In this series of posts, I’ll be showing some of the doctrinal diversity that exists within the Christian framework.  Some Christians treat these differences as small internal squabbles of no real consequence since they agree on the larger Christian “core” doctrines. However, I think we will see that these “squabbles” aren’t so inconsequential. Some groups look at them as “core”, while others see anyone not believing as they do as believers in serious error. They are second class Christians bordering on heresy, if not actual heretics. In many cases the conflicting beliefs are radically incompatible with each other and have a direct impact on faith and practice. It should be noted that each camp can support their beliefs by various scripture passages and believe that their interpretation is the one true, god-ordained belief and that other interpretations are seriously flawed. Those interpretations are going against the word of god and thus perverting what god himself has said. The results are a lot of heated debates, church splits, new denominations and other devisive (them vs. us) behaviors.

My contention is that such doctrinal variety and diversity shows that the supposed “word of god” is unclear, murky and confusing.  There is no guarantee that any group has it right and a lot of evidence that they all have it wrong. After all, can you really believe that a sovereign, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god who desperately wants to communicate with his creation in order to show them the ONLY way to salvation can bungle the job so badly? As we will see, even a “core” belief such as “what must I do to be saved?” has radically different, incompatible answers. If there is a god and the Bible is his inspired, inerrant word then he shows himself to be an incompetent communicator at best and malicious at worst. Of course, I believe that it shows the Christian god to be no god at all and the Bible to be just the ramblings and thoughts of ancient man – neither better nor worst that any other past mythology.

It should be obvious that I’m not attempting to show which “belief” or doctrine is the “correct” one.  Indeed, there is no correct belief since all Christian doctrine is simply made-up with some scripture verses and unending commentary as support. It is staggering when you think about how much has been written about, how many wars have been fought, how many people have been killed and martryed over made-up doctrine and belief! None of it can be supported. None of it can be proved. How much tragedy has been caused in the history of the world over vacuous, imaginary beliefs that supposedly came from an invisible, inaudible god?

Let’s start with something “easy” such as speaking in tonques or the charismatic gifts. Bradley correctly describes the differences as follows:

There are two basic views when it comes to the charismatic gifts debate. One of these views is the cessationist view, which basically claims that charismatic gifts such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing among other things ceased to happen after the New Testament. On the opposite side of the spectrum there is the continuationist view, which claims that such gifts have continued all the way until today and that Christians are still able to perform such gifts in their lives. (The Charismatic Gifts Debate)

Of course, even this description is simplistic.  Within these 2 basic camps are a wide variety of beliefs ranging from cautious disagreement to an “if you don’t agree with me you aren’t a true believer” attitude. George Knight in the article “Facing the Charismatic Challenge” in New Horizons Magazine says:

One of the most important differences between the Reformed, and the Pentecostals and some charismatics, is the belief of the latter that the book of Acts is our guide for the special gifts and that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as it appears in Acts, occurs as a special act subsequent to regeneration by the Spirit… How then are we to interact with our charismatic fellow Christians? When the opportunity is appropriate, we should talk with them in an understanding way and try to show them from Scripture that the supernatural special gifts have ceased because they have completed the tasks God assigned to them. When they point to their own lives as proof positive of their charismatic thinking, we should try to point out to them other ways of understanding their experiences… We must be eager to protect the Christian flock from the error of the charismatics. But, at the same time, we must embrace those who are caught up in that error as brothers and sisters in the Lord and seek to lead them away from that error. (Facing the Charismatic Challenge

Error? Explain their experience in other ways? What of Mr. Bradley’s suggestion:

I think the best way to find out is for one to experience it himself. When a person sees someone healed (or perhaps is the person being healed) it will become much more obvious that God still does these things. Or if someone is prophesied over they just might fall to their face and worship God, declaring that God is there (1 Cor. 14:25). Most of the charismatic gifts that Christians practice are Biblical and until a cessationist tries to experience it, they will have a hard time understanding or believing it, which is not only their loss, but also the Holy Spirit’s. (The Charismatic Gifts Debate)

Or is David King right?

The mania for the miraculous that one finds among charismatics has the effect of making God’s promised means of grace look dull and uninteresting to many. There is a great danger in this. If we despise what God does use in preference for dramatic “ministries” carried on and hyped up by the will and energy of man, we will get man-made “blessings” instead of God’s real work. Paul warns that when the man of lawlessness is revealed, his coming will be “in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:9–10). (Are Charismatic Gifts for Today?)

Or maybe CARM’s position is the one to take:

The issue of whether or not the charismatic spiritual gifts are for today has caused much debate and division in the body of Christ. The extremes are amazing. There are groups that say that if you do speak in tongues, then you are under demonic control and are not saved. On the other hand, some say that if you do not speak in tongues then you are not saved. What’s more, both extremes use scripture to support their positions. It is my opinion that the charismatic spiritual gifts are still in effect. I do not believe they ceased with the apostles or with the completion of the Bible. (Have the Charismatic Gifts Ceased?)

Maybe Jim Feeney has it right?

Speaking in tongues? Prophecies? Healings? Discerning of spirits? These and other supernatural signs and spiritual gifts were commonplace occurrences in the early Church. On that the Bible record is clear. But should we expect such spiritual gifts in our churches today? A growing number of Christians responded “Yes!” to this question during the twentieth century and up to the present time… and expect God to confirm His word with “signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4) (Gifts of the Holy Spirit Are for Today!)

We can go back and forth like this for days, but there are a few things to note:

  1. All of the articles above site scripture to support their claims, sometimes using the same verses with radically different understandings.
  2. All of the authors are confident in their understanding even calling the other view an error, seeking to please man rather than god, not taking the scripture (or god) seriously, etc.
  3. The reformed position (Calvinistic) attempts to belittle personal experience in favor or a more “intellectual” scripture based approach.
  4. The Charismatic side attempts to show that personal experience validates the scripture and hence is true.

I find the downplaying of “personal” experience as a means of validation in the Reformed, non-Charismatic camp very interesting. The fact is that the entire Christian faith is experience oriented.  Notice the word FAITH.  Without it, you cannot be saved and faith, by definition, means there is no evidence. It appears that in some Christian camps personal experience is ok to “come to Christ” but it isn’t appropriate to validate the things of Christ – an interesting and inconsistent position.

Why is this debate important? Simply speaking, if god did intend for the Charismatic gifts to remain, then opposing them is opposing god – a serious charge.  Yet, if god intended them to end with the early church, claiming that these gifts are for today is also opposing god and attributing to him something that he has done away with. Both obviously cannot be true and one party sees the other as going against the dictates of god. This is why this debate rages and is taken seriously by all parties.  It is also why this is not just a petty squabble!

Strangely neither camp sees that the Bible is not clear in this regard; rather, they see that their scripture is clear but the interpretation of the other side is faulty. Indeed, they fail to see that god is an incompetent communicator, incapable of clearly presenting his will and plan to man.  How hard would it be to say something like this: These gifts will end a decade after my death.” Or “Everyone will know you are my children because these gifts in your life will be present until I come again.”  Of course, if there really was a Christian god, he would not be so competent. I maintain that this is just more evidence that the Christian god does not, in fact, exist.

What isn’t well appreciated or understood by many atheists is the diversity of thought and doctrine within the Christian framework. When a statement is made against Christianity, almost invariably, there are those who will reply, “That’s not what a true believer believes.” Then it is a simple matter to dismiss anything that particular atheist says and to see atheists, in general, as being misinformed about Christianity. This is unfortunate, but it is a reality that is hard to get around considering there are over 34,000 denominations that use the Christian label and there is little agreement as to what the term “Christian” means.

I think a fair definition is:

..any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe that they follow Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) teachings as they understand them to be. (Christianity: introduction and definition)

Even so, ReligiousTolerance.org, where the defintion was found, readily admits that they have collected over 40 definitions of “Christian” (Who is a Christian). For some believers the definition goes too far. For others it doesn’t go far enough and is woefully inadequate. (In the past, I would have been in this camp.) Many Christians will fight against the above definition and demand that theirs be used. These definitions will often refer to certain core or cardinal doctrines which must be believed in order to be called a Christian. Interestingly, even when core doctrines are listed, there are still wide disagreements.

For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity (three gods in one – father, son and holy spirit – separate but indivisible) is prominent on many lists of cardinal doctrines. Yet, including this as a requirement to be a “true” Christian eliminates such denominations as: Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, United Church of God and Oneness Pentecostals (Nontrinitarianism). Of course, these groups believe that their interpretation of scripture is correct and the Trinity believing groups are heretics. For example:

The internet is filled with web-site after web-site trying to convince those who are gulliable that the One God of the Old Testament is really three Gods. But, obeying their creeds and confessions they balk at the obvious conclusion of their pagan theories and say they are forbidden to call these three separate persons each a God. But does not their creed say: GOD from GOD and VERY GOD from VERY GOD? God from God is certainly more than one God.(The Trinity Doctrine Is Pagan)

Who is correct? When all you have is an error-ridden, inconsistent, and confusing scripture to appeal to, along with (perhaps) church tradition, almost anything can be proven. This diversity of doctrine, I believe, is a clear sign that Christianity isn’t god-inspired at all. How could an omniscience, omnipotent, omnipresent sovereign god manage to bungle his god-spoken word so badly as to give rise to 34,000+ interpretations? Even if one says, as many believers will, that this is due to the sinfulness of man, how can a god not take steps to correct such errors, especially when one’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell) is at stake?

What the Christian is forced to believe, out of necessity, is that there really isn’t a wide variety of “core” beliefs and that “peripheral” issues aren’t really key in defining Christianity. (Or that they are the only ones who got it right!) So we find comforting statements such as:

Central doctrines should not be confused with peripheral issues, about which Christians may legitimately disagree. Peripheral (i.e. non-essential) doctrines include such issues as the timing of the tribulation, the method of baptism, or the structure of church government. For example, one can be wrong about the identity of “the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) or about the timing of the rapture and still go to heaven, but one cannot deny salvation by grace or the deity of Christ (John 8:24) and be saved. All Christian denominations – whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant – agree on the essential core. The relatively minor disagreements between genuinely Christian denominations, then, cannot be used to argue that there is no objectively recognized core of fundamental doctrine which constitutes the Christian faith. (Essential doctrines of the Christian Faith | Apologetics Index)

This is a wonderful trick to play. You simply state your core doctrines, decide they are the ones necessary to be considered a Christian, define a Christian to be those who hold to your core doctrines, and declare all others as heretics. Throw in some scripture to support your case, shake and you’re done. Simple? Right? I certainly believed that the core doctines I held were true (Calvinism) and that those who disagreed couldn’t see what scripture clearly taught. However, it isn’t that simple. As we have briefly seen, some sincere people who would consider themselves Christian do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity and would see such a “core” belief as heresy!

The truth is that such diversity is a reality and doctrinal beliefs are important. So important, in fact, that groups will go through a painful split from a parent denomination, along with all the emotional drama that entails, in order to be “true” to their interpretation of the word of god. If peripheral issues didn’t really matter, a split into another denomination wouldn’t be an option. This diversity clearly shows that the supposed word of god is far from clear (see Why I am an Atheist. Part 2. The Perspicuity of Scripture – NOT). It is a confusing land-mine where support for almost anything can be found and people can delude themselves into thinking that their interpretation is the one, true, uncorrupted word from god.

Should we really be so surprised? If you genuinely believe a book contains the very words of god, then it becomes of paramount importance to correctly interpret and believe what it says. This is exactly what happens and some believers will defend, even to the death (just think of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Inquisition), their interpretation of “truth” from god. Wars have been fought and people put to death over “peripheral” issues.

Any thoughtful person has to pause and seriously think about a “god” who so poorly communicates with his creatures. They have to engage in some sober thought and reflection about the doctrine they hold, as well as to the whole issue of whether such a god can even exist. What are the chances that, out of 34,000+ (and growing) interpretations, they have the correct one? Indeed,whether there is any correction one. Doctrinal diversity, from a Christian standpoint, isn’t a wonderful thing. It shows, at best, an incompetent god and, at worst, no god at all – just the devices and imaginations of men. If the Christian god does exist, he can’t possibly be concerned with truth or belief, since he has not clearly delineated what to believe, even about such an important topic as how to be saved! (We will look at this issue in another post.)

I believe this diversity of conflicting and confusing Christian doctrines is just one more argument against god and a mortal blow to the Christian god. Over the next few posts, I’ll look at several “core” and “peripheral” Christian beliefs and show the diversity of thought and belief within each one.

I find it interesting when a church, any church, or religious organization cries “persecution.”  Recently Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic  in the Roman Catholic Church (I love the pretentious titles the Roman Catholic Church gives its officers.) said:

“It is a war,” he stated, describing the battle lines between “a culture of secularization which is quite strong in our nation,” and “the Christian culture which has marked the life of the United States strongly during the first 200 years of its history.”  He says it is “critical at this time that Christians stand up for the natural moral law,” especially in defense of life and the family. “If Christians do not stand strong, give a strong witness and insist on what is right and good for us both as and individuals and society,” he warned, “this secularization will in fact predominate and it will destroy us.” But the cardinal also thinks persecution may be looming for the U.S. Church. “Yes, I think we’re well on the way to it,” he said, pointing to areas of social outreach – such as adoption and foster care – where the Church has had to withdraw rather than compromise its principles.  This trend could reach a point where the Church, “even by announcing her own teaching,” is accused of “engaging in illegal activity, for instance, in its teaching on human sexuality.” Asked if he could envision U.S. Catholics ever being arrested for preaching their faith, he replied: “I can see it happening, yes.” (Cardinal Burke reflects on his first year in the Sacred College)

Bill Donohue agrees:

Catholic League President Bill Donohue told LifeSiteNews that Cardinal Burke’s remarks were accurate and not exaggerations.  “Secularism has become militant,” he said. “Many elites are taking an aggressive secular approach. They have lined up against the Catholic Church and other Christian churches particularly for their stand on moral values.” (Vatican Cardinal Burke: ‘We’re well on the way’ to Christian persecution in the U.S.)

My first reaction to this news item was poppycock! It takes a lot of moxie for any religious group to cry “persecution” especially when directed at secularism and atheism.  The Pew Research Center published on Nov 21, 2011 the results of a study examining Religious Lobbying in Washington D.C. (Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C).  They found:

The number of organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C., has increased roughly fivefold in the past four decades, from fewer than 40 in 1970 to more than 200 today. These groups collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $390 million a year on efforts to influence national public policy.

In addition to formal lobbying groups with Washington D.C. offices and staff, the same study reports:

…religious advocacy undoubtedly is conducted, formally and informally, by many individuals and groups beyond the 212 organizations included in this report. Numerous other religious groups send delegations to the nation’s capital, organize campaigns from a distance, join coalitions and contact legislators in their home districts as well as in Washington. For example, the American Family Association, based in Mississippi, operates an extensive legislative alert system that identifies legislation relevant to its members and urges them to contact lawmakers, but it does not have a Washington office. This study focuses on formal, institutional efforts by groups with paid staff and physical offices in or near the nation’s capital. Given the limits of the study, it is likely that the findings reported here underestimate the full breadth and depth of religious advocacy in Washington.

This is in comparision to secular and atheist groups which the same study found:

Just 1% of the advocacy organizations in this study reflect an expressly secular, atheist or humanist point of view, though nonreligious Americans (atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated people who say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives) make up 10.3% of all U.S. adults.

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, looks at this study in light of the “persecution” claim here: 5 Reasons the Religious Right Should Stop Whining About Being Persecuted.

I’ve looked at the claim that the media is biased against Christianity here: Media Bias Against Christianity.

With this kind of influence and clout, persecution is hardly the term I would use. Yet, upon reflection, the comments made by Cardinal Burke are encouraging. In spite of the small numbers of people actively involved in the secular and atheist movements and in spite of our pitful lobbying efforts when compared to the efforts of the religious, WE ARE HAVING AN IMPACT!

Groups such as American Atheists, Freedom from Religion Foundation,  Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Secular Coalition for America, and many others are fighting back. They are saying ENOUGH and, amazingly enough, they are being heard. Religious incursion into public and civil areas where they once held uncontested power and influence is being challenged.

Respected men such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett amoug many, many others openly talk about atheism and challenge religious belief and the foolishness of faith. Billboards and bus sign campaigns have successfully been deployed letting closeted atheists know that they are not alone.  Several atheist books have gone on to become best sellers.  The Internet has greatly expanded the ability of a person to find arguments against religion and to “fact-check” sermons.  The days when a preacher could bamboozle his congregation are rapidly coming to an end.

We are having an impact on society and the religious establishment doesn’t like it.  They aren’t used to being challenged and having the foolishness of their beliefs exposed. Faith requires unquestioning obedience – challenge the vacuous nature of faith and belief starts to crumble. So, if you want to redefine persecution as “not getting your way” I suppose you can say, in some warped sense, religion is being persecuted.

As encouraging as these signs are, we still have a long way to go. Atheists are still a hated minority. Republican candidates for the current presidental election in the U.S. are still falling over themselves trying to show how “Christian” and “god-fearing” they are. There are still places in the U.S. where you can lose your job or be actively persecuted by religious believers for being an atheist. The battle has not been won by either side and religion still has the advantage.

Get involved in the fight.  Join me and thousands (hopefully 10’s or 100’s of thousands) of others this March in Washington D.C.

Lobby Day for Reason – Secular Coalition of America – March 23, 2012
This is an event to allow atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secular Americans to directly lobby their members of Congress on the issues that matter to us.

The Reason Rally – March 24, 2012
The Reason Rally is an event sponsored by many of the country’s largest and most influential secular organizations. It will be free to attend and will take place in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2012 from 10:00AM – 4:00PM at the National Mall.

American Atheist Convention – March 25 – March 26, 2012
This year’s theme: “Come out! Come out! Wherever you Are!” We will be concentrating this packed-to-the gills convention with help in all aspects of coming out of the atheist closet to your friends, family, and co-workers.

I’ll be at all 3 events.  I hope to see you there.