This may be the riskiest article I've ever written. It's risky because it can be taken the wrong way; as a disillusioned rant against Christianity or something worse. It's not. Instead, it's just something I've been thinking about and experiencing for a long time. And everyone I've talked to about it has nodded their head in agreement so I think I'm not alone in my thinking. With that said, here goes...
Strange as it may sound, one of my seminary professors makes a habit out of reading atheist literature during his devotional times. That might seem a little odd, but actually it’s a very smart practice. “The good ones keep us honest,” he used to tell us.
What he means is that, occasionally, we Christians can offer explanations for our beliefs that actually aren’t very good arguments at all. And sometimes no one can see through a faulty argument better than a person who opposes that particular position.
Because the only valid reason to believe something is because that particular ‘something’ is true, it’s important to adhere to some solid guidelines that act as both a litmus test and protective barrier as to what constitutes a rationally acceptable belief and what does not.
The Tests of a Valid Belief System
Although many theologians have articulated these principles, John Edward Carnell seems to be the theologian credited with originating the following three standards for an acceptable belief and/or worldview:
- Logical consistency
- Empirical adequacy
- Existential (or experiential) relevancy
The first guideline, logical consistency says that the belief must contain teachings or doctrines that logically cohere with one another and do not contradict each other. For example, Buddhism says that the ultimate act required to reach Nirvana is to rid oneself of desire. Yet, mustn’t one have a desire to rid oneself of desire?
Now I should quickly point out that a belief could be untrue even if its doctrines don’t contradict in any way. A legal team can present a case where their position is logically consistent, but it is certainly possible that the overall conclusion could be flawed and wrong. Logical consistency is only the first test of an acceptable belief system and shouldn’t be used as the be all/end all guiding principle.
The second test of empirical adequacy states that the belief must have evidence supporting it, whether that substantiation comes in the form of scientific or legal (i.e. forensic) proof. Without such a thing, the belief lacks what is called “falsify-ability”, which means that since you have no way of falsifying the claim, you have no way of truly validating the claim.
The Apostle Paul gives us just such a test for Christianity in his famous defense of Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The former persecuting of Christianity says that if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is vain (literally “empty” or “devoid of value”). He then goes on to say that we are among the most of all humankind to be pitied. Strong words for sure, but ones that are much needed. Paul’s statement serves as a wake-up call to all of us that consequences exist for believing in something that is not true.
The last test of a valid worldview or belief is existential (sometimes called experiential), relevancy. This requirement says that the belief must match what we see or experience around us, in a relevant or meaningful way. If it does not, then we have reason to question the belief.
For example, both Hinduism and Christian Science say that evil and sickness are just illusions; they are not real. Such a claim may be argued philosophically, but it is impossible to defend practically in the real world.
By way of illustration, Christian Science’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, suffered from illnesses and wore false teeth. One would think that her followers would find it difficult to reconcile Eddy’s position of evil and sickness being merely illusory with the existential reality of what their leader practically experienced.
This test of existential relevancy is the one most often used against Christianity, with the primary argument being the one of “theodicy” - reconciling the Bible’s teaching of an all-good and all-powerful God with the very real fact that evil is present in the world. If the God of the Bible exists, the argument goes, then we shouldn’t experience the evil that is all around us (one could contend this is a violation of logical consistency as well). Secular philosophers such as David Hume and J. S. Mill have offered the most-often articulated arguments in this area.
However, the truth is, the Bible never denies the existence of evil and says that God actually uses it to accomplish His divine purpose. The writer of Proverbs says: “The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4).
Many Christian theologians and philosophers have put forward very sound arguments that defeat both Hume’s and Mill’s positions on the issue of theodicy and demonstrate no violation of either the logical consistency or existential relevancy guideline.
However, if I were asked to present the best case possible against Christianity, I admit that I would still go to this last principle of experiential/existential relevancy and attack from there. My case would have nothing to do with the existence of evil per se, but would rather zero in on one very sad observation that I’ve made over a number of years:
The best argument against Christianity is the lives lived out by professing Christians.
And I’m not alone in my position.
Some Depressing Statistics
There are those that argue that Christianity has an image problem where today’s Postmodernist culture is concerned. Whether the perceived image problem is justified or not is a separate matter; if the negative impression of Christianity truly exists, it becomes very important especially in the Postmodernist era because, in Postmodernism, what people think, speak, and write become their reality.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group (a research organization focusing on religious trends and information), asserts that the primary issue that Postmodernism has with Christianity is that it views the Christian faith as no longer representing what its founder had in mind. The primary complaint appears to be that it has lost the compassion and caring preached by Christ and instead it has turned into a juggernaut of fearmongering and restrictor of freedom.
In his book Unchristian, Kinnaman studied the Mosaic (born between 1984 and 2002) and Busters (born between 1965 and 1983) generations of the United States, which currently comprise approximately 77% of America’s population. Kinnaman found that spirituality is something that ranks as important to his studied demographic, yet fewer than one out of ten states that faith is their top priority.
Also somewhat alarming, Kinnaman found that both Mosaics and Busters view life in a nonlinear and chaotic way, and are perfectly at home with apparent contradictions and ambiguity in religious life. This means they nonchalantly discard the tests of logical consistency and empirically adequacy when evaluating competing worldviews and embrace a pluralistic stance (where no one faith can be deemed ‘true’).
With respect to Christianity, Kinnaman notes a growing tide of hostility and resentment – a statistic which is trending downward from a positive study that was done by his Barna group only one decade before. He discovered that of the non-believers surveyed that were aware of the term “evangelical” (as it relates to Christianity), nearly half had a bad impression, 47% had a neutral impression, and only 3% had a good impression.
Why such a dismal rating?
There were two things that Kinnaman’s study uncovered, and neither had anything to do with the theological teachings or doctrinal standards of the Church. First, unbelieving postmodernists signaled negativity to what they termed the Christian “swagger” – how Christians go about things in the world, along with the bark and bite that unbelievers stated that they see in Christians’ demeanor and actions.
Second, as previously stated, respondents said that the charity and compassion of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels have been dismissed by Christians in favor of combative actions against what they believe to be threats against their moral positions. In other words, Christians have become famous for what they oppose and stand against rather than for what they are in favor of and champion.
With respect to what the current and upcoming generations specifically cite as the things they see Christianity being known for, an anti-homosexual stance ranks first (91%), followed by a judgmental attitude (87%). In a way, this isn’t surprising as Christians – in keeping with Scripture – do indeed oppose homosexuality, with few others (outside of perhaps Islam) raising an objection to the lifestyle.
In regard to being judgmental, while “Church Lady’ personas certainly do exist in Christendom and damage the faith’s image, it should be noted that history has shown that the world and humanity’s fallen nature will never take kindly to Biblical pronouncements against the sin it cherishes and wants to practice. The one Scripture verse every unbeliever can quote is “Judge not less ye be judged”, but they fail to understand (1) that statement itself is a judgment; (2) Jesus commanded His followers to judge with a righteous judgment, but first make sure their own house is in order before they go about instructing others.
The third most cited characteristic of Christianity in Unchristian is the one that supports my position that Christians are the faith’s biggest anti-apologetic. A full eighty-five percent (85%) of Kinnaman’s surveyed group said that Christians are best known for a hypocritical lifestyle.
How depressing is that? Such a thing echoes Gandhi’s famous statement, “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
An Acknowledged Problem
While there is much debate in the Church on a variety of topics such as how the second coming of Christ will actually occur, on this matter, there seems to be universal agreement. Both Emerging Church leaders and conservative Christian scholars (who normally differ on many doctrinal subjects) both say that the Church needs to reflect the story found throughout Scripture in its everyday practices. Non-believers do not want a religious version of what they can already get at the mall, but instead they are searching for the mysterious practices of the ancient gospel, which means that the Church’s storytelling should be supported by its story living.
In addition to being unified in the cry for more personal and Biblical authenticity, conservative theologians also agree that while evangelism needs to be truth-centered, it must also be person-sensitive and culturally active. Evangelical leaders point out that God does not merely speak truth to isolated, autonomous individuals, but rather to a redeemed people who form a vibrant and attractive community.
This means that mere apologetic and evangelistic propositions are not enough. Instead, Christian leaders say that the Church should enter into a covenantal relation of truth: one where words, thoughts, and deeds conform to the image of the One who is the truth incarnate. Only then will the Church have a practical, transformative, and relational truth, which ultimately results in what theology professor Kevin Vanhoozer calls a “hermeneutic of activation”.
Without such a thing, Christianity will be consistently judged with failing the test of existential relevancy. Unfortunately, such a verdict is rendered all the time and in many ways. Famed Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias says the one question that has haunted him the most throughout his ministry was asked by a Hindu acquaintance: “If this conversion you speak about is truly supernatural, then why is it not more evident in the lives of so many Christians that I know?” In other words, a God who is said to transform should produce people with transformed lives.
This apparently very visible missing element in the Church today has been pointed out by famous atheists such as Frederick Nietzsche who once remarked, “I’ll believe in the Redeemer when the Christians look a little more redeemed” and Karl Marx who turned away from religion when he saw his Jewish father abandon their faith in favor of joining the Lutheran church simply to help his business grow.
In Part II, I'll discuss some of my own personal experiences and what I believe to be the cure is for the problem.