Tuesday 29 December 2015

Why are people so afraid of being wrong about Christianity being true?

I don't know - but they are.

People don't seem to worry much about being wrong about the truth of many other things - but they really, really don't want to believe Christianity if there is any chance they may be mistaken.

Sometimes the reason given is that Christianity is too good to be true, other times that it is not good enough. Either way they don't want to believe in Christianity unless they can be 100 percent certain with zero possibility of error.

Strange but true. Of course, on such a basis, a Christian is the one thing in the whole world that they never can be.

Note - This post comes from reflecting on 'Pascal's Wager' - which I think is, at root - and considered in context, concerned with exactly this matter.   http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm#p_233


Robert Brockman II said...

The reason is that the amount of responsibility placed on apprentices by Master Jesus is very great, more than people think they can bear.

ajb said...

I think it depends on what you mean by Christianity. I think many people can't even get started with it - they find it implausible that the virgin birth, walking on water, multiplication of loaves, and resurrection could have happened, and they find the historical evidence weak relative to these sorts of claims.

I think for a modern to *get started* with Christianity, they probably have to set those sorts of things to the side. The gates of thought away from traditional Christianity (Jesus was just a great moral teacher, walking on water was a dream recollection of St. Peter's, the loaves were generated from everyone pooling their food, and so on) are also the gates toward it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RBII - I don't think that is the reason - and I hope it isn't, because it is not true. Jesus came into the world to save sinners - and not saving them on condition of them then suddenly becoming perfect, but just as they are.

@ajb - But that is perhaps begging the question of why modern people in The West find this impossible (rather than implausible) to believe things that almost everyone in history, and most of the modern world, find acceptable.

Christianity is indeed among the most *incredible* of religions, but that is because of Christ specifically, rather than because of supernatural aspects per se.


ajb said...

Because people in the modern world think they have a much better idea of how the world works than people in antiquity. According to this background model of the universe, the sorts of things talked about above don't happen. It's not that they're impossible in a hard sense, but rather seem very unlikely. To be convinced, therefore, they require a high standard of evidence - more than just ancient testimonials, whose origin in unclear.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - " the sorts of things talked about above don't happen. It's not that they're impossible in a hard sense, but rather seem very unlikely. "

I think the first sentence is closer - at least for the ruling elites (including Anglican Bishops) - these things are impossible, and since they are regarded as impossible, no amount of evidence would ever be enough to establish that they had happened - since there is always the possibility of fraud, lying, psychosis or error (individually or in combination).

So much of life is about assumptions. Strong, framing (metaphysical) assumptions cannot be rejected by experience - the question is why assumptions changed so radically and completely (it was not, of course, due to evidence!)- and whether they can change back, before it is too late.

Fundamental assumptions can change in a moment - mine have, more than once - although the consequences of such change can take quite a long time to work through.

The question is why, when there are so many and such profound and instant advantages from being a Christian or becoming one - this is so sompletely ruled-out, even as a possibility, by so many people.

Robert Brockman II said...

Recall that Jesus took a bunch of losers and trained them to the point where they could do amazing things. Peter was almost able to walk on water! Being a brother / sister in Christ (and by extension a Son / Daughter of God) is a tremendous responsibility. Most people will do almost anything to avoid this, this was true from the beginning. They would prefer permanent childhood dependency, oblivion, or misery to this burden.

Salvation has a cost. Part of the cost is that those who choose salvation simply *are* going to do a tremendous amount of Work from that point on. I'm not talking about "salvation through good works", I mean that once one has the perspective of one who is saved, doing the Work is *necessary*. Another part of the cost is that the saved don't get to blame anyone for their misery anymore.

Jesus got nailed up because he revealed the religious leadership of the time to be pious frauds. It was their job to look after the spiritual development of the general population and they weren't doing this well, because they enjoyed maintaining a state of higher status over their flock without having to bear the burden of salvation. (This is standard issue holier-than-thou disease.)

By choosing losers for his apprentices, Jesus forever removed the excuse of "I'm just a poor dumb sinner" from those trying to weasel out of salvation. The Modern equivalent of this excuse is "I'm just a finite collection of atoms evolving within tight constraints", which can be used to justify not doing any Work at all ever.

Robert Brockman II said...

"not saving them on condition of them then suddenly becoming perfect, but just as they are."

The sinners do not need to be perfect in order to be saved (indeed quite the opposite), but choosing to be saved is a choice to eventually become perfect -- perhaps not in this mortal existence, but ultimately.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RBII - True enough. But none of this prevents anyone becoming a Christian NOW - everybody is eligible (on condition of repentance - but *not* on condition of good behaviour).

In other words, salvation is instant and universally available to those who want it - but theosis (the process of spiritual progression towards eventual, hoped-for divinization) is an extremely long and arduous path.

Being 'a Christian' is a matter of salvation, hence instant and universally available; being a 'good Christian', making spiritual progress etc - that is a very different matter, a rare and elite kind of matter (the Apostles were atypical Christians), and depends on a multitude of personal and social factors.

Here I am talking about being 'a Christian'.

Even if a Christian makes zero spiritual progress, there is a great and decisive advantage simply from understanding the truth of reality; even when the Christian is unable/ unwilling to do anything different as a consequence.

Robert Brockman II said...

The apostles were atypical Christians only in that they had a lot of face-time with the Master, which made rapid theosis easier. Before they joined up, they were not particularly special people. The Penitent Thief was exactly as saved as the apostles, but ran out of time, so didn't get much theosis done (in this life.)

"but theosis (the process of spiritual progression towards eventual, hoped-for divinization) is an extremely long and arduous path"

This is why people don't want to believe in Christianity. At some level, they know that belief in Christianity would put them on the extremely long and arduous path. Once you accept salvation, you *know* that theosis is possible and *will* start the journey.

From your perspective, you can no longer imagine why anyone wouldn't choose salvation RIGHT NOW, since it's unconditionally available to everyone, it definitionally frees one from Hell, and it maximizes the amount of theosis one can get done in this life. (Pascal: Even if Christianity turns out to be bogus, you've still not lost a great deal.)

What you aren't taking into consideration is that so long as you don't buy into Jesus's teachings, you can avoid all of the work of theosis. This may have bad consequences (starting with, but not limited to *damnation*), but if you are skilled enough at ignoring reality through distraction, you can pretend those consequences aren't coming. It's basically laziness, with a bit of pride thrown in.


"there is a great and decisive advantage simply from understanding the truth of reality"

You've found the Path to Salvation through *actual science*. What bailed you out was that you wanted to *know what was really going on*, as opposed to getting social status from being a member of the scientific priesthood (modern Pharisees), being seen to be interested in real knowledge, impressing others with being smart, getting paid to do science, etc.

Your statement about the advantage of truth was a metaphysical starting point, one which probably made salvation inevitable just by you accepting it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@RBII - I just don't think that is the reason!

Interesting about the Apostles. They gave up everything to follow Jesus (and before that, some of them, John the Baptist) so I would say that they were mostly very unusual, very dedicated, exceptionally religious people to start with, before Jesus had spent much time with them.

David said...

"Either way they don't want to believe in Christianity unless they can be 100 percent certain with zero possibility of error."

I think it is a case of this and a misguided positivist philosophy that you describe in your most recent post that seems to be holding the dam against a potential flood for countless modern souls converting to some kind of more solid spiritual position, but especially to Christianity, this, far beyond any other New Age or other religious belief system seems the most absurd of the bunch through modern eyes!

I have had many heart - breaking conversations with close family members, who are atheist, and they are noticeably profoundly angry at the suggestion that Christianity is true. The force of that anger is inexplicably voracious and painful to behold. Unforgettable once first experienced directed to me personally. I have tried appeals to all manner of arguement: to agnosticism as anticedent, to logical and emotional arguements, to arguements based on doubting ones doubts, appeals to metaphysics and the testimony of countless faithful famous genii throughout history, arguements based on free will, consciousness, truth, beauty and virtue! All to know avail.

Instead, my earthly patriarch regards all such things as "Religion is evil rubbish" and that is a sanitised pronouncement of his actual position. He finds all religious dogma to be the root cause of problems on earth throughout history and in modern times. When I site the weighty counter-example of communist/atheist regimes causing unfathomable corruption, evil and human tragedy in contrast to the accused religious impulse that stands in the dock; he merely scoffs and evades.

He tells me that he needs "proof!" Pehaps a personal meeting with Jesus or Heavenly father himself would convince him?! Apparently yes it would, but nothing short of a personal supernatural experience would convince him. I ask him "But even then wouldn't the die hard scientist within you dismiss such a thing as a delusion or psychotic episode?!"

"Yes probably." Is his reply. He just doesn't want to give any off it a fair trial in my estimation. But this is the case for not only him but almost everyone I really care about in this life and many I don't; such a view is claustrophobically ubiquitous in the world we live in. How to react to this at a personal level...

I understand that Joseph Smith is supposed to have said "I would rather go to Hell with my friends and family than to heaven alone" (paraphrased, seem to recall was in a Teryl Givens book but no ref at time of writing). I feel I can truly understand this sentiment. I can only pray that in the fullness of time their hearts will change/soften. There certainty in ridiculous falsehood of my beliefs is hard to bear and the weight of their certainty makes me falter and doubt the hard - earned truths I feel I have found and now cherish. But I keep trying to live in faith and hope.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - My impression is that what Joseph Smith meant had reference to the provision of baptism for the dead etc. and the sense that those who had died without chance for all the benefits of the Restoration would not be disadvantaged.

in the end, people cannot (and should not) be forced to have what they do not want. If people really do not want what God offers, they will not be forced to take it - but when they *know* what it is, when they are shown (perhaps after death) I expect that many will then say yes.

David said...

"If people really do not want what God offers, they will not be forced to take it - but when they *know* what it is, when they are shown (perhaps after death) I expect that many will then say yes."

I certainly hope so Bruce. Assuming Christianity is true and most modern people are not likely to accept Pascal ' s wager or otherwise realise and accept the truth of Christianity in this mortal life, not withstanding the possibility of an unexpected revival or spiritual awakening en-mass, then this generation of modern humans will be doing most of its converting and repenting beyond the veil. If not, and again if Christianity is true, then most Modern people are likely doomed never to reach salvation and that applies to most of the people I know. The only Christians I 'know' are on blog's such as this and even then most of the Christians can't agree who qualifies as a Christian any way and would rule me out for my Mormon sympathies, as well as any other non - orthodox positions.

Nathaniel said...

I apologize for a confusing, winding, comment, but my initial impression is that many reject Christianity out of pride. This in part stems from crowd psychology, or not wanting to look a fool, or perhaps identifying oneself with a particularly sinful behavior and not feeling one should renounce or have to renounce it. The mainstream media especially pushes this you-are-your-sin meme, and then pushes adoption of the sin as the cool thing to do.

Liberal Christianity tells these people they are good as-is, and there is essentially no reason to be Christian. So they don't bother or thing being Christian is just a silly, relativist, identity thing. Traditional Christianity says they need to stop and repent or go to Hell, and this is where pride and lack of humility may be a prime demotivation.

Perhaps Mormonism has the middling approach, where the teaching is that the sinner is living-below-their-privilege, that God wont toss them into outer darkness for that sin alone, but that they wont be able to embrace God without repentance and come into full inheritance as a child of God. Yet that is a minority view, and certainly not what most people think of as "Christianity" when they do so.

Relatedly... C.S. Lewis is an interesting apologist that confuses me. At the end of Narnia he paints such a beautiful picture of Heaven, that I find deeply motivating, but seems to elsewhere refute that description? I mean that, C.S. Lewis' description in Narnia is similar to perhaps a Mormon conception, readily understandable and appeals to our deep desires, but then seemingly contradicted by less-understandable Orthodox descriptions. Would the same argument apply, should we hope to believe in the (apparently) desirable version to us, or in the more sanitized, mysterious and mystical description of beatitude?

That is, I think I'd rather hope the Narnia vision is true, and that the Mormon description of "levels" and the potential for post-mortal progress is true, otherwise we have a situation where so much of modern Western society is living in a degree of mortal sin possibly condemned to Hell, the neighbors we are supposed to love, many of the victims of deception who would have likely made better choices in a different time and place. That makes it all seem rather tragic and pessimistic, even depressing. Yet we can't fall into the same trap as the liberals and dismiss all sin as not sin.

Perhaps alluding to the same Smith quote above, I find the thought that my sons could end up in Hell while I'm potentially Heaven as deeply dissatisfying, especially when that could be a result of unknown flaws in my parenting, or influences of modern culture, etc. (what if I die tomorrow and can't help raise them?). Wouldn't many loving parents think that they'd rather see themselves suffer for eternity rather than their own children? On the one hand, that thought almost sounds somewhat heretical from a traditional approach, yet that same self-sacraficial love is Christian even though one may be prevented from acting it out in this life.

Part of Pascal's wager seems to be that the consequences of not following Christianity are bad-enough, while the "cost" small enough, it's worth it - and perhaps in that sense might lead us to a less optimistic vision of God's plan (perhaps a pre-Vatican-II Catholic perspective), while you seem to be arguing something more leaning towards the hopeful side.

Geraint Apted said...

"If people really do not want what God offers, they will not be forced to take it - but when they *know* what it is, when they are shown (perhaps after death) I expect that many will then say yes."

I always like to think that God in his mercy will allow the deniers to change their minds when they are dead, and find that death was not the end.

However, Revelation and the gospel of John seem to say that Christ will come to judge - believers to be saved and deniers to be condemned on the basis of their lack of belief when they were alive.

Very worrying.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - This conflict within the work of CS Lewis was the subject of a detailed essay by his best friend Owen Barfield. The imaginative Lewis or Narnia was in some respects very different from the hard-nosed rationalist theologian of Mere Christianity or Miracles.

@Nathaniel and Geraint - If it is believed that God is our loving Father and the Creator, then we *know* that he will design things for our good - overall and in the end.

Although we may not understanding it we should never attribute to God anything less than the highest motives and the most loving concern we can imagine - if we do, it is due to our mistake or our mistrust - but not an accurate reflection of God's motivations.

That is pretty much the meaning of 'faith' for me. Trust in God's goodness and personal love.

Christians have often failed to live up to this (and still do) - and have regarded God as if he was a kind of totalitarian tyrant. This is our fault and a serious mistake. God is never less than the most loving Father we can imagine.

Whatever the exact details, we can be sure that matters are arranged to give everybody the best possible chance, and that there are safety nets and all possible helps given the constraints that we are here to learn, grow, gain experience and take responsibility etc.