Do Christians Consider Curiosity a Sin?

The impact of “…distrust for deep thought…”
A Christian recently posted a comment on the Facebook page for my book: “You seem to have prayed for something and didn’t get it. Isn’t that the main reason people turn atheist?” There are certain situations in which unanswered prayer could be a reason—and I’ll get to that in a moment. But this suggestion about the ‘main reason’ was a clue that this guy remains inside a hard plastic bubble to protect the faith. If he had made serious inquiries about atheism, he would have discovered many other reasons for which people reject belief in God. But why bother? He wasn’t that curious.

This is a common pattern. During the last six years Christians have dropped by the Facebook page to offer their protests and objections—as well as amateurish analysis of my critiques of their faith. One thing has stood out, constantly: They don’t know much about their own religion. I see so little evidence that serious investigation of faith has been attempted. Life inside their hard plastic bubbles doesn’t include curiosity. They know what they know, and that’s enough.

But doesn’t the same-old, same-old recitation of creeds get boring? That seems to be the case, because old mainline denominations are losing ground to slick megachurches. Marketing, repackaging, and spectacular staging have transformed the Jesus Industry; glitz has been added, but no substance. Curiosity-driven investigation of the faith—based on hard critical thinking—isn’t about to happen. “We love our Jesus” is all that matters. If they only knew. But they don’t know.

I’m not sure how many Christians read Paul’s letters these day, but 1 Corinthians 3:19 has had an impact: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God…” For those who can rise above this contempt for use of our brains, I would urge Christians to give curiosity a try in at least five areas.

1. Please be curious about why people become atheists.

There are good reasons. For those who actually do want to find out, instead of making lame guesses, do a Google search for 10 Best Atheist Books. There’s the homework—a lot of it. Christians can chuck the idea that atheists want to escape rules and do what we want. They might also learn that secular ethicists have been explaining how to be ‘good without God’ for centuries. Moreover we want to escape from doctrines that don’t make sense; exactly how they don’t make sense has been described in infinite detail.

Chances are, the problem of suffering will get top ranking on any list of reasons for doubting that there is a God. Which brings us back to the issue of unanswered prayers pushing someone over the edge into atheism. How about the devout parents who pray, to no avail, for a child to be cured of cancer. Unanswered prayer to find your car keys? Yes, that’s trivial. But the death of a child is another matter. Shallow answers of priests and ministers are too phony, an insult to intelligence. “You seem to have prayed for something and didn’t get it”—so the man said. When the stakes are very high, faith can get kicked to the curb.

2. Please be curious about the gospels and Jesus.

Most Christians get doses of the gospels through the worship filter: depictions on stained glass and readings of eloquent verses from the pulpit. Some may even attend Bible study classes closely supervised by pastors trained in apologetics; they learn carefully crafted spiritual lessons. But how often are they guided to ask tough questions? An experiment I often suggest is reading Mark’s gospel right through, without a break, making notes on what seems, well, unlikely and even alarming (“Gee, I need to ask the pastor about that”); then do the same thing with John’s gospel. Why are these gospels so different? Why is the Jesus character so different? Whoever decided to put these two accounts of Jesus into the same book didn’t give it much thought.

Curiosity about the gospels means asking: (1) Where did these documents come from? (2) How could the authors have had access to accurate information about Jesus? (3) What were their sources? And, Christians, maybe ask your pastor: “Why hasn’t the church kept us posted on how these questions are answered by scholars who study the gospels for a living?” There is a wide chasm between what church people hear about the gospels and what scholars know about the gospels. Bart Ehrman, with his books on bestseller lists, has helped put a dint in this ignorance.

And why have church bureaucrats kept laypeople in the dark about the upheaval in Jesus studies? One tipoff would be what any Christian can figure out by a close reading of Mark and John I’ve suggested: something is wrong. Curiosity should kick in, big time. Don’t just brush it off. It’s pretty shocking that devout scholars can’t agree on a methodology for figuring out who Jesus really was, what he was like, what he actually taught. Find out why this is the case. It’s no wonder clergy don’t want laypeople to be curious. Why put Jesus in jeopardy?

3. Please be curious about Christian origins.

Where did its ideas come from? The belief that a god could die and resurrect was nothing new in the world in which Christianity was born. Once when I pointed this out on the Facebook page, a Jesus groupie was puzzled: “What do you mean by the Resurrection of a God was a common theme?” He had no clue that this ghoulish detail about Jesus was, in fact, old hat: Much older gods—so folks believed—had done the same thing. The early Christian writers grafted material from pagan sources onto the Jesus story, including resurrection, virgin birth, and a sacred meal of commemoration.

The study of comparative religion can put beliefs into perspective. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Christianity is derivative.

And it didn’t get off to a smooth start. A close look at the New Testament reveals cracks, controversies and recriminations. The apostle Paul, who heroically preached the gospel to the gentiles, never knew Jesus and didn’t get along well with the original disciples. He complained about competition from other Christ-preachers. So believers today who assume that they follow the ‘original’ faith—well, just what would that be? In so many ways, the religion of Jesus is lost in the fog created by the conflicting theologies of NT authors who didn’t see eye to eye. Things didn’t get better as time went on. For a good look at the mess of early Christianity, here‘s some homework: Philip Jenkins, Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. The fighting over correct belief was ferocious and often deadly.

4. Please be curious about your bouts of ‘faith panic.’

This is also known as cognitive dissonance, which brings on cold sweat. When we come up against hard evidence that cherished beliefs are wrong—our emotional investment has been misplaced—we reach for explanations to rescue the belief. God is good, right? God is watching over us, right? The Lord is my shepherd, right? On 13 March 1996, a gunman killed 16 kids and their teacher in a small school in Dunblane, Scotland. A few days later a bouquet of memorial flowers included this note: “13 March 1996, the day God overslept.” No, it cannot be that God doesn’t exist—so, sometimes he’s just incompetent. Following the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children on 14 December 2012, I heard this pious blasphemy: “God must have wanted more angels.” No, it cannot be that God doesn’t exist—so, brutal murders can be included in his ‘mysterious ways.’

ANYTHING to get out of dealing with the absurdities that Christianity encourages and counts as virtues. Peter Boghossian has said, “Doubt is your intellectual conscience pleading with you to be honest with yourself.” Curiosity about ‘faith panic attacks’ should be put to good use.

5. Please be curious about what would be required for prayer to work.

For prayer to be a real thing, God must be imagined as the Ultimate Totalitarian, an unrelenting cosmic spy. His powers must be awesome to oversee countless civilizations in hundreds of billions of galaxies, and at the same time pay close attention you, as well as to seven billion other human beings. Not just pay attention: Every minute of every day he monitors the thoughts of every person. Full stop: How could that even be a good thing?

Not only that, but what is the mechanism—what exists in the structure of reality—for our thoughts to be monitored by god(s)? How can divinities be channeled by the living matter inside our skulls—with information passing back and forth? Unless that mechanism can be identified and verified, then we suspect that prayer is an adventure in magical thinking.

We can suspect as well that human ego is a major factor in this delusion: God is paying attention to me.

Of course, billions of theists assure us that prayer works, because they’ve seen it work. Their prayers have been answered. In response to this assurance, we can urge them to be curious about confirmation bias. Have all their prayers been answered? When George Carlin said that he decided to pray to Joe Pesci instead of to God—because Joe “looks like a guy who gets things done”—he found out that the hit ratio of answered prayer was the same: 50/50. Confirmation bias means counting the hits and ignoring the misses. For the folks who want to believe that God is attentive, 50 percent seems good enough.

But what about all the unanswered prayers? To ward off cognitive dissonance—too bad, God is ignoring you, or worse, not paying attention, or even worse, doesn’t exist—the not-so creative excuses are hauled out: in his mysterious ways, God knows what is best, or my request didn’t fit in his plan. Of course, the Ultimate Totalitarian agrees. But the conclusion can never be: prayer doesn’t work.

A General Dumbing Down

Yes, so many of us are addicted to social media—we rely on it so much now—and we are aware of its dangers. But please don’t discount the even greater damage that another media addiction has brought. Sixty years ago, Edward R. Murrow offered this observation about television:

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful."

The battle against ‘ignorance, intolerance, and indifference’ perhaps found a minor ally in television, but overwhelmingly it has served as a medium of entertainment. The public hasn’t been able to get enough of situation comedies, quiz shows, soap operas, talk shows, reality shows, televangelists, cops and lawyer dramas—and sports broadcasting. Has self-education—the thirst for learning—disappeared as an obsession? Of course, TV evolved as it did because endless fun was the best way to make money off of the ‘wires and lights in a box.’

But we’ve paid the price for this massive ‘bread and circus’ exercise. Is it that much of a surprise that Christianity remains so dumbed-down? We are over-entertained and under-educated, and the context of our society offers little hope for change. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham reflected on the scary, divided America that we have become:

“Is it really possible for a person to rise to power in a country with which he has absolutely nothing in common? Isn’t it more likely that Trump, whose most fervent devotees are white evangelicals and proponents of the fraudulent prosperity gospel, is just as archetypically American as McCain, embodying an alternative set of equally real national principles: anxious acquisitiveness, a distaste for deep thought, endless aggrandizement?”

Stunted Christian curiosity is but one aspect of the pervasive “…distaste for deep thought…” This brings to mind as well a reflection that I came upon recently in Vera Brittain’s World War I memoir. She quotes a letter from her brother Edward, who said of one European country, “…it seems to breathe little-mindedness…” This is a characteristic of Christianity as practiced today by the folks in the megachurch auditoriums who wouldn’t be caught dead being curious. They breathe little-mindedness.

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 is here.