July 3, 2009

How Many Christians Really Believe What They Claim?

Detail from Albrecht Dürer
Detail from Albrecht Dürer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It recently struck me that one of the recurrent themes that has surfaced again and again at Atheist Revolution involves the question of whether most Christians actually believe much of what they claim to believe. Not only have I written a few posts directly posing this question, but it seems to emerge in some posts and linger just beneath the surface in many others. As I look at it head on, I still do not feel like I have made much progress in finding a satisfactory answer.

Christian Hypocrisy

A common route to this question are the many examples of apparent Christian hypocrisy that show up here and on countless other atheist blogs. Mojoey at Deep Thoughts has done a commendable job tracking Christian hypocrisy, and he has much company throughout the atheist blogosphere.

Blatant examples of what appears to be Christian hypocrisy do make us wonder whether we are seeing genuine hypocrisy (i.e., someone who is acting contrary to a cherished belief) or something more akin to a con being exposed. Of course, it all looks like real hypocrisy because a good con is going to profess belief as well as the true believers.

When we see the parade of fallen pastors, we have to ask whether they really believe what they have been preaching. It often strikes us as more likely that they were simply saying what they needed to say in order to get close to their marks.

Not a "Real Christian"

As we know, whenever a Christian is caught doing something sufficiently bad, other Christians quickly conclude that the offender is "not a real Christian" because a "real Christian" could never do such a thing. This is a popular psychological defense mechanism among Christians and one that they sadly have ample opportunities to use.

These situations also bring up the question of whether many Christians believe what they claim to believe, only this time, the question is raised by other Christians. Surely, they insist, someone who really believes in the Christian god could not commit such acts. How can they have so little fear of hell?

When Behavior Betrays

We find beliefs useful primarily to the degree that they help us understand and ultimately predict behavior. If there was no relationship between what someone believed and how someone behaved, it would be hard to regard belief as relevant. We care about belief largely because it helps us predict behavior.

It is not surprising, then, to be puzzled when we encounter someone who is acting contrary to his or her professed beliefs. We wonder whether such an individual has been lying about what he or she believes, has not bothered to seriously consider the implications of his or her beliefs, or is impaired in some way.

Ken claims to be a "bible-believing Christian" who regards his preferred bible as the inerrant word of his particular god. And yet, he does not expect his wife to submit to him (Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1), does not forbid her to wear jewelry (1 Peter 3:2-6), and would never dream of offering his daughters up to rapists (2 Peter 2:8. Ken helps his widowed sister out financially even though his bible says he should ignore her plight (1 Timothy 5:5-15). And believe it or not, Ken actually lets his wife come to church with him without either covering or shaving her head (1 Corinthians 11:5-7)! So much for taking his bible seriously, huh?

What are we to make of Ken? If he really believes that his bible is inerrant, he has a very odd way of showing it. His behavior is certainly not consistent with what he says about his beliefs.

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