take a long time for Christianity to erode—but, as is the case with countless other religions that have died out, Christianity will end up on the scrapheap of history. Either that, or we’ll all end up on the scrapheap much sooner than expected. Frank Zindler wrote in the Foreword of Christianity in the Light of Science:

“The moment is desperate, yet hopeful. The dragon of faith is dying, but the thrashing of its tail while in the throes of death can still do much damage. Armageddon could yet prove to be the only prophecy of the Bible ever to come true.”

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.