No. 50 Vol. 1Sat 13 April 2024Price: 0/0d

Doctrinal Descent: A brief criticism of Christianity [Old Paths Part 2]

pointing finger Sensible Ramblings >> Sat 13 April 2024 by Thran

Were I to try describing the Christian religion's impact on the world, and especially the western world, I would immediately find myself out of my depth. Criticising an ancient belief system with roots in the earliest memories of mankind invites humility.

That said, in this article I will be laying down some criticisms. Some of these points will stem from personal experiences, other points the observations of others' experiences. My desire is to promote some appreciation of religion for the non-believer, and some self-awareness for the believer.

Part 1 concerned praises and advantages of Christianity, I'd encourage reading it first.

Music for this article: "Here" by Pavement.

Losing yourself in the will of God

I have heard it said many times in Church and among Christians that "what you want doesn't matter - your plans and desires must be subdued to the will of God" with the caveat that we can take comfort in knowing God is in charge, knows what he is doing and will reward our trust and obedience to his will in this life or the next.

Is this really comforting? I must admit that I often shuddered at the idea of something else taking control of me. One could accept that he has a nature inclined to sin that would sometimes need correction - but something bigger controlling me? That's a whole other kettle of fish. I have my own hopes and dreams, wishes and desires. These aspects of the self are surely sufficient by themselves to navigate life.

We also known an individual is most known through his actions, and actions are the product of what guides them: wishes, beliefs, values. Aggressively imposing your vision on someone else is an assault on the heart of what makes someone unique. The world loses something when we crush that in someone, whether through the conduit of religion or its modern replacement of politics.

On the matter of comfort, God's purposes are higher than our own, they say, and that could involve either Him blessing you or giving you a life of suffering for his own higher purpose. God is working his will on you, no matter how you feel about it. He is just doing so because in the divine scheme, you don't matter. These intentions of God are unknowable to us and therefore more a source of anxiety than comfort.

What happens when you want something innocent and good, but God wants something else for you? Or when the appointed speakers in God's name suggest that your life choices should be directed against your wishes? If my will clashes with the overarching will of God, then what? According to his standard, I am wrong and He is right. Fear of punishment looms.

God has a plan for you... that could involve anything from a blessing to making your life a warning to others.

Additionally, there can be a great amount of internal conflict and resentment when you sense that you're being forced into something you don't really want. When a pastor says something like "all that matters is the Kingdom of God, therefore you should spend more time praying in Church", but you work long hours and want to spend more time in the evenings with your family, this creates a soul-grinding conflict.

This tension would spill over into the home, where a man feels pulled in every direction. He spends more time with the Church because faith comes first, but his wife feels isolated and the children get more demanding because their emotional needs aren't met. What is the result of this? A model Christian family in public, but a home life full of mutual resentment. This isn't building your family upon solid ground, but setting it up for destruction, or at best dysfunction.

Yet it is also recognised in the Bible that loving your family is a good thing, so how do you decide which is more pleasing to God? What if you decide that you want to spend more time with your family than in leading church activities, but the pastor - who is your 'spiritual authority' disagrees?

In extreme cases this selflessness (or self-erasure) even leads to the martyrdom craze of early church, where dying for the church became prized. This reminds me of the motivations behind some social media trends, do it to get noticed and remembered. Instead of 10,000 'likes' on TikTok, you get a stained glass window depicting your martyrdom in a cathedral.

a dark fork in the road

A dark fork in the road. Thran, 2017.

When fate rules against you

There is an ugly implication of believing in God's ultimate purpose over your own. This is that when you fail in an ambition - even if it was a moral ambition by Biblical standards - you must accept that "it wasn't God's will" and this closes the case to investigation. Further, trying to thwart the will of God is foolish and sinful, so you must accept the outcome whatever it was. This is presented as ‘comforting’ because your faithfulness will be rewarded in eternity.

Perhaps instead if you did some self-examination and sought advice from trusted confidants, your chance of success with the ambition would be better on your next attempt. But a belief in this mysterious will makes one conclude that trying again is tantamount to unbelief, because God already said no.

Fools and Kings decide ways to live your life, this is just the way we want to be.
Robert Pollard in "A Good Flying Bird" by Guided by Voices

If Christianity is the truth, the average believer should be a better person

After exposure to many Christians of varying stripes there is a regrettable theme common to all: despite one's best efforts to practice the faith, one must click with the clique and do so without a social blemish. Unless one is born with impeccable station he will be regularly snubbed and denigrated.

The snubbing is never done openly, of course. That would be too obvious.

Rather they communicate their judgement by the old cold shoulder: you will never be invited to anything outside of church. I have seen a sincere individual held in low regard because his family of origin makes him low status. The same people one knew from worship would pass him on the street without a word, or be extremely dismissive if stopped for a conversation. The slighting from the "church family" was coals added to the fire for this person, who presumably came to church seeking a community who would offer him means to grow above his meagre origins. There are many such cases.

There was nothing about how this individual dressed, spoke or thought that would exclude him from polite society. Yet his devoted faith wasn't enough to admit him to the "body of Christ".

Worship became where he dragged himself by the collar, rather than a sanctuary apart from the world where he longed to be. And when he mouthed his dismay, the advice in reply was "if you found a perfect church and joined it, you'd spoil it". This was a nice way of saying "shut up and put up!"

Miserable comforters indeed! Forcing oneself to attend regularly where he is not welcome just stokes resentment compounded with guilt, because the Bible says we should "not neglect to meet together", and therefore missing too much church is a sin.

This is the opposite of what the Bible says should happen when encountering believers. Christians are meant to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and grow holier every day. Exposure to worship and Bible preaching should do God's work in their souls transforming them into better people. They are meant to be "in the world, but not of the world" - i.e. markedly different than everyone else. Such a change would make them people we want in our lives at any cost.

Yet middle class Christians bear the exact same prejudices, tastes and behaviour towards outsiders as non-middle class average westerners. Perhaps more so. This would indicate that the purported promises in the Bible aren't working at all.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Romans 8v13 (ESV)

The strong deference to status and the appearance of living a materially successful life seen in most churches is surely exhibiting the most fleshly behaviour of all.

Woods old chapel

Woods' old chapel

Some objections answered

You may object that experience is inferior to scripture, because you say that God's revealed word is above the opinions of men - but when that same scripture promises to change the hearts and minds of believers when they are exposed to it every Sunday (c.f. Isaiah 55v11), and that never materialises, then your claim is self-detonating.

You may then claim that according to Biblical principles, Christians believe in the true God and have their souls saved, therefore they are ‘good’ people by the standard that truly matters, even though they are not pleasant to be around and are obviously feigning affection for others. The problem here is one is forcing himself to "like" people who demonstrate that they do not like him. You're requiring him to reward bad behaviour and live a lie - which is making him commit a sin through his actions. That would surely be the opposite of sincerely practiced virtue.

Even the Bible proclaims “by their fruit shall ye know them” - i.e. the fruit of a tree proves which kind of tree it is, so if someone's deeds do not match his words then you have ground to doubt his faithfulness. It is a poetic way of proclaiming empiricism as the means of validating claims - i.e. the scientific method.

Yet faith elevates the supernatural over the empirical, which has an effect of devaluing good deeds in the life of those who claim to believe. This is because you are told to have a mind for spiritual things over worldly things. While the Bible also admits that deeds are the real truth. Deeds are the only way we see goodness. There is indeed a great conflict here.

After putting up with this mistreatment, it should be no surprise that many leave the Church when they find a handful of people who like them and act like they actually want them in their lives. This is a world apart from so-called Christians feigning affection over a two minute conversation on Sundays, in order to appear as if they are following scripture.

When you don't actually want someone in your life, it shows, despite what you say.

Thus, if those who listen to the “ultimate truth” every week are not actually morally better than the average person - or in some cases, worse - then this severely undercuts the claim of Christianity to have a monopoly on truth, by its own standards.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
Galatians 5v22-25

How many churches are filled with people who can truly claim they manifest the above qualities? Yet this is what the Bible calls the "fruit of the Spirit" - an otherworldly power that should manifest these fruits in the life of all believers.


The burning bush has lost its flame. Brian Auer, 2005

Threatening people to be good does not make you good. Hell eliminates free choices.

The answer for why God created free will and the potential for man to choose evil in the Garden of Eden is something like:

"God made free will in the garden so we could choose to love him"

Thus we all have free will because only a chosen love is genuine, and God wants us all to make the choice to love him rather than rebel. But the Bible also makes it clear that those who choose not to love God will be sent to suffer for an eternity in Hell.

This is very paradoxical: "love me or suffer in hell for eternity" eliminates any possible free choice, because that is the ultimate statement of violence and coercion. We wouldn't call it love in any other context if your "love" was motivated by avoidance of extreme torture.

I hate to draw an obvious parallel, but this is analogous to dictators - everyone in North Korea MUST love Kim Jong Un, or they will soon find a new home in a labour camp, along with their extended family. Husbands who threaten their wives to do his bidding aren't said to be loving, neither are wives who say they will walk unless their husbands do hers. There are any number of like earthly scenarios you can imagine, and relatable analogies highlight this dilemma.

Christians object that God is the ultimate good, thus the underlying principle that drives God to send people to hell must be good. This principle has profoundly disturbing implications; because it is enshrined by the perfect being, it would legitimise the use of torture and threat so long as it compels "desired" behaviour. This is something we oppose and recognise as profoundly wrong elsewhere. Even Christians would call this behaviour wrong; were it anyone else proposing an idea like hell, Christians would say that the ends do not justify the means.

And even in the legal system, acting under duress is not charged as one's fault; if you were a bank manager and a criminal threatened to murder your family unless you open the bank vault for him, the courts will charge the criminal and not the banker. The public will recognise that the banker's actions were not genuinely his own because he was acting due to threat and therefore not under free choice.

Surely the same objection answers the problem of hell - if you fear an eternity of punishment and believe in God to avoid such an outcome, then you are believing under duress, so your faith cannot be called genuine. You are not acting out of a free choice originating from your own will, but acting due to violent coercion from the outside.

Why would we have lower standards for the divine than we do for human relationships? Surely with God the standard should be higher than tolerating a behaviour we'd condemn in any person.

There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.
By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty...

Implications of hell

  • Practically speaking, if I am believing, obeying and preaching just to avoid a miserable eternity, my heart can’t be in anything that I do. I won’t be doing it out of simple love for the other person. If you believe only to avoid hell, what can be genuine in your love towards God, or towards man?

  • There is a dangerous implication too: If you accept this standard for a relationship with the perfect God, then you will replicate the coercive and threatening behaviour in your personal life.

  • Even the fear-stricken believer's purported love for God cannot be genuine. You cannot love that which threatens you, i.e. holds you down in a position of constant fear.

The alternative - build yourself up

Lecturing and threatening from the pulpit is simply demeaning, no one who respects himself will respect steady threats and condescending lectures on a weekly basis. What can you do instead? Resist those who talk you down.

Having self-respect is the best defence against exploitation, and having it also means you’ll put in effort to be decent to others. If you value yourself, you will value others. If you are already complete and have a clear conscience, this will overflow in generosity and good deeds without any need for coercion.

Such strongly self-assured souls are what any organisation including the Church needs to thrive, what families and communities need to be strong. These are the very types who are bold enough to name evil and act against it. Such types are not built if they are torn down with threats every week. We would not call it a happy relationship if we were close to someone who only ever lectured us. Why should the standard be different for a preacher?

How one obtains self-respect is beyond the scope of this article, but it is a good starting point.

sydenham church demoliton

Average Free Presbyterian Sunday service experience.

The unattainable perfection of the law

If God is judging us by an eternal and perfect standard because he is eternal and perfect, then how is it fair to judge something finite and fallible by that standard? Wouldn’t something perfect be able to understand how different the experience is?

The good parent would empathise with the toddler's limitations, and reduce his expectations as a result. It would be mad for a parent to expect the toddler to get a job, prepare a nutritious meal, or even dress itself properly. The parent knows these things are well above his child, due to limitations that aren't the child's fault - it is simply too young to handle the bigger responsibilities in life.

It would therefore be unfair to suggest that a child should be punished for being workshy, or a bad cook, or being poorly dressed. Such people exist, and they are universally recognised as bad parents.

Surely the same should apply for divine judgement? God knows the limitations of man, so is an eternity of suffering just for those who fall short of His perfect standards? Surely there should be leniency, because God is perfect and man is less than a toddler to him, getting simple things wrong.

N.B: I'm aware of the atonement and its provision of divine grace to cover all sins, but this objection is against the rationale for punishing those who do not believe.

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.
Romans 2v14-15

Divine retribution in conflict

Besides, if every word of God is true - as the Bible teaches - then he can just declare that he is just. Why does he need to create billions of conscious souls and make them suffer for an eternity to prove that? Indeed, in the Bible the absolute goodness of God is declared multiple times, so we already knew that was a quality of his. Thereby the need for a place of eternal, conscious punishment is eliminated.

Many pastors are simply ‘preachers’ who lack experience of the world...

...yet they must advise those who live in it every day. When you have a title, pulpit, and a captive audience who is bound by God to hear you speak each week with a message that is supposedly anointed by the Holy Spirit, this doesn't guarantee that your message will be perfect truth.

This is more of a problem in some denominations, but many churches will allow young people direct entry to a Bible college and upon graduation pronounce them fully qualified preachers. Other churches do not, and mandate a minimum age before training for ministry. But in the more evangelical churches, age is not a barrier - they need only enthusiasm for the job. This means many pastors who are qualified ministers in those churches have limited life experience and yet are also 'spiritual authorities' over a congregation that averages twice their age.

In the Bible acquaintance with worldliness is considered evil while being spiritual and therefore apart from the world is commended, but fully diving into one side of this dichotomy and becoming a spiritual pastor means you will have less relevant advice to give.

How can you hope to instruct others for life advice when you are just referring to the Bible and haven’t had any life experience to draw from? Or enough understanding of how your Biblical principles play out in common life situations? You need enough of an independent (i.e. "worldly") mind to know what you're speaking into when you are advising someone.

the cloistered scholar

The cloistered scholar

The dark side of straight from school young career pastors.

As an example, the Bible enshrines forgiveness - a pastor from a stable family background without direct experience of sociopathic behaviour will sincerely preach the need to 'let go, do not bear grudges, forgive as an act of love against other sinners' because violence seldom arose in his home, and that message is what he got from his Bible study.

Let us imagine this advice taken home by a victim to her abusive family. She believes that to forgive them - even when she is not at fault, and when the family have done all the wrong - is the will of God, and will bring blessing to her life... some day. To keep sociopathic types in your life is certainly the worst advice you could give a victim, and the most gleeful for the sociopath. Now she will never leave his grasp.

I use the above stark example to make the point - being an authority and speaking of divine principles matters especially for those in dire situations, because they are the most needy and therefore most likely to attend church and hang on the pastor's every word.

To be clear, Biblical principles can be good advice for particular situations. The problem arises when preaching them to an audience as rules to be obeyed in every situation without knowing the individuals and their plights is setting a lot of people up for disaster. Having a Bible, a degree and a collar doesn't guarantee you will avoid giving bad advice to broken people.

Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?
James 4v4

Spiritual convictions are the same as emotional experiences common to humanity

One of the greatest evidences presented for the truth of Christianity is the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. This is a feeling that God the Spirit creates in us bringing awareness of our need to repent - either to believe in Jesus initially, or to repent of particular sins we've committed.

Yet, how would one distinguish the conviction of the Holy Spirit from guilt? The emotion of guilt is common to those who aren’t Christians. Guilt is weaponed in homes, politics, classrooms, traditional media, advertising. It is very effective - the feeling that you have broken a rule, and need to put it right. You'll go to great lengths to avoid feeling guilty, if you are suitably impressionable.

Surely indeed guilt has a place in keeping you right, but the point is - if Christians are distinguished because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit who will prompt them when sinning, experientially how is this different from the guilt nearly everyone else feels?

Strengthening convictions or imposing guilt?

The advice given by many pastors is to read the Bible so the spirit can speak to you through it and strengthen your knowledge of sin. Yet that is indistinguishable from feeding your unconscious mind and training it to provoke guilt when you go against the precepts of scripture.

This isn't purely bad, we could do with less stealing and murder. But the point is that this isn't what Christians claim to be prompts from the Holy Spirit. As an example, if we imagine a teacher with a passion for environmentalism who drives home the point to her pupils that littering is evil, at least some of them will take the message to heart and they will feel the same as Spirit-convicted Christians do when they consider dropping a sweet wrapper on the ground.

This is to ask, what is supernatural here? We have no way of knowing or confirming. What we can observe is the guilt and emotions in everyone, these emotions are not unique to Christians. Only Christians are meant to have the gift of the Holy Spirit, so why is guilt an emotion common to all, including unbelievers?

In my experience when I shared something that I thought was a 'conviction of the Spirit' but was actually a feeling of guilt following a minor misdemeanour, I never had other Christians challenge my assumption that it was the Holy Spirit and they instead confirmed that something must be sinful in my life, so I spent long hours praying to alleviate the guilt. Such relief never arrived.

There isn't any consistency to "spiritual conviction". If I may again draw from personal experience, I seldom felt "convicted" for serious bad deeds of mine. Instead I was often "convicted" for minor social missteps and yet other Christians never felt "convicted" for the same. That is just the individualised emotion called shame, and the shame I felt was very out of proportion to the misdemeanour. Other destructive habits of mine never troubled me once, which is surely where the Holy Spirit would have directed his attention, were he indwelling me and keeping me right.

I'm not religious but I hate atheism.


Fedora-knocking time!

It is a curious thing. Many Atheists will rail against Christianity, and while they do so they embody worse characteristics than the Christians they criticise. These include:

  • Prying on the weak with paltry arguments, while criticising Christians for doing the same.
  • Tearing down institutions without understanding why they matter to their members.
  • Accusing the Church of arrogance because it claims a monopoly on truth while smirking at your own "superior" intelligence.
  • Praising science without really understanding it, while saying that religion promotes ignorance.
  • Offering no alternative that supplies meaning and guidance to the masses for the long haul of life.
  • Stripping people of their roots, while criticising the church for sending missionaries to tribes.

This low-brow browbeating appeals to those with a desire to appear ‘smart’ and have such a poor sense of taste that they cannot appreciate good things in their foes. There is a reason atheists are now derided online as often as Christians, and they have surely brought it upon themselves. If you are such a person, who feels a need to bash Christians so you feel smarter, I find more objectionable with you than with Christianity.

For all the faults of Christianity, I would still rather have the company of a committed Christian than a fundamentalist Atheist. But for the reasons in this article, I can no longer take the faith at face value. The only thing holding me back from too many questions was fear, and when I paused my Church attendance the fear dissipated and the questions pounded my mind. Yet I wouldn't call myself an atheist as that name has been forever ruined by Reddit, and I don't like its implications.

Indeed, I don't believe we should dissolve Christianity, certainly not in the current climate. There is enough confusion and turmoil as it is, and the religion is unmistakably valuable for making sense of the world for many people.

Shouldn't you believe anyway, because it is the TRUTH?

Some believers will say that personal experiences matter much less than the absolute truth - if you can prove that God is real and the Bible is His word, then everything else in life is irrelevant and your personal experiences are overridden.

But this harkens back to what was already addressed above - and the Bible itself enshrines experience when it says ‘by their fruit shall ye know them’. It is difficult to maintain faith when the opposite of what faith promises keeps happening. If something is even slightly truer than rival truth claims, then we should still see much better outcomes everywhere it touches. Unfortunately this is not the case.

No one is expecting a detailed life manual - scientific or psychological treatises - from the Bible, rather, the problem is when its principles are applied stringently and the promised results do not ensue, this undercuts its claim to be the final source of truth for all of life. In any other area of life, we would discard the model.

I did not intend to write a deep argument establishing whether Christianity is true or false - I’ll leave the metaphysics to others. Rather, I am merely reflecting upon what often goes awry in the religious experience, and if that drives Christians to better answers, all the better for them.

My final post in this series will consider the failures of trying to apply Christian ideas of virtue in this world, as it is often understood.

Link to Part 1, which addressed praises and hard to replicate aspects of Christianity.

Tags for this writ:

religion, bible, christianity, society, atheism, ethics,