Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A question that doesn't look serious but is

Once upon a time, a man died and, something to his surprise, found himself at the pearled gates of Heaven facing St. Peter. After a few pleasantries, Peter indicated to the man that it had been decreed from On High that he was to be admitted, opened the gate, and led him into Heaven.

At once, Peter started showing the man around, pointing out this wonder or that, and after an extraordinarily nice afternoon, they were concluding their tour. Peter said to the man, "this is the last thing I need to show you, and it's the only rule you have to follow here in Heaven," pointing to a closed door before them. The muffled sounds of an outrageous party seemed to be coming through the door.

"What's the rule?" the man asked.
"Do not open this door for any reason," Peter replied. "That's the only rule in Heaven. Please follow it and enjoy yourself however else you like here. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the gates."

Time passed, or didn't, as it does, or doesn't, in Heaven, and the man did enjoy himself thoroughly. From time to time, though, he came near the door, and every time it caught his curiosity, as such things will. It always sounded like the biggest, best party in all of Heaven was going on in there.

Finally, one day curiosity got the better of this man, and he cracked the door open ever so slightly to peek inside. The sight was almost just as he had thought: a big party was going on inside, though it didn't seem any bigger or better than any other party he had been to in Heaven.

Before he had a chance to investigate further, or even to think better of it and close the door, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was St. Peter. "Oh no..." the man thought, suddenly thinking of Hell.

"I told you, my friend, the one rule of Heaven is not to open that door," Peter reproached with a stern but patient and calm voice. "Please, do not do so again."

"Okay," the man said, immediately relieved that he wasn't about to be kicked out for his curiosity. "But, if you will, sir, can you tell me what's going on in there? It looks like some kind of party, but that's what happens all over up here."

"Oh, sure," chuckled St. Peter. "Those are the Baptists. They think they're the only ones here."

This afternoon, I was sent a piece called "The New-er Atheists: Two movements battle for heart and mind," by Steve Wilkinson, published on the Christian Apologetics Alliance website today. I assume I was sent it because it makes reference of Peter Boghossian and Tom Gilson, with whom I have been having a protracted ongoing discussion about Dr. Boghossian.

In the conclusion of Wilkinson's piece, he writes this,
Tom Gilson said that Tim McGrew’s initial assessment of Boghossian’s work is that while he isn’t a heavy-hitter, as he makes a number of clear and crucial mistakes, that he will ‘rip through the average church-goer like a buzz-saw through balsa.’ I would agree, as while these ‘newer’ atheists largely setup [sic] a straw-man with regard to Christianity, they are quite right about the state of a large number of their target Christian audience and their ill-equipped state, not to mention the ‘mushy middle’ of the general populace. (bold his, italics mine)
Perhaps surprisingly, my intent isn't to argue about this or that being said here. Instead, this led me to think of an honest question. I put it on Twitter, twice, and I'm quite serious about it. I would like a clear answer to this question, with some argument in its defense.

The question is Which Christianity is not a straw man of Christianity?

I'm totally serious. I want a good answer to this. The reason I think the question is valid is because of two plain facts: there are a lot of Christianities (40,000, in fact), and these are often outright contradictory with others to the point where they sometimes will say members of other Christian sects aren't saved, aren't Christians, or are heretical.

That is to say, I think every Christianity, which may actually be a point valid down to the individual Christian, is a straw man of every other Christianity. If this is the case, I think it's reasonable to conclude that no matter what Christianity anyone, atheist or otherwise, presents to criticize Christianity is not only likely but necessarily will straw man most Christianities. In that case, does this objection mean anything?

So, the question again: Which Christianity is not a straw man of Christianity?
Oh, yeah, and how do you know?


  1. Nice post. I’ve been dealing with a similar argument in that most discussions I have with my Christian friends inevitably comes to the roadblock of, “Christians don’t believe that”. This runs as far off the rails as a Catholic telling me he doesn’t believe in Transubstantiation. It’s impossible and infuriating to think that they expect us as atheists to know every nuance of every individual’s personal belief system that they nebulously label as “Christianity”. It doesn’t seem very useful to adhere to a belief system that is so ambiguous and internally inconsistent. This is probably where a theist might be inclined to point out that not every scientist fully agrees with every aspect of the theory of evolution, but the disagreements are based on interpretations of hard data and at the very least the theory generates testable hypotheses. This something sorely lacking in any faith based belief system.

  2. Great question. This is what I was giving Phil an overly hard time about, the continual refering to "Christians", which reads as the set of all Christians, and their use of the word 'faith'. But this is in fact a large and diverse group--there is no one true Christianity, no respected scholar claims that the Bible is a scientific/historical textbook operating on formal definitions, and so there is no one definite interpretation of "faith". We can argue over how these things all ought to be defined and understood, but we shouldn't confuse that idealized ought with claims about how Christianity is practiced and has been taught.

  3. I like your question, but doesn't it simply invite every Christian to pronounce, "Well, mine!" and feel a little better about themselves?

    Deacon Duncan over at Alethian Worldview had an interesting post the other day where he said he would try to stop asking religious believers rhetorical questions about their faith because he had observed that it always seem to lead to further entrenchment. I'm not sure I agree, but that guy is way ahead of me on just about everything so I'll probably come around eventually.

    1. I don't know about the "feeling better" part, but yes, that's exactly what I expect they'll say, and any who say it are making an interesting case. Ideally, I'll get more than one saying it, far enough apart so that they can disagree with each other. I haven't popcorn in ages.

      It may lead to further entrenchment, though. Hmm, hadn't considered that. I suppose we'll see.

  4. Okay, I hope I don't regret opening my big fat mouth here, because ya'll are "way ahead of me" and it sounds like you spend much more time and brain-power thinking about this stuff than I do. BUT, there wasn't many comments here so I figured, "go ahead." All I have to risk is the possibility of being raked over the coals or ridiculed, or of just being completely removed from your comments. Eh, fine. "Which Christianity is not a straw man of Christianity?" I'll say it, lots of Christianities are not straw men, at least not to me. And that, right there, is probably where I invalidated myself to several, most readers. That's just my opinion, "lots of Christianities." "And how do you know?" I know that I am not smart enough to prove almost anything to anyone reading this; there is no way I would presume to think I could rationally explain "knowing" anything. At least, not to anyone reading here (I'm not trying to be mean or dismissive, I just can't compete with the brain-power ya'll generate.) I can tell you where I am coming from. I can't separate myself from my upbringing and my experiences: confirmed Lutheran, attended Methodist church while high-school-aged, attended Baptist Presbyterian and Methodist while in college, and attending Methodist Presbyterian and non-denominational churches while an adult. Married by a Presbyterian minister to my Episcopal Christian husband, and now we attend a Presbyterian church (but its the other kind of Presbyterians). Ha, what a mess we are (and sorry to blather on so long with my list). My point, what's my point ... I'm mostly from the Protestant camp, but I know plenty of people from other Christian denominations that I think are true Christians, not "straw men". I say "I think" because I really don't know who's saved; I can't see into anyone to know about their salvation. Who knows that about someone else? I'm not here to prove my Christianity to you, or to prove someone else's Christianity to you. I'm not sure any brand of Christianity is 100% correct about everything, its possible, I guess. I'm just here to say (as one self-identified Christian) that I believe lots of Christianities are not straw men and are true Christianities. I'm defining straw man as "not saved;" I think that is the definition being given in the above blog post for straw man. Please be nice with your comments, or at least polite. Thanks.

  5. I thought this was an interesting post. I 100% agree with you that there are many different brands of Christianity out there. I believe this happens for a few reasons. When you have a 2000 year old manuscript written in Hebrew translated to Greek and then you have Americans who dont know the first thing about Hebrew culture are trying to understand Jesus' teaching, you are bound to have a lot of different interpretations. This doesn't change the fact though that there are a core of commonly held beliefs in Christianity that directly line up with the life and teachings of Jesus. If it doesn't you may not want to waste time debating with them.