Can Christians and Atheists Disagree in Good Faith?
In his article, “We May Disagree on Our Beliefs, But We’re Still Human,” the Christian apologist and strategist Tom Gilson takes me to task for insulting his god and thus, indirectly, for insulting the Christians that worship him.
Monstrous God, Monstrous Worshipper?
Gilson was referring to a lengthy comment I made on one of his blog’s articles in which he argued that Nietzsche’s point about the death of God really entails the death of man, since, Gilson said, without God we lose our privileged status in the universe or are no longer able to explain the rights we know we have.
According to Gilson, I said ‘the God Christians worship is a “human-like,” “monstrous,” “psychopathic,” “jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant.” This God is a wizard-like figure waving the equivalent of a “magic wand.”’
Gilson took offense to these remarks and argued that the insults against his god are absurd unless we’re to believe that Christians throughout history have been equally monstrous or that they’ve failed to understand the nature of their religion and need atheists like me to enlighten them.
On the contrary, Gilson contends, Christians have studied their scriptures more than anyone and have been at the forefront of the fight for human rights. So if they knew they were following a monstrous deity, why wouldn’t they have acted monstrously in imitating that deity?
Thus, according to Gilson, my remarks imply that Christians are “subhuman,” which, he says, is just absurd. But Gilson is eager to take the highroad in recommending that instead of rushing to this dead end as I’ve allegedly done, the skeptic ought to confess his or her ignorance about the contents of Christianity and ask Christians what they really believe instead of smearing the religion and levelling baseless charges.
Here’s what I actually said, though, context and all (with my emphases to highlight the offending portions and with my breaking up of the long paragraph to suit Medium’s standard):
As for the question of whether our species loses its dignity, given our evolutionary background and animal nature, the theistic conception of our superiority was ironically an excuse for us to behave in a more beastly fashion than any other animal species is capable of.
We’re supposed to have dominion over the planet because of our godlike attributes, but how should we expect godlike creatures to act in the world, given the Bible’s depiction of our maker? If the biblical God is a jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant, wouldn’t the specially-created children of such a deity be expected to make a mess of the planet, to squabble over territory, enslaving and exterminating billions of people, not to mention more recently, with factory farming, torturing and killing domesticated animals on the scale of an ongoing holocaust?
And isn’t that just what we find, that we’re vain in deeming ourselves worthy of controlling the planet, because while we’re great at empowering ourselves with knowledge and technology, morality doesn’t come easy to us precisely because of our fallible, animal nature? Again, you can explain that nature by positing a godless evolutionary process or you can assume we fell from God’s grace or that we were produced by a monstrous deity (as the Bible implies).
Later in the comment, I said, “The timescale required to generate our species by a mindless evolutionary process is much more awe-inspiring than the theistic notion that a human-like deity produced us in a flash by the equivalent of waving a magic wand. The latter, theistic myth is just a verbal trick…”
And I said, following an Aeon article, “our commonsense is animalistic and barbaric, not angelic. For example, we naturally — as part of our ingrained human nature — take pleasure in other people’s suffering. And we’re naturally biased against strangers and foreigners. And we’re naturally dogmatic, hypocritical, and vain. And we naturally prefer our leaders to have psychopathic traits.” Moreover, “mindless, inhuman nature can easily substitute for a psychopathic deity, so Occam’s razor would call for pantheism at that point.”
Life Manuals and the Bane of Philosophy
I’m not so interested in rehashing my earlier debate with Gilson. It’s obvious from the context in the comment that he’s misrepresented my remarks for the sake of his sermon. I wasn’t so much asserting that the biblical deity is monstrous, as saying that the character of all personified gods tends to be monstrous, because power corrupts, which is why our relatively godlike species has acted in a corrupt and self-destructive way throughout history.
Thus, instead of implying that Christian followers of their deity would likely be reckless in their religious practices, I said we in general should be expected to have misused our dominance, which is generally what we find.
Gilson’s simplistic reading is also vitiated by this other part of that same comment (with my emphases):
Granted, atheism is horrific in that we should feel alienated from the mindlessness and pointlessness of the forces and elements that formed us over that vast evolutionary period. But once again, as implied by Rudolph Otto’s analysis of the concept of holiness, the theist has no advantage here since God would be just as horrific as nature, which is why “faith in God” was often synonymous with “fear of God.” Properly conceived of, God is a fascinating and terrifying mystery, as Otto puts it. Just as many secular humanists and new atheists prefer to whitewash the Nietzschean, horrific aspect of naturalism, plenty of Western Christians whitewash the mystical aspect of monotheism, turning God into gentle Jesus.
If calling the Christian’s god “monstrous” entails that Christians are beneath contempt, as Gilson would have it, wouldn’t calling nature “monstrous” mean that atheists are in the same boat? If I’m an atheist, wouldn’t I have been thereby insulting myself?
But the philosophical and mystical level of analysis I was engaging in is anathema to Americanized, “Evangelical” Christians like Gilson. They want and expect to have received a clear, unambiguous life manual that features simple rules to follow. All you need to do to be saved is to confess that Jesus is your lord and savior and to invite the risen Christ to live in your heart. Didn’t you know spirituality or existential authenticity can be as easy as that, like ordering a scarf on Amazon?
After all, if there were no such life manual, how could the infamous Christian threat of eternal hellfire for nonbelievers be justified (John 3:16–18)? The New Testament says the sinner has no excuse because the natural order testifies to an intelligent designer (Rom.1:19–21) and the law of morality is written on everyone’s conscience (Rom.2:14–16). But that doesn’t help a person to decide specifically whether she needs to accept Christianity to avoid everlasting damnation in the afterlife. Neither the natural order nor your conscience can prove that the New Testament’s historical claims about Jesus are credible.
This is Protestant Christianity, a stripped-down religion that was meant to appeal to Everman, after the Catholic Church proved to have become corrupted by its power over its flock. This is the kind of Christianity you get to make up yourself by cherry-picking parts of the Bible and of Christian traditions, since the dogmas of the religious authorities have been overthrown. Just pick your church, Bible study group, or televangelist and listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompts to guide your interpretation of biblical poetry, myth, and anachronism.
No need to ask deeper questions.
The Evolution of Judaism
In any case, let’s use this opportunity to consider the underlying issues here, beginning with whether the Christian’s god is in fact monstrous. One way to understand the kind of criticism I made in my comment to Gilson is via Rudolph Otto’s mystical analysis of the numinous. If exoteric, literalistic religion deals with metaphors that should be seen through to the so-called philosopher’s god, to the impersonal Absolute or the ground of Being, we’re faced with the threat of the unknowable, with a “fascinating and terrifying mystery,” and thus with the smallness of our feel-good, human-centered conceptions.
But that wouldn’t account for the idea that God is “a jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant.” No, those epithets would apply specifically to Yahweh as he’s depicted in the Hebrew scriptures. As Jack Miles shows, though, in God: A Biography, the Jews’ god is perhaps best understood in literary terms as a character that grows over the course of Jewish history and their self-understanding. As Jews evolved, so too did their deity.
Once a local Canaanite god subordinate to the sky-god El, Yahweh inherits the power, majesty, and righteousness of the Canaanite, Assyrian, and Persian supreme gods, as the ancient Jews transvalued and satirized those religions.
Imagine, if you will, an anomalous all-powerful deity that doesn’t rule the earth through an imperial representative, but that chooses a weaker, nomadic people as his favourite. Instead of lavishing that people with earthly power, this god tests the faith and righteousness of Jews, allowing them (or at least Semitic people more broadly) to be conquered by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, and to wander the desert without a home. Thus, Jacob is given the name “Israel” in the Bible, because he wrestles with the highest god, El.
That’s the kind of ancient paradox and bathos that makes for the excellence of Jewish humour. From Genesis to Ecclesiastes and Job, the Jewish scriptures gradually deflate monotheism. God goes from a tribal deity who says he’s jealous of other gods (Exod.34:14) and who commands the Israelites to smite their enemies, to the ecstatic inspiration for the prophets’ social criticisms, to the dubious husk on which the philosophical and satirical side of Judaism throws so much doubt.
At the end of Yahweh’s character arc, in Job, God is put on trial and the defendant can appeal only to his raw power as the reason for the suffering of innocent people, whereas the reader knows that in the case of Job, Yahweh had only made a boastful bargain with Satan to test Job’s faith. Jewish theology becomes a farce which leads to the pragmatism and apathetic agnosticism of Ecclesiastes.
Christianity as a Hall of Mirrors
Now what does this have to do with Christianity? Where does Christianity stand in this evolution of God’s biography?
As Jack Miles sees it, Christianity represents God’s implicit confession that he’d been wrong all along in creating humanity, that God had mishandled his role as sovereign because he was forced to learn on the job, just as the Jews had to learn how to be a chosen, righteous people. Thus, God descends to earth to sacrifice himself in human form. God’s effective suicide in the New Testament symbolizes a reformation of Second Temple Judaism which had become defunct.
Be that as it may, there are at least some other transvaluations at work in the New Testament. This time what’s satirized and overcome are Greco-Roman philosophy, such as Stoicism, and the Jewish political expectations of the messiah that led to the fall of Jerusalem in the first century CE.
Certainly, the character of Jesus isn’t that of “a jealous, irrational, sadistic tyrant.” The Christian wants to say, then, that Christianity clarifies the nature of the Jews’ deity. God revealed himself once and for all in the person of Jesus, to avoid further confusion.
Most Jews were having none of it, of course, since they regarded all representations of the Creator as misleading idols. God was necessarily transcendent and beyond our comprehension, and to pretend otherwise would have been vain and blasphemous. That hiddenness of God made for the existential gravitas of Judaism, which was recaptured, to some extent, by Islam.
Christianity, then, is a detour from the kind of strict monotheism that leads ultimately to the irony, bathos, and skepticism found in the Jewish wisdom literature. If God is hidden from his creation, we’re condemned to struggle in ignorance and in fear and loathing of the absurd. Some Jews, however, decided to tame their religion for the glory of the Roman Empire (after Rome had destroyed Second Temple Judaism), to neuter both their mysticism and their political messianism. That’s how Christianity was able to become the official religion of Rome, and that codified cynicism led to the holding pattern of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Thus, according to the gospels, Jesus was an eminently moral and courageous character who railed against hypocrisy and sacrificed himself for his principles. Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross and to follow him (Matt.16:24–26), in anticipation of the imminent day of judgment for humanity. But that day never came, so Christianity went on to transcend Jesus via the “epistles” of Paul of Tarsus.
Paul said the Jewish covenant isn’t the only access to the creator of the universe. You needn’t be a Jew to save yourself from God’s wrath but need only have faith that Jesus rose from the dead. Paul’s oversimplifications were instrumental to the institutionalization of Christianity since they enabled Paul and the later Church Fathers to overcome the message of Jesus as it’s presented in the gospel stories. Paul got the ball rolling by ignoring the historical Jesus and focussing on the so-called risen Christ.
Eventually, the gospels’ Jesus stood just for the impossibility of our self-salvation, for the power of our original sin which requires that we wash ourselves in the blood of the crucified Jesus to atone for our inevitable waywardness. To get to that blood, though, we need to go through the earthly Church hierarchy. Christians thus built Christendom, whereas the earliest Christians, including Jesus and Paul would have expected all such practicalities and political calculations to be mooted by the second coming of Jesus and by God’s termination of the Anthropocene.
So what is the character of the Christian’s god? Attempting to answer that question is like a foreigner looking at a map of Tokyo’s byzantine subway routes. You have the character of what’s purported to be the historical Jesus. Then you have the risen Christ, the god of Paul. You have the guru of the Q source. And you have the gnostic, Logos revealer of the Gospel of John.
Then there’s the god of the Roman Catholic Church, the Trinity which somehow encompasses Judaism and the Incarnation while avoiding self-contradiction and absurdity. And you have the more mystical and metaphysical god of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the time you get to the American Evangelical’s god, you have a deity that’s supposedly blessed war, torture, the crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, witch burnings, slavery, sexism, homophobia, rapacious capitalism, and consumerism — and also Jesus’s implicit condemnation of them.
In short, there’s no such thing as “the Christian god.” There’s a myriad of scholarly portraits just of the historical Jesus character, let alone of all the Christian orthodoxies, heresies, and denominations. If we confine ourselves to the gospels, you have Jesus’s invention of everlasting punishment in Hell for sinners, including the “sin” of nonbelief in Christ. That’s monstrous enough.
But what Christianity really is is a gateway to secularism. You’re supposed to be appalled by the absurdity upon absurdity that make up the history of Christianity, so that you start to beg not for Jesus’s return to earth but for the Renaissance, for secular humanism and an age of godless progress. Intellectually speaking, Christianity ends in skepticism just as Judaism did; mind you, that’s if you’re following the plot.
Now for the question of what this subversive picture entails for Christians. Is a criticism of Christianity undermined by the mere facts that Christians disagree with it and that they often behave in a nonpsychotic fashion? If you mock the character of their deity, do you thereby mock Christians? How to account for the good that Christians have done and thus for their apparent full humanity, if their religious faith is undignified?
This argument of Tom Gilson’s is readily parodied. A Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, Muslim, or secular humanist could say the same thing to the Christian who believes Christianity is the only viable worldview and moral system: “So in condemning my worldview, you’re condemning me personally for subscribing to it. Wouldn’t I have to be insane or depraved (as a Hindu or a Mormon, say) to take up this worldview that you say is so obviously wrongheaded? Yet I’m not insane or depraved, so your criticisms must be false.”
Or take the political divide between liberals and conservatives. Each side believes the other is foolish, especially in tribal societies like the hypermodern US, yet each persists in its political beliefs and voting habits. How is that possible if the truth is so plain?
Evidently, the fallacy in Gilson’s response lies in that latter assumption. The truth of the matter in fields such as religion and politics (and art, philosophy, and the social sciences) isn’t so plain at all. That’s why people can disagree and go their separate ways in good faith. There’s no objective test to discover the facts as they may be in such subjective, evaluative, and abstract matters as the nature of the First Cause and how we should live in relation to ultimate reality. With respect to what should be done, there may be no such facts at all. Nor is there an algorithm for deciding how society or government should be organized.
The truth may look plain from the perspective you presuppose, but the philosophical trick is to leave your perspective behind to understand and perhaps even to empathize with an alternative viewpoint.
Indeed, in debating Gilson I dismissed his tactic of saying I could always just ask him what Christians believe, since that presumes the Christian tends to know more about her religion than does the skeptic. As a matter of statistical fact, atheists know more about religion than do Christians. So instead of submitting before a phony fount of knowledge, I challenged Gilson to a swapping of perspectives: I would defend Christianity and he would defend nonbelief in that religion, to demonstrate how well we understand the other side. As I recall, he didn’t take me up on the offer.
In any case, not only is the truth in life sometimes unclear, but the average human mind is far from perfectly rational. There are such things as delusion, rationalization, confabulation, emotion, mood, character, and social convention that can impact our beliefs. Sometimes we suspect we’re not on the side of truth, but we avoid the pains of cognitive dissonance and of dealing with unpleasant facts by convincing ourselves fallaciously that we’re right after all. This is especially true with respect to central and socially crucial beliefs such as religious, political, or familial ones.
Freud, Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber laid the foundations for a realistic anthropology of religion, for one that highlights the nonrational aspect of religious beliefs and practices. This isn’t to say, by contrast, that the average atheist is wholly rational. Indeed, there’s no such thing as just an atheist. Secular humanism, neoliberalism, socialism, positivism, pessimistic naturalism, nihilism, transhumanism, and other such secular philosophies aren’t purely rational constructs.
There is no logically airtight worldview. We must start our inquiries somewhere, taking some statements to be self-evident or undefended, and the inferences drawn from those starting points will be thusly humanized or even socialized. Any purely logical belief system would be colourless, alien, and off-putting to a human person.
Certainly, regarding Gilson’s Americanized Christianity, the nonrational incentives and other such influences are palpable. Evangelical Christianity is part of a social club and is an excuse for American global dominance and for political and economic conservatism, just as literalistic, authoritarian Christianity used to be the ideological defense of theocracy in Christendom. Gilson found himself defending “President” Trump, for example.
You’d have to be a therapist with an array of personal information to know whether a particular Christian is arguing in good faith or whether she really believes what she claims. But the religion itself is more like an art than a science, the scriptures of which even advocate for a kind of faith that supersedes reason (John 20:24–29, Heb.11).
For all these reasons, there’s nothing untoward in condemning a religion, including the character of the divine protagonist as he appears in the myths, while conceding that the practitioners of that religion needn’t be wholly evil or insane, given their denial of the criticisms’ merit.
These debates are philosophical not scientific, and as evolved primates we’re not committed only to rationality, but to feeling good about ourselves, avoiding humiliation, fitting into a society, being loyal to our parents or to our ancestors, and so on. There’s plenty of leeway for good-faith disagreements in these matters — and for less than honest ones.