Who Gets to Define Christianity?

The brou ha ha over original sin continues apace. Andres Sullivan has replied to Jerry Coyne. It’s a very bad post, arrogant but contentless. Jerry has already delivered the well-deserved spanking.

Sullivan uncorks nuggets like this:

I would argue that original sin is a mystery that makes sense of our species’ predicament – not a literal account of a temporal moment when we were all angels and a single act that made us all beasts. We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come from? If it is coterminous with intelligence and self-awareness, as understood by evolution, then it presents human life as a paradox, and makes sense of the parable. For are we not tempted to believe we can master the universe with our minds – only to find that we cannot, and that the attempt can be counter-productive or even fatal? Isn’t that delusion what Genesis warns against?


I find myself helpless in the face of such gibberish. If original sin is a mystery, then how does it make sense of whatever predicament Sulilvan imagines we are in? How does believing that humanity’s moral sense is as much a product of evolution as any of our other endowments render human life paradoxical? Who, exactly, thinks we can master the universe with our minds (whatever that even means)? And where does Genesis warn against doing that? A more plausible reading suggests that Genesis was warning against disobeying God.

As I noted in this previous post, there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of original sin. If Sullivan can get other people to go along with his rather unorthodox understanding of the concept that they are all welcome to it. But I would note, as in the previous post, that a skeptic can reasonably wonder whether the concept of original sin, as presented by Sullivan, is contributing anything at all to our understanding of the human condition. If the doctrine is completely untethered from anything the Bible actually says, and exists solely as some vague acknowledgement of the fact that humanity often falls short of its highest ideals, then what is it telling us that we did not already know?

But that is an aside. There is very little in Sullivan’s post that merits a response, but he does manage to raise one interesting question. One of Sullivan’s readers, responding to Sullivan’s assertion that anyone with a brain can see that Genesis was not meant literally, and that the text “screams parable,” pointed out that, actually, rather a lot of people don’t agree at all with that. Literal interpretations of Genesis are pretty common these days. Here is Sullivan’s reply:

Christianity is not and never has been defined by a majority of American believers in 2011. It has existed for two millennia in countless forms and incarnations, if you pardon the expression. My own dismay at what passes for Christianity today is not exactly a secret on this blog. I can agree with Coyne on this and still find him crude and uninformed about the faith he has such contempt for.

But Sullivan is not just placing himself in opposition to a majority of American believers in 2011. He is also placing himself in direct opposition to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church. It is not as though atheists, motivated by a desire to make Christians look foolish, came up with the idea that Adam and Eve were real people who actually sinned. We’re not the ones who wrongly discerned historical content in what certainly seems to be an ancient myth. As we saw in yesterday’s post, the reality of Adam and Eve and the transmission of their sin through “ordinary generation” was, for most of Christian history, central to how most people saw themselves, and it was an idea promoted by virtually all of the great Christian theologians. Yet Sullivan denounces them all as brainless. Hence my description of his views as arrogant.

That’s not the interesting part, though. Sullivan’s statement got me wondering about the question of how Christianity is defined. I would argue that Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is defined solely by what communities of believers say it means. There is no objective standard or Platonic essence to which you can refer. There is no basis for saying, with regard to how a particular community practices Christianity, “You’re doing it wrong!” unless that statement is just short hand for, “I don’t like the way you’re doing it.”

Fundamentalists are often criticized for acting as though they are the only ones practicing authentic Christianity. That criticism is well-deserved. But it is no better when more moderate Christians assume the same pose, acting as though they are the ones who really understand what Christianity is all about. When skeptics address themselves to culturally dominant versions of Christianity, exposing its beliefs as unwarranted and perhaps even dangerous, it is not a serious reply to say, “But you haven’t criticized real Christianity, as practiced by myself and a handful of other sophisticates.”

Politically I’m all in favor of religious moderation. If we’re stuck with religion as a serious social force, far better it be the sort of faith that is flexible with regard to doctrine. Intellectually, though, I don’t find it to be much of an improvement over what the fundamentalists offer. Sullivan’s understanding of original sin is, so far as I can tell, something he simply made up. I can find in it not the slightest connection either to the Biblical text, or to traditional Christian teaching.

Comments

  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    October 7, 2011

    Who, exactly, thinks we can master the universe with our minds
    For some reason the theme music of He-Man! keeps playing

  2. #2 eric
    October 7, 2011

    Pragmatically, self-identification seems to be the best way a non-believer can determine who is what. Or maybe it’s a candidate for Churchill’s comment – it’s the worst possible way to define religion, except for all the others. Since ‘all the others’ basically mean you must take sides and select one sect as more right than another.

    If we were discussing non-religious philosophies, I might offer up the neutral criteria that an internally self-consistent interpretation of [theology/philosophy x] can at least be ranked as more correct than a self-contradictory interpretation. However, that doesn’t work for religions. Religion is about God’s (or nature, or whatever’s) revelatory communication with humans, and its entirely possible that some God gave contradictory revelations. So in religion, even internal consistency is no good guide to which sect is “more theologically correct.”

  3. #3 Doctor Florida
    October 7, 2011

    I think that it’s misleading to ask who defines Christianity, because the question suggests that it is, in essence if not in practice, a single thing. The question reifies it. In fact, every believer either decides independently what Christianity is, or allows a sect to define it. And the stronger the belief, the more the believer thinks that everyone else is wrong to the extent that they disagree. There is no factual basis to test against.

  4. #4 Kel
    October 7, 2011

    “But you haven’t criticized real Christianity, as practiced by myself and a handful of other sophisticates.”

    It’s always an out one can use. With some 2 billion people worldwide calling themselves Christianity, there’s very little chance that any description of Christianity is going to be able to be accurate for a large number – and there will be varying degrees by which the description applies to them. It’s almost as if a lot are saying “that if you understood Christianity the way I do, then you’d see why I believe” when in reality even the sophisticated versions aren’t really any better – they just know how to avoid pitfalls that make for more easy “disproof”.

    That’s the problem with a blanket term like “Christianity”, the Christianity I was taught as a child is very much in the liberal protestant tradition. But discussing Christianity with conservative protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, etc. I found out that I was misrepresenting Christianity at every turn. Catholics would argue that all other versions of Christianity had corrupted Christianity, while Lutherans would point to the pitfalls of Catholicism as detracting from what Christianity is. Liberal thinkers have chastised me for taking it too literally, and biblical literalists have taken me to task for not understanding through not taking it literally enough.

    And which points are meant to be metaphorical, which points are literal, which points are allegorical, they have varied from person to person. Whether the bible was written by God, inspired by God, written about God by humanity, or a combination of those and more has again varied by person to person. Then there are those who spend time defending the faith through a priori arguments, of which I need a specific disproof or have to accept their God (which argument varies on the person – I’ve had discussions with defenders of cosmological argument, ontological argument, design argument, the moral argument, and the transcendental argument) or those who appeal to personal revelation and miracles.

    No matter what I’ve said, no matter what I’ve learned, I haven’t had a single believer yet give me any credit at all for understanding their beliefs.

  5. #5 Steven Carr
    October 8, 2011

    Who gets to define Christianity?

    The people who get to say what goes on the ceiling of the Cistine chapel.

    Apparently that was painted by atheists, determined to make Christianity look foolish by depicting Adam and Eve as real people.

    And it was all done in the Ground Zero of the Catholic Church!

    We atheists are damn clever.

  6. #6 Kel
    October 8, 2011

    One more thing that bugs me.

    Taking Christianity as some sort of overarching and holistic belief system really lends itself to easy dismissal of criticism. It’s not like they’re putting out “premise, premise, premise -> conclusion”, and expecting the belief to stand on the argument. Rather the view is all-encompassing, where what particular pillars the conclusion may rest on doesn’t for practical purposes matter. It is only of significance when arguing with others, when trying to explain why other Christians really aren’t Christian, or that being Muslim or Hindu fails, or when the belief is under threat from rational and critical inquiry.

    If any particular pillar is under threat, then it’s easy to distance oneself from that as that pillar being a straw-man to begin with – a pillar only built by those who have crude and unsophisticated beliefs. I’m not sure if taking an allegorical or figurative approach to Adam & Eve is any less of an absurdity, but it makes for a nice rhetorical victory to dismiss the criticism of a literal Adam & Eve as being literalist on the part of the critic. It’s a nice intellectual sleight of hand, agreeing with the absurdity but turning the tables back on the critic as though highlighting that absurdity is itself an absurdity.

    It seems that any one pillar doesn’t matter, in so much as whether or not it is vital to the overall belief. That Jesus was a historical person who rose from the dead might sound as miraculous and impossible as Jonah surviving in the belly of a giant fish, yet who would cast aside the resurrection of Jesus in the same way that it could be so crudely dismissed that the Jonah tale was a work of mythic storytelling. Perhaps Adam & Eve need to be literal people – or the fall a literal event – because 1 Corinthians 15 compels some significance to the tale; but again to what that is can be so easily worked around that it didn’t have to be a literal event or that it was an event but it wasn’t a literal tree or a talking snake, poetic licence or metaphor or allegory or whatever else.
    (to be continued…)

  7. #7 Kel
    October 8, 2011

    (continued from previous post)
    Yet where does that leave us as sceptics of it all? As I said in my last comment, the kind of Christianity I was taught in my youth wasn’t very literal, so it was more of a shock for me to find out there were people who did take the bible literally. Yet I’m told by literalists that the divinely-inspired bible undermines the authority of the testament, while the inerrant bible misrepresents God’s relation with the bible, while the Christianity of my youth has both putting a divine hand in where it needn’t be… I’m sure literalists would argue my atheism stems from my misunderstanding of what the bible is, that because I see it as a work of humanity (like any other collection of mythology) it’s easy to write off the gospels as flawed accounts, but that’s because I’m not wrestling with rebelling against the Word of God. Not that the presupposition of the bible being the inerrant word of God has any validity, but that my atheism is based on a misunderstanding of the bible and thus Christianity. At each point, there’s that overarching system of belief they call Christianity, yet there’s something very very different between what Ken Miller and Ken Ham call Christianity. What am I to do as someone who is fairly sure that it’s all unreasonable? If I give arguments against one, I’m missing the mark against the other.

    Which comes back to the point about there being different pillars. I recently listened to a debate where someone paralleled the role of fruit in our cognitive advancement with the Genesis origins account. Anther account of Genesis I recently found claimed that Moses with his tale of Adam & Eve was highlighting the “genetic unity” of our species. What am I make of Dembski’s retrograde original sin? Which one of those means that I can be an intellectually-informed atheist if I show it absurd? But that, to me, is the problem that comes from Christianity being taken as an overarching belief system. Any individual part can be discarded, or reinterpreted, so long as it mitigates criticism of the overall whole.

    It often looks like an exercise in moving the goalposts, or making the no true Scotsman fallacy, but I think those are consequences of trying to tie down a belief that really has no rational foundation and as taken as some holistic world-view. “That’s not my Christianity” isn’t really a good criticism of criticism of Christianity, but an admission of the ambiguity of what Christianity is.

  8. #8 Joe Shelby
    October 8, 2011

    I’ve said something like this before (probably at Dispatches), but in this context it bears repeating. If certain elements weren’t using “Christianity” as a label solely for political purposes, we wouldn’t need to have this post or conversation.

    The whole problem of “who gets to define Christianity” is that the ones who do it politically can then claim (as they do) that there is a majority on their side even though their particular views are such a fringe element. I know historically there is a HUGE hatred for Catholics still hidden within the depths evangelical right, but on the surface it is forgotten to the point that many Catholics I know are simply unaware of that history and that hidden bigotry. Because politically they agree on a few key policies (birth control / abortion, mostly) and use the same label, the Catholics here in American increasingly think the hard right is actually on their side. They are willing to tolerate the evangelicals because of their own general policies of tolerance and because of their own professed belief that there is “One Apostolic Church” (Nicene Creed).

    And the hard political religious right is taking full advantage of that for their own political gain. If they ever really got the heart of what they wanted (a revocation of the 1st Amendment and the religious test for office clause), they would establish themselves as a state church and ban Catholicism within minutes.

  9. #9 David
    October 8, 2011

    “We are beasts with the moral imagination of angels. But if we are beasts, then where did that moral imagination come”

    Isn’t that backwards? Didn’t we start out angels, and acquire beastly characteristics (sin) through biting the fruit?

  10. #10 Lenoxus
    October 8, 2011

    Original post:

    Who, exactly, thinks we can master the universe with our minds (whatever that even means)?

    Well, supposedly God thinks he can. Also, supposedly, he actually can. Is he naughty regardless?

    Deepak Shetty:

    For some reason the theme music of He-Man! keeps playing

    I literally laughed aloud.

    Kel: 

    It often looks like an exercise in moving the goalposts, or making the no true Scotsman fallacy, but I think those are consequences of trying to tie down a belief that really has no rational foundation and as taken as some holistic world-view. “That’s not my Christianity” isn’t really a good criticism of criticism of Christianity, but an admission of the ambiguity of what Christianity is.

    QFT. When they say “that’s not my Christianity”, they aren’t exactly being incorrect or fallacious, but are almost conceding the argument anyway. It’s as if there never were any goalposts to begin with.

    In its earliest days, Christianity was about as schism-ridden as it is today (or it would have been had it had a wider geographic range).

    Joe Shelby @ 8:

    If they ever really got the heart of what they wanted (a revocation of the 1st Amendment and the religious test for office clause), they would establish themselves as a state church and ban Catholicism within minutes.

    I want to disagree but I don’t think I can. It depends on what the actual current demographics are, but yes, I think many of fundamentalists read the Revelation of John and see the same supposed symbols of the Mother Church as the first Protestants saw.

  11. #11 Marshall
    October 8, 2011

    I don’t know why Atheists should be in the business of defining Christianity/Religion, but there you are. It seems to me that Andrew has as much right to define his own experience as anybody. If he wants to be an Evangelical Catholic, are you the Pope to tell him he is wrong? What would be wrong with people having their own interpretation of their own experience?

    Arrogant, sure. Seems to me auteuring a blog requires that one be rather full of one’s self. Don’t know if that’s a good thing, but that’s Individualism for you.

  12. #12 Roberto
    October 8, 2011

    i endorse marshalls’ view. this is the problem with atheists: since atheism is simply a “non-anti-something”, you have to define that what is the “something”, otherwise you couldnt be the “anti-non-something”.

  13. #13 Scarecrow
    October 8, 2011

    It’s all Calvinball to me.

  14. #14 articulett
    October 8, 2011

    So, Marshall and Roberto– tell us how you define Christianity? How do YOU tell if someone is a true Christian? To me, everyone who says they are a Christian is a Christian– including the Norway shooter; I’m willing to let each Christian define Christianity however he chooses– even Fred Phelps. And, of course, Andrew Sullivan.

    But none of you ever seems to define it; you seem to know what it isn’t, but you aren’t too clear on what it is. I think you are being vague because you don’t really know what you believe or why you believe it– you just think that it’s important to believe it. That’s the way I was as a Christian.

    I’m an atheist now in that I don’t believe in any invisible or divine beings. If your god is invisible and/or divine, I don’t believe in him even if I can’t pin you down on a definition. I also think the 3-in-1 Jesus-god is incoherent.

    Here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask Christians. Do Christians believe that Jesus is the god of the old testament AND the “uncaused first cause” of the Kalam Cosmological argument? What’s the difference between god and “the holy spirit” anyhow?

    If your beliefs were as false as all those conflicting faiths you are SURE are wrong, would you want to know?

  15. #15 Roberto
    October 8, 2011

    articuletto: your assumptions are based on? how do you even know i am christian? (interesting that in more civilized countries, the word is “believer”(creyente) not christian) a problem with atheists, as non-nothing-non-believers of the belief, which is ridiculous by the way, you bully others to confess and repent or go to hell as steve jobs did and surely you will too..no offense here.

  16. #16 articulett
    October 8, 2011

    Which assumption? You endorsed Marshall’s view and he said, “I don’t know why Atheists should be in the business of defining Christianity/Religion,” so I asked for YOUR definition. Do you recall the title of this post? Who do you think gets to define Christianity? I’m willing to let every one define it however they want. But no one seems willing to define it. They just seem eager to dismiss those who dismiss the whole story as myth.

    I’m getting the feeling that English is not your first language. I have no idea what your point is or who is “bullying others to confess” or what your reference to Steve Jobs is about, but I’ve gathered you won’t be providing a definition of Christianity for us here today.

  17. #17 Roberto
    October 8, 2011

    i get the first language bit quite a bit. i mentioned mr jobs cause the wsj beatified him as a ‘secular prophet’ (andy crouch) without mentioning he was a buddhist. quite hilarious. and you probably do get the ” atheist bullying” bit also. i hope you understand that in this rerified society we live (where secular bibles get publsihed..secular bibles) we should attempt to be less ‘anally retentive” (no offense) and be more embracing of each other. quite honest we, in the other side of the world, dont take this belief/nonbelief dichotomy so seriously. but here, gimme a break, it must be because this country of US was founded on religious intolerance and there we went for a hike… so now we might end with a mormon president…c’mmon lets have a beer in the rose garden

  18. #18 Roberto
    October 8, 2011

    ooops sorry, ill be providing some definitions provided you provide me yours.

  19. #19 386sx
    October 8, 2011

    @eric Religion is about God’s (or nature, or whatever’s) revelatory communication with humans, and its entirely possible that some God gave contradictory revelations. So in religion, even internal consistency is no good guide to which sect is “more theologically correct.”

    True, and if one grants them that internal consistency is a virtue, then that implies granting them that they have knowledge that their god is consistent, or even that they have any “knowledge” of their god at all. How would they even know their god is even a “god”? However it is funny to point and laugh at religions that claim internal consistency when anyone can see it’s a big pile of mess.

  20. #20 Marshall
    October 8, 2011

    Not sure why you worry about who is a true Christian? I don’t; I’m willing to let people self-identify. Do you think you can draw up an exhaustive list of Scientists, or exact qualifications? Why would you want to? … but I suppose I would say roughly that a Christian is anyone who gives the Christian narrative power in their life. Begs the question, to be sure. All definitions are in the end circular.

    Andrew has been going on and on about what he thinks is necessary for his faith (and, spectacularly, why he thinks Benedict falls short of that standard). You think his explanation is incoherent which maybe it is, or maybe it’s you who don’t understand; scientists know, most science is less than obvious. I’m quite sure you don’t understand the place Catholicism has in Andrew’s life, nor do I, and why would we expect to? And why do you care?

    “Christians” as a group quite obviously don’t believe anything consistent; you would have to ask individual Christians. But since you do ask me, I say (tentatively) God the Father is whatever supports the Universe in being as it is. Jesus represents a hopeful view of the human place in the history of the universe despite the batshit way we behave. The Holy Spirit is what Steven Pinker is calling the better angels of our human nature, as speaks to me and each individual personally. If you want to talk more with me about such things, leave a comment anywhere on my site.

  21. #21 Robe
    October 8, 2011

    forza marshall..avanti!!

  22. #22 Roberto
    October 8, 2011

    sorry Robe is Roberto, me

  23. #23 Kel
    October 8, 2011

    Andrew has been going on and on about what he thinks is necessary for his faith

    And there’s nothing wrong with him doing that. But if that were really the case, why get mad at Jerry Coyne for giving a different interpretation? After all, if it’s just a matter of his faith, then it wouldn’t really matter how Christianity is defined or used for others. But when he says things like: “I can agree with Coyne on this and still find him crude and uninformed about the faith he has such contempt for.” as if his faith is the faith, then I think your interpretation of what Andrew is doing is a bit disingenuous.

  24. #24 Kel
    October 8, 2011

    i.e. if it really was about how Andrew defines his faith, then Coyne isn’t talking about his faith. He’s talking about a different faith, and it’s incredibly dishonest to conflate Coyne’s argument with what he believes. This is the problem that the blog is addressing, what gets to be meant by Christianity.

    One can’t really have it both ways. Either one can allow for self-definition, but at that point one’s self-definition loses any claim to objectivity of the term. The term, that way, becomes subjective; and thus it would be dishonest to attack someone for going after a different subjective view.

  25. #25 Marshall
    October 8, 2011

    Because Christians are are a community of faith even though there is vast disagreement on particulars. The fact that Scientists have a diversity of opinion about what is science, exactly, doesn’t prevent Jerry from taking aggressive offense at those (not me or Andrew) who disparage it. Jerry taking offense at being called names is humorous, actually.

    Also because taking offense and getting mad is the batshit thing that humans do. Whereas “sticks and stones…”

    @roberto: di grazie!

  26. #26 Verbose Stoic
    October 8, 2011

    Who gets to define what it means to be a Kantian?

    Or a Stoic?

    Or Aristolean?

    Or Platonic?

    Or a Utilitarian?

    Or a Virtue Theorist?

    Or a determinist/libertarian (in free will terms)?

    Christianity is closer to — if it can’t itself be called — a philosophy than it is to, say, a science. But even sciences aren’t defined by what the common people think, but instead by what the learned people think and argue for. And it is believed that in all of these cases we can indeed discriminate what it really means to be a true Kantian, or Stoic or to be really doing physics or chemistry, even in border cases. It’s not always easy, but we all think that there are in fact objective ways using reason and interpretation of doing that, and those ways are philosophical.

    Sullivan is, in fact, stating strongly what he thinks it means to be a true Christian, and what he thinks is the right way to interpret the relevant source text (the Bible). But that does need to be argued for, and I think that can be done, as someone who aligns with his position but not with his approach (I think the Garden of Eden story OBVIOUSLY figurative in the sense that if you do the work you’ll see that it is, but not obviously figurative in the sense that you’ll just immediately see it as such in the same manner as, say, the Good Samaritan story is). And we do that with the same methods that many of my old professors argued for the right way to interpret, say, how Kant views or resolves the mind and free will in “Critique of Pure Reason” (or, at least, I THINK that’s where he talks about it) … by looking at facts and the whole work, and making it all consistent. So I don’t see this as being the problem you think it is nor do I see your answer as being a particularly acceptable one in light of how philosophy answers similar questions. And I would note that by saying you don’t think it aligns with what’s in the Bible you’ve rejected the idea that it’s determined by the beliefs of the believers and argued on the basis that the text does not support the interpretation, thus taking on that specific objective approach yourself. The one you say doesn’t exist.

  27. #27 Kel
    October 8, 2011

    Because Christians are are a community of faith even though there is vast disagreement on particulars.

    Don’t you see a contradiction between this statement and allowing for self-definition? That there’s a community doesn’t get around the problem of complaining about a self-definition imposed onto the wider community.

    Just think about the problem. There are believers out there who call themselves Christian (who are part of that wider community of faith) who claim that Adam & Eve have to be historical people. That the fall was a real historical event, and without it the sacrifice of Jesus would be absurd. Now this view isn’t held by all people in that wider community, so being critical of that view doesn’t mean it’s being critical of every view held in that wider community. But that the view is out there should mean it’s there for criticism if one allows for self-definition in that wider community. On what grounds do I have to say that Ed Feser is completely ignorant of theology when he argues for a historical Adam & Eve and Andrew Sullivan not? Both identify as Christian and defend their views publicly. Yet many atheists who have publicly dismissed a historical Adam & Eve have been taken to account for being too literal – neglecting that in that wider community of faith there are many people who do too.

    So surely you can see the problem. If one is going to claim Christianity as being subject to self-definition, then it means there’s a limit to how one can defend Christianity from criticism. That’s the sacrifice that comes from having multiple views claimed under the same label. If there are people out there claiming a literal Adam & Eve, it makes a literal Adam & Eve are subject to critical inquiry. It doesn’t have to match your Christianity for it to be a valid criticism of Christianity. Of course your Christianity may not have the absurdity of a global flood or magically-corrupting fruit, but in that wider community of faith many people do. If you want to claim a wider community, then you need to accept criticism of the views of that wider community without making it personal. Otherwise you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too.

  28. #28 Yahzi
    October 8, 2011

    Marshall : “If he wants to be an Evangelical Catholic, are you the Pope to tell him he is wrong? “

    I thought we were merely pointing out that the Pope says Sullivan is wrong.

    Or are we not allowed to do that? Must Sullivan be allowed to have his own experience of the Pope’s words?

  29. #29 386sx
    October 8, 2011

    Sullivan is, in fact, stating strongly what he thinks it means to be a true Christian, and what he thinks is the right way to interpret the relevant source text (the Bible). But that does need to be argued for,

    It doesn’t need to be argued for. Jesus argued that if Satan cast out demons, then Satan’s whole kingdom would fall. That was supposed to prove that Jesus wasn’t casting out demons using the power of Satan. That’s about the stupidest thing I ever heard, other than the belief in Satan itself. However, belief in Satan might not even be as stupid as Jesus’s moronic non-sequitur there. I’m not really sure which one is dumber. Obviously if that one got through the Bible censors, then nobody needs to argue for anything. All they have to do is just sate a bunch of stupid stuff. No argument required.

  30. #30 386sx
    October 9, 2011

    Jesus would exclude the middle from a freaking oreo cookie if they had been invented at the time. This is what theologians are good at. They practically go into freaking hysterics when they see a chance to exclude the middle out of something.

  31. #31 Deepak Shetty
    October 9, 2011

    Christianity is not and never has been defined by a majority of American believers in 2011.
    Perhaps you could make this argument for Christianity. I wonder how you could make this argument for Roman Catholicism – Surely the Catholic church gets to define what Roman Catholicism is, not Sullivan?

    @Lenoxus
    I have the POWER!. But perhaps He-Man does suit Sullivan – His arguments are cartoonish.

  32. #32 Collin
    October 9, 2011

    The problem is that some atheists say that religion — including not only Christianity but at least Judaism and Islam as well — is inherently evil. It is specifically because religion cannot be defined that everyone else takes them to task on this assertion.

    If atheists simply said things like Laplace’s famous quote “I have no need for that hypothesis”, they would seem like just another opinion group — especially in America, where differences of opinion are (at least so far) officially recognized as rights.

    To atheists who argue in English mainly against Christianity, I would ask what events there, are in countries in which English and Christianity are popular, in which atheists are physically harmed for being what they are anywhere nearly as much as any other group of people.

    In general, however, it seems that English speakers and Christians are two of the groups most commonly physically harming people, including each other. This should place atheists in these parts of the world not as a fledgling group struggling for existence, but as wise parents trying to break up a fight among their children. So far, I haven’t seen any atheist stepping up to that role (with the possible exception of Crommunist).

  33. #33 eric
    October 9, 2011

    Collin: The problem is that some atheists say that religion — including not only Christianity but at least Judaism and Islam as well — is inherently evil. It is specifically because religion cannot be defined that everyone else takes them to task on this assertion.

    I don’t make that claim, but I think one can make it cogently without answering the question Jason posed in this blog entry (“who gets to define…”). To make the ‘religion is evil’ claim it’s merely enough to say that all of the sects are religious in nature. Whether they’re “really” Christian or not is irrelevant.

    To atheists who argue in English mainly against Christianity, I would ask what events there, are in countries in which English and Christianity are popular, in which atheists are physically harmed for being what they are anywhere nearly as much as any other group of people.

    Why the focus on atheists? If Christians are selectively targeting non-Christians of any variety for harm, that would presumably be evidence. Antisemitism, anti-islamic attacks, etc., these all count.

    I also think your focus on “physical harm” is narrow. Exercise the golden rule here, Collin. If there is some discriminatory or antisocial behavior that you think is harmful when Christians are the target, you should oppose it when non-Christians are the target of the same type of behavior, whether it’s physical violence or not.

  34. #34 Kevin
    October 9, 2011

    There’s Marshall using theist code words again.

    For the uninitiated, any use of the word “hope” in theo-speak is code for “my expected place in the after-death experience”.

    Problem is, there isn’t such a thing. If Marshall understood this one thing, he wouldn’t be a Christian (nor Muslim).

    No heaven, no hell, no post-death experience whatsoever.

    And of course, blog-whoring while throwing around mindless theo-mush I would consider to be bad form, but that’s just his way of puffing himself up to appear important. Like a bull snake pretending to be a rattler.

  35. #35 P Smith
    October 9, 2011

    One would think that defining a christian as “Someone who believes in and claims to follow jeezus” would be an acceptable definition to any christian, but nooooooooo. They don’t want “reasonable” or uninsulting, they want exclusivity demonization of “others” in much the same way (and to no surprise) idiots like Sarah Palin talk about “real Americans”.

    The goal is to deny and to marginalize any who don’t share a narrow (and narrow minded) view and opinion. The only time religious groups expand their definition is when it’s convenient, such as how fundy baptists call catholics “satanists” one day and stand beside them the next at an anti-abortion rally. Otherwise, they’d all behave like those in the Emo Phillips comedy piece.

    http://cmgm.stanford.edu/~lkozar/EmoPhillips.html

    .

  36. #36 Childermass
    October 9, 2011

    I would define a Christian as someone who thinks that Jesus died on a Cross for humanity’s salvation and rose from the dead. This is the whole point of Christianity. I would definitely not call someone who says the follow Jesus since that there are plenty who think of Jesus as merely an usually good man. By such a definition atheists can be Christians.

  37. #37 Collin Brendemuehl
    October 10, 2011

    I would argue that Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, is defined solely by what communities of believers say it means. There is no objective standard or Platonic essence to which you can refer. (italics mine)

    For those interested in how Christianity is historically defined, check out Alistair McGrath’s Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought
    Now, I wonder if Jason can apply his positivism (Sense above Reason) and philosophical historicism (history is immaterial) to mathematics. Doubtful. But such postmodern math might be interesting to read … finally, proof that 1+1 = whatever you want it to equal. (Only in America.)

  38. #38 eric
    October 10, 2011

    Collin, I find it amusing that you cite an authority to try and counter Jason’s complaint, given that Jason’s complaint is about there being little basis for one sect over another other than the argument from authority.

    Having said that, I don’t see how that book is either pro- or con- Jason’s “community” argument. That book describes how Christian thought has changed over time. It does not make any argument for a single definition of Christianity.

    For example, McGrath talks about how reformers like Luther considered themselves to be correcting problems with RCC doctrine, but he doesn’t argue that Luther got it right, or that the RCC was right. He doesn’t discuss that at all. McGrath is presenting what important movements in the church believed. He is manifestly not telling readers that A got it right while B got it wrong.

    As a historian, IMO the author is intentionally avoiding exactly the sort of sectarian evaluation you imply is contained in his book. At the same time, he demonstrates that people in different eras used different logic, reasoning, and data to decide what Christianity meant to them.

  39. #39 Collin Brendemuehl
    October 10, 2011

    Eric,
    Hmmm. I guess you missed that the faith has an historic basis and not one found in community.
    WRT Luther, we might consider the “schism” to be the ongoing debate, from centuries earlier (and not simply a moment) of the debate between Augustine and Pelagius. (Many do not realize, and that Luther was Augustinian.)
    McGrath did not have to argue who was right. He was prsenting history, not an argument from history. That is not avoiding anything. Meaningful history is directly contrary to Jason’s (and your) type of historicism.
    It is strange, though, that you would appeal to an apparent fact (community) and then reduce that “fact” to subjectivity. Perhaps your community argument only finds meaning within your community?

  40. #40 Katharine
    October 11, 2011

    I think I get to define Christianity because I arbitrarily say so.

    I don’t know why we elevate religion to any sort of status. It is an inherently intellectually bankrupt institution.

  41. #41 Katharine
    October 11, 2011

    Christianity deserves a good all-round mocking.

    I, an atheist, am actually pretty terrified of religious people these days. Even the more benign ones. Seriously, if you’re that unattached to reality, you’re scary.

  42. #42 J. Quinton
    October 11, 2011

    Who gets to define Christianity? No one.

    If you study the history of Christianity and its propegation throughout human history, the first thing you’ll notice is that there was never one point in time when there was one Christianity. There have always been multiple “Christianities” in history. Even as early as Paul’s letters there were other “Christianities” out there competing. Here’s one of the earliest Christian apologists, Justin Martyr, writing c. 150 CE:

    And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of the devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians; just as also those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, have yet in common with them the name of philosophers given to them.

    Yes you read that right: A Christian who claims that there is a different god who did not create the world and who is the one who should be worshiped instead of the creator god.

    Ironically, Christianity mutates and evolves just like other living organisms. Give it a new environment and geographic isolation, it becomes a new Christianity; it speciates in a way. The Christianity practiced in many nations in Africa is almost nothing like the Christianity practiced in Alabama.

    This is why those who claim that atheists are not attacking the “true” form of Christianity are actually the ones who are displaying their ignorance of Christianity.

  43. #43 eric
    October 11, 2011

    Collin: Hmmm. I guess you missed that the faith has an historic basis and not one found in community.

    I didn’t miss it, but I don’t think its a valid criticism of Jason’s argument. Saying a belief has a historical basis says nothing about its subjectivity or objectivity. This should be obvious given that every major world religion has historically based beliefs. Are you going to claim they are all objective based on the fact that they all have millenia of historical acceptance?

    Is there some years-to-objectivity translation? The very idea is ridiculous, but even if you subscribed to this, it puts Christianity in third or fourth (or worse) place.

    Meaningful history is directly contrary to Jason’s (and your) type of historicism.

    Historicism is attributing (too much) significance to a single historic era, place, culture, etc… Jason is doing exactly the opposite; he’s claiming that the beliefs of different communities throughout history are equally significant. It is the various Christian sects that engage in something like historicism, when they claim to have the one correct interpretation of Christianity. Doing that is to attribute more significance to your own interpretation than the interpretations of other historical communities.

  44. #44 Collin Brendemuehl
    October 13, 2011

    eric,
    You mistook the type of historicism that I was describing. The two thoughts are quite opposite. Though I specifically described philosophical historicism (eg Hegelian), you chose the other to make your point. Sort of self-defeating.

    J. Quinton,
    Like Jason you are defining Christianity according to liturgy or similar component. Sorry to say, but that is like describing persons only by their clothing and not by their character.

  45. #45 Wow
    October 13, 2011

    “Sorry to say, but that is like describing persons only by their clothing and not by their character.”

    Dapper?
    Scruff?

  46. #46 tony
    October 21, 2011

    I’m a non-theist but sheesh this is a bit of a lazy post. You can Wikipedia this stuff people. Original sin and its inheritance is traced back to Augustine, part of the Western church after the split with the Eastern churches. The coptics don’t agree with it, nor does the Eastern Orthodox churches.
    Catholics and most protestants (tho not the anabaptists) believe in it but with slightly different interpretations.
    Basically youve made the mistake of treating Christianity as only a few creedal formulations – sounding like Calvinism to me. In fact quite a lot of Christians reject creedal Christianity anyway (not a new fangled idea but traceable back to a big slice of the reformation) and others follow other creeds.
    Not only that but you don’t get to freeze something in time for the purposes of criticism even if that frustrates you. It’s as daft as a creationist arguing against Lamarkianism or treating Newtonian physics as the last word.

  47. #47 Wow
    October 24, 2011

    “sounding like Calvinism to me.”

    The RCC DEMANDS that there be original sin: without it, there’s no need to atone.

    Since “Christ died for our sins”, then this too DEMANDS that there be original sin, else JC was some dude in a loincloth that got nailed to a dod of wood for speaking up against the Romans and the current Jewish clergy. We don’t worship Joan of Arc for her acts, do we? Yet without Original Sin, her and JC are equivalent.

    But maybe as a non-theist you’ve never considered what the “Jesus died for our Sins” means when there’s no Original Sin.

  48. #48 Tony
    October 24, 2011

    I wasn’t raised a non-theist.
    Also I never said Catholics don’t believe in original sin just that they have different interpretations. I think they see our association with Adam and Eve’s sin as corporate rather than genetic. A bit more like the way this generation of Catholics may have a corporate guilt for the Spanish inquisition but perhaps even more so regarding Adam and Eve because of a familial association.
    Catholics do believe in transmission by biological parenthood of the consequence of sin (death and the privation of grace) however.
    It will take me a while to dig out the difference between that and Calvinism, perhaps you know and could explain…
    If you are a theist I would really encourage you to look into some of the theologies arising out of emerging church movements. The idea that jesus atones for our sins requires an angry other God that demands such sacrifice. That’s at odds with Jesus own description of God (ie. In the parable of the prodigal son) and more importantly jesus as depiction of god. It’s a split personality trinity.

  49. #49 Wow
    October 25, 2011

    “I wasn’t raised a non-theist.”

    Well, since you said : “As a non-theist”, this means what exactly? Remember I said “But maybe as a non-theist…”.

    “Also I never said Catholics don’t believe in original sin”

    Then what did you mean with this load of (now pointless) bollocks:

    “Original sin and its inheritance is traced back to Augustine, part of the Western church after the split with the Eastern churches. The coptics don’t agree with it, nor does the Eastern Orthodox churches.”

    ?

    They don’t agree with Original Sin, but DO believe in it???

    “Catholics do believe in transmission by biological parenthood of the consequence of sin (death and the privation of grace) however.”

    Christians, remember. Christians. All you did there was repeat what I’d said: “The RCC…”. But maybe you don’t have a point, just want to go “look at me!!!”.

    “It will take me a while to dig out the difference between that and Calvinism”

    If Calvinism believes that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, then they believe in original sin.

    “If you are a theist”

    I’m not.

    But many atheists have a much better understanding of religion (especially Christian religion for westerners embedded in a “christian” society) than the adherents do.

    “The idea that jesus atones for our sins requires an angry other God that demands such sacrifice”

    No it doesn’t.

  50. #50 tony
    October 25, 2011

    Would you atleast read the parts of my posts you quote?

    How is the RCC part of the eastern orthodox or coptic church?

    But youre right what is the point of continueing this discussion is a very good question.

  51. #51 Wow
    October 26, 2011

    > How is the RCC part of the eastern orthodox or coptic church?

    It isn’t. But I never said it.

    That is why I said, and I quote: “Christians, remember. Christian”.

    I guess you didn’t find anything that said that JC didn’t “die for our sins on the cross” in your “search” in Calvinism, hmm?

  52. #52 mxcnx
    December 10, 2011

    Wouldn’t it be more convenient for Christians to entirely abandon the concept of sin instead of killing or sacrificing so-called messiahs and animals to take away the sins of the world. If there is no sin, there is no burden of guilt. It seems that the Bible allows sin anyway if followed by repentence. In this case, all Christians have to do is believe.

    The commandments do not really deter Christians or even moral non-believers from committing crime, thus they are useless for the most part anyway.

  53. #53 John T
    December 10, 2011

    To just comment on the doctrine of original sin, if you read the Genesis stories about the Fall of Man and its consequences, you should be able to recognize just another tale of origins that ancient people told. Why is there air? Why do rabbits have short tails? Why aren’t there any unicorns now (courtesy of the Irish Rovers band)? I read some of those traditional stories of origins when I was a kid and can’t cite any now, but that’s exactly the nature of the Genesis stories. Why don’t snakes have legs? Why is childbirth painful? Why do people have to work and die? Tell the kids, “It’s because a long time ago, someone was naughty.” It must have been some time after those stories became part of the Jewish Bible that someone turned them into theology. St. Paul, trained as a rabbi, said all scripture is instructive. He didn’t say it was true. I’ve heard that religious leaders at the time of Jesus didn’t regard the really old Genesis stories to be literally true, though St. Paul presented them as such.

  54. #54 mbvnbv
    December 17, 2011

    The problem is that Christianity does not rely on rationality and logic. Obvious contradictions and inconsistencies, even when you point them out to them, are usually accepted by Christians as that’s the way it is and don’t even bother to explain it. It’s “must not make sense” kind of thing. And how can you dissuade someone with this type of reasoning!

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