Thursday, January 23, 2014

9 Misconceptions Non-Believers Seem to Have About Christians

1. Only stupid people believe in God.  Yes, there are people of not much intelligence who believe in God.  And there are people of stellar intellectual brilliance who do not.  But there are bright people who do believe in God and not-so-bright people who don’t.  It’s not about intelligence, so get down off your high horse.  Need some examples?  C. S. Lewis.  J. R. R. Tolkein (you know you love his books).  James Polkinghorne (physicist).  Jesus (pretty significant philosopher and teacher in his day).  Immanuel Kant.  Galileo.  Pascal.  Descartes.  Newton.  Francis Collins (genome project).  Martin Luther King, Jr. All Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc., etc., etc. 
2. Religion (particularly Christianity) is responsible for the ills of the world.  Really?  And I thought you were bright.  It’s never that simple, is it?  People manipulating others to their own ends and to great destruction happens through the agency of religion, yes.  But would you really assert that the religion is the cause (as opposed to the means)?  To so hold, you must actually believe that but for Christianity, Adolph Hitler would have been a nice guy or that there would have been no Holocaust.  And then, of course, you’re left to explain the holocausts visited on their peoples by Stalin and Mao (avowed believers in no religion or god).  The role of religion in doing harm should never be taken lightly.  But it’s a bit glib to simply blame religion as a way of understanding the ills of the world.  God or no God, we humans have proven very capable of all kinds of horror.
3. It doesn’t make any sense.  I’ll grant you that: faith doesn’t make much sense.  But you say that as if we (practitioners) don’t know that.  It may or may not be news to you, but Christianity’s founding documents (the New Testament) include statements to the effect that the claims about Jesus are nonsensical by the world’s standards  by one of its premier thinkers (and most prolific writers of the texts we have today): Paul calls the Christian’s claims about Jesus and the cross to be foolishness to those who do not believe it (1 Corinthians 1.18ff), inexplicable to the ways and wisdoms of the world (1 Corinthians 2.14); and says that if we’ve gotten it wrong, we are the most pitiable of all people (1 Corinthians 15.19).  
4. There is nothing good about it.  We might argue about ‘good’, but I’m going to take as a given that we probably agree on some things.  So consider: the next time you visit a hospital whose name contains the name of a church or synagogue or the name of a saint or person of faith, that hospital was begun by people of faith because of their faith – that is, because of their faith in God, the people who began that hospital were moved to provide care for the sick, especially those who were poor, when no one else was.  Do you think universal education is a good idea?  A fundamental right or privilege of living in a free society?  Thank a Christian.  Universal education was born out of the Reformation idea that all should be allowed free access to the holy text of their faith.  In order to do that, all had to be taught to read.  Universal education was brought about so you could read the Bible for yourself.  The Civil Rights Movement was born in the African-American churches of the day.  The movement and the way in which it was conducted were based on scripture.  Dr. King was a prophet preacher.  Every word he spoke he understood to be divinely given.  Every reference he makes that so stirs even today comes from his interpretation of the biblical texts he often quotes.  
5. Social justice happens in spite of and not because of the church  Seeking to change the world is one of the great contributions of the church to the world.  Missionary women (and yes, missionaries have much to answer for, but you already know that.  What you may not know) in China ended the practice of foot-binding and in India the practice of sati (the wife being thrown upon the fire at the death of the husband).  They brought hospitals and books and perhaps most of all, the idea that universal education is for girls as well as boys.  So when you’re standing at an Occupy protest or fighting for the Imolakee tomato pickers or marching against war, or donating to Amnesty International, look around – chances are a bunch of the people there alongside you or who got there before you are people of faith who are there because of their faith.
6. Christianity squelches creativity  Much of the great art of the western world is inspired by, thematic of, and paid for with the dollars of Christians.  Maybe that’s a mere accident of history.  Maybe it’s because the artists were grappling with big issues.  Maybe it was God-inspired.  But like it or not, there is no running from the great tradition of Christian art.  
7. Church makes everyone be just like everyone else  Church is an institution.  And it has all the problems and foibles of one.  They are not inconsequential.  But there is something in the very structure of that peculiar institution that breeds protestors and world changers too, even as it would attempt to squash them.  
8. Church is a tyranny  The structure of the Presbyterian church was the model for our form of government in the United States.  If we appreciate that model, we must appreciate from whence it came.
9. Church uses laws to force its ways on others   Sometimes.  And sometimes that’s a bad thing – a very bad thing.  But sometimes it isn’t.  Do you think child labor was a bad thing?  Thank a Christian that you don’t have to go to work at age 6.  Think prisons should be humane?  Thank a Quaker.  Think the Magna Carta (as a check on royal power) was a good thing?  Thank the Archbishop of Canterbury.  
It’s one thing to have examined the ‘evidence’ and made your own clear-eyed conclusion.  It’s quite another to engage in the very same small-mindedness non-believers so often accuse believers of having.  Ignorance is ignorance, regardless of its peculiar bent.  And many non-believers I encounter who carry bitterness, anger, or garden-variety resentment are speaking not out of a general belief that religious people are perpetuating a harmful myth so much as out of the effects of a negative encounter in their own personal journey.

Those negative encounters matter.  But here’s my problem with negative encounter being dispositive of the question of God or no God for anyone: I don’t know about you, but I’ve had at least my share of negative encounters with all kinds of folks: teachers, physicians, lawyers, journalists, and yes, even church folk.  But those encounters did not make me stop ‘believing’ in or seeking education, health care, justice, freedom of expression for everyone, or God.

So if you’re someone who’s had a negative encounter of the religious type, I am sorry – sorrier than I can put in words – that such happened to you.  I do not take such things lightly nor do I suggest that you should.

That a religious or spiritual journey was made unsafe for you is unconscionable.

But please, please, please remember that the person or persons you encountered in such a harmful way are not themselves God.  Nor are they representative of God.  They should not be allowed the final word when it comes to faith and things religious any more than the physician breaking his or her oath should have as to things medical.

For my own part, I will share, debate, wrestle, with you any time you care to, but I will not proselytize.  If I have anything of value to share when it comes to the life spiritual, you will know it by the fruits of my life.

In short, I will refrain from sentences that begin with “All atheists . . .”  Won’t you do the same for me?

If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, 
I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.
                                                                        –Kurt Vonnegut, author and secular humanist

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