I read a lot about religions of all kinds, but I feel I have a certain specialty when it comes to Christianity. Years of being surrounded by Christians has inevitably given me a different understanding of Christianity than I could possibly have of most other religions.
For example, what I know about Buddhism is what I have read. I don’t know many Buddhists… a handful, but most of them weren’t particularly normal people, so I imagine there is some strange selection bias there.
Islam may be an even worse situation, because I know what I have read (including the Quran and a partial reading of the Sunni hadith) and the portrayal of Islam in the media. While you may be quick to assume I refer to the violent representation, there is that, but there is also the strange PR Muslims who go around trying to spread positive views of Islam… to ridiculous effect. You know the types: they say “Islam means peace,” though Islam means “submission.” I guess in a war, those are probably the same thing, but to me the two terms are not comparable enough for my comfort.
With Christianity, however, I have exposure to an undeniably broad spectrum of believers, more so than with any other religion (though I’m close with Judaism).
There are more types of Christians than I could probably name in a single sitting, but they tend to swing between two extremes: fundamentalists and modern/liberal Christians. I suspect there is a similar spectrum in most religions, and one should be careful before making broad generalizations about these groups.
For example, “fundamentalist” tends to swing the mind towards images of people who take their religion too seriously, to violent results. This is not necessarily the case. Take, for example, a fundamentalist Christian sect like the Amish. Their views are undeniably fundamentalist: they take the Sermon on the Mount to a particularly literal level, and they meet my essential criteria for being a fundamentalist: namely, unusual clothing.
Then there are modern sects like the Mormons, which also have strange clothing (magic underwear), and an overly stringent ideology (no caffeine), and yet they meet my view of what a modern Christian does, which is go beyond the Bible. Essentially, Mormons have created a fundamentalism based on a modernist movement. In many ways most Protestants have followed this path as well (with the exception being those which have continued to liberalize).
While I see fundamentalism as being more dangerous in more cases than liberal religions, I still feel uneasy about most modern Christians. Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about without using strongly emotional language. I see modern Christianity as the more insidious strain, one which presents a sane face while embracing insanity.
The types of people I’m talking about take many different stances, but they all ultimately take Christianity and adopt ideas that were developed outside of the Bible (and there are those who do the same with some other religion, or an eclectic combination). This generally includes the “spiritual but not religious” folks, as well.
Ideally, I find people who do this annoying. In the context of fundamentalists who go to great lengths to impose their beliefs on others through aggressive evangelism and sometimes even legislation… yeah, I can’t honestly be bothered to care too much about the “I think God will just judge you on how you were as a person,” crowd.
But there is concern, because fundamentalism hides behind the reasonable believers. What’s more, liberalized believers serve only to make religion more appealing, preventing level-headed people from seeing religion for what it is: an antiquated system of educating people.
I can’t blame people for improving on religion. It’s an effective means of reaching people, because religion has some strange attraction for people. There is something about religion that is for humans like a laser pointer is for a cat: it draws the attention, and it remains eternally tantalizing because it cannot be tangibly grasped.
Religion might also be seen as the method by which some part of the brain gets off. I don’t know much about the brain (even less than the little bit that leading neurologists can grasp), but I know that there is some inherent area of the brain that wants the ultimate questions answered for us in a simple narrative. It’s clearly not the same part that craves verification or realism, but it’s in the brain, not the heart. That much I am certain of.
So how do you address someone who is making a concerted effort to make their beliefs more palatable for modern society? I think most people just smile and nod, but I can never just leave well enough alone.
For one thing, I’ve never much understood why people think that they can abandon some part of Christianity and think it’s okay. Rather than go into many different issues, I want to address the primary problem I have seen from very liberalized Christians: the very idea of God.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the redefinition of Christianity by modern Christians is the idea that, “It doesn’t matter what religion you follow, if you’re a good person you will go to heaven.” What horse shit! I mean honestly, that is the most unfounded idea I have ever seen in my life. That idea is less plausible than the very idea of God.
Make no mistake about it: the most consistent and unchanging idea in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is this: God ahead of all else, and you’re damned if you disagree. Two to three of the ten commandments are devoted to this idea (depending on how you number them, as there is some dispute since there is no numbering in the text). An additional commandment is dedicated to a day just for thinking about God.
If there is one idea which is incompatible with Christianity (or any of the monotheisms), it is the belief that worship of God is optional.
There is a further attempt to redefine God as something more abstract than the being that physically walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. I can understand the need to do this in this day and age, where we understand that God doesn’t live in the sky, opening the firmament and unleashing the waters of heaven in the form of rain.
But some people take it too far, especially when discussing something clearly explained in the Bible, like the creation. The Bible is very explicit, and since that happens so rarely, I am angered when people who insist it is “symbolic.”
Sure, the creation myth is “symbolic,” so I guess Jesus is just symbolism too? No? Where does it end when deciding what parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally? This is not an issue of morality where Jesus softened the expectations, this is an account of how the supposed creator of the universe did his job. Jesus didn’t say something like, “I come to set the record straight: the universe wasn’t created in 6 days thousands of years ago, as can be calculated from the listed genealogy in the Torah…”
I have news for all of those who want to try to mold Christianity into what they wish it was: you don’t have to call yourself a Christian. Get some courage and stand up to the majority. Don’t buy into Christ-lite. I like ideas from Norse mythology, that doesn’t mean I have to say I worship Thor; I just adopt those ideas as my own and incorporate them into my philosophy.
In other words: I don’t care that people are cafeteria Christians. There’s nothing wrong with using an idea from the Bible if you find it appealing. What isn’t necessary, however, is to adopt the misleading moniker of “Christian,” an act which emboldens fundamentalists to make claims such as “Most Americans are Christians, so we should run the country based on Christian values.”
I have nothing to gain by convincing anyone to be an atheist, but I have to admit that I find it productive to convince people to stop pretending they are Christian when they are not.