What Christians believe – A new Christian creed
Christian churches are characterised by “creeds”: systems of belief to which members must, at least nominally, subscribe in order to be recognised as Christians. However all beliefs imply unstated corollaries that follow logically, whether or not they are recognised. If a thing is painted black and only black, it follows that it is not painted white, whether or not we bother to say so. This is important because examination of the corollaries may expose hidden absurdities or contradictions that cause us to question the primary belief.
In this note I have set out 24 unrecognised Christian beliefs that, in my opinion, follow logically from those beliefs that Christians admit to. I expect that Christian apologists will have answers, but, in my experience, most of these are speculative or evasive or involve inventing unproven facts, and none of them are supported by the quality of evidence we would require in other fields.
Essentially the intellectual basis for Christian belief depends on accepting as reliable the testimony of unknown witnesses to extremely unlikely events. For this, I have come up with the “my mate Dave” test. In essence it is this. Would I believe my mate Dave if, with no other compelling proof, he told me that his mate Steve had risen from the dead and been lifted up to heaven? Isn’t it infinitely more probably that he is deceived, mistaken, mad or taking the mickey? The answer is that I wouldn’t believe my mate Dave (nor anyone else I know). So why should I believe all these characters in the Bible whom I do not know at all? Especially when I do know that there are some very dodgy types out there who lie about these things – Joseph Smith and L Ron Hubbard to name but two. Not to mention the idiots.
I do not for a moment expect any Christian to convert to atheism on the strength of this piece. Indeed it may have the reverse result because there is something called “the Backfire Effect”, namely that rational argument will cause committed believers to hold to their beliefs more strongly because the psychological and social penalties of abandoning them are unbearable.
That said, people do change their minds. As often as not it is because of a crisis in life that contradicts belief in a way that is too shattering to be borne. So, the cruel death of a child or the exposure of sexual abuse by a priest will often shake belief in a good and merciful god. In a way this is the reverse of the “faith” that keeps people within Christianity in the first place. We all know that children die cruel deaths and some priests abuse their flock but it is only the reduction of this abstract knowledge to personal experience that causes some to abandon religion. It underscores the point that, for most people, neither entering nor leaving a religion is a matter of evidence and intellectual argument but one of personal experience that itself overrides the contradictory personal experiences of others. Moreover, from our general lives can we say that our judgment is so sound that we can infallibly rely upon our own experience even in those matters where we have some knowledge?
Other than such events, faith can be undermined also by the slow drip of information and argument over time and from sources we can’t quite recall, such that its loss is felt as something that we have come to in our own way and by the exercise of our own judgement. This preserves our self-respect.
The present piece, at best, will merely add a few drips of scepticism to undermine the foundation of belief. Or perhaps not. In the end I am not in the business of converting other people, only promoting rational thought.
What follows is part of the Christian creed.
1. Christians believe that almost all religious beliefs are delusional
This is a central belief of all nominal Christians. All gods except the Abrahamic god are either demons or delusions. Mankind has believed in thousands of gods but they are all false or non-existent. Essentially Christians are only one step away from being atheists, unlikely though that sounds.
2. Christians believe that the probability of any given god existing is extremely low.
This follows from point 1. There are thousands of purported gods. Hence the odds of any given god being the “true” god (assuming such a thing exists) are many thousand to one against. Christians therefore have to explain why their god is the exception. Because the odds make it statistically so unlikely, the measure of proof is that much greater. General arguments – such as the Argument from Design – even if valid, are not proofs of the existence of a specific god. Jehovah, Krishna or any of the others could fill the role of creator. The probability of any particular god existing is so low that, for the most part, Christians do not even feel the need to give any thought to them. Any other scriptures than the Bible can be dismissed without bothering to read them, and even the names of these other gods are mostly not worth learning. Ask Christians to name ten gods and their scriptures.
3. Christians believe that faith and personal spiritual experience are not reliable evidence of the existence of god.
This seems to run counter to what Christians profess, but it follows from the thousands of phony gods with their believers, all of whom have faith but are mistaken. Christians can rely upon faith and personal experience only if they claim that they have some special class of authentic faith, even though they cannot share and evaluate the experience and feelings of other believers to justify that conclusion. To claim this smacks of arrogance. It is also a circular argument, relying upon personal faith in the authenticity of their personal faith.
4. Christians believe that alleged holy scriptures are overwhelmingly unreliable or fraudulent.
Again this follows from point 1. Any scripture that supports the existence of gods other than the Abrahamic god and any scripture, such as the Koran, which endorses such a god but not in Christian terms, is unreliable or fraudulent. Such false scriptures are vastly more numerous than Christian scriptures. Hence purportedly holy scripture is not in principle a guide to truth. In fact it is overwhelmingly a guide to falsehood.
5. Christians believe that any claim by a scripture or by its believers that a holy scripture is true is almost certainly false.
This follows from point 4. Scriptures are not self-authenticating. There is no reason in principle to believe in the Bible. More is needed and faith won’t fill the gap for the reasons given in point 3.
6. Christians believe that most prophets and holy men are either frauds or deluded. The same is true of the writers of holy scriptures.
This follows from points 4 and 5. For some reason Christian prophets and holy men are the exception, and few of those are actually accepted generally by Christians as genuine. Faith will not explain this for the reasons given in point 3.
7. Christians believe specifically that most people claiming to be Christian prophets are frauds or deluded.
A host of people have claimed to add to Christian scripture and doctrine. None of them have been accepted into to the canon of scripture or to the most common creeds of Christian belief since these were settled in the fourth century. The ones who were accepted before that date are the exception and for this reason need to be justified. What makes them different from the frauds and madmen isn’t immediately obvious other than the fact that we know next to nothing about them and can make up our own stories.
8. Christians believe that those prophets and scripture authors we know next to nothing about are more reliable than those we do know something about.
In Christianity, ignorance confers sanctity and an account by someone we know nothing about is better than one by someone we do know something about. We know nothing reliable about the gospel writers as people beyond what can be inferred from the stuff they wrote: not even their identities for certain. Luke is clear that his account is derivative: he doesn’t even say he got it from god, just some guys with no names, who, he says, knew what they were talking about. But we have to take his and their word for it. We do not know what the Evangelists witnessed first-hand – though the dating of the scriptures suggests that none of them were primary witnesses even if they were contemporaries of Jesus – and what is second-hand. In the latter case we know effectively nothing of the primary witnesses, We do not know in any case whether the sources are reliable, gullible, dishonest or even mad. Where we do know something about alleged holy men, as with Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet or Mary Baker Eddy of Christian Science fame, or Ron Hubbard the founder of Scientology, Christians have no problem seeing through them – and quite rightly.
9. Christians believe that most Christian Gospels, Epistles, Acts and Apocalypses are unreliable or fraudulent.
This may seem odd but it is not contentious among Biblical scholars of all persuasions and is in fact the position of all denominations. The mass of early Christian scriptures that have been rejected and largely destroyed by the Church exceeds that of the New Testament. Some of the rejected items are nonsensical (though no more nonsensical than Revelations). Others are as plausible, if later in composition, than accepted scripture, but are rejected on doctrinal grounds. Accepted scripture is merely the best of a disreputable bunch and not beyond reproach, especially in the case of authorship of the Epistles, some of which seem to have been falsely attributed to Paul in order to lend them authority i.e. the Bible includes some forgeries. The official position of all Churches is that most authors of nominally Christian scriptures are misguided or frauds. It follows that, as a general class, most nominally Christian scriptures are unreliable. In the past, believing in such Christian scriptures would lead to your damnation. It still will in the eyes of some Christians.
10. Christians believe god was happy to let them get by for nearly 400 years without a New Testament.
This is not contentious among scholars and most if not all Churches accept it. The New Testament was constructed out of scattered writings composed at different dates mainly in the first two centuries AD. The current list of 27 books is attributed to Athanasius in AD367. For most of that period, most Christians would not have had access to the full range of scripture. Given this omission on the part of god, the central importance attributed to the New Testament seems overstated. “Believe in the Bible but we can’t show it to you” is not a convincing slogan.
11. Christians believe that god did not consider it necessary to tell them which books comprise the Bible.
Although some (but by no means all) biblical books show awareness of others, the canon does not itself include a list and not all of the books are recognised in all canons. This explains the space of 367 years until the list made by Athanasius, and why some books such as The Shepherd of Hermas were candidates for inclusion until late in the day, and others such as Revelations were late inclusions. At no time (including today) have Christians ever been agreed as to which books comprise the canon. The major difference at present relates to the inclusion or exclusion of the books in the Apocrypha, but there are continuing differences between the canon of the western churches and smaller oriental churches of equivalent age. Historically there were wider differences. God did not step in to establish the major part of the canon much before AD367 and he still has not bothered to clear up the other discrepancies. The central role given to the Bible and claims as to its literal infallibility do not seem justified by god’s lackadaisical conduct.
12. Christians do not believe that “the Bible” exists.
This follows from point 11. There is no single Bible and never has been. There are only Bibles (plural).
13. Christians believe that god did not bother to preserve an accurate verbatim text of the Bible.
No Bibles are based on the earliest surviving texts without alteration. They are based on comparing and selecting texts from those available to scholars at various points in history. Since the number of available texts has increased, the number of textual variants has increased and older compilations have been superseded. Already in the 18th century some 30,000 variations had been identified between available ancient texts. Now the number of variations is believed to exceed the number of actual words in the New Testament. Overwhelmingly these differences arise from scribal error as would be expected if god didn’t much care for accuracy. Many can be corrected but some variants are equally plausible and for these the “true original text” is unknowable. Christians will say that none of the variations affect a major point of doctrine. Since Christians have never arrived at a universal agreement on doctrine, this excuse is meaningless. In any case it is questionable. The Johannine Comma is a proof text for the existence of the Trinity, a doctrine disputed by Unitarians. The scholar Erasmus questioned its authenticity and it is omitted from many modern Bibles. The so-called “long ending” to the Gospel of Mark is a proof text for the Resurrection and Ascension that does not appear in many earliest manuscripts and is often noted as debatable in modern Bibles. No biblical text or translation of such a text has received universal acceptance as the literal word of god. An omnipotent god could clear up this confusion but so far he has not bothered.
14. Christians believe that most Christians are in error.
No single denomination represents a majority of professing Christians. There are thousands of denominations claiming divine inspiration for their theology and organisation with various degrees of compatibility. Some differences are regarded as within the bounds of permissible disagreement and others are considered errors, but there are no agreed rules to determine which is the case in any specific instance. In the past Christians have killed each other over many of these differences. Some still do. The fact that these other Christians have “faith” in their beliefs cuts no ice with the rest even though they also claim rely on “faith”. In this instance “faith” is not considered a reliable guide. My faith is always better than yours, so to speak. When you speak to a Christian, remember that most other Christians think he’s wrong in one or more respects, and in some cases barking mad.
15. Christians believe that god has given up on explanations, even if they would be helpful.
Christians have always disagreed about doctrine and organisation. Many of Paul’s epistles are directed at sorting out these disagreements in accordance with god’s will and these explanations (whatever they mean) became part of the canon and amount to divine revelations. Shortly afterwards, god apparently lost interest in problem-solving. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants quarrelled with Catholics over faith-versus-works, the adoration of the Virgin, the existence of Purgatory, the effectiveness of indulgences, the nature of the Mass, the role of the Pope and a bunch of other stuff. Protestants argued based on the Bible, and the Catholics on the Bible and tradition, but neither provided a compelling answer to any of these matters that came even close to satisfying everyone. Christians may say that the Bible already contains sufficient explanation to answer these and other questions, but since they can’t agree on the answers this is obviously not true. An omnipotent and merciful god could have given additional revelations and added convincing pyrotechnics to persuade any doubters, but he did not bother. In the absence of further divine help, religious wars were fought for a hundred years and huge numbers of people were slaughtered. The outcome was inconclusive, as if god didn’t care either way and wasn’t too fussed about the death toll. In a similar manner he might also have avoided the Crusades by a timely and convincing revelation to put Mohammed in his place – or the other way round.
16. Christians believe that god has geographical preferences and likes to keep it in the family.
Significantly the best predictor of one’s religion is that practised by the community to which one belongs. Family and location for the most part. Hence Christians are a large majority in the Americas and a small minority in India. The universality claimed for Christianity is not reflected in its distribution and never has been. If correct belief plays a role in salvation, the Holy Ghost has worrying preferences. If it does not play such a role, then why is correct belief important and why bother preaching it? The Holy Ghost also changes his mind, because geographical distribution changes over time.
17. Christians believe that god is a racist.
This follows from point 16. Communities are defined by colour, language, customs and other indicators of “race”, and religion follows these changing boundaries. Wars and imperialism are at least as important as missionary activity in predicting the religion of a country and people. Whatever one makes of the “chosen people” meme, the Old Testament has always had a racial component supported by various accounts of genocide in the early days of Judaism (see Joshua).
18. Christians believe that the Evangelists Mark and John had never heard of the Virgin birth or they considered the story untrue or unimportant.
Neither Mark’s nor John’s Gospel contains the story of the virgin birth. Since such an event is for practical purposes unique, it ought to merit a mention and the omission requires a convincing explanation. Mark’s Gospel is almost universally recognised as the earliest and in principle should be closer to the primary source. – so why no virgin birth? Early Christian communities knowing only the Gospels of Mark or John would have no reason to believe in the virgin birth. The importance of the Virgin in some Christian traditions is not consistent with these Gospels
19. Christians believe that the Evangelists Matthew and John had never heard of the physical Ascension, or they considered the story untrue or unimportant.
A distinction has to be made between a physical Ascension attended by witnesses and a metaphor that might describe anyone who has gone to heaven. There are sundry New Testament references to ascension but only Luke, in his Gospel and in Acts, describes a physical event, unless one accepts the so-called “long ending” to Mark which has a brief mention but is widely regarded as an addition to the text. If a physical Ascension took place it would be an incredible rarity worth a mention by all who had heard of it. The omission requires an explanation. Early Christians with access only to Matthew, John or (possibly) Mark would have no good reason to believe in the physical Ascension. According to Luke, the disciples witnessed the Ascension. If the Gospel authors were disciples and were present as claimed, it seems that three of them weren’t paying attention or didn’t get a good view.
20. Christians believe that the Evangelists Mark, Matthew and Luke had never heard of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, or they considered the story untrue or unimportant.
Most people would consider raising someone from the dead a nifty miracle and worth a mention. However, news of Lazarus does not seem to have got around. Only John gives us the story. Why?
21. Christians believe god likes to confuse people
The books of Daniel and Revelations are expressed in symbolic terms. In essence they are written in a code to which we do not have the key. Those who claim to have one are generally not believed and their track record of successful prophesy is dismal. Since the Bible is intended to convey a message to humanity and since it is apparently important that we understand and believe that message, it is not obvious why any of the books should be in code. The effect of this method of composition has been to confuse and divide Christians, provide ammunition for charlatans and madmen, and generate prophecies, none of which have come true sufficiently even to convince most Christians. It is difficult to come up with any corresponding benefits. God is omniscient and therefore must have foreseen and presumably intended this result.
22. Christians believe that a merciful and omnipotent god is right to discriminate against people with one leg or Downs syndrome
For an omnipotent being, all things are possible. From the evidence of those miracles for which the facts (if not the cause) are reasonably reliably established, god is happy to cure cancer, blindness, paralysis and similar conditions. However, if you lose your leg, not even Jesus during his time on Earth would let you grow a new one, though Christians believe he could have done. Similarly there seem to be no instances where the genetic condition of Downs syndrome has been miraculously cured. One can think of other examples. Why god has it in for one-legged people with Downs Syndrome is not explained, but, since Christians believe in his goodness, it must be OK.
23. Christians believe that the Gospels are true on evidence that is inferior to the Book of Mormon.
Of course, the Book of Mormon is complete nonsense put together by a narcissistic fraudster. Nevertheless, there are 12 actual witnesses to the existence of the golden plates and none of them ever repudiated his testimony even after some of them broke with Joseph Smith. In contrast, Judas was sufficiently unimpressed by Jesus to betray him and most if not all the remaining disciples left no account whatsoever and we do not actually know if they all stayed faithful or not. There are various criticisms that can be made against the testimony of the Mormon witnesses, but only because we have it. In contrast, the Gospels are essentially written by unknown authors relying upon unknown sources, unlike the eye-witness testimony for the golden plates. There is a mass of evidence from history and archaeology to contradict the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, given the billions of human lives against which to test crucial elements of the account of Christianity, there is also a mass of testimony against virgin births, resurrections and ascensions into heaven. Only cultural prejudice makes us think these events are more likely than Jews emigrating to America and god appearing to a sex-mad Yank with a big nose. Miracles can be invoked to prove the truth of either story.
24. Christians believe that a successful prayer is evidence of god’s existence and goodness. But Christians also believe that an unsuccessful prayer is not evidence of his non-existence, evil or indifference.
This is a commonplace observation and versions of it reflect an attitude of all True Believers that is by no means limited to Christians. Their beliefs are constructed so that there is no method of disproving them: all evidence to the contrary is explained away. This is not true of rationalist atheism, which can be easily disproved. When Jesus returns and the skies are filled with his angels, you may be sure that we shall all be believers in that instant before we suffer eternal damnation. This event has been prophesied by some Christians every year (in all likelihood) for the last 2000 years and denied by atheists. In terms of prophetic accuracy, the score to date is Atheists: 2000; Christians: Nil.