Friday, June 10, 2011

You Don't Speak for Christianity, I Do!

What's more annoying than an atheist mistaking one brand of Christianity for the standard beliefs of the entire religion? A Christian that accuses you of said mistake while presuming his own beliefs to be the standard. This was the bizarre interaction I faced in a recent exchange with someone, and of all places to level these accusations against me, this person made them in comments on my deconversion series! As I explained, my story of leaving Christianity is, in part, a story of leaving one particular brand of Christianity. Thus, there are arguments against literalism and inerrancy, which are not doctrines held by all Christian denominations. But what's astounding to me is that I give no indication in the series of presuming that my Evangelical faith was/is the sum total of Christianity. In fact, I mention meeting other Christians who helped challenge some of my fundamentalist views, so I'm not sure where this individual acquired the idea that I was ignoring the other various branches of Christianity. A deconversion story is not intended to be a thorough refutation of a position, either, but simply a telling of the person's progress or journey towards a loss of faith.

However, instead of illustrating the differences between various denominations as a way of making his point, this Christian took a far less successful but much more ironic route. "[T]he problem with most atheists (especially deconverts)," he said, "is that they view/viewed the bible to be something supernatural. You have to understand that christianity does not deny that the bible was written by men of different times."

I have never assumed that Christianity rejects the human authorship of the bible, but many Christians believe those human authors wrote under divine inspiration. Evangelicals believe this, as do Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Presbyterians, and many Catholics. There are variations among these groups on how much of the bible is supernatural in origin, but for the most part, they believe it has been handed down to us relatively uncorrupted. It is also important to remember that there are always people who identify as a specific denomination, yet hold views contrary to the majority of the group. But to insinuate that Christians don't believe the bible is at least somewhat supernatural in nature is an assumption just as mistaken as insinuating that they all believe it to be supernatural. There are Christians like John Shelby Spong who reject pretty much every supernatural claim in Christianity, but this view is not the sum total of the Christian religion either. It's not even a majority view, as most denominations accept the resurrection of Christ as a real event.

Amusingly, this Christian then went into debating the inconsistencies in the gospels. If the bible is not at all supernatural, why jump to exonerate its errors? Discussing the different birth dates given for Jesus between Matthew and Luke, as well as the two deaths of Judas, he asserted that they are "exactly rational reasons of explanation." While it may be possible that there was a census taken by a Quirinius in the time of Herod the Great, what is unlikely is the notion that Matthew and Luke each relied on their readers having access to the other text and figuring out the truth by combining them together. This itself seems to require a supernatural basis of sorts. But never to be outdone by his own gross generalizations, the believer then told me that "all scholars believe Luke (who was also a historian/physician) used Matt and Mark as a source" and suggested that I would know these things if I'd really taken theology classes.

First of all, I never said I went to theology classes. I did study up on theology, but it was mostly on my own time, and the theology I learned in church and bible study courses was very basic. Secondly, it doesn't take years of theology classes to know that all scholars don't believe Luke used Matthew as a source. As a matter of fact, that view is a minority theory in biblical scholarship, known as the Farrer hypothesis. As Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, Daniel Wallace, and countless others have noted, the theory on gospel origins that is most widely accepted by scholars is the two-source hypothesis, which considers Matthew and Luke to be independent of each other, aside from their common use of Mark and Q. What this means is that Luke would not have presumed his readers to be familiar with Matthew. All this aside, if someone wants to debate these two hypotheses, I'm all ears, but let's refrain from making factually inaccurate statements about what the scholarly position is, especially when evidence means so much more than consensus.

My favorite part of the correspondence, though, was when I asked this person how he or she knows the bible to be divinely-inspired:

now you've just showed your misunderstanding by asking that. We know the bible is divinely inspired because of the subject. The existing God, to us christians. It was their beliefs in God that inspired them to write a book about the existing God. Therefore we christians classify it as divine inspired because we believe the inspiration is of the real divine deity.

My, if this isn't a horribly simplistic concept of divine inspiration. 'It's divinely-inspired because the authors believed in god.' This makes every religious text divinely-inspired, but more importantly, it doesn't draw any real difference between any piece of literature and the bible. As inclined as I am to agree that the bible is hardly different from The Iliad, I don't think most Christians understand divine inspiration in this way. If they did, then Christian apologetics wouldn't exist, since it is an attempt to defend faith in divine inspiration by providing evidence for the bible's claims - even the miraculous, supernatural ones. There's also the problem of how inadequate such a simple definition of divine inspiration is, since it eliminates the ability to differentiate between a claim of divine inspiration and the actuality or falsity of it.

To make one final note, I feel the need to point out that belonging to a group does not give one the automatic authority to speak for every other person in the group. I am an atheist, but I can't speak for all atheists. I'm white, but I can't speak for all white people. I have never felt that my time as a Christian gave me the freedom to speak for all Christians, yet apparently this believer thinks that he has that ability. Of course, he also presumes to speak for all biblical scholars, even though I'm willing to bet he holds no relevant academic credentials. I unfortunately see these types of 'criticisms' of atheist arguments all the time. Dawkins was accused of misunderstanding Christianity because he didn't address the beliefs of theologians like Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. As prominent as they may be in theological history, the views of such men are not universally accepted by all Christians.

For as much criticism as atheists receive over their 'mistaken' ideas about Christianity, believers themselves rarely seem to appreciate the diversity of their own religion. Those professing believers who disagree may be painted as not being 'real Christians,' as some Protestants are known to say of Catholics. But behind all of this is another problem. Who, or what, does speak for Christianity? As the world has changed, Christianity has changed with it in order to survive, and perhaps in another thousand years we won't even recognize the cult of the risen Jesus as Christian anymore.

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