Archives for posts with tag: christianity

I spoke by telephone to Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation for a radio interview about my generosity article. It is now available as a podcast at

To review. The verb ‘to believe’ refers to something one does with an intelligible proposition.

Compare with the verb ‘to read’. Reading is something you do with a text. If you say, “Let me read you something,” and you talk to us, but you’re not referring to a text, then you used the wrong word. Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t reading.

Similarly, if you say “I believe that Jesus loves me,” you used the wrong word. “Jesus loves me” is not a proposition, only a pseudo-proposition – so your relationship to it is one of pseudo-belief.

To this thesis, some people reply along these lines. “I used to be a Christian, so I know what it’s like. I really believed all that stuff. It is presumptuous and absurd for you to tell me otherwise. I really believed that Jesus loved me. I felt it in my heart. It was a good feeling! And I really believed that if I did the wrong thing I would burn in Hell – which genuinely terrified me, especially when I was little. How can you possibly say I didn’t believe? Are you claiming to know more about the inner workings of my brain than I do?”

Notice that the emphasis in this report is on how the propositions you “believed” made you feel. You’re remembering emotions you had, and offering those emotions as evidence for the idea that you “really believed.” I see a few problems here.

To my claim that you didn’t have a belief about Jesus, you reply that you had a feeling. But I did not say there were no feelings. I said there was no belief.

Are you saying that the intensity of your feelings is a kind of proof that you really believed? That would be false, because an image in your mind can have profound effects on your feelings without it being a belief.

When someone tells me about the horrors of Hell, I am horrified. This is an emotional reaction. The same thing happens when I watch a scary movie. My thoughts, feelings, breathing, heartbeat and skin conductance may all be affected; but none of these responses is properly called belief. I don’t believe the images in the movie. They are not propositions.

Religious teachings put images and slogans and feelings in your mind. And those things are routinely called beliefs, but this is a misuse of the term. An image is not a belief; a slogan is not a belief; nor is a feeling. Belief is something else.

This is not to say that no one can have beliefs! One can have beliefs. There are, for example, comforting notions like “There is someone who loves me,” and “I’m not alone,” and “Some day soon, I’ll be happy.” Such ideas are not incoherent – but neither are they religious. The Credo does not say, “Everything will be OK.” That is not a specifically Christian idea. Christianity says incoherent things like “Jesus loves you” – that is: a living person, who is not living, and not a person, has feelings for you, which are not feelings, and not for you. That’s the kind of thing that the church says you should believe. But no one can do that. It’s impossible. People do have ideas about something they call Jesus, but they don’t have that idea, because it’s not even an idea!

And everyone’s idea is different. Your image of Jesus can’t be canonical, so it’s personal. The comforting picture in your mind is different from everyone else’s comforting picture. One person’s Jesus looks kind of like her dad. Another’s looks like a soft blue cloud. But no one’s picture can be said to be more accurate than anyone else’s, because there is nothing “out there” to compare them with. The ideas we think of as being about Jesus are not about anything at all.

So when people say, “Christians believe X,” it’s not true. There is nothing that fits that description. What the church says you should believe, no one does. There is no Christian belief, only Christian slogans; and myriads of personal, individual beliefs. And all these have in common is the special words used to describe them – a Christian vocabulary of meaningless terms. Everyone uses the word ‘Jesus’, the word ‘God’, the word ‘salvation’; which fosters the appearance that everyone agrees about certain things. But no one knows what the words mean! So they haven’t agreed on anything.

You might be wondering: Why do people say such things, if they don’t believe them? Well, that’s how it all ends up making sense.

Look at it socially instead of semantically. To pronounce a phrase such as “I believe that Jesus loves me” is a social gesture. It’s almost completely independent of what the words mean. “Jesus loves me” is empty of sense, and therefore, “I believe that Jesus loves me” is strictly false. But the saying of those words is meaningful on different level, as a gesture between people – like a wink, or a badge, or a special handshake. People don’t generally go around making theological claims. What they do is to exchange tokens of affiliation, sorting out who belongs to which crowd. The words don’t mean anything as words. That’s not what they’re for. They are a prop to use in public performances.

Someone drops his shopping list in the street. A bird picks it up. The bird does not notice the words on the paper. The bird does not know what writing is, or what paper is. It just seems like useful stuff. It becomes part of her nest. The next day, it is dissolved by rain.

Bill McKibben’s “The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong” (in the latest Harper’s) is fascinating and wrong.

Christianity in America has gone bad, McKibben says. It’s concerned with the wrong things. It needs to return to its roots: the actual admonitions given by Jesus.

America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. […] [T]here is nothing else that unites more than four fifths of America. […] That’s what America is: a place saturated in Christian identity. But is it Christian? This is not a matter of angels dancing on the heads of pins. Christ was pretty specific about what he had in mind for his followers.

The article proceeds to describe two specific ways in which people have strayed from the True Way. But, for all McKibben’s obvious intelligence and sincerity, this argument – that people aren’t doing it right; that real Christians wouldn’t behave that way – is threadbare, confused, and dangerous.

Here are just the few objections I see right off the bat.

  1. Bill McKibben does not know what Jesus actually said.
  2. Whether or not Jesus actually said any particular thing is not relevant to whether it has any utility for us here and now.
  3. Religious groups always say that other groups are doing it wrong. But there has never been a method for ascertaining whose claims might be “genuine.” Why? Because there are no genuine claims in this field. No one’s favorite flavor of total nonsense is more genuine than anyone else’s favorite flavor of total nonsense.

The only way to resolve the “paradox” of Christian “belief” is to recognize that belief is the wrong word for it.