It’s a terrible piece, so I agree with Coyne on that. His dissection of Egan’s factless “reasoning” is fine. I would add a more “meta” critique of pieces like this, which I consider to be an apologetic subgenre.
Whenever a believer blames bad behavior for the decline of their religion, they almost certainly engage in this subgenre’s defining characteristic: the erasure of an active god from the conversation. Here is the basic outline. Let B = person or persons behaving badly, while also being part of the religion. Let G = person or persons doing good stuff, while also being part of the religion. Let Y = the god of the religion.
- B makes our religion look bad.
- This has consequences that are bad. (Young people leaving, etc.)
- But G is what our religion is really about.
- We have to do something about B or else our religion will get smaller.
The subgenre can be employed in a few different ways. Maybe the writer will try to empower G to assert more influence, or maybe the writer will blame “the media” for exaggerating the size or influence of B. Maybe the writer will attempt to explain how B is No True Scotsman, and that only G is the true religion.
Sometimes the writer will acknowledge that the power/size of B is a problem for the claims of their religion. This is rare, but when it happens, we might define the piece as being outside the subgenre. Because the next step is a disaster for any apologist, which is why the next step never happens: What is Y doing? How is he/she/it connected to the actions of B and their consequences? That’s why Y is barely mentioned in the subgenre.
It’s a pathetic way to think, and a pathetic way to write.
We can’t always say for sure what God is doing, especially when we’re still in the thick of the events that we are discussing. Even a good apologist would admit that. We can’t change what God wants either. That’s a reason why it’s unwise to speculate about God. It’s also why it’s pointless to blame God. (And I’m speaking in general, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with Egan or Coyne.) But we can change what we ourselves do as Christians, and we know that God wants us to do our part, no matter what his greater purpose is.
So, no one knows what Y is doing, but everyone knows that B is bad and is dismantling Y’s religion. Obvious option 1: Y is fictional. Distasteful option 2: Y is real but can’t be bothered to deal with the situation that the writer is decrying in his/her subgenre boilerplate, namely that Y has inspired hate and fear and destruction, so much so that we have to yell about G in hopes that everyone will ignore B.
Try door #1. Lots of other things get better.
Option 3: Y is real, and intends to use us to fight against B so as to bring out the true character of G.
In every other area of my life, I told myself and others that “intentions” are not sufficient, most especially when people are being hurt. But let’s grant this one, and reword it so you can see what it looks like to a skeptic: Option 3: Y is real but can’t do anything. See Option 1.
Intentions are really powerful when they come from God as opposed to humans, because God’s intentions never change, and they are always real and successful. They work out, whether or not you or I like it.
Based on this statement, it seems to me that you misunderstand the character of God as believed in Christianity. God can and does act through miraculous interventions, but he also acts providentially, through the more regular order of things, which includes human actions. So if God wants his people to be the means to show the world who he really is, that doesn’t mean that God is not actually doing anything. God sustains my existence and determines the circumstances of my life. He can work using me, you, or any other person he wishes.
I was an evangelical for decades, and a Christian scholar for one of those decades. I understand the way god is sold and I told tales like that to myself for years. I broke the spell by asking myself whether I thought god should be willing to either do something to stop the evil done in his name, or accept responsibility for the same. Responses like yours helped me deconvert. Vacuous, condescending, pious. I wouldn’t blame you for taking these comments as insults, but that’s not how I intend them. I do expect you to stop pretending that I don’t understand god. There are thousands up to billions of gods (depending on how you parse the cladistics), so perhaps your personal version is not the impotent braggart that he sounds like. But none of them can stop B, and none of them will do what you also cannot do, which is admit that something is seriously effed up about how his influence is being worked out in our world.
Good luck to you. Death to your god.
But that is a core truth of Christianity, namely that the world is broken and fallen, and that also applies to many people who profess to be Christians. Jesus even warned us that many will claim to do amazing works in the name of Jesus, yet Jesus never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). Contrary to what you said, I admit that, and in fact I believe the Bible teaches that. For me, that’s why it makes more sense to place my trust in a God who is much more than just a super-powerful version of another one of these fallible human beings.
And contrary to what you seem to be suggesting, God does and will actually stop B. We’ve seen this happen many times through history. There have been many groups of people who claim to be Christians but commit horrific crimes that sully the name of Christianity. Yet true Christianity has endured, even if you have to look harder to find it. Now if every Christian person I knew was a hypocrite who actually supports B, I would agree with you that God has not been able to stop B. Yet that hasn’t been my experience.
I make no claim to understand what you’ve been through. As you are older than me, and was a Christian for decades, it could very well be the case that you know certain things about Christianity better than me. So I’m sorry if my response came across as condescending. I’m just stating my own personal understanding of why God can work through people instead of direct interventions. This is extraordinarily central to what I understand to be the Christian story, the Christian understanding of how the universe works. It seems that you denied this possibility in your response to me. But perhaps I’m just badly misreading you. And I fully admit that my understanding is most likely imperfect and incomplete.
You do you, but for me that is a shockingly low bar and I would never have even considered faith in a god so morally negligent. I strongly suspect that you expect more of yourself, and of others, and you would expect more of your kids. Your current expectation of god is statistically zero: all Christians would have to be evil for you to count him a failure. For me and, I hope, for nearly everyone I know, the expectation would be vastly more than zero. At the least, Christian belief should make it no MORE likely that a person would embrace cruelty, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, violent nationalism, greed, infatuation with power, stuff like that. An expectation of a god who actually cares (and acts) would be some positive movement of the needle toward good. This is really REALLY basic stuff. Your god fails spectacularly, unless you bail him out with No True Scotsman arguments. More troublingly, IMO, is that you don’t seem to have any expectation of him at all. Not even the faint hope that some believers get from the possibility that he’s not, on balance, an influence for evil. I think he is, and I think there’s a hell of a lot of data on my side.
Your comments about “true Christianity” having “endured” are quite dramatically irrelevant to whether Christian belief has been good for the world. Malaria has endured too.
Oh you definitely misread me. I don’t deny the “possibility” that gods can act “through people instead of direct interventions.” That was my mantra for decades, too. I’m saying that the evidence of our world shows him to be toxic or, at best, impotent. No matter how he acts, he has to be exposed to the question of WHETHER he acts, and all humans have the right to ask whether there is any reason to believe that he does. If unbelievers are just as kind as believers, and just as prone to assholery and fascism as believers, and less prone to divorce and abortion and outright murder than unbelievers, then at some point an intact mind wants to know…wtf does this god actually do? The answer is clear.
First of all, this is an inaccurate statement of my views. You’re taking me too literally. But the details aren’t important. Here’s where I think we differ: I just don’t feel comfortable putting expectations of God to the extent that you seem to be suggesting. If I do that, I’m sort of implicitly believing that God isn’t God anymore. If God is God, then he gets to determine what the expectations are. In fact, he is the basis by which we have any sort of legitimacy of an “expectation” at all. Having an expectation means you have some sort of moral standard for God. Where did that moral standard come from? Isn’t it also from God?
- It’s not as simple of a picture as you seem to portray it. Unbelievers, at least in America, tend to be more affluent and educated. So it is unsurprising that many of them commit less crimes, are less prone to divorce, and so on. There are many confounding factors, even if we take at face value that those who claim to be Christians really are Christians. In addition, I’m not an American, so my perception and experience of Christianity isn’t necessarily the same as what is talked about in that article, which focuses on American Christianity.
- I know for a fact that being a Christian helps me to be less prone to do bad things, so this creates a strong personal bias that makes me less likely to just abandon it. If I feel that I am flourishing personally due to being a Christian, despite all the bad things going around me, is it wrong to continue being a Christian? Perhaps it is selfish. I don’t know. But going back to the topic of expectations, I think this is inevitably the most important expectation. Christianity has to work well for me and my immediate circle of friends and loved ones, and I think that it does.
- Even with all of this in mind, again from the perspective of Christianity, I don’t think God is doing anything other than what he said he would do. God never said in the Bible that anyone who claims to be a Christian would be less likely to commit crimes and divorce. Claiming to be a Christian and actually living it out are very different things, and the Bible has never said otherwise.
Oh let’s all hope not. The god of Christianity “inspired” Deuteronomy 20. My moral standards and expectations don’t need a source (such a tired silly old canard) but the creep of the OT is unqualified if they did.
As for the rest of your post, you confirm that you don’t have meaningful expectations of your god. You are wrong that he “never said…that anyone who claims to be a Christian” would be morally distinguishable from unbelievers (did you seriously never memorize the fruits of the Spirit?) but I’ll grant you that falsehood in order to make my final point: a “god” who promises nothing and who accomplishes less, who lays all the blame for evil on humans and accepts all the credit for good while demanding worship and screaming about the use of his name… is a sick little creep who isn’t remotely worthy of respect much less worship. Fortunately for humanity, he’s a toxic meme, a phantasm that tells us all about ourselves and our brains and our societies (actually a small subset thereof). Good bloody riddance, for me.
You’re not reading me carefully enough. I said that claiming to be a Christian is insufficient to make one automatically exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. Let’s actually take a closer look at the passage in Galatians that talks about this:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Galatians 5:19-25, ESV
To me, it says clearly that those who don’t exhibit the fruits but instead keep doing the “acts of the flesh” will not inherit the kingdom. They do not belong to Jesus, do not live by the Spirit and are not truly Christians, even if they claim to be Christians. I’d also add another verse, from James 2:14:
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?”
A mere claim that one has faith is insufficient to prove that one is authentically a Christian. All of these verses support my contention that the Bible never says that claiming to be a Christian should automatically make you more prone to being a better person. As you see, there’s more to it than just memorizing what the fruits of the Spirit are. We have to understand what the Bible is actually saying.
If you want to attribute this to my views, Steve, you are gravely misrepresenting them. I do think that God has promised us a lot of things, the most important being eternal life for those who genuinely believe in him and prove that they do by doing good works. My point is that God has never promised that people who claimed to be Christians are going to be automatically better than others. If you wished God promised that, you are free to do so, but that’s just not what the Christian God claims to do.
Politics AND religion, this ought to be a good fight.
Actually, it looks peaceful enough so far. Let’s try to keep it that way.
Five of them, right on cue:
Yep. That applies double the higher up the religious organization one goes. That is, all religious leaders are human and thus err but the damage is multiplied by the relative rank of the leader. On the political side… Quakers have tended to avoided running for higher political office for conscientious reasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even lobby or vote in political elections.
Which reminds us to the adage: “What do you get when you mix religion and politics? Politics.”
But as a fellow Christian, wouldn’t you agree with me that those who don’t exhibit good works are not really Christians? I mean I just quoted the Bible verses which literally say that.
Your proof-texting was not very convincing; I know perfectly well how the bible can be used to guide an arrow. But no matter: this just means that you are quoting the bible as it makes a No True Scotsman argument. It certainly isn’t surprising to me that you can find laughably bad moral reasoning (or just plain reasoning) in the bible.
But more notably, I would like to point out that we’re several layers into this discussion, and it has strongly affirmed my original point in my original response: Christians talk about their powerful god, then erase him from the conversation as soon as he’s in trouble. And when you look at what his people are up to, in the US and elsewhere, you can see that he’s in trouble.
BTW, besides being intellectually pathetic, the No True Scotsman argument also tries to paper over the fact that this all-powerful good god is either powerless to stop the misuse of his words/reputation in the service of evil, or is unwilling to do so. People with intact moral faculties, which I assume includes everyone in this conversation, would react with horror at such news, then would spring into action to do something to stop it. Instead of proof-texting and doing “theology,” try using your strong brain and your human decency to parse out what it means that Christianity has become a significant threat to both moral discourse and to civil rights.
Your god will never express shame or concern about any of this, because he’s not real. It’s not too late for you to show the moral courage of confessing that something is wrong, and that the Christian god, his awful bible, and the tens of millions who confess him are behind epic evil.
Yes, which is why I’m turned off by the confessing I see here.
That being said, it’s a completely fallacious nonresponse to @sfmatheson’s point.