Why Does Christianity Flourish?

This is an exercise in understanding why Christianity has staying power and why it flourishes. This assumes the Christian faith is a delusion, something Christians will deny, of course. But why does Christianity flourish? Why does it seem to continue on even after some major moral setbacks (witch burnings, Crusades, pastor molesters, and the changing moral scene), along with the major intellectual crises since the Enlightenment? Given the rise of science and our new moral awareness it should've been sent into the backwoods long ago. [Valerie Tarico has prompted me with this question and I've encouraged her to post her interesting proposal]. Let me suggest it's because of several factors. I suspect the biggest reasons Christianity flourishes is because 1) People feel a need to be comforted by the concept of a heavenly daddy, 2) Christians think that without God there is no moral compass, and the fact that 3) Christianity has the most wonderful mythical religious story of all...that God loved us so much he came to earth to save us (never mind the horrors found within the Bible itself). What d'ya think?

------------
As a follow up to this post I ask another question.

47 comments:

David B. Ellis said...

You missed what's probably the most crucial factor---the christian meme includes the idea of aggresive proselytization as one of its core tenets and, over the course of 2000 years of practice, has developed very effective techniques for breaking down peoples emotional and intellectual defenses against nonsense.

Jason said...

I'd definitely go with Door #1, although I would substitute "heavenly daddy" with "salvation". Religions long ago recognized the monetary benefits in controlling who received salvation and who didn't and this hasn't changed in the least today. Play the 'burning in hell' card early enough and long enough in the beginning and poof, out pops a Christian ready and willing to give his money because the church says salvation comes only through them.

Raymond Isham said...

I would have to say that I believe that the reason that Christianity flourishes is because Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 - ""I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." What Jesus said was not a lie, but the truth. Satan was trying to stop Christ even before He was born, but has had no success, and never will.

Don't you think it's interesting that Christianity is the only religion that people are trying to silence in America? Why is that? Because it is at the name of Jesus lives will be changed and sould will be saved.

Evie said...

Raymond - what is the basis for your assertion that "Christianity is the only religion that people are trying to silence in America?"

Most rationalists are opposed to all religions, not just Christianity. In the USA, they simply don't need to speak out against believers of other faiths very often because a) most of those folks don't impose their religious agendas into the public forum, and b) they are minorities in a nation heavily influenced by Christianity. Christians - especially some evangelicals and most fundamentalists - are the most visible, vocal and obnoxious religious spokespeople out there.

Please, stop playing the "Christians are so persecuted" card. It's old, worn and untrue.

B H said...

raymond wrote: Don't you think it's interesting that Christianity is the only religion that people are trying to silence in America? Why is that?

Thanks! The morning funnies didn't do much for me today, but that comment caused one big smile of all. But then... you're serious aren't you?

Here's a tip for Christians who wants to practice more critical thinking than the above demonstrates. Ask themselves "Why has Buddhism flourished?" or "Why has Judaism persisted past the birth of Christianity?" to give themselves a model for how to respond to the OP. To think critically and objectively, you need to approach the question as if you weren't a member of any religious or anti-religious group. Answers like "because they don't recognize Jesus as their savior" only get partial credit.

Corn said...

I think you missed a big one: Christians, along with members of pretty much every other religion, indoctrinate their young before they have developed the intellectual capacity to question their beliefs.

Children are born as atheists and subsequently brainwashed daily with the belief in supernatural causes for natural events. We instruct them not to use their own capacities for reason (Proverbs 3:5) but instead to simply believe. Add to that a healthy dose of confirmation bias and you'll start to find God everywhere.

We allow our children to question the existence of the tooth fairy and Santa Claus but the second they question the existence of God we threaten them with eternal damnation in the fires of hell. Any ideology that does not have a self-preservation mechanism will live or die based on its merits (or the cascade error effect - I'll need to think on that one). It is illustrative that religions typically save their most severe condemnation and punishment for apostates and infidels. Makes it easier for a belief to survive if you kill all of the people that don't believe.

Caleb Wimble said...

More than anything else, I suppose the survival instinct is what drives mankind towards any religion. The desire to cheat death is central to the focus of virtually any such belief system. There would be an inordinately small number of Christians (or any religious believers) in this world were it not for doctrines of an afterlife or rebirth of some sort. Thousands of years after the chronicling of Gilgamesh's epic mythological journey for immortality, humankind still finds an obsession with the pursuit of eternal life.

It's very interesting to encounter believers who claim God desires a "selfless," reciprocal, loving belief in him, i.e. "we love God because he first loved us." This is pure rubbish, as any reasonable Christian will admit if probed sufficiently: a more accurate summation would be something along the lines of "we love God because we want to live forever and/or avoid the fate of hell."

Had early Christians not preached life after death (or at least some enticing manner of reward for their service of God), there would be no Christianity today. The entire religion hinges on the necessity of such rewards and punishments.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I hope responding to this doesn't sidetrack a very interesting and important discussion -- and I'll add my own cooments to the main point later -- but I have to call out Raymond Isham on what he said:
"Don't you think it's interesting that Christianity is the only religion that people are trying to silence in America?"

What are you talking about. There have been -- just over the last year, five or six examples of conservative Christians trying to silence other religions -- the Delaware School District that forced the only Jewish family to move, the outcry against a Muslim taking the Congressional oath on the Qur'an, the complaint about a Hindu giving the opening prayer in Congress, etc. -- but there are no examples of Christians or Christianity being silenced.

Disagreeing with them, of course. Preventing some examples of a minority viewpoint even among Christians, in this wonderously diverse society, from attempting to commandeer the organs of government for their own sectarian ends, absolutely. Preventing a group of them from disguising their views and presenting them as science -- when the entire scientific community rejects them -- yes.

But the churches remain open -- complete with tax advantages for the ministers. The Internet lets Christians and atheists have their say. Every Presidential candidate must at least bow to the Christians to have a chance -- and only one Congressperson out of 535 has suggested he might be an atheist, and backed away from this when challenged to explain he was a "Universalist-Unitarian."

Care to give any example of Christians being 'silenced?'

Joseph said...

To add to the keen observations so far, I believe Christianity flourishes ultimately because it offers the hope of eternal life. Everything else is secondary and peripheral to that. People will buy into all the strange rituals and irrational doctrines, just to have the singular hope that their life with transcend death.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Back to the main thread. I'm surprised no one has mentioned one major factor, the fear of death. This operates in two ways. First, we don't like to imagine a world where we don't exist. Almost as important is the difficulty of accepting that our loved ones are lost to us forever. Christianity tells us that these fears are groundless -- and many branches of it stress the likelihood of our meeting our loved ones again in heaven, not in hell like the dour ugliness of many of the commenters here. (And only Christianity and Islam do this. Judaism, strictly speaking, does not accept an afterlife, and the various versions of reincarnation in other religions aren't quite the same thing.)

Emotionally, I'd like to believe this promise too, as false as my mind shows me it is. But it does not surprise me that people hide from their fears behind the cross.

Brother Crow said...

weighing in here...denial of death and securing a place in the social structure are the two reasons that I believe xanity has flourished. Others have treated the issue of death/eternal life well - kudos to all, well said, amen!

Xanity offers a very strong community identity, beginning with initiation rites (confirmation, infant baptism, etc) and ending with a funeral service that launches one into the Great Beyond. In between is social position, group identity, and fellowship that can be very wonderful if one is willing to always color inside of the lines. Most Christians I met - over 30 years of faith and 25 years of ministry - were not students of the Bible or even very radical in their faith...they were church members who had a moral compass, a place to fellowship, a ritual to welcome babies-marry people-bury people, and they were happy with that.

Same as it ever was.

Jason said...

Prup,

The fear of death is intimately tied in with the concept of salvation, which has already been mentioned a few times.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Joseph and I wrote in unison -- as usual his answer was far more succint than mine.

But there is yet another factor. This is the difference between three 'orientations,' the scientific-rational, the authoritarian, and the mystical. (There is considerable overlap between the last two.)

In many ways, the society is centered around the second of these, and, in some cases, understandably so. "The teacher, the pastor, the policeman is always right, do as they tell you. Most importantly we, your parents are always right." It takes training to break out of that mold, once you are forced into it.

I was lucky, almost uniquely so. My two mothers never pretended to be 'always right.' They were capable of admitting mistakes and taught me to be able, unashamedly, to admit mine. More importantly, from literally my earliest years -- as young as five -- they did not say "Don't do this because we tell you not to." They always said 'We don't think you should do this, and here's why we think it is a bad idea.' (I am sure, in an emergency they would simply say "No, don't!" But they'd later explain it.)

I'm not saying their arguments were always rational and logical ones. They'd certainly say that they'd feel hurt if I did something. And they'd appeal to my pride by arguing "Do you really want to act like X" using any one of several 'bad examples,' individuals or types.

But they knew they could trust me to listen to them, weigh their arguments, and that while I was free to make my own decisions, that I'd usually decide the 'right way.' (They also taught me to be responsible and to take responsibility. The one thing that would have been unforgivable was for me to try and lie my way out of accepting the consequences for what I'd done.)

I've taken all this time to demonstrate how untypical my upbringing was. Most parents need the 'rod of infallibility' to enforce their authority, and most parents don't want children questioning other authority figures -- if only because if they get in the habit, they might start questioning the parents.

And religion rides on this acceptance of authority. True, 'growing up' in many cases means learning to question in just that way, but many people never take that step at all, and many more take the step rationally, but emotionally they are still bound by the feeling that they should be ashamed to be daring to challenge their parents and other authority figures.

I'll be taking this further in some follow-up posts, dealing with specific Christian reliance on authority and on the related 'mystical' orientation.

Lee Randolph said...

I think religion gives the right to feel superior, and special. I think it justifies self-centeredness in the guise of community service and 'righteousness' and 'sacrifice'. It gives the right to put on a show and 'be an example'. How many christians have you seen on this blog pointing the finger at 'those christians'. It gives them ability to play the victim and elicit sympathy by their 'unselfish self-sacrifice'. It gives them a whole treasure trove of important sounding rhetoric to parrot so they can puff up their chest and make "camaraderie building" jokes in the hallway of a professional organization (as i heard yesterday) about being the "token white" in a situation and having it accepted because they are a proud professing christian. It gives them a license to 'otherise', and classify and judge and push it on other people because they are just trying to do the right thing, the moral thing and they are christians after all It gives them a license to actively resist civil rights legislation to categories of people like women, blacks and homosexuals wearing the mask of righteousness, humility and morality.

I'd like to say more, but i have to go. remember blood transfusions, pacemakers, invitro fertilization, gene therapy, stem cell research, and all the other medical advances they resisted because it was immoral or unnatural or playing god.

yada, yada, yada

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Jason.

Exactly. The myth of salvation is one of the strongest weapons in the Christian arsenal. Of course, this starts with the vile teaching -- in some branches of Christianity -- that we are all wicked and untrustworthy.

There is a 'cascade effect' to this. We are taught we can't trust ourselves, that without the fear of God's punishment and the myth of salvation through faith we would be 'totally depraved.' And if we can't trust ourselves, we can't trust others -- unless they are in authority through God's putting them there. (And even then, they are still human, so when a scandal occurs, it does not work against Christianity, but merely proves the depravity we need Christ to protect us from.)

And through all of this there is a horrible subtext. It is the Devil -- that borrowing from Zoroastrianism -- who is shown to be the intelligent one. It is 'evil' that -- it is implied -- is the 'smart' way to act. (Which is simply nonsense.)

Give a child enough of these teachings and it is very likely that he will be so scared, of himself and others, that he will seek the protection of religion.

Chris said...

At the risk of riling up the natives, Christianity flourishes by operation of Holy Spirit. An invisible, efficient, unstoppable force. Can it be proved to your satisfaction? No.

I'll go stand in the corner now.

Godless Geek said...

I think there was a bit of "right place, right time" going on in the early years as well. As has already been pointed out, Christianity has proselytization and indoctrination as core tenets. That goes a long way to ensuring that the faith will continue long beyond the point that it ceases to be feasibly believable. If you take that into consideration along with the fact that Christianity made it's rise parallel to the height of the Roman Empire, you can see how it gained such a foothold in Europe in the first place. Had it risen significantly before or significantly after the height of the Empire, it seems quite probably that we'd have a completely different religious landscape today.

zilch said...

Christianity flourishes by operation of Holy Spirit.

Then why, pray tell us Chris, does Islam flourish?

godless geek- in addition to the factors others have already mentioned (I like the way William Hazlitt put it: "The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying"), I too believe that part of the reason Christianity flourishes is luck: being in the right place at the right time.

Godless Geek said...

...Holy Spirit. An invisible, efficient, unstoppable force.

If it's so unstoppable, why can't I see the evidence of its works? If it's so efficient, why can't it find a way to reveal itself to me?

As a child in a fundagelical home, I believed it all as a child does, and I really did believe. Even then, I never once felt this "Holy Spirit" presence or anything of the sort. None of it ever moved me at all. It wasn't until I was a teenager that it occurred to me that it was even possible to simply not believe; a revelation I resisted for several years. When I finally let myself consider it, I found what truly moves me, and that is the simplest things in nature and the universe, and the wonderment and awe I get out of it all. It took loosing this primitive idea of a god and all of his "parts" to make me realize what really matters.

The "Holy Spirit" had almost 20 years and every opportunity imaginable to move me, and it couldn't even do it once. Doesn't sound very efficient to me.

John W. Loftus said...

If we have an idea why Christianity flourishes, then understanding this can help us to debunk it. Given these reasons how is the best way to debunk it?

Jason said...

The ‘myth’ of salvation. You guys just can’t help yourself. Gotta get your digs in where you can, right? Regardless of whether or not it’s a ‘myth’, the question was why Christianity is flourishing. Salvation/eternal life is the answer. Case closed.

Raymond Isham said...

In response to B H's response, The reason that other religious organizations (ie Buddhism) have flourished is because those that are following these religious organizations are doing exactly what their flesh desires to do. They have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (Romans 10:2; 2 Timothy 3:5). They are trying to please a diety with their actions, leaving them in charge of what they do. With Christianity, (despite what you may have seen or heard) is about God reaching out ro us and wanting to bring us back into fellowship with Him. We must humble ourselves to the point that we surrender our will to God's will and we do this through faith.
One of the main reasons Judaism has flourished is because it is the forerunner of Christianity. It was around for some 5000-7000 years before Christianity came on the scene. Another reason that it continues to flourish is because many Jews continue to reject Christ as the Messiah and are still waiting for him to come. Although this answer may seem partial to you, it is the truth of the word of God. Read Acts 2:14-41; 7:1-59.

Chris said...

"Then why, pray tell us Chris, does Islam flourish?"

Zilch- It is imploding before our very eyes. It has been hijacked by its fundemental elements and is now consuming its own.

To some extent, Christianity is doing something similar with its double dealings, cozying up to the power structures, co-opting the political process, pedophile priests, etc.

The bible does indicate that the nations will turn against religion and set out to destroy it, or seriously minimize its influences.

Chris said...

"If it's so unstoppable, why can't I see the evidence of its works? If it's so efficient, why can't it find a way to reveal itself to me?"

Godless Geek - Its works are demonstrated at the grass roots level, and are often obscured by the large shameful headlines generated by the faux Christians who seek their own glory via secular power structures. True Christianity, grass roots Christianity is growing and expanding to the four corners of the globe. The bible is available now in almost all languagues and in conformance with our commission, the good news is being spread throughout the inhabited earth.

As to your 2nd question, you simply aren't open to it. I liken it to a radio frequency. Our brains act as receivers of messages, similar to the way radio's pick up radio waves. You don't hear a message, simply because you aren't tuned into the frequency.

Raymond Isham said...

In response to Prup (aka Jim Benton), there are clear examples of Christians being silences in this country. One that may interest you just happened September 13, 2007. Four Christians were arrested for praying in a New York public park. If you want to read the article, go to familynewsinfocus.com and type in "Christians Fight for the Right to Pray in Park"

Caleb Wimble said...

Chris: "Zilch- It is imploding before our very eyes. It has been hijacked by its fundemental elements and is now consuming its own."

Absolutely false. Islam is growing and flourishing at an unprecedented rate as its sphere of influence expands to a degree unsurpassed in history. Currently it is among the fastest growing religions on the earth - a fact to which even Christians will frequently attest as they stress the need for more missionaries to Islamic nations.

Islam is, unfortunately, not going anywhere. As Christianity slowly begins to fade in the Western world (as it has almost entirely done in Europe), the Muslim spiritual empire grows stronger by the day. Even in largely post-Christian nations such as France (or even a "Christian" nation such as England), Islam is gaining a foothold such as it has not seen since the glory days of the Ottoman Empire.

Shygetz said...

The bible does indicate that the nations will turn against religion and set out to destroy it, or seriously minimize its influences.

The bible also indicates that insects have four feet, and bats are birds. Forgive me if I don't take Biblical prophecy seriously.

It is imploding before our very eyes. It has been hijacked by its fundemental elements and is now consuming its own.

I'm glad you admitted that Christianity is falling to the same influences. However, I would argue with your assertion that Islam is failing. Recent statistics show that Islam is increasing in membership while Christianity (and unfortunately, "no religion") is falling.

How now, brown cow?

The reason that other religious organizations (ie Buddhism) have flourished is because those that are following these religious organizations are doing exactly what their flesh desires to do.

You clearly know nothing of Buddhism or other world religions. Fasting is common in many religions, which is directly opposite the desires of the flesh (indeed, their purpose is to deny the desires of the flesh). Please refrain from speaking when you are sadly in ignorance.

They are trying to please a diety with their actions, leaving them in charge of what they do.

Do I, or do I not, have to profess a belief in God and Jesus and repent of my sins in order to be saved? You Christians just have different actions that tend to be less overt; however, they are still actions that are required for salvation.

Your "reasons" why Judaism have flourished are word salad; it flourishes because it is rejects Christ and waits for the real Messiah? That's not a reason; that's just what they believe.

David B. Ellis said...


If we have an idea why Christianity flourishes, then understanding this can help us to debunk it. Given these reasons how is the best way to debunk it?



I think the most vitally important thing for debunkers of religion to be aware of is that intellectual argument, while it may be effective for those individuals more inclined by temperment and interests toward rationality in the first place, is only part of the solution. Since most of us are deconverts because of intellectual difficulties with the claims of religion we tend to be a bit myopic in our approach.

I think we can all learn a lot by looking to the example of Julia Sweeney. She does something which is much more likely to have an effect on the thinking of a broader audience than bare intellectual argumentation----she tells the story of her deconversion in LETTING GO OF GOD in its personal and emotional aspects as much as in its intellectual content.

Just a few of the things we should focus on:

--open and personally engaging deconversion stories.

--the positive emotional and societal benefits of critical thinking (with a particular focus on specific examples rather than general and theoretical discussions of the topic).

--the promotion of openness in one's religious skepticism among the atheist/agnostic community. The more people there are who are casually open with the fact that they're skeptical of religion the easier it will be for believers to question their own articles of faith.

Godless Geek said...

you simply aren't open to it.

I challenge you to read my post again. For the first 13 or 14 years of my life I believed unquestioningly and lived the religious life in its entirety, but even then, I never felt moved by any of it. I spent a great deal of time, even then, wondering what it was that all these people around me professed to feel, because I just wasn't getting it, and I really wanted to. My mind was wide open, waiting for the experience that never happened. It was exactly that which led to my next few years of living the life, but harboring thoughts in the back of my mind that maybe there really wasn't anything going on. It was actually a combination of psychology and western civilization classes in my first two years of college that allowed me to confront both why people could feel this way and just how many different paths the civilizations of the past, and the present, had to get there. Reading the Bible in it's entirety certainly accelerated the process as well.

Given these reasons how is the best way to debunk it?

That's a tough one and there is no easy answer. No matter what any of us say, most of the religious will, at best, be dismissive. Take this very discussion thread as an example. Regardless of what we say, it all comes back to feeling for them, and if we don't get these feeling, then it's just because we don't want them. Any attempts to get real answers or cohesive arguments out of them results in the same thing.

Also, what works on one person will probably not work on another, and there are a very large percentage that will simply close their ears to anything you say. I agree that having a cohesive set of logical reason that Christianity has flourished despite the evidence would be great, but I'm not sure how it's going to help in the long run. In the end, the average Christian doesn't seem to care so much if something is provable, so long as it feels good.

Chris said...

"I never felt moved by any of it."

Mr. Geek - You have made my point.

Shygetz said...

Godless Geek - Its works are demonstrated at the grass roots level, and are often obscured by the large shameful headlines generated by the faux Christians who seek their own glory via secular power structures.

Aye, no True Scotsman would ever do such a think.

The bible is available now in almost all languagues and in conformance with our commission, the good news is being spread throughout the inhabited earth.

As is Time Cube; do you relegate your faith to the same status?

As to your 2nd question, you simply aren't open to it. I liken it to a radio frequency. Our brains act as receivers of messages, similar to the way radio's pick up radio waves. You don't hear a message, simply because you aren't tuned into the frequency.

Very convenient; you receive a revealed truth that I simply cannot. Why on Earth should I (or you) believe for a second that your revealed truth is genuine? It is clear that revealed truth is often a lie, or in error, so why should anyone, including you, have any certainty that your revealed truth (which cannot be verified) is correct?

Darren said...

John: This assumes the Christian faith is a delusion...

Nice, John. Why do you bother to ask the question when right up front, you eliminate every possible answer but the one(s) you want to be true? Is this just more of your intellectual dishonesty bubbling to the surface?

Spirula said...

You don't hear a message, simply because you aren't tuned into the frequency.

David Berkowitz couldn't have said it better.

(There's more than just sarcasm in my comment)

David said...

If Christianity's appeal is centered on fear of death, why does the Gospel spread in areas where you are persecuted for your faith? Even to the point of death.

Caleb Wimble said...

Please, David, that should be obvious, given the expositions posted on the subject thus far in this comment section. Physical death is scarcely death at all to a genuine believer convinced of an eternity of bliss in heaven. True "death" to a Christian mind is the concept of spiritual death and/or eternity in hell.

David said...

That's a powerful drug you take to cure your fear of death and it gives you suicidal tendencies.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

More high comedy from Raymond Isham:
Lets take his comment to me. "One that may interest you just happened September 13, 2007. Four Christians were arrested for praying in a New York public park."

First, the arrest happened in June, not in September. That was merely when the ADF got involved in the battle -- as stated in the article you directed me to. Second, you fail to mention that the praying took place in the middle of a gay rights demonstration -- and it was in Elmira, New York, btw. Usually when New York is used alone, it implies NYC.
I am very curious as to the exact circumstances of the event -- as narrated by a more reliable source that Focus on the Family. Was the praying deliberately disruptive, and meant to be so, during a time when the Park had been given over to the organizers of the parade? (I doubt if you would complain at gays being arrested for interrupting a Chruch service.)
How can you claim this is 'silencing' them, even if all the facts favor your interpretation. At worst it was police overreaching their authority and arresting them for a misdemeanor of disturbing the peace. More likely it was police enforcing rules on crowd control -- I have little doubt that, had the demonstrators moved a couple of hundred feet they would have been allowed to pray all they wanted.

But your real high humor comes in your previous comment about other religions. Again, I quote:
"The reason that other religious organizations (ie Buddhism) have flourished is because those that are following these religious organizations are doing exactly what their flesh desires to do. They have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (Romans 10:2; 2 Timothy 3:5). They are trying to please a diety with their actions, leaving them in charge of what they do."

Buddhists are not theists, to start with. As for other religions doing "exactly what their flesh desires to do" which religions. Muslims must pray five times every day, no matter what else they might prefer to be doing, and few people's flesh desires a whole month in which they must fast from sunrise to sunset -- a fast that includes even water. And the Muslim sexual code is as strict as the Christian one -- though both are 'honored more in the breaching.' (And they worship the same deity that Christians do, the same one that, supposedly, made the covenant with Abraham.)
Muslims must deny themselves pork and alcohol, hardly 'doing what they wish to do.'

In fact, except for sexual matters -- and teetotalism for some groups -- it is Protestantism that has the fewest restrictions on sensuality of any religion I can think of. No required fasts, no banned foods, no required time for prayer or required services -- even Catholics are theoretically required to attend Mass every Sunday.

Please keep commenting. I need good laughs.

Steven Bently said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zilch said...

caleb- you beat me to the punch. If, by "flourishing", one means "increasing in membership rapidly", then Islam is flourishing. On the other hand, if by "flourishing" one means, as I suspect chris means, "believing in Christ", then chris is correct.

The Christian response to the question "why is Christianity flourishing?" here has been, basically, "because it's right". When asked why other religions are flourishing, the response is either "they're not" or "because they're wrong". Hmmm.

Joseph said...

David said, "That's a powerful drug you take to cure your fear of death and it gives you suicidal tendencies."

You must be talking about the Bible, right?

Bloviator said...

On the original post as to why christianity florishes, it must be noted that the hierarchical structures found in the original church correspond roughly with an anthropological imperative consistent with human existence -- we are, much like baboons and chimpanzees, socially structured animals. Why did gnosticism lose out to orthodox christianity? Why was the original catholic church (for over 1000 years) so successful in perpetuating the belief system versus a more informal "apostolic father" church as much fancied by fundamentalists? Simply put, the social structures that are inherent in human existence were strongly present. Note that it wasn't until Luther's time that any real backlash against oppressive church doctrine gained a foothold. Further, the Roman church used (to my mind, rather masterfully) existing pagan belief systems with abandon, in order to absorb and control competing theologies. How long would christianity have lasted if, like the gnostics, it was all about individual mystery knowledge and no real need to evangelize? How long would it have lasted had not the Roman church involved those nasty little pagan rituals. And of course, the icing on the cake: eternal life in exchange for simple submission to authority. Sounds like a deal to me.

Bloviator said...

One other thing:

Joseph, I note the general times you post -- do you sleep at night, buddy?

B H said...

Thanks, prup, for tackling Raymond's points.

Raymond: Prup gave what would be my response to the first part of your reply: that many of these religions are stricter morally than Protestantism. (Take a look at Jainism, that definitely doesn't survive because it appeal's to the flesh.)

You seemed to miss the real question though. Stating that these religions exist because they deny Christianity is like saying "the only reason Christianity exists is because European's refused to honor Mohammed as a prophet." You'd consider that a partial explanation too, right?

Stating that Judaism is around because it's old isn't a particularly revealing answer either. All of the Sumerian, Akkadian, and Caananite religions are old now: but few have any modern practitioners.

The question isn't why they survived past their introduction to Christianity, but why - particularly the case of Islam - they have no trouble finding members ranging from the everyday believer to the passionate evangelical. And once you can answer that in a satisfactory manner, try applying that insight to Christianity.

Richard M said...

Hi. I’m new here, but I follow this site and have a few thoughts about this topic that I haven’t seen brought up yet. I am an atheist-leaning agnostic, a former fundamentalist, and a psychiatrist, so I hope I can bring that perspective to this discussion.

What I suggest as part of the reason for the flourishing of Christianity is apologetics – but not the “conscious”, logical sort of apologetics debated on this site, but rather a more “implicit” sort, more emotional and rhetorical (in the sense of classical rhetoric), that otherwise uncritical prospective believers come across.

I recently wrote my deconversion story and, as part of that process, went back and looked at some of the apologetics that I used to find convincing. What an interesting exercise! It is fascinating to re-examine these things, now that I am a much more critical reader, and note the assertions and bad arguments I used to accept.

Most significant for me was CS Lewis (like many people), especially his Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. Here’s what I noticed:

It is quite noteworthy, I think, that Lewis does not begin with philosophical or evidential arguments about God or the Christian Bible. He instead argues from the basic human experience of guilt. He asks his readers to consider all of the times they have acted, or thought, selfishly, or done something they knew was wrong. This is a master rhetorical move, because it gets his readers into a state of affective arousal (we are social creatures, and all experience guilt), which makes them less critical. And then he pulls a bit of slight-of-hand, which it goes without saying I did not notice at the time.

(a) He defines “sin” extraordinarily broadly, encompassing anytime we have any bit of self interest in our actions (for example, if we take any pleasure in having done something good – i.e., the fact that *I* did something good – rather than pure egoless pleasure in the fact that *good was done*, that’s sin), as well as any “primitive” emotions, such as jealously (which implies selfishness) or irrational anger (“If you are angry with your brother…”). Since human beings cannot control what they feel, then obviously, by this definition, we are all sinners.
(b) He suggests that these experiences of shame and guilt are the truest and most accurate intuitions we have, so we should heed them. They imply what kind of creature we are. There is no irrational or misplaced guilt, for Lewis.
(c) He suggests that this is only the tip of the iceberg, that we are actually much, much worse than we realize. He does not even bother to argue this. He simply states, in Problem of Pain, that once we *feel* how bad we have acted, that something about us is really awful and unforgivable, then we will begin to see how pervasively wicked we really are.

Lewis then makes another Christian assertion, which is common (not unique to Lewis) but is almost never argued: that God cannot tolerate sin. Yet this seems curious and at least would seem to require an argument. Why not? Isn’t he God? Doesn’t he tolerate our “corruption” already, while we are alive? Why does he stop after 80 or so years? Lewis does make a somewhat oblique argument for it, when he suggests that “real” love, such as God has for us, “demands the perfection of the beloved.” Love that does not wish its object to be perfect is disinterested, and therefore not real love, according to Lewis. Yet this, too, seems curious, and is inconsistent with human relationships: we wish those we care for to be the best they can be, yet accept their foibles nonetheless, indefinitely. We even laugh about them. Its what makes us interesting! But Lewis’ readers are not likely to notice this. Now that they are convinced how utterly corrupt they “really” are, being told they are loved fiercely by God (Lewis has a stirring passage describing this) is likely to engender even more guilt and a sense of undeservedness.

Taken together, if Lewis is effective (and his popularity suggests he is very effective) then it is likely because, it can be argued, he gets his readers into emotional arousal, taps into bad feelings they have about themselves, and then convinces them that they are much worse than they think and God will not tolerate even minor imperfections.

What out does a reader have at this point but accept the cure that Lewis offers?

I think some psychology can shed some light on this process. Most schools of thought within psychology, though they differ on the details, agree that self-esteem is a learned phenomenon. We are not born knowing how to feel okay about ourselves, and feeling that we have worth. But anything that is learned, can be learned well or it can be learned poorly. Self esteem can be spotty, uneven, even in healthy people, and can be lower during times of difficulty in our lives.

Moreover, modern psychology suggests that the emotional life of young children is much different than the emotional life of adults. Consider when you are angry, as an adult, at someone you love. You may be very, very angry, spittin’ angry in fact, but somewhere, deep down, you still know (and could say, if pressed), that this person is still the same person they were, the same person you love, and still has good qualities, despite your being so angry. This sense is what children probably lack. Their emotions have a global, totalizing quality. When they are mad, that anger is, for the moment, all they know and all they have ever known. It colors their whole experiential world.

The reason is that the ability to discriminate emotions from self is also a learned behavior. In older analytic terms, it is an ego function. It takes brain maturation and good parenting to learn that what you feel at the moment is not all of who you are; feelings are part of the self but not identical with it. Thus, the upshot is that, for a young child, there is no or little difference between *feeling bad* and *being bad.*

The point here is that we all carry within us a residual sense of “inner badness” that most of us eventually learn to master, but during periods of stress and emotional upheaval, can be reactivated. Christianity has a keen sense for human frailty, and well-honed methods for rooting out any sense of imperfection we already harbor.

Lewis taps into these feelings. This sense of inner badness and (potentially) low self-esteem is ubiquitous in our development and so Lewis, in activating these feelings, presents what is essentially an emotional argument that serves as both an amplification of bad feelings, low self worth, and a solution to them.

And if we feel overwhelmingly that we are bad, worthless, and unable to help or improve ourselves, well then what option to de have except to accept the “rescue” of a larger-than-life figure such as Jesus?

My proposed solution to this focuses much more on emotional health than on the more cognitive arguments that many atheists gravitate toward. We should be teaching our children – perhaps in schools? – how to deal with their emotions. How do you recognize when you are upset, or hurting? How do you seek support when you need it? How do you ask for and get what you need from others, effectively? How do you make, and keep, friends? How do you make yourself feel good about yourself? What do you do when you get mad, or sad, or lonely, or upset? How do you “regulate” emotions, as psychotherapists say? These are skills that many of us learn, imperfectly, as part of growing up, from watching others and trial-and-error, but they can also be taught explicitly. I think we can make people much more resistant to Christianity or any other form of ideological indoctrination, not only by making them more adept at critical thinking, but more adept at managing their emotional lives. We can impede Christianity by getting people to need it less.

So, my basic idea is this: critical thinking is extremely important. But it goes out the window when emotional needs are not being met. We need to teach people how to take care of themselves emotionally. Psychotherapists know how to do this. I’m not saying everyone needs therapy; these are skills that could be taught in a classroom.

I apologize for the length of this post, but this material is hard to summarize quickly.

I’m interested in hearing others thoughts!

Richard M

Andrew said...

Richard, if you are a psychiatrist you are of course aware of the way psychiatry has been abused in the past century.

Especially with the availability of more and more powerful drugs.

The danger I see here of labeling Christianity as some kind of disorder...and I am seeing blatant instances of this as over at the "Rational" Responers...is that he seems to similar to what the Dialectical Materialists did with both believers and dissidents.

After all, if one group can be labeled this way, so can others.

More blatantly, we see Dawkins calling Christians delusional and Dennet calling them child abusers.

And what do you do with delusional people, and child abusers?

Well, in many places they are locked up.

Taking a different approach, perhaps atheists are simply in DENIAL.

Shygetz said...

Oh you could easily claim atheists were in denial if the existence of God were strongly in evidence. It's not. Would you be in denial about the teapot orbiting Mars, or would I be delusional for insisting it exists without evidence?

And what do you do with delusional people, and child abusers?

Well, in many places they are locked up.


In civilized society, we only lock up the delusional if they are a danger to themselves and others. And I think we should do the same with people with religious delusions who are a danger to themselves and others--if your child isn't eating his supper, is there a real difference between telling him that God is going to torture him eternally for not honoring his father and mother, and telling him that the boogieman is going to dismember him for being naughty?

The danger I see here of labeling Christianity as some kind of disorder...and I am seeing blatant instances of this as over at the "Rational" Responers...is that he seems to similar to what the Dialectical Materialists did with both believers and dissidents.

First of all, call them Communists; they are the subset of Dialectical Materialists that did the atrocities you mention. Second, Christianity is not in any danger of being labeled a mental disorder, which you know damn well. You guys are by far in the majority. We can't even get an open atheist into the Senate; you really think we can lock up all Christians?

I do think that this is a fair pushback against the idea that "faith" is a virtue. Whose stupid idea was it that believing in something with admittedly insufficient evidence is a good thing!?! And yet I constantly hear that we are a great nation because of our faith, and so-and-so is a great man because of his faith.

After all, if one group can be labeled this way, so can others.

Yeah, the people who talk to aliens make this argument all the time. Why won't you get off their back!?!

Pyricv said...

Islam flourishes (although I'm not sure flourish is the correct word) because in most of the Muslim world apostates are either ostracised or executed. The Koran is quire explicit about this. (Just like Xtianity used to do and still does if you happen to work in certain medical areas).

In the UK Muslim apostates http://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/ are very bravely trying to do something about this.

However slamming planes into buildings has helped raise the consciousness of the world to realise that religionists are not the benign beings that they would like us to think they are (I include all god botherers in this because the ‘nice’ ones just help legitimise the more extreme versions of this delusion). I exclude Buddhists because they don’t have a god but do have some nutty beliefs about reincarnation. However they are probably the least likely of all religions to kill you if you do not believe what they believe. They may kill themselves in protest at civil issue though usually by self-immolation.

It is not just Muslims who do this though remember Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma and historically xtians have been much much worse than muslims ever were. The total irony of this are all these people are arguing over something that never existed http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/1000years.htm
It is like arguing over who is the best wizard Merlin or Harry Potter.