Christians throughout history, particularly in Western Christian religious circles, have been (with a few notable exceptions) notoriously poor at holding doctrinal beliefs that are based on evidence. Most people accept their denomination’s doctrine because it is the majority consensus of their sect. That consensus is usually based on tradition which can generally be traced back to the denomination’s founder. Every doctrine of Christianity must be questioned and either held or rejected based on evidence. The “because I said so” or “because another notable Christian said so” reasons are garbage. Many people, Christians or otherwise, hold beliefs and never think to question them. They apathetically shrug off any tinges of doubt that may arise. They scrupulously avoid discussions that may induce doubt in their convictions.
Those that actually question their beliefs should acknowledge that holding a set of beliefs without an evidentiary foundation produces extreme insecurity. When a person is emotionally attached to an ideological position but has no evidentiary basis for his beliefs, he is left with two options: honestly evaluate the position and begin studying to see where the evidence leads or double down and desperately cling to the belief regardless of a lack of evidence. When placed in an institutional setting, the pressure to conform drives most people toward the second option. Most religious institutions are billed as a sort of education center, but their leaders are less concerned with fostering true learning and more concerned with indoctrinating their followers in the dogma of that particular institution.
The primary objective of every institution is institutional survival. In its quest for self-preservation, the institution cannot tolerate dissent and the majority of the time when people begin to question religious tenets that don’t make sense, the clergy begin a three-step process to eliminate the dissent. Step One is to offer the person a simplistic rationale for why the ideological position is correct. This reason usually follows the lines of “because the Bible says so,” “that’s what a majority of Christians throughout church history have believed,” or “that’s just the way God ordained it.” There are a few other illogical reasons that may be offered, but the above are the three big ones. If Step One does not placate the questioner, the clergy will likely move to Step Two. Step Two is to tell the questioner that they need more faith. They need to try really hard to accept it even though it doesn’t make sense, and if they do that, God will be happy with them. If the questions aren’t silenced after Steps One and Two, and if the questioner isn’t thoroughly disgusted and hasn’t left the institution of his own accord, the only remaining action is to proceed with Step Three: excommunication. Now excommunication is generally considered to be primarily a practice of Roman Catholics. Most Protestants don’t believe in excommunication. They do however believe in “church discipline,” “disfellowship,” and “shunning.” These techniques are ostensibly reserved for certain immoral practices but may be applied, officially or unofficially, to those that don’t buy into church doctrine or the statement of faith. If the dissenting opinion is not egregious enough to stir the masses to vote the dissenter out of fellowship, then guilt trips, public shame, and humiliation are frequently the order of the day. Now these things are done by Christians with the most sincere belief that they must alienate the questioner because they absolutely must “defend the truth” against heresy. This is tantamount to spiritual abuse. Tremendous personal harm has been done by Christians that quash dissent. Christians drive an unbelievable number of people away from and out of the Christian faith by enforcing blind adherence to their pet doctrines. Consider this study from the Barna Group, which found that a majority of Christian kids leave church in their late teen/early adult years. One of the primary reasons for leaving was that “young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense.” Demanding faith rather than offering evidence for why a particular belief is correct is a sure way to drive critical thinkers away from that view. Holding a belief without evidence and demanding that others adopt the same belief is disingenuous.
The humble doubt of the truth-seeker is to be respected more than the arrogant faith of the dogmatic.
Those that double down when their faith is called into question and blindly cling to their faith usually begin grasping at straws to maintain some semblance of rationality. Here’s an example of an appeal to authority that is frequently used by Christians as an argument ender:
a) “The Bible says…XYZ.”
b) “The Bible is God’s word.”
c) “XYZ is true.”
Although this is a bit of an oversimplification as the circular reasoning is actually a bit more convoluted, it serves to illustrate the line of pseudo-reasoning. Christians of different denominations frequently hold contradictory views, and those on both sides of the disagreement justify their position with the same argument. The argument usually ends with each side holding the other in disdain, confident that they themselves are the guardians of God’s Holy Truth.
One of the most frequent justifications for a plethora of Christian beliefs is saying “the Bible says….” Personifying the Bible (sometimes called the reification fallacy) is illogical and disingenuous. Some Christians are fond of making the argument that this is allowable because they stipulate that all 66 (or so) books were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore, have a single author; yet they offer very little evidence to bolster this argument, and they tend to explain away portions of the Bible that contradict their beliefs. Personifying the Bible (saying “The Bible says…” as a logical construct) is as ridiculous as saying “science says.” Science doesn’t say anything. Scientists (however credible they may or may not be) make claims, and those claims are frequently incorrect or incomplete. The human authors of the books of the Bible were trying to communicate specific ideas to a specific audience. Many Christians forget this or conveniently ignore it and instead, make the Bible “say” whatever they want it to say. This lack of logic and intellectual honesty proves to be very divisive when one sect bases its pet doctrines on a few, loosely-related Bible verses (this practice is known as proof-texting), and another sect holds a contradictory belief which is also based on a few, loosely-related Bible verses. Hence the endless arguing among Christians, with no true, common frame of reference upon which to build a discussion.
Another absurd basis for belief is “God revealed it to me.” This is frequently disguised as “God called me to…” or “The Holy Spirit led me to….” All kinds of outlandish beliefs and actions have been justified by using this argument. I’m not discounting the possibility that God may lead or guide people; but too often, Christians assume that their desires must be a higher calling from God himself–that their thoughts must be a special revelation from God, because, well, because they are Christians! We should be extremely cautious of defending our beliefs with the “God revealed it to me” argument. If your claim isn’t independently verifiable, then it is extremely presumptuous to require others to believe it simply because you think God sent you a personal message. Personal experience makes a lousy basis for faith. J. Warner Wallace, the cold case homicide detective and Christian apologist, makes this point brilliantly on his website and in many of his podcast episodes, and I’d encourage you to check them out.
Reggie McNeal, an accomplished author and student of ecclesiology, said in reference to the mass exodus of young people from American churches, “A growing number of people… are not leaving the church because they have lost their faith. They are leaving to preserve their faith.” People that have grown up in the Western Christian religion are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of evidence offered for Christian beliefs.
A Barna Group research project discovered that approximately 70% of young people that grow up in church wind up leaving church. That’s a pretty pathetic box score if you measure success by institutional self-perpetuation. If this figure is anywhere close to accurate, it speaks directly to a lack of evidence that is required for belief as young people come of age and begin questioning what they have been taught.
Jesus never demanded faith that was not based on evidence. He repeatedly offered evidence to those that questioned his legitimacy. See J. Warner Wallace’s article “Did Jesus Commend Faith that is Blind?” for a thorough discussion of this point. Better still, do the research for yourself.
We should all be willing to have our assumptions challenged. Because we all hold biases and some incorrect views, we should welcome challenges and use them to spur us to further study. Christians must be comfortable having their doctrines questioned, and their beliefs must be based on evidence if they want the good news of Jesus Christ to resonate within their communities. If you as a Christian desire to share the message of Christ with those around you, then you need to know they “why” behind the “what.” If you want your children to embrace the faith of their fathers, they must understand the “why” behind the “what.”
You should also note that wanting to share the message of Christ with others does not mean that you must become a debate champion and strive to convert everyone to your way of thinking. You are not the first person in the history of humanity to have a complete and accurate understanding of everything theological. Furthermore, theology should never be debated among Christians. Debate serves only to divide. Theological issues should be discussed with the desired end state being a mutual learning experience and a clearer understanding of God. That’s right—you might learn something from someone who holds an opinion that is contrary to yours. And they might learn something from you. Above all, ensure that your faith is based on a foundation of evidence rather than public opinion.