There are probably as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians. And when it comes to interpreting the Bible, Christians have endless disagreements about what it says. These disagreements can range from trivial to key issues that define who god is, what he wants from us, and who goes to heaven and who doesn’t. The World Christian Encyclopedia states that “World Christianity consists of 6 major [blocs], divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries.”
There appears to be an endless procession where you have groups conflicting internally, schism-ing into two or more groups, and then those groups, after a while, undergo the same process ad infinitum. Right into the present, religious groups are forever branching into more and more groups, and this branching process is often driven by different theological beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. In their defense, the Bible really is ambiguous and vague in many places. And considering what’s hanging in the balance, it’s easy to see how tempers can run high very quickly, contributing to this procession.
But all this confusion surrounding the Bible is surprising, even bewildering, if Christianity is true. How is it possible that God couldn’t have been so clear as to avoid any misinterpretation? In his omniscience, wouldn’t he have foreseen all the strife that would result from his lack of clarity and wouldn’t he know how to evade it?
Of course, none of this is surprising on naturalism. An indifferent universe is one where you would expect to find meaningless struggles and conflicts between utterly confused groups of apes. A vast abundance of totally avoidable suffering is only surprising if there’s a benevolent god who would prevent it if he could. This is also compatible with the existence of indifferent gods, unconcerned with human affairs; or an evil god who’s actively trying to sow confusion and dissension. But the one hypothesis where this doesn’t make any sense is the one that Christians want us to believe.
The existence of Biblical confusion (or Koranic confusion, or Talmudic confusion) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on their model of what’s supposed to be happening here. But with atheism, there’s no cognitive dissonance to resolve on this point at all. If religion is a natural phenomenon, you’d be crazy to expect convergence when it comes to theological issues; you’d expect divergence. You expect convergence in chemistry or physics because physics and chemistry study real things with demonstrably reliable methods. No matter which country or culture subjects like those are being studied, you’d expect to get the same answer. Theology, on the other hand, is where you would expect endless fracturing because there’s nothing real they’re looking at that they can get closer to. And think about their epistemology. Their methods for acquiring knowledge include consulting ancient texts, telepathic communication with a disembodied mind, visions, revelations, faith. As opposed to skepticism and Bayesian reasoning, making falsifiable predictions and asking for replication, just to name a few scientific ways of pursuing knowledge about the world. On naturalism, you would never expect two people, one in Nepal and the other in Canada, to arrive at the same answer when their methodology consisted of revelation, visions, faith, and consulting ancient texts — even if it was the same ancient text, say, the Bible. One of the causes of the endless schism-ing process is that convergence is unlikely when you’re not studying something real.
Jonathan Garner, author of the Philosophy of Religion blog writes,
“Since God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then wouldn’t God want to make her message in the Bible to be clear and not vague [or] ambiguous? At least at face value, yes. What’s more, we would expect any loving person to not desire or plan for others to be confused about such subjects, specifically subjects that are (quite literally) life and death. Given the power and knowledge of God, we see how God (if God exists) could have easily made the bible to be much clearer. And given the goodness of God, we would expect God to want to make this the case.”
Again, how is it possible that the omniscient author or inspirer of this book didn’t see all this confusion coming? Are theists really claiming that God couldn’t have done any better than what we have? God is supposedly the inventor of language itself and the inventor of our brains that interpret the language, and he still couldn’t have it written in such a way that there would be no confusion? The fact is that earnest, god-seeking Christians can read the same passage in good faith and think that it means different things. Considering who the author is, this should not be possible. If a sincerely god-seeking Christian reads, in good faith, a particular passage, there’s no reason, on Christianity, to expect another good-faith individual to come away with a clashing interpretation, especially when it comes to life-or-death issues. So god wants us to get a particular message from the Bible and failed to do that? Despite having creative control over the Bible’s contents, creating the language his thoughts were transmitted through, and our minds that would be doing the interpreting, he still failed? It’s not possible to dispute that sincere Christians disagree on how to interpret the Bible in non-trivial ways. Whether or not one needs to be baptized to enter into heaven, for example. The fact of Biblical confusion — the multiplicity of interpretations — is far more likely on some form of naturalism than on Christianity.
And no, free will cannot save you. A believer in libertarian free will might argue that we choose our theological beliefs. But even if we possessed libertarian free will (ie, if we could self-cause our own thoughts in a logically impossible way), that wouldn’t bear on this argument. There are Christians coming to the table in good faith. They just want to believe what god wants them to believe; they’re just waiting to be told what to think. This argument is about god successfully communicating his intended message. He has an intended message he’s trying to communicate, and he’s failing to despite sincere Christians trying to understand.
A believer might invoke mere Christianity and assert, as C.S. Lewis did, that there’s a core similarity to many, if not all versions of Christianity. In his book of that title, Lewis attempted to describe the common ground shared between all Christians. He wanted to forgo all the disputes and get at shared fundamental teachings, and then go on to argue for the truth of that stripped-down Christianity.
But even if he could establish a basic version of Christianity to begin with, it’s still surprising that god has created or allowed any confusion regarding highly consequential religious issues. And secondly, I don’t think there is such a thing as mere Christianity. Very few would agree that all people who call themselves Christians agree on anything. And if you could nail down core similarities to all versions of Christianity, they would be so vague as to no longer be distinctly Christian, or even theistic. One problem with trying to establish common doctrines between all or most Christianites is that in defining it broadly enough to include everyone, you’ll end up including members of other religions. For example, if your essentialized Christianity includes “Human life has transcendent value,” or “God created and intelligently designed the universe,” or “There exists a supernatural, objective moral law.”
Many religious people and even some nonreligious people would agree with some of those statements and others like them. So the tenets are either so vague as to include Muslims and Roman polytheists, or you start to sharpen up the ideas a little and begin hemmoraging Christians. You expand the circle and start including Mormons and Muslims; You contract the circle and you no longer have mere Christianity. And that analogy oversimplifies the mess. When you learn about the many variants of Christianity that exist or have existed, there’s just no way to draw the boundaries to include everyone.
Is Jesus god? That seems fairly basic, but the earliest Christians would say no, including the disciples — including Jesus himself, actually. Is the Bible inerrant? Is the trinity a coherent idea? How do I get into heaven? Is God a literal person you can talk to or something else? Is God real? There are Christian pastors who openly do not believe in god, like the Canadian pastor Gretta Vosper. I’ve also seen the phrase “Christian atheist” thrown around before. No one who’s learned about the diversity of people who call themselves Christian in earnest can argue that there are “essentials” that all Christians agree on. Whenever you try to establish any, you exclude masses of Christians, including early Christians and even some of the authors of the Bible.
The existence of Biblical confusion makes perfect sense on naturalism but is incredibly awkward on Christianity. Like I said, it’s not possible to deny the existence of Biblical confusion on consequential issues. So if you’re a Christian, you have to believe that god created Christianity and then intentionally cursed his religion to have the same characteristics as all the fake ones and be forever plagued by totally unnecessary, avoidable, and devastating confusion for no discernible reason.
CA41 Argument From Biblical Confusion
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Argument from Biblical Confusion — J.D. Garner [Philosophy of Religion blog]