Christianity Thrives Because of the Failure of Curiosity

It doesn’t take much curiosity to puncture theology

How does the church get away with its theology games? A church in Texas recently refused entrance to a blind woman and her service dog, as reported in an article published a few days ago by The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta. Falling far short of the compassion of Jesus, church security was worried about the dog, because the worship service included “a live band and flashing lights.” Why are we not surprised? These are tricks of the trade. The clergy have learned how to be dramatists. For a very long time, worship has been entertainment: putting on a show, using razzle-dazzle to give theology as much heft as possible: ceremony, music, costumes, rituals, art, scenery and set design. And it works. Folks go to the churches where they find familiar, cherished reinforcements of their certainties about god and securing eternal life. Just savor the moment and the emotion. The clergy might as well say—as part of this heavenly bargain: “Please don’t think too much about what we’re doing, that might deflate the high you’re feeling.”

Don’t think too much. Curiosity, inquisitiveness, skepticism: these are the enemies. There are at least five areas of inquiry that are a threat to Christian theology.
ONE: “Reverend, please show us the evidence that what you tell us about god is true.” 
The folks in the pews rarely muster this kind of curiosity because their clergy have the aura of authority. They have titles and costumes to enhance this status, and, of course, seminary degrees: what better proof that they know what they’re talking about? They’ve studied god intensively, so how can they not be right? Having spent eleven years in seminary myself—working on a Sacred Theology degree and my PhD in Biblical Studies—I made the discovery that the aim of such schools is enforcing and justifying already held beliefs. What you’ll learn about god at a Catholic seminary is different from what you’ll learn at a Southern Baptist seminary. 
Nor would most of the laity be able to challenge the claim of the clergy that the Bible provides abundant information about god. The Bible is adored as divinely inspired, until you read it carefully, critically; surveys have shown that most of the laity don’t bother to do this. There is so much wrong with the Bible, just in terms of its depiction of god(s). Once you dig into it seriously, the claim that it was divinely inspired evaporates. 
Catholic clergy are likely to claim that their true knowledge about god is based on visions and the powers of the saints (who deliver on prayer requests). Protestant clergy rarely take such an approach, and, indeed, ridicule the vision claims, especially the heavy emphasis on the Virgin Mary showing up all over the planet. Proper Christians pay no attention of vision claims of other religions. 
Prayer experiences are especially suspect. If we asked a few hundred of the most devout Christians to consult their god about a wide range of issues (e.g., gay rights, climate change, equal rights for women), the answers would be all over the place. We can be totally skeptical of prayer knowledge. 
TWO: “Reverend, on my drive to church today, I passed six churches of other denominations. How do we know that our denomination is the right one?” 
This is so awkward: Christians do not agree on what Christianity is! By splintering into thousands of different brands, it’s pretty clear that devout believers are certain that other versions of the faith are wrong. How did this happen? The Bible certainly helped, because there are so many differing theologies in the scriptures. Pick a few texts that appeal to you, and you can build one version of Christianity; others pick a few that appeal to them, and an alternate version of the faith is created. If you want to believe that Jesus is coming back, there are texts to support this idea (although the specific timing mentioned in the texts has to be ignored). If Jesus coming back is of little interest to you, there are other texts to emphasize. Christians have been fighting over the meaning of Bible verses forever.  
Egos and the desire for dominance also play their roles. During Tim Sledge’s many years as an evangelical preacher, he saw how this happened:
“Take a group of these born-again, new creations in Christ—to whom God is giving directions and guidance for day-to-day life—put them in a church and wait. Eventually, some of them will get into a disagreement about something. Sometimes, they work it out, but often, no matter how much prayer takes place, one group gets angry and leaves, often to start another congregation. Wait a little longer, and the process will repeat—over and over—and that’s one reason we have not only thousands of churches, but thousands of Christian denominations.” (Tim Sledge, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief, p. 16)
THREE: “Reverend, I want to read the best Jesus story. Which of the four gospels should I pay the most attention to?” 
This question might be greeted with stunned silence. Because, chances are the clergy have studied all four gospels, and have themselves struggled with the many problems they present. There’s a broad consensus in New Testament scholarship that Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew copied most of it, and seems to have written his gospel with the goal of correcting Mark’s version. Luke wrote his gospel intending to correct what he considered Matthew’s mistakes. John was annoyed with them all, and imagined a vastly different Jesus. All this has to be one of the best-kept secrets of the clergy, and they have developed ways of deflecting attention from the multitude of mistakes and contradictions.
Scholars try their best to take them in stride, and have even developed tools to make the mistakes and contradictions more obvious. One of these tools is the printing of gospel parallels, that is, a book with the four gospels, chapter by chapter, printed in parallel columns. It’s easy to spot the omissions, additions, changes in wording. The clergy are not likely to recommend this book to lay readers. 
Honest, brave clergy might suggest that Mark’s gospel is the best place to start. “After you’ve read it carefully, we can talk about the theological problems you’ve noticed.” Another major issue will probably never be addressed: in the gospels we have Jesus-script created by their authors, who pursued their own theological agenda. There is no way whatever to verified that any of their Jesus-script is based on anything Jesus actually said. “Oh, but we know the authors were divinely inspired” is more fantasy. 
FOUR: “Reverend, I get panicked when I think about dying. Please tell me exactly what god expects me to do to deserve eternal life.” 
If only the New Testament provided a clear answer! In Matthew 19 we find the story of a rich young man asking Jesus what he had to do “have eternal life.” The bottom line, verse 21: “…go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” Not many Christians I know—so caught up in consumerism—would welcome this advice. Compassionate behavior seems to be of vital importance, which we also find in Matthew’s description of the Final Judgement (chapter 25). Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison will “inherit the kingdom.” But this text is damaged by the severity we find at the end: those who fail this compassion-test will be thrown into “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). This is a mark of cult extremism.  
Other New Testament authors stressed correct belief as the sure path to heaven. The author of the long ending of Mark’s gospel stated bluntly: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (16:16). So also the author of John’s gospel: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18)—and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath” (John 3:36). Then this author descended into the world of magic potions; strangely, he omits the Eucharist from his account of the Last Supper, but in his chapter 6 he states that eating the flesh of Jesus, and drinking his blood are the keys to eternal life. The apostle Paul also stressed correct belief: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). 
Of course all such promises have no meaning whatever if there is no such thing as eternal life. This has been the primary gimmick in Christian marketing forever, yet there is no evidence—let alone proof—that it is a reality. How do you remove it from the realm of fantasy?  
FIVE: “Reverend, where are we in the Cosmos?” 
Curiosity about this, I admit, is probably pretty low. Even among the laity who are aware of space exploration and the dramatic information gathered by space telescopes, might not think too much about it. They may even realize that the ancient Bible idea of the cosmos cannot be taken seriously, but the stark reality of our extreme isolation on planet Earth might not have grabbed their thinking. But our extreme isolation renders all theologies suspect: here we are on one tiny planet, lost in space in the vast Milky Way Galaxy—which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies—and the professional god-thinkers claim to know for sure what their gods are like. Based, of course, on revelations they’ve received. Yet even the many Christian god-thinkers cannot agree on the attributes of their god. Have the revelations been hopelessly garbled? It’s far more likely that the revelations are fantasy. We prefer reliable, verifiable, objective data about gods. Maybe, someday—very far in the future presumably, if humanity manages to survive—we’ll be able to compare notes with other civilizations in the galaxy that have outgrown superstition. Where we are in the Cosmos hasn’t yet permitted that. Sam Harris described our situation accurately: “Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings” (The End of Faith, p. 173).  
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here