“Tell Me What’s Wrong about Christianity...”

But it’s tough to face the answers head-on

Andy Bratton, a clergyman at the top of his game, recently asked an atheist at the top of his game: “What exactly is it about Christianity that causes you to reject it as a belief system?” The senior minister and the atheist had known each other for a long time, so why not get to the bottom of their differences?

The atheist happened to be John Loftus, author of eight books on the falsification of Christianity, and he threw the question open for response on Facebook. At last count there had been more than 150 responses, which included thoughtful, compelling, forceful arguments against the Christian faith. Honestly, it was quite a lot to take in.

Actually, Christianity itself has a lot to take in. Not only does it suffer from grievous flaws and contractions (people of faith naturally prefer to divert their eyes), but our knowledge of the cosmos—including how our own tiny world works—has left theism reeling. The search for evidence of gods, outside of human imaginings and emotions, has come up empty.

It’s understandable that most of the folks in the pews prefer to ignore the upheaval; they have no interest in leaving their comfort zone to find out why and how Christianity has been falsified. But shouldn’t we expect more from those who lead their flocks? But, as it turns out, the leaders can’t be expected to probe too deeply either. They aren’t trained to be rigorously curious about the faith. Seminaries exist to manufacture clergy, and the most difficult challenges are passed off to the professional apologists who are expected to engineer the best bluffs and excuses. For the most part, the clergy are satisfied.

So should I have been stunned when I read the senior minister’s comeback? Yes, those 150-plus responses were a lot to take in. But did he even try? He seems to be out of his depth trying to discuss religion competently; satisfied with the shallow reasoning offered at seminary, he doesn’t rise above the level of C. S. Lewis banalities. One big tipoff: Bratton had not bothered to read/study Loftus’ books before he posed the question. It’s a bit cheeky to ask for a free pass: “I don’t like homework, so please slip me the answers.”

To see Loftus’ lengthy give-and-take with Bratton, here it is on Debunking Christianity.

His first comment in support of the faith was this:

“I look at the human body and all of creation and say, ‘There has to be a creator.’ Life is so complex that it can't be a cosmic belch that just started forming everything.”

Complexity is theism’s first line of defense? Did he somehow miss Charles Darwin’s contribution to our understanding of how the world works? Darwin’s keen observation skills—long before the discovery of genetics and DNA—enable us to understand complexity. The last thing necessary for this is God. No, there doesn’t “have to be a creator”—at least not to explain complexity. Moreover, a god in charge of complexity doesn’t have to be a personal god who cares about people and hears prayers. That is a unwarranted assumption. There hasn’t been a lot of “thinking it through.”

And ‘cosmic belch’? Of course, that would get a chuckle from his congregation, but we can suspect from this wisecrack that the pastor hasn’t done much to keep up with cosmology, one of the most fascinating scientific adventures imaginable. Especially since the invention of satellite technology, our understanding of cosmic origins has advanced dramatically. This stuff is thrilling; we are the first generation in all of human history to see so far back in time, to the early churnings of the cosmos. Check out the Wilkinson Anisotropy Probe and the European Space Agency Planck Probe. Why not try to find out, as precisely as possible, how the universe began? Instead of derisively referring to ‘a cosmic belch,’ revel in the details about how ‘everything just started forming’—from the researchers who have come up with so much data.

And we’re on the verge of even more wonder. The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble, is due to launch in 2021.

Victor Stenger Was on the Loftus Team

There are, in fact, many tools for getting up to date on the progress of science, for example, John Loftus’ 2016 anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, includes as essay by Victor J. Stenger, “Christianity and Cosmology.”

Stenger describes the gradual demise of Biblical cosmology, brought about by thinkers who, by incremental steps, gradually figured things out. His discussion of Isaac Newton throws light on how knowledge advances:

“…Newton turned to God to provide explanations for what he could not explain himself. Newton’s gravitational theory admitted only attractive forces, which implied that the stars, which everybody at the time assumed to be fixed, should collapse upon one another as a result of their mutual attraction. Newton conjectured that God had placed them in just the right positions where their attractions balanced. Newton also invoked God to provide for the stability of planetary motion…. Sir Isaac reasoned that the orbits of planets would not maintain their regularity by blind chance. Thus, he concluded, God had to intervene from time to time to keep things in order.” (p. 107)

But others in Newton’s wake demonstrated that this was not the case at all.

“A century after Newton, the French mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists Pierre-Simon Laplace and Joseph-Louis Lagrange independently proved that the solar system was highly stable despite the gravitational effects of planets on one another. The French mathematicians Siméon Poisson and Henri Poincaré later confirmed this to greater precision. This removed one of the objections Newton had to the clockwork universe: God is not needed to step in to keep the solar system in order.” (p. 108)

The real excitement began in the nineteenth century, with the advance of telescopes and technology.

“Previously, it had been assumed that one set of laws applied on Earth and another set in the heavens. Newton proposed that the force that causes an apple to fall from a tree to the ground was the same force that caused the moon to fall around Earth. The universality of physics was corroborated in the nineteenth century with the observation that the spectral lines in the light from stars were the same as those observed from hot gases in laboratories on Earth.” (p.110)

But the drama intensified in the twentieth century.

“…Edwin Hubble and others established that the universe was much vaster than previously assumed and that the Milky Way, within which we reside, is just one of countless ‘island universes’ called galaxies that contain hundreds of billions of stars. Furthermore, Hubble showed that the larger the redshift of the stars in the galaxy, the further that galaxy is from us.” (p. 111)

Few discoveries have been of such importance as the redshift. That story is worth a good read just by itself. See The Red Limit by Timothy Ferris, as well as his Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Such books are basics in the library of a scientifically literate person. Surely ‘religious experts’ are not entitled to speculate on the relation between science and religion without having read them, and absorbed their implications.

A Religious Scientist and Unwelcome Religious Dabbling

It is one of the ironies of twentieth century cosmology that a physicist/Catholic priest figured out that there must have been a Big Bang (although he didn’t call it that). Georges Lemaître, Stenger points out, “… showed that Einstein’s general relativity leads to an expanding universe that accounts for galactic red shifts.” (p. 111) This puzzled Einstein himself, but it was Hubble’s work that confirmed it. Pope Pius XII thought that this was an Ah Ha moment for theology. The Big Bang must have been God’s creative moment.

“Introducing a theme that would be expanded upon by religious apologists in succeeding decades, the pope said, ‘According to the measure of its progress, and contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever- increasing degree—as though God were waiting behind every door open by science.’” (p. 112)

“The pope’s message was actually quite misleading, leaving the impression among laypersons that ‘the biblical Genesis had literally been proved by big-bang cosmology.’ Lemaître knew this was not the case and managed to get the pope to slightly moderate his views in later speeches.” (p. 113)

Lemaître had a hunch, of course, that God-Did-It is a falsifiable claim, and given enough time and research, something other than a god could be given credit for the Big Bang.

Theology Descends to the Comic Level

With so many galaxies out there—perhaps hundreds of billions—it’s not hard to see that the number of planets could be in the trillions. And if only a fraction of these planets have thinking creatures, there could be billions of civilizations. And, of course, theism demands that they all be accountable to God, and thus, supposedly, in need of salvation. Stenger wondered what kind of workload that puts on the Son of God:

“Jesus must be continually dying on the cross, every nanosecond or so, on some planet in our universe, in order to save from eternal damnation every form of life that evolved sufficient intelligence to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” (p. 117)

Are theologians equal to the challenge of figuring this out, and protecting vital Christian doctrine? Stenger quotes Father José Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican observatory, who acknowledged that God’s creation could include other intelligent creatures on other planets. And Funes’ talent for theological make-believe is on full display:

“‘They could have remained in full friendship with the creator.’ He likened humans to ‘lost sheep’ for which ‘God became man in Jesus to save us.’ The other intelligent beings did not necessarily need redemption…According to Funes, ‘Jesus became man once and for all. The Incarnation is a single and unique event.’” (pp. 117-118)

“So, if Funes is accurately reflecting Catholic thinking, humans remain the favorite of God—although a strange kind of favorite who needs redeeming while countless other intelligent life-forms do not.” (p. 118)

Well, this is good for a few laughs. See what happens when we mix contemporary knowledge of the cosmos with goofy redemption theology from the ancient past? Knowledge, insights, understanding have been piling up—and we stand in awe of so much of it. And we shake our heads in disbelief as religious apologists still try to get Jesus to fit in. Stenger puts it well: “The Judaic-Christian-Islamic God is a mighty God when viewed from the perspective of the desert tribes in the Middle East that conceived him. But that God is not mighty enough from the perspective of modern science.” (p.118)

Looking for Magic from Heaven

And this brings us back to the senior minister who gives us, oh alas, too much information; Bratton can’t pull himself away from the pathetic fantasies of the ancient Jesus cult. “I believe Heaven will come down and dwell on earth when Jesus comes again. But it will be the earth He created in the beginning. A perfect one. With no more tears or pain.”

He can’t be serious. A holy man is going to come from the sky to make everything better? That’s not childlike, it’s childish. This concept derives from first century religious fantasy literature; how does this differ from standard fairy tale lore? If a couple of twenty-something missionaries came knocking on my door, to tell me the good news that a divine being would soon arrive from heaven (and it’s always ‘soon’—be ready!) to set things straight, I would try to resist the temptation to tell them, “Go home and grow up,” but instead ask them to explain their epistemology. “Where did you get this idea? Who convinced you? What are your standards of evidence? Have you given it full scrutiny?”

I said earlier that the pastor was out of his depth discussing religion, and this hits us again when he dismisses cosmology: “…the fact is that none of us were there in the beginning to know.” He doesn’t seem to be aware of the evidence that has been gathered. Strenger, on the calculations about the number of planets: “This is not pure speculation. It is based on observations and the theory of cosmic inflation that is now empirically well established.” (p.116) Bratton’s comment is on a par with “How do you know Lincoln was assassinated? You weren’t there!” Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias weren’t there in the first aeons after the Big Bang, but they won the Nobel Prize for discovering the background radiation that still pervades the cosmos.

Other recommended homework for those who have fallen behind on cosmology: physicist Sean Carroll’s article, “Why (Almost) All Cosmologists Are Atheists,” and his book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

Distrust Prideful Humility

Bratton claims that getting to know Jesus “…is a decision that each person has to come to on their own, not from someone else trying to push it on them or persuade them with flowery words.” Wow…has he been in solitary confinement? Jesus is pushed on us relentlessly, and Bratton is part of the zealous bureaucracy. Selling Jesus is a multibillion-dollar business, one major fragment of which is televangelism. Missionaries knock on doors throughout the land, have pamphlet tables on the sidewalks and in the subway—and rare is the community that doesn’t have a least one church. We gotta have God on our money and in our pledge of allegiance. Jesus supposedly said, “Tell the whole world about me,” and boy, Christians can’t wait.

It All Comes Down to This (No Surprise): Scared of Dying

It seems that clinging to the old rugged cross is just the way the faithful do things. Or as Bratton puts it, “...my biggest reason for belief is simply hope. I can't imagine my life thinking that all that awaits me is becoming worm food some day.”

He can’t imagine? Sorry, that fails as epistemology. What anyone of us can or cannot imagine has no bearing at all on what is true. This is his confession that he stands in horror at the thought of dying. That should never come into play in deciding the nature of reality. The cosmos shows no inclination whatever to make us feel better about becoming worm food. In fact, the way the cosmos is set up, everything dies—from microbes to planets and stars—and so it would seem, the cosmos itself.

The senior minister seeks rescue from oblivion. Religions have been selling palliatives for this terror forever; the Christian version is just a ho-hum variation on the theme, summed up by the apostle Paul’s magical thinking: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Let’s go back to the original question: ““What exactly is it about Christianity that causes you to reject it as a belief system?” Maybe its biggest fault is the depreciation of knowledge and the blunting of curiosity. The legacy of the apostle Paul has been disastrous: “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” We can do so much better than that.

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 in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.