Mike the Mad Biologist

Some thoughts on the Theology of Jerks. Earlier this week, there was some minor amusement over Christian scholar Richard Beck’s claim, at his blog Experimental Theology, that Christians (presumably he means fundamentalists) are lousy tippers:

Take, for example, how Christians tip and behave in restaurants. If you have ever worked in the restaurant industry you know the reputation of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Millions of Christians go to lunch after church on Sundays and their behavior is abysmal. The single most damaging phenomenon to the witness of Christianity in America today is the collective behavior of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Never has a more well-dressed, entitled, dismissive, haughty or cheap collection of Christians been seen on the face of the earth.

We can snicker all we want, but Beck does make what I think is a pretty radical statement for a lot of self-identified* Christians (italics mine):

…I was trying to push back on a strain of Christianity I see in both my students and the larger Christian culture. Specifically, when the student said “I need to work on my relationship with God” I knew exactly what she meant. It meant praying more, getting up early to study the bible, to start going back to church. Things along those lines. The goal of these activities is to get “closer” to God. To “waste time with Jesus.” Of course, please hear me on this point, nothing is wrong with those activities. Personal acts of piety and devotion are vital to a vibrant spiritual life and continued spiritual formation. But all too often “working on my relationship with God” has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being.

The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute….

The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories….

Going to church, well, that is working on your relationship with God. But, as we all know, any jerk can sit in a pew. But you can’t be a jerk if you take the time to treat your waitress as if she were a friend, daughter or mother.

Or as a human being. But I’ll get back to that. Beck again:

My point in all this is that contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to “work on their relationship with God” which very often has nothing to do with treating people better.

What seems to freak out the theopolitical right about ‘secular humanism’ isn’t the secularism, it’s the humanism. Not that they’re particularly happy with atheism**. But that’s easy for them to write off (and some will try to convert you). But humanism, particularly religiously-based humanism throws them for a loop because there aren’t simple things one can do and believe to ensure you are right with God.

Humanism is hard, since it requires thinking through the consequences of belief. It is hard because principles often conflict, and there isn’t always an easy answer. Humanism is hard because beliefs–and the actions stemming from those beliefs–must be judged by something more than “How firmly do you hold this belief?”

Beliefs, values, ethics are judged by difficult things like “Did you create a more just society?”, “Did you reduce suffering?”, “Did you stop man from oppressing and mutilating his fellow man?”***

Worse, humanism means that some things theopolitical conservatives are taught, such as views on abortion and homosexuality, might be wrong. And given how dearly ‘pop Protestantism’ holds those shibboleths as organizing principles, that’s too terrifying for them to contemplate. Because suddenly everything then has to be reexamined from a perspective different from one of simply following laid-down edicts.

So, when you hear theopolitical conservatives decrying secular humanism, remember: it’s not the secularism that scares them, it’s the humanism.

*In my experience, people who call themselves “Christians” and not a particular denomination (e.g., Methodists) are almost always either evangelicals or fundamentalists, and typically theopolitically conservative.

**Speaking as a moderately observant Jew, they’re typically not too happy with us either.

***That so many people of faith ‘religious’ people supported torture is one of the great abominations of our time. When Camus told Spaniards in Franco’s Spain, “Christians, your Church has deserted you”, he didn’t know the half of it.

Comments

  1. #1 JD
    November 1, 2009

    Their 15% goes to “god” and not the waiter. Just another example of how a non-existent, unfalsifiable, unverifiable 3rd party mucks up intrapersonal relationships.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    November 1, 2009

    I have found it incredible how “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” seems to be not just the “second great commandment”, but so far down below the “first” as to never be worth bothering with.

  3. #3 Em
    November 1, 2009

    Sola fide.
    Sola Scriptura.

    There is no need whatsoever to work on becoming a decent human being when your ass is already and forever saved. This guy is barking up the wrong tree. It’s the Catholics who actually believe God looks at your deeds.

  4. #4 Edward
    November 1, 2009

    Speaking as a Christian-oriented Humanist, I think you have a point. The strand of Christianity to which I belong spans the full spectrum from liberal to conservative. Frequently, out of perhaps a sense of obligation to our shared history, the liberal and conservative groups try to get together. It seems like it is always the conservatives who end these arrangements – generally because they are afraid that the liberals will “corrupt their youth.” In particular, fears of catching teh gay seem prevalent among the conservatives, while us liberals are perfectly happy with same-sex marriage. At times, I think some of them fear us Humanist co-religionists far more than atheists.

  5. #5 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    November 1, 2009

    To me, most of the fundamentalist sects are very selfish, and perhaps even the evangelicals. It’s a matter of “my spirituality” being taken care of, so that if others choose to ignore the plain message of salvation, well it sucks to be them. I take care of myself, you take care of yourself and all I can do is preach to you the way to save yourself.

    It’s why I don’t think I need saving. I think I need to do what I can as a person to help other people, even without religion it can be done. If I open the door for someone as a courtesy, they don’t care what religion I am. If I give to a charity, my money is as green as anyone else’s. If I teach someone how to do something cool, I don’t need to thank God that I know how.

    It’s not hard for me, but then I don’t have a religion that tells me I need a god to be good, so I don’t sweat it. I just ask myself what my parents would do, and try to follow their example.

  6. #6 Alden
    November 1, 2009

    To clarify, the word “secular” in “secular humanism” is to distinguish it from “Christian humanism.” Christianity is very much a humanist religion, or should be. The American strain of evangelicalism which has divorced Christianity from humanism is a problem. It has produced “lousy tippers,” among other things.

    Now, secular humanists are another problem entirely…

  7. #7 llewelly
    November 2, 2009

    Alden | November 1, 2009 10:54 PM:

    Christianity is very much a humanist religion, or should be.

    Please read Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, by Hector Avalos.

  8. #8 sue
    November 2, 2009

    Not only do churches not pay income tax (which pretty much everyone knows) they don’t pay unemployment insurance tax. I’ve always thought this was an egregious hypocrisy — I mean, isn’t protecting your employees the ‘christian’ thing to do?

    They could pay the tax, or they could purchase unemployment insurance from the private sector, but 99% don’t – nor is there anything that compels a church organization to inform their employees of that little caveat. I guess their ex-employees are just outta luck. And poor (and not only in spirit…)

    WWJD??? Heck, even Jesus paid taxes.

  9. #9 Michael
    November 2, 2009

    Humanism does not scare Christians. Well, it doesn’t scare Christians that actually observe what they say they believe. I disagree with asserting that all Christians be lumped into this Sunday lunch stereotype. There are ways of knowing that you are right with God. It does not require actions, yet these are what seem to be necessary in your sight in order to justify one’s standing with God. Care and concern for others is precisely what Christ exemplified in his actions, which were a product of not only his deity but his example as a human. Beck clearly has not understood Christianity except from a negative starting point. Who is Beck to tell a Christian what he should and should not be doing? Simply put, it seems that you and Beck are asserting your own humanism and expecting Christians to abide by such. I am not afraid of humanism, I am just afraid of a humanism that asserts the right that every person decides his own definition of humanism. Sure, there is credence in the claim that many Christians do not take seriously the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, but how is the commandment negated or seen as anti-humanist solely due to the fact that adherence is not continually present? How, also, is your rendering of a verdict applicable solely due to a Sunday lunch crowd?

    Mike, you don’t think you need saving because you don’t think you are in the wrong, even when your actions are in contrast with the humanism you assess. In your own understanding of the freedom to possess a worldview apart from religion, I don’t have to care about your worldview or even have a worldview that contains some component of concern for humanism.

  10. #10 abb3w
    November 2, 2009

    Mike: In my experience, people who call themselves “Christians” and not a particular denomination (e.g., Methodists) are almost always either evangelicals or fundamentalists, and typically theopolitically conservative.

    While the sample size is small, poking at the GSS (filter RELIG(11); and for example, POLVIEWS vs. REGION) suggests while this may be largely true in the South, it looks like that may be less the case in the West.

    sue: They could pay the tax, or they could purchase unemployment insurance from the private sector, but 99% don’t

    This is a slight exaggeration, given the number of Catholic churches, and the fraction of same that participate by reimbursement/self insurance or by voluntarily paying unemployment taxes. Nonetheless, only slight; over 90% wouldn’t surprise me much.

  11. #11 Mark P
    November 4, 2009

    Modern American christianity is about belief, not behavior. Almost the entire body of teachings attributed to Jesus in the christian bible is ignored in favor of the later teachings of followers who never even met Jesus. To them, the key point of christianity was the simple question: do you believe in Jesus as your savior? That is all that matters. If Hitler had accepted Jesus as his “lord and savior” two seconds before he died, he would have gone to the christian heaven, while a man who observed all of Jesus’s teachings but didn’t happen to believe in god would go to hell. Isn’t that a wonderful religion?