Monday, June 19, 2006

CAWKI: What Is Wrong With Those People?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

Finding the energy to blog has been rare lately, but Ernie has put up something today that deserves comment, What I Hate About Christianity (As We Know It).

Ernie lists these "gripes" about American Evangelicalism, aka "Christianity As We Know It" (CAWKI):

  1. Non-consequential ethics: defining 'good' and 'right' by adherence to some abstract intellectual principle or social structure, rather than by how well we love our neighbor.
  2. Non-empirical speculation: differentiating theologies on the basis of unobservable assertions about the afterlife and end times.
  3. Pseudo-gnosticism: starting from the assumption that "our group" has the unique ability to properly interpret scripture, and thus (alone) surely discover transcendent truth.
  4. Impotent evangelism: defining Christianity primarily in terms of nominal (in-name-only) or notional (in-intellectual-belief-only) membership in a club, pretty much as an end in itself.
  5. Power politics: defining truth --in practice -- in terms of who's strongest, or at least most adept at wielding the levers of power.
  6. Unquestioned authority: placing absolute, uncritical reliance on a particular person, structure, or interpretive method.
  7. Exclusionary paradigms: an empirical method that justifies dismissing contradictory evidence using platitudes, rather than directly grappling with them (e.g. "all Buddhist religious experiences are of the devil").
  8. Convenient agnosticism: the attitude that since we can never know inconvenient truths (e.g, the age of the earth) with absolute certainty, we are justified in not believing them
  9. Worst-case comparisons: demonstrating our superiority by comparing the best of our tradition with the worst of someone else's, rather than vice versa.
  10. Nostalgia: seeking to recreate an imagined golden age of the past -- including those very flaws which led to its downfall in the first place!

That is a pretty good list. I am not exactly sure what (4) is getting at, but then I am not likely to get too worked up about impotent evangelism at this point.

As with any list describing a set of people, the statements will not apply equally to all people. Please keep that in mind as I continue, because as I suggest some additions and modifications, I am not at all intending to paint all Christians with the same brush. Some of these apply only to a significant minority, where "significant" may be measured either by numbers or by influence. These are additional observations, not intended to replace or diminish Ernie's list. Some are fairly specific to contemporary American Christianity.

  1. Insufficient skepticism: failing to appreciate the uncertainty associated with their beliefs, both core and peripheral.
  2. Inappropriate skepticism: rejection of well-established (usually scientific) facts and theories (evolution, age of the earth)
  3. Political entanglement: inappropriate injection of religious beliefs into governmental policy and legislation (e.g., Plan B, gay marriage)
  4. Political complicity: facilitation of corruption and incompetence through uncritical support of public figures (e.g., Tom DeLay, Pat Robertson and yes, George Bush) that abuse that trust
  5. Strawmen: incorrectly ascribing beliefs and motivations to non-Christians (no morality without God, disbelief is rebellion)

Now, Ernie pointed out that the problems in his list are human flaws, not problems with Christianity itself. In fact, as I look more closely, I see he already made the point I was about to make: that these problems are not specific to Christianity. They are "people problems". The problems in my list are likewise problems with people. None of them have anything to do with whether "Christianity As We Know It" is true or false. And if we could wave a magic wand and remove all trace of Christianity from the earth, these problems (or others very much like them) would remain.

Ernie asked three questions about his list:

  • Do you agree that these are legitimate gripes, or do you think some of them are unfair/invalid?
  • Would you agree than any proposed replacement for Christianity needs to do better in some or all of these dimensions?
  • Where do you feel I did not go far enough? What additional gripes do you have that I may not have sufficiently addressed here?

As I said earlier, I generally agree with Ernie's list. I would not call any of them unfair or invalid. Regarding replacements for Christianity, I am not sure that Christianity needs replacing based on these problems, because as Ernie said, it is not Christianity that has or requires these characteristics in the first place. Maybe Christians need to be replaced. :-) Or maybe some or many Christians (like some or many non-Christians) need to replace some of their attitudes, views, epistemologies and everything else that is wrong with them.

Ernie says that "there is more to Christianity than this ... [and] it is precisely that 'more' which provides the basis for this critique." Yes and no. Certainly there is more to Christianity than a list of flaws that characterize some believers. But neither does Christianity hold an exclusive position in being able to criticize itself. That is, there are other foundations that can provide these same critiques of Christians, and also to provide the same or similar critiques of those that rest on those other foundations. In other words, I disagree that it is "precisely the 'more'" that provides the basis for the critique, at least not for any exclusionary sense of "precisely".

Ernie had previously suggested I read three books, which he kindly offered to buy for me. As it happens, all are available through inter-library loan and I finished "The Pilgrim's Regress" by C.S. Lewis this weekend. However, I may need to re-read parts of it before I can comment. Both of the other books he suggested were checked out, but were due within a week or so, so I should be able to read them soon.


Dr. Ernie said...

Hi Alan,
Glad to see us agreeing. :-) A few minor comments:

a) I specifically said that "more" was the basis of "this" critique, not necessary "all" critiques. That is, I was merely asserting "worthiness", not "uniqueness."

b) "inappropriate injection of religious beliefs into governmental policy" -- could you give an example of what "appropriate injection" would be? Or did you mean to imply all such injection was inappropriate?

c) " I am not sure that Christianity needs replacing based on these problems" -- then, are you sure it needs replacing? If so, then on what alternate basis?

d) Finally, in case it wasn't clear, despite its many flaws I still consider myself one of "those" people; I did not mean to distance myself in any way from that critique.

Alan Lund said...

Regarding (a), I see that I probably read too much into what you wrote.

For (b), I might suggest tolerance and respect for other viewpoints, honesty and integrity in office, promotion of the general welfare especially for the poor. These are good things that may be motivated, in some individuals, by religious beliefs. Of course, these are things that are good anyway, that do not require religious belief, so maybe they do not count. In a somewhat similar vein, I think that the religious freedoms that are enjoyed in this country are appropriate and were originally motivated by the various religious beliefs held (and not held) by the Founding Fathers.

I said that I do not think Christianity needs replacing "based on these problems". While I perhaps did not make this clear, I was intending to acknowledge and respond to a list of problems associated with Christians (among others) that nonetheless are not necessarily problems with Christianity. At most these are considerations that might help to establish why CAWKI can be harmful and therefore why it is important to discuss whether or not CAWKI is "true".

Finally, thanks for clarifying your position relative to "those" people, though I suspect you are more reflective and self-critical about these issues than most people. As I tried to make clear, the same or similar problems plague any cross-section of society, and no doubt I am blind to some of my own failings in addition to those that I recognize. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is how flawed we are, the entire human race. We have a lot of cleaning up to do, and it starts with ourselves. But I am not terribly optimistic.

Dr. Ernie said...

Thanks for your reply -- though it raises as many question as it answers. I look forward to your next post!
Optimisticly yours, Ernie P.