Why Modern Christian Myths Seem So Plausible
Modern Christians and Christian sympathisers/apologists have become incresaingly aggressive in their claims. It used to be the case that they would have been happy to simply free themselves from the stigma of things like the Inquisition, witch burnings and the various kinds of discrimination which appear in spades in the Bible and were promulgated by the Church for centuries afterwards, but it seems they are no longer content with such moderate goals. Instead of just avoiding blame for decidedly unenlightened behaviour and doctrine, they now want to take credit for modern ideals and values.
And to many this seems convincing.
It is this apparent plausibility that I find curious and so in this article I plan to address exactly why modern Christian myths seem so believable, even to secular people who would otherwise be unsympathetic to such propositions.
Such an inquiry must necessarily begin with a definition; what is Christianity? What does it mean to the faithful? Of course, this is not a question easily answered, especially considering that there are virtually as many beliefs out there as there are believers. However, for our purposes we need only identify some common, more prominent, threads as they apply to the non-fundamentalist, modern, predominantly rational Christian, typically identified as the religious moderate, but whom I like to think of as ‘neo-Christians.’
So what do they think of when they think of Christianity? A supernatural being living in the sky judging us, meting out punishments for sinners and rewarding the faithful? No. Perhaps a God become mortal who came to Earth to offer redemption from some original sin and whose Grace we can only receive through faith? Hardly. These things may feature in some watered down and less conspicuous fashion but such metaphysical, supernatural improbabilities are not what immediately come to their minds. Rather, they think of things like goodwill to all men… and women… and races, true equality for all because we are all born with the spark of God in us, charity, love, tolerance, and forgiveness. This is what Christianity has come to be synonymous with for those who took it in with their mother’s milk. It’s what makes possible expressions like “Christian love” and “Christian charity”, as if Christianity has some kind of monopoly over or special claim to these things.
From this starting point, it certainly doesn’t take much of an imagination to link this ‘happy’ Christianity to the modern ideals and values many of us have grown up surrounded by; freedom, equality, progress, and so on. However, I can see two problems with drawing such a conclusion; one conceptual, the other factual. To better tease these out, it would help if we take a look at the situation with a specific myth in mind…
A fundamental tenet of Christianity is the notion that everybody is equal in the eyes of God. It is this that made democracy and the modern concept of justice based on equal rights possible.
The conceptual problem is that identifying similarities across two fields (in this case religion and society) doesn’t necessarily indicate a causal relationship. With reference to our myth, this means that the Christian claim that everybody is equal in the eyes of God shouldn’t unquestionably be accepted as meaning that our modern conception of justice was necessarily inherited from Christianity. It may have been but we can’t just assume that it was without a little more investigation.
And this leads us to our second, factual, problem. Was Christianity a beacon of equality pre-modernity that meant it could have causally affected progress in the West? The truth is, it wasn’t. I have mounted a fairly concerted assault on this fiction elsewhere and won’t reiterate it here. I will just assume (what I think should be obvious to everyone) that Christianity has so much blood on its hands and is guilty of so many basic ‘crimes against humanity’ that there is no way one could ever mistake them for having been a candle, let alone a beacon, pointing the way out of the relative darkness of the Middle Ages.
The conclusion we must draw from consideration of these two problems is that there may indeed be a causal relation between society and religion. However, given the fact that for over a thousand years of Christian power (when Popes were, at times more powerful than kings) we saw repeated Church infringements on what we would now call basic human rights and watched the Church (and Christians) fight secular society over every hard won civil liberty it has earned, common sense urges us to conclude that it was modernity that influenced the Church, not the other way around.
And yet this myth seems so believable to many. Why?
The resolution comes in two parts. The first is the skewed definition of Christianity we started out with. The honest fact about Christianity is that first and foremost, it is a system of salvation based in the supernatural. Any interpretation that promotes things like equality or goodwill or morality over basic doctrine like the existence of a supernatural, male God or the day of judgement or original sin or heaven and hell should be immediately recognisable as a modern invention. This isn’t to say it is a bad interpretation; it’s just to recognise that it is a new one.
Which brings us to the second part; what I think of as a religious sleight of hand. Christians then take this modern, society-driven
Premise 1: Christianity emphasises equality
(Hidden Premise: Christianity is the same today as it was in the past)
Premise 2: Christianity preceded modernity
Conclusion: Therefore Christianity brought about equality in the modern world
There are a couple of things to say about this. First, we have already seen that premise 1 is false BUT because Christianity has been forced to conform (and is still being forced to conform) to modern values (women’s rights, gay rights, condom use, stem cells…) it seems reasonable to modern ears. This really goes to show just how short our memories are; the last Catholic burning at the stake was only 400 years ago, the Index of Forbidden Books was abolished only five decades ago, and it was only earlier this year (2015) that the Pope urged people to stop criticising religion (because as everybody knows, making certain ideas above question always results in the best ideas rising to the top).
Second, we can see that the ‘magic’ happens in the hidden premise which implicitly equates modern ‘neo-Christianity’ (our false premise 1) with pre-modern ‘Middle Age Christianity’. And with a bow and a flourish the Christian priest pulls out of his biretta a respectable religion that delivered equality to a backwards society.
It’s quite a trick and not easy to spot, particularly when one is raised in a (post-) Christian culture where intelligent secularists are frequently finding middle ground with religious moderates and spoon-feeding us these myths as facts. However, as with all illusions, once we know how the trick is accomplished, the mystery fades and we see things as they really are.
Modern Christianity is slowly attempting to rewrite the past, painting itself as the hero of the piece as if it wasn’t a repressive, authoritarian institution that censored, banned, or killed those who dared to disagree with its supernatural and guilt-infused doctrine of salvation. The fact that these modern myths (in which Christianity is just about love and equality, etc.) seem so plausible to so many, despite the modern secular trend in the West, just goes to show how important it is to sometimes hold our intuitions up for scrutiny. Sure, Christianity hasn’t been all bad but that is a poor reason to forget just how bad it has been and an even poorer one to mistakenly credit it for positive progress we have made, frequently against Christian argument and despite Christian doctrine.