Monday, 7 December 2009

A Critique of Christianity: Prolegomenon

There’s an issue which comes up again and again when I chat with Christians who are trying to convert me. Perhaps surprisingly, it comes up with persistent frequency even when I speak with atheists who are trying to figure why I share their metaphysical scepticism. Both parties seem to think that I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe in God. The argument does hold some logical merit (I must admit), but it overlooks the question that to me is really pressing, and for this reason I shall expose it today.

You see, I don’t think it’s really important whether you believe or not in God. Some of you may disagree with this strongly, but it’s really not my first priority. What really matters to me is whether your dis/belief is something that leads you to connect and build bridges with other people, or whether you use it as a means to build walls between yourself and the experience of others. This distinction holds for atheists and believers alike, which is why it takes precedence over the more specialised questions of how and why you entertain a specific kind of faith.

This is also why I take my distances from the ideology of someone like Richard Dawkins (I might as well state this now) – not because I think there’s any immediate flaw in his reasoning, but because his reasoning is insufficient. It points out several things which are wrong with Christianity and religion in general, but it does so in such a way that it pulls a blind also over the things which are right. For this reason it is not constructive. Much as I admire the merits of The God Delusion (and I really do, for it combats religion in its discriminatory expressions, which are many and dangerous), atheism cannot take a form which refuses to engage with the principles of Christianity. It simply cannot. If that’s what it does, then it is only closure, and this leads to nowhere. Certainly not to spiritual illumination, which is something more profound than simply believing that yes, there is indeed that big guy up in the sky. Similarly Christians cannot refuse to engage with a text simply on account of the fact that it does not share – or even that it flat-out rejects – a Christian world-view. Much like atheists have a lot to learn from Christianity, so Christians should become aware of how much they have to learn from Nietzsche, Camus, or even Dawkins himself. The act of learning includes absorbing what’s right while filtering out what’s wrong, not blotting out anything that is not ideologically immaculate. In starting to open themselves to these people and reading them, holders of differing viewpoints can start learning from each other. Atheists can learn the humility that Jesus Christ teaches us and apply it in their everyday lives, even if they don’t believe there is a God to punish or reward them for it. Christians can learn from Nietzsche and Camus self-reliance, the joy of being alive and the value of the present, ephemeral moment, a view which loves life through the immediate and not just the transcendental. Atheists and Christians can learn from each other not in spite but because of their fundamental differences in worldview.

On this account my issue with Christianity does not relate to the in/existence of God. I do believe that I share a lot with Christian ideology: it teaches (personal and historical) humility, as I mentioned, and it is the earliest expression of pacifism that I know of. As importantly, it understands that pacifism starts in the spirit rather than being a mere social system – the pacifism and humility of those who see history as the mutilated body of an innocent on the cross, in Terry Eagleton’s words. Ours is a bloody heritage, and the Christian courage to acknowledge this is one of my favourite things about this religion – and, ultimately, one of the principles it asserts which is closest to my own spiritual principles.

So, given that I don’t think that dis/belief is really an issue that can separate two people in their way of life, on what grounds am I not a Christian? What is it, beyond the empirical statement ‘I do not see a God,’ that makes me feel like Christianity is not the path for me? How can we engage with Christianity in ways that go beyond the age-old query ‘is there a God?’ which has so long blinded us to other, equally important questions inherent in the adoption or rejection of a religion?

There are a number of principles which I don’t share with the Christian religion. I’m not saying that they are wrong in and of themselves, but they clash with my own personal sensibilities and my sense of justice, they are disharmonious with my experience and understanding of the world, and as such I feel it would be an act of insincerity if I were to ascribe to them. I wish to spend the next few posts to explore them.

One post every two days, four or five posts. And that will be my critique of Christianity done. See you here, see you soon.

1 comment:

Mike D said...

Well done. I'll be working my way through the rest of these over the holiday weekend.

On your first point, I agree wholeheartedly. Whether people believe this or that is not as important as how they try to influence others with their beliefs. When people demand special legal privileges, try to alter public education curricula, or oppress the rights of others in the name of their religion, we have an ethical duty to speak out.

Conversely, I don't know that we can separate belief from action. At some level, we have to do what people like Richard Dawkins do: address the fundamental process that affirms the validity of our claims to knowledge. We have to confront the human tendency to credulously accept dogmatic, irrational beliefs that are shielded from skeptical inquiry precisely because they are dogmatic, irrational beliefs. We have to ask, "Oh, really? Just how, exactly, do you know that?"

Thanks for writing all this. You've clearly put a great deal of thought into it and raised a lot of salient issues.