Thursday, October 29, 2009


I've been hitting the UU theology mailing list pretty hard recently. Someone posted this today:

Both atheist Christopher Hitchens and pastor Douglas Wilson concur that
society has no use for Christianity if its core story is not true and
it's reduced merely to moral and ethical doctrine. But does this view
act as a challenge to 'religious humanism'?

By David Edwards and Daniel Tencer [edited]
Monday, October 26th, 2009

If the story of Jesus Christ isn't literally true, then Christianity is
a fraud that promotes "a positively wicked doctrine," Christopher
Hitchens told Fox & Friends Monday morning.

Hitchens discussed the role of religion in American society in the wake
of a recent study that shows the number of Americans who claim no
religious affiliation has roughly doubled in the past two decades, from
8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

The study, conducted by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut,
predicts that a full one-quarter of Americans will have no religious
affiliation by 2028. The study notes that the number of non-believers
among younger people is considerably higher than among older people,
suggesting that the trend of Americans growing less religious will
continue in coming years.

Hitchens said Americans are increasingly turning against organized
religion "because they want to push back against theocracy and the
parties of God and the awful challenge they pose to us internationally."

"By the way, your side seems to be winning in public schools, at least
across America," host Gretchen Carlson told Hitchens.

Hitchens appeared on Fox with pastor Douglas Wilson, who appeared along
with Hitchens in the recent documentary Collision, which explores the
battle of ideas between the religious and the non-religious.

The two came to unexpected agreement on one issue: They both attacked
the notion, popular among some secular thinkers, that Christianity is a
socially positive thing even if it's not true.

"If Jesus didn't come back from the dead, then Christianity is appalling
-- it's an appalling fraud and delusion and every unbeliever should
attack it," Wilson said. "Christianity is not good for the world because
it makes people decent and sober and that sort of thing. At the end of
the day, if it's not true -- if it's not objectively true -- then I
don't have any more use for it than Christopher does."

Hitchens echoed that idea, but made it clear he does actually consider
Christianity a fraud.

"They say, well the Bible story's not really true -- they're morality
tales. Don't listen to it, because if it's based on a fraud, if the
virgin birth and the resurrection and the miracles did not occur --
which they did not -- then those teachings are immoral, they teach that
sins can be forgiven by throwing them on to a scapegoat -- a positively
wicked doctrine."

Is it just me, or does this argument not make a lot of sense?

Admittedly, I was raised by liberal Christian parents who taught me that the less-believable parts of the bible were metaphor. Though the article and the guy who forward it to the list attribute this idea to secular thinkers, I hear it a lot more from liberal Christians than I hear it from secular folks.

To me, the idea that a religious story's meaning and value should be evaluated separately from its literal truth makes perfect sense and I'm not sure why anything else would be the case. After all, Jesus himself acknowledged that not all of his stories were literally true. If inventing a story to get a spiritual point across was good wnough for Jesus, one would think it would be good enough for the Reverend Wilson.




Transient and Permanent said...

It's been more than 150 years since some Unitarian Christians began to conclude that the miracles were beside the point of true Christianity. Perhaps eventually the memo will reach Hitchens.

DairyStateDad said...

First of all, really glad you took this on. My biggest beef with the New Atheists is that they tend to be as literalist as the fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals. Then they either impute that literalism to liberal and mainline Christians -- or else (as Sam Harris does) castigate the mainliners for not speaking out more strongly against the fundamentalists.

But if anyone is going to speak up for metaphorical understandings of Jesus, it's not gonna be Douglas Wilson. He's very much in the conservative wing of Christian thinking. ( A far more provocative -- and effective, IMHO -- pairing would have been to put Hitchens up against someone like John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century and pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (DairyStateMom's old church).

But there you'd run into another problem. Mainline Christians do seem to be loath to call out Evangelicals on a lot of the doctrinal stuff. Sam Harris is strictly speaking accurate on this charge. There are probably many reasons why that is. I'll expand on my thoughts about that over at DSD.

Lilylou said...

Amen, Sister CC.

hsofia said...

A lot of people are invested in Jesus' resurrection being a FACT. They may not be Christian or want others to be Christian because it leads to better living, or solves problems, or makes people smarter or more informed, etc. They may be Christian because they believe there IS an afterlife, and belief in Jesus's sacrifice is the way to Heaven.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Sounds to me as though Hitchens and Wilson have limited their understanding of truth to mere fact.

Fact: There is little chemical difference between a diamond and a piece of coal.

Truth: The value of a diamond is found in its lasting beauty.

Now, "beauty" cannot be measured in a quantifiable way, like the facts of a mathematical equation. But we somehow know when something is beautiful -- we consider it true.

Likewise, we can apprehend the truth behind a story, even when we know it is not factual. Romeo and Juliet is a work of fiction, yet it tells us truths about the nature of love and longing which have endured.

When people insist that a story cannot be "true" unless it is fact, it reminds me of Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Joel Monka said...

You'll probably be shocked at my saying this, but they have half a point. The doctrine of transferal of guilt from the sinner to Jesus was one of the biggies that caused me to leave the church of my childhood. Nothing like being told as a misbehaving child that "Jesus died to buy you forgiveness for your sins; now you're just twisting the nails in the wounds" to get you to re-think the entire proposition.

But more dangerous still is the concept of salvation by faith, rather than by deeds, for that means that if your faith is firm, you can commit any deed and still be saved. If you're to be judged by works, you're never going to stuff your skivvies full of C-4 and blow yourself and a bus full of strangers up; but if you're judged by faith, well, hey, you'll be forgiven. Abraham set the example- by faith he was ready, willing, and actually in the process of slaughtering his own son- a boy innocent enough to be a valid sacrifice- when Jehovah provided a miracle to prevent it.

But their conclusion fails for at least three reasons: a) Why single out Christianity? People of all faiths with those doctrines behave the same way, from Muslim terrorists to Shinto Kamikaze. b) Even eliminating religion altogether won't stop what is a human failing, not a religious one- look at the atheists who worked for Pol Pot or Stalin. c) Nearly all religions are a net plus to society- quick, name any social reform movement from ancient Rome forwards that wasn't led by men of the cloth, regardless of which cloth. Even in communist countries, the party only provided muscle to movements that had been started by religious leaders before them.

Whether a theology is fact or fiction based, religions are human institutions, vulnerable to human failings; eliminating the religion won't eliminate the failings.

hsofia said...

I think what might baffle Hitchens is why Christians have to attribute the goodness they derive from their religion to their religion if there is nothing factual about the foundations of the religion. Why not be motivated by any spectacular story?

fausto said...

It's not you. Hitchens does not make much sense. Moreover, what he does say is a direct attack on both historical Unitarian theology and present-day UUism as a religious community. UUs of all theological stripes ought to recognize him as the enemy of our religion that he himself claims to be.

As Dairy State Dad points out over on his blog, Fox framed the debate badly by pitching two literalists against one another. As literalists, they both accept a rigid, inflexible Christianity as the only valid Christianity, and then argue for or against the validity of only that narrow definition. If they really wanted to vet all the dimensions of the question, they should have included (say) a Religious Humanist who does not deny the pragmatic practical value of religion, a liberal Protestant who is willing to reinterpret ancient teachings as metaphors that still have sound applications today, and an Eastern Orthodox or Catholic who can speak in terms of the mysticism and mystery of the tradition and the distinction between material fact and spiritual experience.

fausto said...

Joel says: "The doctrine of transferal of guilt from the sinner to Jesus was one of the biggies that caused me to leave the church of my childhood." But that is only one of several competing orthodox Christian theories of the atonement, one that has been overemphasized in Western Christianity due to the disproportionate influence of Augustine and Anselm on Catholic doctrine, and derivatively on Luther and Calvin. You never hear much discussion of the ransom theory, the Christus Victor theory, or the moral influence theory. Unitarianism in particular relies on the moral influence theory -- that Jesus can show us how to overcome our isolation and alienation from the holy ("save us", in evangelical parlance) through his teaching and example. To define vicarious sacrificial atonement as an essential component of Christianity is to affirm the error of Hitchens and Wilson, and to deny the historic witness of our own faith community.

Bill Baar said...

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

Hitchens isn't a new atheist. He's an old atheist of the sort I too remember from Trotskyist haunts.

Spend enough time with the comrades on the left and you realize your in a religion and church too.

And that leads you back to what is truth?

Best to true and live it rather than believe in it. I think that's the point Pilate almost got.

kimc said...

Good discussion.
A story doesn't need to be facts to illustrate truth.
For the spokespeople for atheism to fail to acknowledge non-literalist Christians is disingenuous.
God isn't that small.

Joel Monka said...

Fausto- I know that doctrine is not the only view, but it is the view of the church I was raised in, and the view of millions of Americans. And it was not the only one that started my search- but it was one of the first that caused me to question.

Steve Caldwell said...

I don't know if anyone has seen this survey data comparing atheist vs. Christian views of various religious questions:

Yes ... liberal Christians and other religious liberals do exist.

But there are plenty of Christians who do hold literalistic views.

For example, if 75% of the Christians survey strongly agree that Christ's death was an atonement for the sins of humanity and 75% believe that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, liberal religious views may not be that important to Christianity and most Christians.

Desmond Ravenstone said...


This all depends on what one means by "liberal Christian."

One could hold to the doctrinal views of substitutionary atonement and the virgin birth, yet also defend progressive ethical and social views, for example.

And the reverse of that are those who hold a less-than-orthodox Christology while clinging to more conservative views in other areas.

The original question posed was over whether the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life are historical and factual, and what in turn that means for the Christian message.

But, even then...

* A Christian could believe in the historicity of the Gospel story, yet still question various doctrines such as the atonement and the virgin birth.

* A Christian could generally believe that the Gospel story is historical, but question the accuracy of certain specific points.

... et cetera, et cetera.

Joy said...

It seems to me that even Jesus had trouble with getting people to understand metaphor.

For some people metaphor is forever lost to them.

fausto said...

I hadn't seen that survey before, but there's nothing unexpected or surprising in it. Nor do I think it comes as news to anyone that there are literal-minded Christians out there. The point in this discussion is that both Hitchens and Wilson suppose that literalism is the only correct way to understand Christianity. Unitarians have consistently disagreed with that premise for a couple of centuries now.

I will observe, though, that "Christ's death was an atonement for the sins of humanity" is a figurative, not literal, interpretation of the Passion narratives in the Gospels. The literal view would be that he was executed for sedition, insurrection and blasphemy.

PG said...


That's the legalistic view, but given that Christ had avenues of escape that He did not take, and was supposed to have supernatural powers, the "why did Christ die?" is a question that is answered not based on "why did people want to kill Him?" but rather "why did He allow Himself to be killed?" That is, what purpose did Christ's death serve for Him, not why was he executed by the state.

fausto said...

PG, of course most UUs, even "Christian" ones, don't think Jesus had the supernatural power to prevent his own execution.

A significant proportion of more orthodox Christians don't think so either. They believe that in order to become incarnate as a human being, he had to set aside his supernaturality, at least during his natural lifetime. This is the doctrine of kenosis, and is drawn from Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

PG said...


A significant proportion of more orthodox Christians don't think so either. They believe that in order to become incarnate as a human being, he had to set aside his supernaturality, at least during his natural lifetime.

I thought orthodox Christians (i.e. ones who believe the New Testament is accurate in its descriptions of Jesus's words and actions) believed that Jesus performed various miracles of biology (raising the dead); chemistry (water into wine); physics (walking on water); etc. Are those acts not considered supernatural?

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

Yes, which means that Jesus voluntarily subjected Himself, not that He was incapable of doing otherwise. It doesn't make sense to say someone humbled himself and became obedient if something other than humbleness and obedience was an option.