Saturday 17 December 2022

Is everybody a "latent" Christian?

When I was an atheist I used to get very annoyed by Christians who would argue that I was "Really" a Christian, whether or not I knew it; and I only needed to acknowledge the "fact". This struck me is untrue; and I sure I was right - not least, because when I did become a Christian it caused a massive change in my mind and life; a far greater change than if conversion had merely been a matter of 'admitting' what I already was. 

However, I think it may in the past have broadly been true that "everybody" (i.e. most people) was a Christian. In other words; perhaps it was once possible to take for granted that people would choose to convert to Christianity if they:

1. Knew what Christianity offered - i.e. resurrection, eternal life, Heaven. (i.e. A "better deal" than any other religion.)

2. Believed these claims were true

Thus early Christian missionaries seemed to emphasize that Christianity offered the believer more than their previous religion - so that the potential convert wanted to believe it was true. 

Then the missionary tried to convince the potential convert that the missionary's claims were true.

This 'convincing' was, in the early days, often by miracles, answered prayers, and other 'supernatural' means.

The early days of Mormonism provide a well-documented example of this process, when the first wave off missionaries were sent to England. 

To simplify; the missionaries would describe what was 'on offer' from this new version of Christianity (representing, for many people, an enhancement of the trad-mainstream Christian afterlife); and then (to convince of truth) the missionary would give the potential convert a Book of Mormon (having described its miraculous provenance). 

This was done with instructions to read with a truth-seeking-intent, and while doing-so to ask God in prayer whether the book was true - thus the potential convert was seeking a personal divine revelation of the validity of the Mormon claims (the availability of such personal revelations being a major element of Mormonism, and the Book of Mormon itself). 

This 'method' worked sufficiently well in the middle 1800s that the missionaries would convert a couple of people every day, on average. Most of these converts would be sufficiently convinced and enthused by their new religion to leave their homes and families (forever, potentially); and emigrate thousands of miles over sea and land - to settle permanently in and around Salt Lake City. 

Such experiences with Christian conversion fit with the assumption that if only a person knew what Christianity offered, and believed it; then he or she would become a Christian

But that was then; this is now

Now it cannot be assumed that people will, in general, want an afterlife at all; and even if they do want an afterlife, that they would desire the kind of afterlife that Christians describe. 

(For instance, it seems that many people want something more like 'Nirvana' - a barely-conscious, depersonalized state of timeless bliss.)

So, even if such people could be convinced of the reality of what Christians claimed, and convinced that they themselves could obtain this outcome - they would not want it, but instead something else.

Furthermore, there are many modern people cannot be convinced of the truth of Christianity; and the reason they cannot be convinced is not due to lack of evidence, but because their fundamental assumptions (i.e. metaphysical assumptions) rule out the possibility. 

In other words, they do not believe that miracles are real, or that answered prayers could happen. Any possible evidence is already explained-away by prior exclusion. 

An apparent miracle Must Be due to delusion or fraud; an answered prayer just 'wishful thinking' operating on coincidence etc. 

An excellent example of this mind-set is depicted by CS Lewis in The Last Battle, the final book of the Narnia Chronicles. There are a group of dwarfs who are actually on the threshold of Heaven, surrounded by Good Things - but who have decided that the whole set-up is a malicious trick. 

The dwarfs therefore actually perceive almost everything Good as trash: good food tastes of muck. Any pleasing event is a deception. 

Their whole mind-set is focused on a determination not to be fooled - and therefore a determination that every-possible-thing is (underneath the surface) malign and nasty. 

Such is an accurate allegory of many modern people. 

  • They (we) have pre-decided that this is a purposeless, meaningless and impersonal universe. 
  • Any suggestion that there is a loving God who created it, is regarded as childish delusion. 
  • Such suggestions met with incredulity, and regarded as an attempt at manipulation. 
  • Any 'evidence' of a miraculous or supernatural kind, is explained-away as necessarily fraudulent.    

In conclusion; however differently it was in the past; mainstream modern people are Not latent Christians; but indeed are pre-immunized against serious belief in religion generally - but Christianity in particular


Bruce B. said...

I can remember my early adolescent objections to Christianity. The upside seemed great but the downside was that God tortures people eternally with fire if they fail and that was something I didn't want to accept. In my mind I settled on something like apocatastasis as how things would work if God were just.

The idea of state of impersonal, mindless bliss never appealed to me. The idea of being surrounded by those you loved in life was always appealing to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I regard your experience (and some similar ones of my own) as a further indication that nowadays people need to take responsibility for discovering *what Christianity is*; rather than getting it from 'other people' (associated with some church or another) - who likely have some wrong ideas, and are increasingly likely to be dishonest and corrupted.

ben said...

It's hard to remember but I think the idea of ahrimanic evil was important for my conversion - to model myself as subject to a form of evil magic that makes you feel like the world is dead, rather than continue to assume I was above delusions that simple people used to be subject to. To think of myself as having atheism, rather than lacking Christianity.

And I think there's something to the idea that atheists *know* about God and Jesus, having known them directly in a pre-mortal setting, and then probably perceiving them to some degree in this world. The problem is being unable to *believe* in God and Jesus, their system of beliefs being unable to accommodate that belief. It seems that way in hindsight.

Atheists kinda know who's being talked about when they argue against belief in God, funny enough. It seems many also avoid directly verbally rejecting or insulting Jesus, and when they do, they do it gratuitously as though they know they're crossing a line. I think that affection or respect is being carried over from before.

This whole business reminds me of this man (sorry to link a video):

He has familiarity with individuals, but no memories of events involving them.

Rohan said...

Hi Bruce ... I can't help but notice that every devoted Christian that I have met has had some kind of personal divine revelation in their life i.e. a spiritual experience that made them feel that God values them.

In my opinion, Jesus made some very bold claims that God values the well being of people and better yet one can also influence their destiny through repentance and love. This was as you say in your post, an upgrade on their traditional beliefs.

But I cant but help also feel that the divine is mostly unresponsive to the vast majority of people. No divine revelation and no unmerited blessings to fall back upon or be a foundation for their beliefs. Most let go off Christianity because they cannot see its effect on their lives.

Were the vast majority people set up to fail by Jesus, Christianity and the church over-promising?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Rohan - We may not agree exactly about what Christianity essentially is, and what Jesus promised.

To my mind, the core and promise is of eternal resurrected life.

There are secondary promises - such as that the Holy Ghost (who is, precisely, the spirit of the ascended Jesus Christ) is there for our spiritual guidance and comfort.

But such guidance and comfort is aimed-at life beyond (biological) death. In other words, (in truth, in reality) I don't think Jesus made any promises about improving this mortal earthly life for everyone who follows Him.

Rohan said...

Hi Bruce

Perhaps I should list a few verses where I believe Jesus was promising his followers that they could influence 'divine providence' in this earthly life. Sure he did also talk about eternal life but Jesus seemed to indicate that man could attain his desires if he kept God's will in mind. I.e. if one prayed, loved and repented, God would reward them in this life with whatever they explicitly desired. The verses below... So my question is that did Christianity and Jesus over-promise to Man? And is that why modern man cannot accept Christianity?

P.s. I have read about romantic Christianity in your posts

* And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 
* Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
* Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
* If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it

Bruce Charlton said...

@Rohan - You will have to discern whether these quotations are valid and accurate, and what they were intended to mean.

It seems to me very obviously incoherent nonsense to believe that Jesus really told Men that they would get anything they asked for in prayer, if that is meant in any kind of bald and literal sense.

Or, if Jesus really did say and mean anything so readily refuted by experience - then he was obviously wrong about something vastly significant, and this would invalidate his claim to be divine.

For myself, I don't hold with trying to build up my understanding of Jesus from examining verses (especially not in the Synoptic Gospels, which were based on hearsay, and contain many errors to my mind).

I try to understand Jesus in a much more 'holistic' sense; looking across the whole Fourth Gospel, and for simple matters that were repeatedly dealt with. Of the Fourth Gospel quote from above:

"If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it"

This comes in a passage where Jesus seems to be instructing his disciples how they may spread his message, and that they will be granted miraculous spiritual gifts - so long as what they seek is in full accord with Jesus's will.

To live and be motivated in harmony with Creation is far more than a matter of "if one prayed, loved and repented"; which is a kind of external 'formula' - and perhaps is only attainable briefly, and intermittently.

I don't see that it has anything to do with a promise to grant what we wish.

Serhei said...

I appreciate (and commiserate with) the ironic symmetry of your experiences. It strikes me that, as an atheist, you were beset by Christians attempting to prove to you that you were actually-secretly-a-Christian. Now, having become a Christian, you have Christians attempting to prove to you that you are actually-secretly-not-a-Christian. You know the type....

Not all Christians are this silly of course, only the ones that are fond of Logic and proving things.

Rohan said...

Bruce, I see what you mean now! That whatever Jesus promised about must only be read from an afterlife or co-creative perspective.

I'll admit that the primary reason that I came to Christianity 10 years ago was because I was chasing material blessings from the divine which as you wrote only intermittently comes about.

Im not entirely giving up on Jesus's influence in our material lives but am now more accepting of sorrow and unfulfilled potential.

I just feel sorry for the vast amount of traditional Christians whose faith is built upon God finally healing of them of their disease, providing a well paying job or delivering an unrepentant family member. Eternal life is a far too distant concept to think about when their minds are suffering from immediate concerns.

Its even harder for the liberal atheist whose mind is focussed on immediate social change.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Serhei - Another is the people who themselves believe that those who do Not want resurrected eternal life are, nonetheless, Christians.

This situation has arisen exactly because the churches (and this began very early) lost hold of the core of Jesus Christ's message; and got distracted by issues such as redemption from specifically *moral* sin, the supposed Second Coming, and trying to build Heaven on Earth via the Church.

This even applied to CS Lewis! Who said that he became a Christian before he came to believe in eternal life - and indeed something similar applied to me, as well.

Yet, what this means is that we were not really (or were only partly, and that part inessential), Christians until after we came to believe and desire resurrected life eternal.