“God has a plan for your life!”
Many people have heard this bold declaration from fundamentalist Christian apologists. It is meant, and heard as, an invitation to join the great story of redemption that God is authoring, to be a part of the inevitable sweep of human history and indeed of all Creation. It is an invitation experienced by believers as deeply personal and yet, simultaneously, epic. And judging from the numbers and influence of evangelical Christianity, this claim has a powerful appeal. But I want to look more closely at this appeal, and to try to understand it better from a psychological perspective. As rhetoric, how does this work?
Most people living in Western culture have some familiarity Christian stories. I say “stories” because there are more than one – the individual events and legends in the life of Jesus, the parables he told, and the overarching narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus himself. More importantly, the Christian story seamlessly weaves a believers own, individual story – his or her life – into this grand Christian drama. Stories, in Christianity (as in all religions), are a big deal.
The is a growing convergence of thought that storytelling may be relatively central to the functioning of the human mind itself. We are, after all, enveloped by stories from birth to death. Stories exist in every culture that has ever been recorded. Young children naturally tell stories, and crave to hear them. Moreover, so far as we know, no other animal tells stories. We tell stories about sports teams and figures, about celebrities and politicians, and about each other around the proverbial water cooler every day. We gossip. Television, books, movies, and many internet blogs provide a constant stream of stories into our homes every day…
In this article, I want to examine one of the more recognizable yet curious features of fundamentalist belief: the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Fundamentalist Christian apologists claim that the Bible is perfect and without error – certainly a striking thing to claim of any book. And this “wow factor” is exactly what gets apologists their mileage with this maneuver. If one were to become convinced that the Christian Bible really is utterly flawless in everything it says, that would certainly be a powerful argument for the truth of a religion based on it.
Now, let me remind the reader that in this series I am assuming a naturalistic stance. I am assuming without argument here that the Bible is not actually inerrant. Instead, what I wish to look at here is two things: one, how to apologists do it? How can they possibly argue that the Bible – which on an honest first reading appears to be resplendent in contradictions and errors – actually only has “apparent contradictions”, not “real” ones? Secondly, why do they do so? What is the pull of this idea, and why is it so hard to let go of for those de-converting?…
In this section I would like to examine one of the claims often made by conservative religionists, namely, that nonbelievers have no basis for morality or ethics.
This is a common apologetic maneuver. It is partly a scare tactic, to be sure, but partly, I think they say this because it really looks that way to them. From within a fundamentalist framework, based on what’s called “divine command” ethical theory, such claims can seem compelling, even natural. It seems natural and obvious that, if there is a Deity, then doing the will of the deity guarantees that one will do what is good. Without God, the universe would seem to devolve into an aimless, amoral chaos. Why do anything if there is no God? Why not cheat, lie, murder, and steal if there is no higher right and wrong and we’re all dead in the end, anyway? “If God is dead, all is permitted.”
How ultimately satisfying such a view is is another matter (e.g., Euthyphro problem), but perhaps us former believers can sympathetically recall its appeal. It does make things rather easy – your moral duty is handed to you. Nevertheless, on leaving the faith we often must work to extricate ourselves from the sometimes long shadow of this worldview. In this article, I would like to propose a naturalistic “basis” for these human needs and thus work to allay the fears of those in the midst of de-conversion. In so doing, I also hope to shed some light on what has gone wrong in the fundamentalist worldview in adopting such absolutist standards in the first place…
In this, our third essay on the psychological and rhetorical techniques that underlie evangelical Christian apologetics, we will examine some evangelical Christian claims that seem devilishly difficult to prove wrong. We have all heard such claims. They would include the following:
- If you de-convert from Christianity, you never really were a Christian at all
- All Christians, in right relationship with God, experience peace in the face of adversity
- If you sincerely seek God you will find Him
- “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.” (Matthew 17:20, NIV)
What I will argue is that such statements either are not actually claims about the world at all, and hence insulate themselves from disconfirming empirical evidence by defining it away, or else they are claims/predictions, but rely on vague, ill-defined subjective states and thus, are impossible to confirm. In each case, I will elucidate the issues involved and then tie it in with the relevant psychological issues…
In this article I will continue our examination of Christian apologetics from a psychological perspective. Here, I wish to look at the concept of sin, so central to Christianity, and how the teachings about sin work to convert, and then retain, people into the fundamentalist faith-system.
I will take my lead from C. S. Lewis. Lewis teaches a lot about sin over the course of his Mere Christianity (MC), The Problem of Pain (PP), and The Great Divorce. Lewis tells us that a sinless creature, such as we humans were before the Fall, would be perfectly and utterly selfless. He would be perfectly in tune with God and the will of God, and his own will would be entirely subordinated to God’s. Lewis describes this memorably: “…each soul [in heaven] will be eternally engaged in giving away to all the rest that which it receives. And as to God, we must remember that the soul is but a hollow that God fills. Its union with God is, almost by definition, a continual self-abandonment– an opening, an unveiling, a surrender, of itself. ” (PP, p.151)
Thus, Lewis tells us that a state of harmony with God is a state of utter selflessness, of perfect and continual abdication of the will. Thus it follows rather directly that the nature of our corruption, of our sin, is will-full-ness. Self-will, according to Lewis, is the original original sin. It is what got Lucifer kicked out of heaven – when he said, I will become like the Most High…. rather than, as Jesus said, “Thy will be done.” Self-will means to make the self the center of the self-rather than God. It is a wish to disengage from this endless cycle of self-giving, and thereby keep for the self and thereby expand the self. All that is created is good, Lewis teaches, but Man has corrupted his self and the world by putting otherwise natural, good things to selfish ends. ..
The concept of rebellion against God plays a central role in Christian theology. It defines the relationship of Fallen Man to God – i.e., we humans are said to be in a state of rebellion against God. It characterized Adam’s behavior in the Garden, and the result, human corruption, is now permanently embedded in our spiritual genome, so to speak. It results in our voluntary choice of eternal separation from God, according to the theology – unless, of course, an individual claims the “redemptive work of Christ” to restore her to a regenerate state. But this can only happen when the individual makes a free decision to submit her will to God and thus end the rebellion. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, makes the matter quite plain: “…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” (p. 59) Thus, our sinful, prideful self-will, our universal tendency to make the self the center of the self, rather than God – in short, our rebellion – is at the core of who we are, until we become Christians.
Evangelical Christian theologies differ on what exactly happens, and how, when salvation is attained, but they largely agree on at least three main basics: (1) that the proper relationship of creature to Creator is one of submission; what God says, goes. (2) That humans are corrupted through and through, and the ability to love God, choose the Good, and lead moral lives are all entirely lacking. And finally (3) voluntary submission of the will to God is required for salvation. I will address each of these in turn…
Few of those who walk away from evangelical Christianity can avoid struggling, at least to some degree, with the problem of apologetics. Christians devote endless amounts of resources to producing arguments for their faith; indeed, many of us spent much time and energy mastering these very arguments ourselves.
Apologists often present themselves as just defending their faith – rational argumentation – but I suggest their activity is better understood as a form of the ancient Greek art of rhetoric. I.e., they do make arguments, but ones specifically designed to get people to change and make decisions. Apologists are indeed quite (pun intended) unapologetic about this. Their goal is, if not to convince you to convert (only God can do that, they say), then at least remove any intellectual barriers that may be holding you back from conversion. In other words, they don’t just want to persuade you they are correct in their assertions; they want to win your soul.
Accordingly, their arguments are designed to have psychological force, not just (or even mainly) logical force, and this is what I would like to address in this article and the ones that follow. It has been very helpful in my own de-conversion to bracket aside the issue of trying to refute them and instead look at why these arguments can get under your skin so effectively – to vivisect them and look at their psychological and rhetorical innards, as it were…