Is it good to believe?

There’s something that really bothers me about the church, and has bothered me since I was a child. It is the confusion of belief with morals.

The term “morals” is of course problematic and I’m just using it in the most general sense of “values we think are good”. I tend to think most “morals” can be boiled down to love, truth and action. Love meaning caring about other people and the world, truth meaning seeking to base our understanding on reality, and action meaning living our lives in a way that respects or even fights for truth and love. Most other morals are a combination or extension of these.

The christian church puts these values at the forefront of its message. God embodies all of them – he is love, truth and life. He created everything and it is our duty to love him, to search for truth for him, and to live for him. In the search for truth, the church has splintered into branches catering for those with a wide variety of different conclusions about what is true. Christianity is great for the believer.

The problem occurs when the church comes into contact with non-believers. In particular, non-believers with a strong sense of moral purpose, who also put love, truth and action at the centre of their universe. Christians score very highly on the love front – loving the sinner and the heathen is at the core of the message (although there are some widespread slipups, eg homophobia) – and on the action front, via community action and evangelism. The point of dispute is truth.

The truth of Christianity and the existence of God have never been proven by science or philosophy. They have never been disproven either. Many people devote years to searching, but ultimately, all seekers come to one of three conclusions:

God exists. God does not exist. We cannot know whether or not God exists. (The fourth one being, I don’t know/don’t care)

What is the difference between holders of these opinions? OK background and upbringing is a major factor, but the real seekers will acquire/discard/change their religion if necessary. These are people who really value moral truth, and are prepared to question everything they know in the search for a sincere and real understanding of the universe. Since these seekers can be found among atheists, agnostics and christians alike, we need a way to differentiate. And the difference is belief.

It’s howlingly obvious of course, but the difference between a christian and a non-christian simply boils down to belief. The Christian believes in the christian God, and the non-christian does not. Intellectually serious christians do not claim that God can be proven or found without faith. Arguments about the creation of the universe or the source of morals are irrelevant unless you are willing to make that leap, to put your trust and your life in God, as did Abraham, as did Paul, as can any person. The non-christian may want to believe, but they do not. They may search for a God, but they do not find him, though they come across many explanations for why people tend to believe in religion. They conclude that he does not exist at all, or that he exists for some people but not for others, or that we’ll just never know.

On the face of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult for these two groups, the non-christians and the christians, to work together. They both value truth, love and action, they just see them as coming from a different source. Both groups produce idealists, activists, realists, fighters, fantastic people. Both groups have been involved in individual and institutionalised lying, killing, abusing, and other misdemeanours. We could accept that belief makes us different, but that all people are searching together to do what is right and it is good. But we do not, and this is my problem with the church.

The church says that unbelievers are going to hell. OK not all churches say it in so many words, but that is the basic idea. There are two types of people in the world, the sheep and the goats, the lost and the found, the in and the out. If you are in then no matter how many problems you have, we can help you. If you are out then we’ll try to save your soul, but ultimately if you refuse to come in from the cold then you’re a hopeless case. Furthermore, you are a problem. Unbelievers may think they are searching and fighting for love and truth, but they are like blind people lost in the dark, and heading in the wrong direction. They are to be pitied, assisted, evangelised, and kept away from our children.

OK I do Christianity a bit of a disservice. Lots of individual christians are perfectly tolerant and accepting of non-believers. Many see them as no different or worse than themselves. But from an institutional perspective, there are very few churches which fully respect the non-believer. The four churches I’ve had the most direct contact with; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Lutheran, all state that to be the best person you can be you must believe in God. The methodist, orthodox and pentacostalist churches are also pretty strident on this point. The only ones I have come across which seem genuinely open minded and accepting of the unbeliever are the unitarian universalists and the quakers. Who are generally considered as soppy, hippyish, wishy-washy and barely christian. As well as small and shrinking. It is much easier to hold your church together if you can convince your congregation that you are the ONLY way to God.

This is quite simply a confusion of morals with belief. Since it is saying that to be a good person you must not only behave as you think is correct and right, you must also believe in God. Indeed if you do not believe in God, then your moral compass will be completely off balance. What you think is good and true, is not. It may be misguided, harmful, or even evil. But what if you really, sincerely, from the bottom of your heart, just don’t believe? If you search but you do not find? If you pray on your knees to be enlightened, but hear nothing back? If you ask Christians laymen and clergy for help, and are told that all you have to do is to make that leap and believe, and you try, but at the back of your mind a voice is saying “this is nonsense, I cannot accept that this is true, I honestly do not believe.” What then?

In the eyes of the church, your lack of belief means just one thing. You are bad. All people are bad (we are born in original sin, we put Jesus on the cross, even though we are Christians we are still tainted and sinful, but at least through the church we have some chance of salvation), but you are willfully, knowingly, bad beyond help. You are bad and you refuse the medicine that would cure you. You are bad and you say things which may corrupt the church, corrupt other christians. A kind church will not condemn you out of hand. Perhaps you are not bad, you are just lost and confused. You are to be pitied and helped. But ultimately, you are not only different to Christians, but on some level of the moral hierarchy, you are inferior.

Where does this judgement fit in amongst the other moral values? We’re not saying you lack love, lack truth, or action, but simply that you lack belief. And if you lack belief, then the loving, truthful way to behave is in a way that reflects your lack of belief. Otherwise you’re being hypocritical and insincere. Likewise if the church really puts love and truth before other values (such as the value of saying you believe in God or agreeing with the church – even if you don’t), then it should respect very highly the non-believers who strive for these values. Even if their struggle may conflict with some of the interests of the church. The only way to rationally continue to see nonbelievers as morally inferior, is to position belief as a moral value on its own.

If belief has a moral value, then we must be able to distinguish between “good” belief (a la mother theresa) and “bad” belief (a la spanish inquisition). How do we decide which beliefs are justified and which are not? Usually we do this using truth. If the belief seems to conflict with reality it must be false. We can also use love – if the believe contributes to major suffering and unhappiness, it should probably also be discarded. And the third feeling – just knowing – is not a justification but rather a sympton of its presence. And lets say that you you think belief in God is of high moral value, than that also implies God truly exists for everyone in one particular way and is good… but in that case a true seeker armed with love and truth should be able to find him. Which means either all non-believers really ARE morally inferior to believers, or belief is not a moral value.

And if belief is not a moral value, then the church has no business going around separating people into two groups like this. No business telling us that christians are better than non-christians, or that it is morally superior in any way. Furthermore, by behaving like this, the church is violating the very values of truth which it seeks to uphold, through God. Which is a shame. The church does not genuinely seek to understand those who do not believe or to explore the secrets of the universe and God together. Instead it denounces them or keeps them at arms length.

This is my main problem with the church. To say you believe God is everything, fair enough. To say you believe you must work through the church for truth and love, fair enough. To say that only you have found the only way and anyone who doesn’t believe you is fucked up? That contradicts the very principles you stand on,  it undermines everything you say.

This argument is obviously quickly formed and full of holes. If by some miracle you have read through my tedious ill-construed ramblings to this point, and if you disagree either with the whole or any part of my argument, I’d be really grateful if you’d let me know why/where/how. In particular, how would you justify the attitude of the church towards non-believers?

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