Never Argue With The Perfect Religion
Most critics would have no problem with religion if there weren’t so many toxic side effects. Organizations based on mythology might even be fun if there weren’t a reoccurring tendency to harm people.
Christianity has been associated with significant harm. History is replete with sectarian wars and conflicts, Biblically-justified racism and anti-Semitism, biblical support for slavery, religious excuses allowing persecution of sexual minorities, terrorism, subjugation of women, wasteful temples and sacrifices, child abuse, hate groups…the list of grievances goes on. We can’t even estimate the body count.
Yet, our most thorough indictments of religion can always be met by someone saying “They were doing it wrong.”
Doing It Wrong
According to these apologists, there is a correct way to be a Christian, and the fundamentalists who harm others are doing it wrong.
They can cite various parts of the Bible to support their theory that Christianity is essentially about nonviolence, loving one’s neighbor, tolerance, and charity.
Responding with the biblical citations used by the perpetrators of all this violence and oppression, draws dismissal. The apologist claims that the full context of the Bible instructs us to ignore those parts.
No true Christian, they say, engages in violence, oppression, or hatred.
No True Scotsman, or Christian
This is the No True Scotsman fallacy, a form of circular reasoning that attempts to protect a universal generalization against counterexamples.
A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
In the case of Christianity, liberal apologists sometimes attempt to exclude people who harm others from their definition of true Christians in order to maintain the generalization that all Christians are a certain way or that Christianity is a positive thing.
A smell of arrogance surrounds this claim.
The apologists are judging whether other people, who consider themselves Christians, worship Jesus, and read the bible actually deserve to call themselves Christians. When pressed on how they became the judges of who’s in and who’s out of the Christianity club, the apologists may claim to know more about the true essence of Christianity than the confused or misinformed fundamentalists.
Of course, we could bring into our conversation a few of these allegedly pseudo-Christians – the homophobes, misogynists, racists, and war enthusiasts – and they would object to being ejected from the True Christian Club.
They can put together a convincing case that the bible supports all their values, and that the liberal apologists, not the fundamentalists, have actually abandoned the values of Christianity. No true Christian would reject these True Christian’s embrace of their favorite verses of, say, Leviticus, and no True Christian would criticize them for cherry-picking.
The only way to make this conversation more ridiculous would be for the nonbeliever to chime in with an opinion about the correct way to be a Christian.
We would certainly like for the Christian fundamentalists to stop harming people, but how exactly would we convince anyone? Is vouching for moderate Christian denominations a practical way to reduce the harm in our world? It is unlikely that religious people would agree to be bound by the decision of any mediator, much less a nonbeliever.
The Rhetoric Trap
Here’s the danger:
If liberal apologists can persuade nonbelievers to accept a distinction between true and false Christianity, then they have succeeded in getting Christianity off the hook for the harms committed by fundamentalist Christians.
By doing so, they have endorsed the idea that some authority figure in the realm of Christianity has information about the correct way to be a Christian. This is, of course, the underlying theory of religious fundamentalism. It’s why people cannot agree on religious concepts – the only evidence is the conflicting opinions of religious leaders.
If we fall into this trap, we give up the promotion of a science-based worldview or humanistic ethical stance. Instead, we find ourselves behaving like theists, picking our favorite sects and proclaiming certain religious leaders to have special insights.
A Better Christianity?
Worst of all, we imply that a better version of Christianity is possible than what exists today. Christian reformers have been working for centuries to make Christianity kinder, more intellectual, or less authoritarian, from Justin Martyr in the first century A.D. to Martin Luther in 1519 to John Shelby Spong today.
What change has come from these efforts? Evidence indicates the more liberal Christian denominations are in steep decline, and have always underperformed the growth of their more fundamentalist competitors. Why?
Perhaps a religion that celebrates human well-being, intellectualism, and individuality contradicts itself when faced with the problem of evil, the scriptural dogma, or the tricky mechanics of holding together a nonconformist group around opinions supported by no objective evidence.
In any case, one would have to be unaware of centuries of fizzled reform attempts to think that a breakthrough waits right around the corner.
Yes, liberal Christians commit much less harm than fundamentalists. That is a credit to them, but not an argument for the essential goodness of Christianity. By refusing to accept the no true Scotsman fallacy and perhaps even taking a systems perspective, we can see why “Christianity” must include fundamentalists as well as liberals, plus lots of other categories.
What To Do When Confronted By The Perfect Religion
The definition of Christianity must include the entire spectrum of practices existing today.
When critics of Christianity are confronted with counterexamples, they should clarify that Christianity means the entire Christian system of religion in aggregate.
The good parts come with the bad. Counterexamples do not disprove our point that Christianity has some toxic side effects, including fundamentalism. Proposed solutions where everyone becomes a liberal Christian have proven implausible.
Bottom line: It’s unreasonable for outsiders like us to sort true Christians from false ones. Don’t fall for this fallacy, and don’t assume Christianity will solve its fundamentalism problem in the next few centuries. Instead of arguing with a theoretical perfect religion, insist upon reality.