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Brent (9)

Confused by Conservative Christianity - an introduction.

The vast majority of Christians I have engaged with would not claim that their religion has confused them. They would say that now that they have met Jesus, everything is clear for the first time. They know why they are here, how they came to be, what the future holds, and where to get reliable information on these important issues.

This is the state of their mind and was mine for many years. What they mostly don't notice is that this confidence requires blind acceptance of quite a few foundational claims. These claims, if ever brought up, are usually handled either with pat answers that only seem acceptable in an environment where all respectable people accept them, or with circular arguments that depend on others of these assumed truths.1 

This should be no surprise to us. It explains why there are millions of people who are willing to die, indeed have died for their commitment to mutually exclusive claims. Religion, for the most part, is not based upon logically defendable claims. Steven Pinker in "The Better Angels Of Our Nature" explains that this is why religion is the catalyst for so much violence. When your opponent challenges your faith, especially if that faith forms the infrastructure of your society and power, if you can't talk him down and prove him wrong, you terrorise, imprison or kill him.   

Conservative Christianity is Different

But conservative Christianity has long been committed to the brain. In response to the enlightenment, the secularisation of society and the rise of popular science, many Christian Theologians decided to forsake the idea of prescribed dogma and open the argument on the basis of logic. They weren't the first to do it. Notably, the early apologists did the same thing in their young religion to earn it credibility, without which, prescribed dogma has no place. But this modern movement gave Christians the confidence that their faith was not a matter of believing the unbelievable, but that it was sensible, defendable, and for many, exclusively true. 

There are many prominent figures in this group and many of their writings are very well thought through and worthy of consideration. These are a valuable resource for the earnest investigator.

The problem that resulted arose from two other factors: The first is that while conservative Christianity claims to be open and uncensored, there is an almost complete organic censorship of material coming into its ranks. Christian bookshops are probably the primary cause. You don't have to think long to understand why. But whatever the reasons, conservative Christians very nearly never hear or read a well presented argument that differs significantly from their own opinion or that of their pastors/leaders.

The second factor is that theological confidence is propagated because of scriptural grouping. By this I mean that if  speaker can make you confident that one of the Bible's contested claims is thoroughly provable, the natural, though not logical, conclusion is that the whole Bible is equally provable. This includes every theological idea that you believe depends upon the Bible's authority.

Together these factors mean that hearing or reading one decent apologists is usually enough to turn a Christian into a bigot. At least that seems to have been true for me.

I remember to this day, the moment when the light came on and I knew that I/we were right. We had the truth - the indisputable, revelation, that any differing opinion was misguided or deceptive and that we had the tools and the mandate to see that it was recognised as such. For love of course.


It seems that this position of false confidence cannot be demolished by some external factor but needs to be dismantled voluntarily by the person in question. It is a very difficult process and until you have some good reason to undertake it, most people wont bother, nor even know what treasures await if they do. If you're feeling that an increasing amount of what you hold true doesn't add up or is hard to believe these days, this thread may be of interest to you.

For me, the doctrine of Atonement was the first I had strong objections to. The catalyst was a book by George Macdonald where in the afterword he wrote something to the effect of, "It must be hard for those who still believe in a God who delights in punishing the innocent so that he can acquit the guilty." That was it. It started the process of reframing the tenets of my faith in different terms and from different perspectives and seeing how some of them seemed utterly unbelievable when I did.  

Not To Undermine Faith

The objective here is not to undermine faith itself as some would accuse. On the contrary, those beliefs we hold that, upon further investigation, prove to be unbelievable, are already undermining faith. I don't want to hold on to some conviction against my better judgement. I want to believe the compelling, the probable, even the likely, but not the rest. I haven't lost my faith, but I've certainly discarded a lot of it, starting with Santa Clause. :-)

This remainder often induces confusion. Weird and contradictory ideas about the nature of God, of humans and our history and about the relationship between the two. I have spoken to many people who say they don't believe in God. Upon further discussion, I would think to myself, "Me neither. I don't believe in that God."

So this thread does not suggest that when we have done away with religion's confusion we will be free to believe in God or will clearly see that he/she/it exists. Rather that for many, until we remove some of these religious confusions, we cannot see clearly to examine the data that is genuinely relevant to the question.

So please post below the ideas from conservative Christianity that you find objectionable or confusing when considering the existence and nature of god and lets talk about them.
1. This is a big claim and perhaps somewhat prvocative. But let me offer the following example to substantiate it. The book of Genesis is foundational for traditional Christian beliefs. It introduces the ideas of creation, judgement, sacrifical atonement, God's promises, the chosen people and much more. I asked a friend of mine why he believed Genesis. His hesitating answer included things like, because it is in the Bible and because other respectable people believe it including his parents, sunday school teachers and his current and respected pastor. When I asked him who wrote it or how that person could claim to know what happened 'in the beginning' or how we could be confident of pre-history transmission, he had no idea whatsoever. This pattern is very common. This man could have told me quite a bit about how the foundational doctrines of Genesis should be worked out into Christian living, but he didn't know why they should be believed in the first place.

Brian (8)

Seems a good summary to me - but one question

Brent I have not read Pinker's book but I am interested in why he thinks people who differ on matters of faith are more likely to turn to violence, or are willing to die, to defend their worldview.
There are some obvious examples of people who claimed their worldview was based on coherent logical arguments and philosophies (no blind faith involved), yet took to violence to defend them. Pol Pot or Mao spring to mind.
Seems to me that the tendency to turn to violence to defend a worldview (or preparing to die for a belief) may be more to do with the human condition than with the logical defendability of that worldview?  

Brent (9)

Religion and Violence

A few things come to mind. There are two separate issues that you mentioned.
  1. Turning to violence to defend your idea.
  2. Being willing to die for your idea.
There is no argument that people and groups find a variety of motives for violence. It does seem, however that a significant majority of violence historically can be blamed upon a religious position or conflict of positions. We are seeing this trend wain as fewer and fewer people in our world are committed to any religion and more and more religious followers are only nominally so. However, the reason Pinker suggested religion was prominent as a catalyst for violence was as follows (in my words): 

Disagreeing factions will often often use tools to dissolve the conflict before deciding to simply eliminate their opponent. They will try to persuade, to discuss to understand. In doing this they will appeal to common ground in their opponents minds; 'what can we both agree on?' or they may use a mediator who can weigh up the the data presented and make a decision on their behalf or they may use a court, or they may survey the public.

So in deciding whether or not to remove the railway from the CBD, all these options are open to them, while the decision about whether Jesus or Mohammed is the pre-eminent prophet, deeply religious people, and in fact most religious people, never open a discussion with their opponent at all and reject their opponent's opinion out of hand. They are the apostates - the deceivers or at least the deceived. This is a generalisation but as such it is true as far as I can see.

On being willing to die for your idea, while many people have willingly and knowingly died for non-religious ideas or causes, the religious ones do it with the conviction that their death doesn't matter, is no loss or will even result in great gain. What's more the blood of the martyrs consolidates the group's identity and fervour making a repeat episode even more likely. The blood of fallen soldiers is mourned, while the blood of martyrs is venerated.

It could be argued that utopic idealisms are akin to religions or are in fact religions. This might cast Pol Pot or Mao in a different light. Wikipedia defines religion:
"A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence."
Your thoughts?

Brian (8)

What drives people to need to change others' worldviews?

Why do you think, in general, two religions that have differed significantly in their beliefs even felt the need to "resolve" their differences by means violent or otherwise.

Now this is a very broad question so I am ignoring the many examples where religion was just the convenient excuse utilised by leaders to effect some other agenda (such as attaining of wealth or land or more power). 

I know many many people and groups who have a radically different view of reality to me - but I feel no compulsion whatever to try to change their views. Where does this need to change other people's worldviews come from do you reckon?

This is a side issue so don't feel the need to respond quickly - it's more important that we get the meeting agenda sorted.

Brent (9)


God Loves Justice

In conservative evangelical Christianity (denoted hitherto as CC), the quality of justice is revered. Steve Camp sang "God Loves Justice" and one will often hear "He is a just God." in the halls of worship. The term can mean anything from fair mindedness to the legal process of determining guilt or innocence, but inside CC, it means something more like "The administering of deserved punishment or reward."1 God then, is seen to be concerned that those who do good are rewarded and that those who do evil are punished.

The context of this doctrine is that we are all already rewarded by being in God's beautiful creation, by being the recipients of His love and that we are all simultaneously evil doers. This moral deficit is central to CC and it is why the supposed "Good News" begins with bad news. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23.

In this way, the CC evangelist makes it his goal to help people see that they are under the judgement of God and are therefore in serious eternal trouble. In the afterlife they will either go on enjoying the good reward of God if they escape His judgement or they will suffer the punishment they deserve.

So how can it be just for evil doers, such as us, to experience reward rather than punishment? Through substitution, some other entity, be it a dove or a young goat or another human being (Jesus), stands in our stead and receives the punishment (death) that we deserve and our guilt is transferred onto that entity so that God is able to forgive us. It is interesting that we deserved eternal punishment or damnation while the substitute only receives temporal physical death.

This is where the doctrine of the trinity also comes into play, because it is God the Father who is seen to carry out justice while God the Son offers Himself willingly as our substitute. Through this method of seeing God as 2 separate personalities Christian's are able to see God as both just AND loving. 'He needed to hurt someone, so he hurt himself.' Jesus saves us from God.


Why is punishment required for forgiveness.
Hebrews 9:22 says
In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.
CCs see that there is some deeper magic - some law that God himself is subject to. They reference concepts like gravity - "you sin you die - or someone does" to suggest that there is nothing God can do about this law. He is forced to be unforgiving.

Oddly enough, CCs are taught that they themselves must forgive freely.
Collossians 3:12 Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.
So why can't we expect the creator God to be as merciful and patient and forgiving as some of us hope to be?


Animal sacrifice turned up in almost all cultures throughout human history and many cultures escalated it to human sacrifice on significant occasions. The Jewish and therefore the Christian origin of the practise dates back to the very first family where Cain's jealousy of Abel was over the suitability of Abel's animal sacrifice, contrasted against the unsuitability of Cain's grain offering. Abraham too entered into a covenant with God through a ritual involving a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. The animals were cut in half (no tidy business), and the presence of God, seen as a smoking pot, passed between the pieces. The tales of other cultures are often equally bizarre.

From God?

One wonders if the institution of these practises is something that a real deity would want or just the ongoing miss understanding of that deity.

While the concept of sacrifice is accepted and even celebrated in most Christian Churches today, the act would certainly not be welcome. Imagine slaughtering a sheep on stage in a modern church. Imagine the public response that would ensue. That church would be accused of Satanism and witchcraft rather than the act being understood as a legitimate form of worship. This demonstrates the distance between the minds of modern Christians and the ancient Jewish and Christian cultures. (At the time of Jesus, animal sacrifice was still being carried out on a regular basis.)

Is it possible that our theology should have come as far as our minds in this matter?

Selling Forgiveness

Through the middle ages the Christian church developed the practise of selling indulgences. Through this system a sinner pays cash for forgiveness. ('a basic and blunt description') The best way for a religious organisation to gain power and profit through selling it's services is by first producing an atmosphere of fear. The sinfulness of sinners and the dread of the great wrath of God must be paramount. 

The doctrines of God's justice, judgement, atonement and forgiveness form a framework within which the church and her services remain indispensable. Whether or not these interpretations have become and remained dear to the church for reasons of power or profit will differ from case to case.

The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus taught that God had been misunderstood; that He was not critical or eager to condemn but gentle and humble and kind.
Matthew 9:13 ... Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
In the story of the prodigal son, he describes a father who forgives without condition, much to the surprise of the wayward son. Jesus forgives a crippled man his sins who hadn't even asked for forgiveness. He refrains from condemning an adulterous woman. Another woman cries on his feet expressing what He tells us is gratitude for being forgiven.

The picture we get from Jesus' teaching is that forgiveness is easy for him and is in plentiful supply. The forgiveness of people's sins in not really his concern.

Another account demonstrates this further. When Peter first encounters Jesus he is fishing and having a bad time of it. Jesus is said to perform a miracle that helps Peter to identify him as God's messenger. Peter dives off the boat, swims to shore and falls at Jesus' feet saying 'Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man'. Jesus makes no issue of Peter's sinfulness. He ignores it altogether saying 'Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.'

Punishment for Reform

Some people see justice as an essential part of growth. They believe that humans need to receive consequences for their actions in order to change their habits and tendencies. We see this does in fact work in many situations where the pain of a situation deters us from entering into it again. A child refrains from touching the fire because last time it caused a lot of discomfort. He refrains from touching the power point because last time his mother slapped his hand before he reached it. In these cases, the pain is an informer, helping the child to understand reality.

A man refrains from killing his wife because another man was hanged over a similar allegation. A woman refrains from speeding because the grief of losing $300 last time is painful to her. In these cases, the pain does not inform the adult about the nature of reality, it only deters their actions. They still want to do the deed, it's just that, when weighed with the consequences, it isn't worth it to them any more.

So even at this distance we can see that punishment does not produce character growth. Do you think that x-inmates are generally better people for having been locked up? The question of what does produce real change in human character is a worthy discussion too. We should expect any real god to use those methods.

The justice of God as discussed here serves neither of these purposes anyway because it is an eternal punishment. People are never released into a life where their choice can be repeated, nor do they ever see another person punished which might deter their actions. They most often make their choice to do evil without any knowledge of the supposed consequences and their fate is sealed.

What's more the disproportionate severity of the act to the punishment would not be viewed as just in any law court. In the British empire in the 17th century, stealing bread could result in having your hand cut off. In the 18th century, it could result in exile and deportation. Both of these are much too severe and fall under terms like 'inhumane'. In the courts of Heaven, such a misdemeanour, will result in eternal suffering in the fires of hell.

Reform & Eternity

Christianity and most other religions concern themselves with an eternal reality. On this scale, is their any damage which cannot be restored and is there any person who cannot be slowly and truly reformed? If not, then surely that reform would come through kindness and forgiveness rather than punishment. The writer of Romans put it concisely, "Don't let evil overcome you but overcome evil with good." Romans:12:21

George Macdonald suggests that 'Hell', a place of permanent punishment, would not only be the ultimate failure for a God who set as his objective to have a relationship of love with his creations, but it would set that failure in concrete.2 People in hell could never conceivably come to love their tormentor.

To put this mind experiment in context and to take it to the extreme, consider Hitler. It would seem God has three options with this man:
  1. Punish him
  2. Annihilate him
  3. Change him
Which of these options would present a more powerful and admirable God? Is it possible that on the scale of eternity, Hitler could become a being who had done more good than harm?

Surely it is the evil that God wants to destroy rather than the evil doer. Like the war on terrorism. When will we learn than we cannot fight the haters but we must work to resolve remove and heal the hate. The first is counter productive. The second is "godly" in other words this type of behaviour reveals itself to the human psyche as intrinsically 'good'. As the kind of thing that god, if he exist, must do.

A Personal Perspective

For me, it's chalk and cheese. The two concepts of God are polar opposites. On the one hand we have a loving creative being who is interested in the development of free beings, feeling safe2 and creating safety for others, becoming compassionate and merciful and creating a community of tolerance and love. This being is like a truly great human parent, not wanting to perpetuate dependence in their child but wanting the child to grow in strength and wisdom together. Forgiveness for such a parent is an unconditional given. Their child's failure is not a surprise or an issue. It is just a step, a lesson.

On the other hand we find a violent megalomaniac who needs to kick the dog before he can consider forgiving his children. He wants them to fear him, to feel guilty, to worship him and to appease him. He is a split personality being, unpredictable and unsafe. He is happy to punish innocents in order to forgive the guilty - even his own son. Anyone being adopted as the son of this father would have to fear the possibility of being rejected and tortured in the same way Jesus was. Frankly, this god is more like the ancient Greek gods - like a baby with the power tools. He is small and immature. He could learn a thing or two from my human friends and family.

Of course if one feels as I do, they will be confronted with the god of the Bible who is shown to desire or require a worldwide flood, genocides, infanticide, plagues and pestilences and worldwide tribulation. In short, adopting a benevolent view of God's character necessitates a dynamic view of the Bible wherein varying levels of accuracy and authority are attributed to its many parts. 
1. It should be noted that justice should probably include the restoration of the damage caused by the offence; not just punishment of the perpetrator but restoration for the victim, or even more; reconciliation between them. The righting of the wrong. George Macdonald puts it this way, "Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him--but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means." From Unspoken Sermons
2. Dallas Willard says in "The Divine Conspiracy" that for the friend of God the universe is a very safe place to be.

Brian (8)

Can we take this to the next meeting?

Great summary of this troubling paradox. Can we take some subset of it to the next meeting?

There must be a number of attempts within CC to answer (overcome) this problem? Maybe we could pick one or two to discuss? 

Max (3)

Responding to the question of judgment

I really enjoyed exploring the concept of devine justice on Thursday. Good wine cheese n crackers too, yumm thanks friends :)
Tossing about differing perspectives on God and justice and judgment clarified some of my own thoughts.
I am convinced of a greater good, an entity I have come to relate to (with varying degrees of intimacy) as God - a Transcentient being who is both 'I Am' and 'We'. One whose perfectly complete character would be at once supremely just and loving.

I find I often have conflicting ideas about this person, but I am increasingly convinced about his/hers/their existence. Perhaps because of a number of 'esoteric encounters' (not drug or alcohol induced ;) I've personally experienced, I intuitively believe in the existence of a God who is consummately relational. As stories like  Narnia and The Ring describe, I'm also convinced that I, indeed we all, have been invited to participate in a great adventure of profound consequence. This stirs in me many more questions than I hope to answer in this lifetime yet I'm surprisingly ok with a level of uncertainty, even confusion because deep down, I trust that a greater wisdom is at work. As the poem the Desiterata claims "whether or not it's clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should". 

When approaching the subject of justice, I  picture a set of scales weighing up good and evil and all the mitigating factors in between. I imagine a devine justice undergirded by omniscient judgment, an all knowing measuring of ones souls intent if you will (think of the woman caught in adultery, of her accusers appeal that justice be done, of their reaction as Jesus looked them in the eye like they were naked). I dunno about you but the thought of a penetrating  knowing of my secrets is both unnerving and comforting - there are no hiding places from God but there are also no surprises for God who knows me through and through.  

Brent (9)

Russel Brand Responds to Stephen Fry - who objects to the notion of God creating an unjust world.