I don’t understand why I have to have a completely different conversation with every new person I talk to about something like Christianity. Everyone does it their own way. Everyone has a unique set of special modifications that make the belief system work (some of them quite serious in their differences).

I’m tired of this. Why can’t you argue amongst yourselves and at least narrow it down to say, 30 religions before involving me in the problem? If I had a nickel for every time I heard a unique Christian belief about the fundamentals, we would run out of nickels, and there would be no more unique beliefs allowed.

Personally, when I realized how finely my beliefs had been tailored to work for me, I couldn’t do it anymore.

You people seldom talk to each other about anything important. Please argue more often and save the world some time.


9 Responses to “Convergence”

  1. I don’t understand why I have to have a completely different conversation with every new person I talk to about something like atheism. Everyone does it their own way. Everyone has a unique set of special modifications that make the belief system work (some of them quite serious in their differences).

    I’m tired of this. Why can’t you argue amongst yourselves and at least narrow it down to say, 30 philosophies before involving me in the problem? If I had a nickel for every time I heard a unique atheist belief about moral philosophy, we would run out of nickels, and there would be no more unique beliefs allowed.

    Personally, when I realized how finely my beliefs had been tailored to work for me, I also realized the same is true for anyone thinking about their beliefs at all.

    You people seldom talk to each other about anything important. Please argue more often and save the world some time.

  2. Danke für den Besuch, GelegentlicherBesucher… danke auch für den Kommentar:

    Atheists don’t claim to have a common moral philosophy. They don’t have anything in common at all except a lack of belief in a deity, and their disagreements in other matters do not damage “atheism.” Although I don’t exactly identify as an atheist, I see no reason to fault them for having unique beliefs about such things.

    Christians, however, have a number of widely varying, mutually-exclusive beliefs concerning the core doctrines of the faith (or at least, the reasons why the faith is presented as true), and it does damage the coherence and credibility of “Christianity.” Christians have heresies, fundamentals, and proclaim eternal consequences for rejecting Christianity (which means they have an obligation to better define the main tenets of Christianity).

  3. OK, an apology first: I put your blog in my RSS-Reader a few weeks ago and then forgot about it. Then I responded to this post in a matter of seconds after reading it. So at that moment I mistook you as a standard issue Dawkinite Internet atheist. I’m sorry.

    Now as to the point that Christians shouldn’t be so divided, I actually agree and I belong to the majority of Christians who think we have a solution to that problem. Unfortunately that majority is a local minority both in your and in my country.

    Still there are people who follow Christ to the best of their understanding and ability in other communities and we need a label for them. And such labels are fuzzy by their very nature, it isn’t any different with Humanism or rationalism or Islam or whatever. Since people are different any label capturing very many of them will be very vague.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with leaving people free in the non-essentials, so you will find lots of disagreement in the details where being wrong is ultimately not all that important. As for “the reasons why the faith is presented as true”, I think pretty much all Christians could agree on because it actually is true. As to why we think it is true, that is by nature a question more about us than about the faith itself, so there should be disagreement.

    But ultimately my problem with your post is this: You’re asking for a few canonical understandings, so that you can reject the whole thing by rejecting those understandings. And that is sloppy epistemology not just for Christianity but for everything. People have heavily customized beliefs about almost everything complicated enough to allow for such customization. Hard science may be an exception, but even that is only so because the controversial parts are arbitrarily defined to be philosophy.

    You have a completely different conversation with every new person not because their ideas can’t be explained coherently, but because every new person is completely different.

  4. That’s OK.

    May I ask: are you native to Germany, or are you an expatriate?

    Aside from the even larger number of strange (to even my formerly- Christian mind) beliefs that the Catholic Church accepts, I would like to relate that, in my experience, this consensus is only on paper–individually, the self-professed Catholics I meet hold a cornucopia of heretical positions, and many are outright uncommitted to any doctrine (making them just like me). Nonetheless, you’re right; as a Catholic, you are a less prominent target of this point.

    My point is not about non-essentials; it’s about essentials. What is the story of Christianity? What is the point of Jesus? Why did God make this world full of evil and suffering? Is the Bible supposed to be factually true or not?

    If people felt that the differences between factions were truly non-essential, they would not have started new factions.

    I come from a faith tradition where 75% of the adherents reject basic scientific facts. I think it’s the 25% who should have to deal with that–*they* should settle whether Christianity stands or falls on those facts. Instead, both chunks regard me as more different from them than they are from each other. In my experience that’s not true at all.

    I left out a critical point: Christianity claims to be guided by one God, and the Holy Spirit. Yet it does not seem to be rallied around one God at all.

    Christianity should be coherent, because it proclaims consequences for picking the wrong religion. Each person’s own version of a religion–if there is disagreement on what is fundamental to it–constitutes a new religion to accept or reject. There is only so much time in life, and there are only so many things worth listening to.

    My point isn’t that people’s ideas are incoherent, but that they’re too inconsistent. They fail to define it well enough even to discuss in front of an audience (invariably one will hear “Oh, he’s critiquing *those* people’s view”), affecting core doctrines that would make or break someone’s ability to believe in the faith at all.

  5. I’m a native German. Yes, the combination is culturally odd. Taking Christian doctrine serious in Germany feels a bit like I imagine being an atheist in the bible belt feels. But then we are not supposed to feel quite at home in this world.

    If I get you right, your problem with Christian disunity can basically be summarized in three points. One, when relating to you we Christians feel more united than we really are. Two, if Christianity was true and guided by God it wouldn’t be that divided. And three, it would be unfair to expect people to figure it out on so high stakes if there are so many variants to figure out.

    The first point, I think, fails because it reduces Christianity to an intellectual system. Now Christianity actually is an intellectual system, but it is also more than that. It is also, to borrow the standard evangelical phrase, about a personal relationship with Christ. When push comes to shove both the 75% of your old denomination who reject science and the 25% who don’t, both hope for and trust in the blood of Christ for salvation from their sins. And you don’t. This does make them a lot more similar to each other than the 25% are to you, because intellectual understanding just isn’t the main thing here. By analogy, in a village of blind people you could imagine two siblings disagreeing about their parents’s skin color. And you could imagine both having friends agreeing with them. But that doesn’t change the more fundamental fact that both siblings relate to them as their parents and the friends don’t.

    Now the disunity you’re speaking of is real. The 25% and the 75% probably are worried about each other’s faith being based in wrong assumptions and thus unstable. I can relate to that from the 25%’s side. Not to long ago I was traveling on a bus otherwise filled with evangelical fundamentalists, talking to some of them, and couldn’t avoid the thought some of them wouldn’t be Christians if they knew what I know. And then it got worse: An adorable little girl saw my rosary squealing “coool chain” and wanting to touch it. I let her have it for a moment but sat there petrified, because if she had went to show it to her parents they might have recognized it and thought I was seducing their daughter into idolatry.

    So yes, that chasm exists, but sorry, the other chasm is yet deeper.

    Points two and three are basically theodicean.

    On point two I would say we do much worse things then being wrong about doctrine. This is basically a sub-question of why we sin. I say it’s our fallen nature. The holy spirit is guiding, just not forcing.

    On point three I don’t think it is quite as bad as you present it.

    For one, not all of your example questions are actually that controversial. You say we disagree on fundamentals like:
    What is the story of Christianity? What is the point of Jesus? Why did God make this world full of evil and suffering? Is the Bible supposed to be factually true or not?
    On the first two questions I just don’t see the big differences. God made man. Man disobeyed god. God became man, died to reconcile man with God and was resurrected on the third day. Joining into that death we can also joint into the resurrection. That is both the story of Christianity and the point of Jesus. Now you might find some ultra-liberals disagreeing with this, but then you don’t get to use the “high stakes” argument because they are universalists anyway. On the other hand we do have very serious differences on the problem of evil and scriptural authority. And for a lot of protestants at least scriptural authority is a fundamental.

    But then I still have a second objection: You don’t have to evaluate anyone’s opinions on an all-or-nothing base. In fact you don’t do that with non-religious opinions. If A is right about tax policy and B is right about some environmental regulation both being wrong about the respective other question you can still talk to both of them and get convinced of the truth on both questions. I don’t see why this should be so different with religious questions. Basically your evaluative work-load is proportional to the number of questions, not to the number of combinations of answers.

  6. I have been obsessed with Germany since the 11’th grade. I learned the language through computer programs, newspapers and a pen pal, and I read Deutsche Welle on a regular basis to keep my practice up. There aren’t many people to talk to here. I have only ever been there for two weeks, however.

    I asked because your English doesn’t show [m]any cracks. It always depresses me when I see how proficient everyone else is in English, while it takes me such work to keep my German from rusting.

    For the sake of this discussion we’ll pursue those three points (they are not my only points, of course).

    1) They would assent to the same words, but the words do not mean the same thing (especially when there is disagreement about how sin itself even got into the world). It is an ill-defined propositional belief that is translated into a myriad of attitudes, actions, and sense perceptions.

    When I dropped in on the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) several years ago–an association of Christians in scientific disciplines–I found something remarkably different from what I had experienced for my whole life until then. Those people do not grovel on the floor with undying gratitude that God would deign to forgive them–they merely make PowerPoint presentations about how Christianity can still “work” despite all the difficult-to-reconcile things about the world. It is a totally different attitude.

    I spent years being worried about precisely what you described above, and with good reason. Unfortunately, I can’t help any more.

    I don’t know what you mean by “the other chasm is yet deeper,” but if you’re talking about hell, I don’t think that’s a very good point.

    2) It’s not the same thing. It makes sense to say that humans have problems living up to a standard. It makes less sense to say that the God-guided standard is just as messy and convoluted–just as badly as it would be if humans invented it entirely.

    3) “God made man. Man disobeyed god.” – I don’t find this view compatible with science. When I ask Christians who accept the natural history of the world what they think about this, they don’t have an answer for me.

    How did man disobey God? There was nothing we could have done differently. The world was always like this. We were fashioned over millions of years through death and suffering, and most our “sinful” desires and propensities are the direct result of nature’s pruning. Besides, even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) that man disobeyed God, I see no reason why God should curse present-day man for things that happened before we even existed.

    Hmm… well, regarding the high stakes: I honestly have not met many Christians who completely accept the scientific consensus (without injecting some highly speculative idea) and also proclaim confidently that you need Jesus to save you from eternal torment. They always waffle on one of the two.

    You’re right about the last point. I always make a point of telling people to remember that. But religion is not like other things in life–it’s my belief that these theological ideas, like genes, “work together.” I tried accepting a slice here and a slice there, but my system eventually could not function as a whole.

    (And as I said before, I think that it should be slightly easier to find one group of people from whom I can accept many or all slices, if God is indeed guiding people).

  7. No need to get depressed. I’m not telling everything about me here, because I want this pseudonym to remain pseudonymous for random googlers. But if you autodidactically learned German good enough to read regular news I can assure you that took lots more talent and work than I ever put into learning any language.

    1) First, no I didn’t mean to say you’re going to hell. I don’t know where you are going. We Catholics have the concept of invincible ignorance. What it means is, if someone so honestly and seriously looked for the truth that not finding it wasn’t their fault, that excuses them being wrong in the propositional belief department. Now that’s not an universal excuse. There is also vincible ignorance and there is also rationalization and self-deception about seeking the truth. Also even invincible ignorance isn’t a full get-out-of-hell-free-card, because we don’t buy the “by faith alone” thing and maintaining the correct moral disposition is a lot harder outside of the Church. Anyway, since I can’t read your mind it means I couldn’t judge it, even if, counterfactually, doing so was allowed to me.

    Now I don’t think you’re all that interested in the subtleties of my church’s teaching, but I thought it fairly important to disclaim this interpretation and doing so without explanation would have been even stranger.

    So what, if not hell, do I mean by the other chasm?
    Well, you are for the moment a non-Christian, but it seems to me you are still a very protestant non-Christian. In protestantism, or at least in its most fundamentalist version, you have salvation=faith, faith=belief, and belief=propositional belief. If we see it that way, then belief in different propositions is a different faith. I maintain this isn’t how it actually works. I’m saying so not to convert you to Catholicism (though that would be awesome!) but to explain a social reality. That reality may be so, even if its all about bunk. So in reality religion is a relationship thing. We trust in God and pray to him. That relationship also changes our relationship to each other like the relationship even between adopted siblings is defined by the relationship to their parents. Even our differences are all about relationships. For example, translated to evangelical language, Catholics believe we can also have fellowship with dead Christians, which is what the saints are all about.

    I can give you some analogies. One I already used: The family. Some of my relatives believe really strange things, but they are still closer to me than completely right-thinking strangers. As the saying goes, Blut ist dicker als Wasser.

    Another example would be nationality. I gather you’re Canadian. So look at your southern neighbors. Look at their overt public emotionality. Look at their flag pins* and pledge of allegiance (I’m not meaning the God part). Look at how loud they like to organize their political system. Look at what sports they like and dislike. Look at how they actually care about what their founding fathers thought. And now tell me: Are these people weird, yes or yes? Now many of them are better and smarter than I am. But still there is a dimension on which an American sharing all my opinions is more different from me than a German sharing non of them. (By the way, knowing this makes me seriously weird at home. Nonexistence of national identity is a central part of the German national identity, sort of like non-dogmatism is central to Internet atheist dogma.)

    So what I’m saying is religion is about relation and trust and loyalties and allegiances and on that axis even heretic and deluded Christians are more similar to me than non-Christians.

    2) But we mess up the moral standard too. When we do something immoral we often come up with a rationalization of why it actually isn’t. Why should not seeking the truth be different?

    3) On the fall, I basically agree with this. I suppose you would class it as injecting some highly speculative ideas.

    But as I think about it I know of Christians who don’t believe in a historical fall. I think such a version of Christianity is implausible (for a Catholic this is also entangled with serious authority issues) but if you think about it it doesn’t change the Jesus part of the story. Whatever the cause, we do find ourselves doing evil and unable not to do it. As far as it affects us individually, original sin is just an empirical fact. So those people still count as Christian.

    Now there are also people who want to be called Christians while reducing the resurrection to allegory. Those don’t qualify in my book. So I think that gives us a line: Is their Christ still Christ? If so, they are Christian.

    * Though recently I saw a picture of a German politician with a German flag pin. The end is near.

  8. (I’ll get to this – I’m just busy)

  9. Thanks.

    I wanted to write a longer response and ramble a bit, but I think this will do.

    A) That’s fair, though I don’t accept the recurring “we don’t know” theme as sufficient to shore up the bold claim that people, nonetheless, are going one of two places. Moreover: your standards for how I’m judged don’t mean a thing if it turns out that God’s standards are different. So it’s not helpful for people to talk about how one stays out of hell if they don’t agree–you could easily be giving someone false consolation, if the real standards are different. Of course, if there are no such standards, it may be helpful in the sense that it calms people’s unnecessary fears.

    B) Yes; I seem protestant because I passed through three Protestant denominations. I seriously considered Catholicism as I was losing my grip, and had I been able to justify it, I’d have switched to it rather than end up like this.

    The problem with religion being about “relation and trust and loyalties” is that much of this relation and trust and loyalty is in relation to invisible entities. Being invisible, these entities are defined by the people who trust them, so there might be no *sense in which* they are the same across belief lines. The extension of this trust / loyalty across such lines of differing belief/opinion is totally based on the assumption that both parties trust, or are in relationship with, an entity that may be defined differently by both parties.

    Americans, however, do all live in the same hunk of land. They do all support the same founding fathers, and nobody disagrees on who these founding fathers are.

    Nonetheless, you have a point. But my response is that the similarities “on that axis” aren’t so significant when one is in, say, an 11-dimensional space with many other axes.

    2) There is a hierarchy. You can’t talk about “messing up the moral standard” until you know the moral standard with certainty. If you fail to know what the standard is, then you cannot know whether you’re meeting it–that is more severe than knowing what the standard is and failing to meet it.

    3) Nevermind the speculative ideas and the concordism for now.

    I accepted this idea of “sin being an empirical fact” for a number of years, all the while shoving away the central question: why is it an empirical fact? We don’t know? Well, we *do* know that God apparently made it an empirical fact. Sin is a “predelection [sic] inherent to human nature.” Who gave us our human nature? God, allegedly. Who saves us from sin? Jesus. Jesus is God. So God decided to save us from eternal punishment for the way he made us. How lucky is one supposed to feel about this?

    It’s a pretty simple, pretty big, problem.

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