I’ve often been asked why I am not a believer, particularly in light of the fact that I used to be one (a Christian one at that). Why, when I have plenty of nice things to say about believers, do I rarely have anything similarly nice to say about specific religious beliefs?
Why it is that, in addition to simply having no reason to believe, I no longer find Christian doctrines especially sensible or compelling in their own right? Well, let me spell it out!
Today my subject is the Christian concept of salvation.
Now, plenty has already been written on the pragmatically incoherent concept of someone “dying for your sins.” This idea is, I suspect, largely the product of the merging of several different theological and political needs felt by early Christians, done without serious concern about whether those needs were really philosophically compatible. But this particular controversy is a subject for another time, I think. My problem today is with a different aspect of the doctrine: the uncomfortable marriage between the supposedly irredeemable nature of humanity and the proffered solution of salvation.
For those unfamiliar, a basic tenet of most Christian evangelism is that no one is simply worthy of salvation by their mere existence; no one is without sin (the merest bit of which is, apparently, intolerable), and thus no one is deserving of any forgiveness from God for their failings or of a chance to share in the Christian paradise. Supposedly, human beings are so fallen, so vile, that Mr. Perfect cannot tolerate our continued existence for more than, oh, say 6000-7000 years, at best. After this, we must either simply cease to exist, endure eternal tortures, or receive whatever florid fate theologians decide is inevitable this week: certainly we cannot be allowed to simply share in any place where we could see our loved ones again. We cannot get better enough on our own (no matter how we try to be good) even though it is our responsibility to do so.
This claim is quickly followed up by the promise of a path to salvation: simply believe the correct ideology, and do your best to keep believing in it, and somehow now you’re now acceptable and forgiven, despite still being no less sinful than before.
The implication here is that we should be so amazed and thankful and full of praise that we got something we did not deserve. This emotional theater might have appeal inasmuch as it seems to match up with other human experiences (I didn’t deserve this bagel, but you bought one for me anyway: that’s so sweet of you!), but when presented as a moral philosophy, it’s flatly ridiculous.
If human beings are not morally worthy of whatever “salvation” is, then Jesus’s saving of humanity is simply not a praiseworthy action at all. Either it’s moral to save human beings, or it isn’t. Either God’s original anger at humans for failing to live up to impossibly inhuman demands (again, another topic for another time) is righteous, or Jesus’ scheme for salvation is, but it cannot be both. As much as theologians have tried to avoid this aspect of their story, the doctrine of salvation is morally schizophrenic to its core.
Either we are like a reckless child now drowning in a well who needs saving, or we are like a rapist that never gets caught by the police. Saving the former is moral, even if the child is “imperfect,” but helping the latter escape custody would be is abhorrent and wrong (or at least insofar as catching and jailing the rapist will actually do some good for the world, something neither the Christian visions of eternal torment nor even simple oblivion accomplish: again a matter for another time). Aiding and abetting a criminal so that they can outrun police is not considered an act of justice: so why would Jesus pardon of supposedly unredeemable people be a good thing? Why should anyone praise him for it? And if the proscribed punishment (either eternal torment or oblivion) is so unbelievably horrible that those that might suffer it deserve pity, then it is the punishment itself is what’s wrong.
It’s not my purpose here to argue that human beings really are irredeemable (in fact, I don’t see why the alleged perfect should ultimately be the enemy of the good, the acceptable, or even the depraved), but simply to insist that one cannot have it both ways. Supposed moral principles demand, above all else, consistency. The Christian story of salvation (and damnation, though not all believe in that half) provides none. Jehovah is vengeful to the point of insanity. Jesus, on the other hand, is essentially soft on crime. Likewise, we have the bizarre doctrine that humans are fundamentally incapable of being good… and yet it then turns out that they are capable of of it in what turns out to be the only thing that actually matters to Christian concepts of good and evil: whether people believe the correct things or not (something I’ve argued elsewhere is an inexcusably trivial matter and irrelevant on which to base ones treatment of others).
Of course, I’m not sure the doctrine is really supposed to make any sense. It has, after all, proven to be extremely effective simply as a form of emotional manipulation (both to evangelize new converts and to buttress existing faith). And it’s not hard to see why. The theology begins by attempting to inspire guilt: deep metaphysical guilt (how dare I even exist, detestable creature I!). And then, just when it’s created the requisite amount of misery and self-hatred, it follows it up with an offer of release and restitution. It’s a sort of dramatic roller-coaster: inspiring deep self-loathing in someone in order to win a grateful devotion to whomever proffers a solution. It’s the same psychological technique used everything from basic training to criminal interrogations: break someone’s will, and then build them back up again.
Again: makes for good stories. Or soldiers. But for someone seeking moral wisdom? A disaster.