Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul
of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx (1818-1883), Criticism of
Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Introduction
In this section we consider the putative
characteristics of a true religion, and look at how Christianity
compares to expectations.
It is reasonable to ask what the characteristics of a true
religion might be expected to be, and then compare Christianity
against those expectations. This is not an unfair thing to do
because, like other religions, Christianity purports to possess
characteristics that can pertain only to an institution appointed
by God. The following list contains some of the characteristics
that Christians have claimed for their faith, and that a disinterested
observer might reasonably expect the one true religion to possess*:
These points are now considered one by one:
"It is a curious thing," he thought, "that
every creed promises a paradise which will be absolutely uninhabitable
for anyone of civilised taste."
Evelyn Waugh (1990-1966), Put Out More Flags
The tenets, doctrines and practices of the one true religion
should be distinctive and original.
It is sometimes claimed that the concept of there being only
one god is uniquely Christian. Accepting for the moment that
Christianity can appropriate Judaism's monotheism as its own,
the claim is still unwarranted. Many religions had already posited
a single god. Among them were various Hindu sects, Zoroastrianism
and various Greek religions. The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten
had also developed a monotheistic religion. Most respectable
Greek philosophers around the time of Jesus, including Platonists
and Stoics, believed in a single ultimate divine being.
What else is claimed to be uniquely Christian? The following
are teachings that have often been cited as being unique. Indeed,
most of them have at one time or another been cited as so obviously
unique and divine that they confirm their author as God himself.
Humility is sometimes regarded as characteristically Christian,
but the Venerable Master Lao Tse, a Chinese sage who predated
Jesus by over 500 years, cited a saying that was then already
ancient "He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire".
He taught "I have three precious things that I hold fast
and praise. The first is called compassion, the second is called
economy, and the third is called humility". So the heathen
Chinese were asserting the value of humility while God was still
advocating war, torture, murder and self-advancement to the Jews.
Lao Tse also said that "The wise man does not lay up treasure.
The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own".
This idea is still believed by many to be quintessentially
Christian. Who but the son of God could have been responsible
for the following words?
The answer is a Roman philosopher, for these are not the words
of Jesus but of Seneca (De Ira, II, 34 ). Lao-Tse was
there first. He said "Do good to him who has done you an
injury" (Tao Te Ching 63 ), a teaching known to
Confucius around 500 BC (Analects 14:34 ). Incidentally,
it is interesting that Jesus was consistently hostile to his own
enemies. He never once did a good deed for a Pharisee. Except
for a single occasion on the cross he never even prayed for his
enemies. The description of this single occasion appears to have
been a late addition to the text*
and may well have been added specifically to counter the charge
that he never prayed for his enemies at all.
Jesus said " ...Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"
(Matthew 22:39). But this was not a new teaching, but an old one.
Indeed Jesus was actually quoting Jewish scripture. The same words
appear in the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). The idea that good
deeds performed to others are good deeds done for God is also
an established one. In The Odyssey, Homer (c.900 BC)
says "By Jove the stranger and the poor are sent, and what
to them is given, to Jove is lent".
Does a man become angry? You on the contrary challenge him
with kindness ... If someone strikes you, step back; for by
striking back you will give him the opportunity and the excuse
to repeat the blow.
Jesus is reported as having said "Therefore all things
whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so
to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew
7:12). Curiously, this is still often cited as being specifically
Christian, although the words "for this is the law and
the prophets" emphasise that the concept was already well
established in Jewish thought. Quoting the Jewish Talmud, Rabbi
Hillel expounded its importance in the century before Jesus.
When a gentile asked the rabbi to teach him the whole of Jewish
Law in a short time he told him "whatever is hateful to
you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the whole Law [Torah].
The rest is commentary. Now go and study" (Sabbath,
Neither was the idea original to Hillel. He may have had in
mind the ancient injunction from the book of Leviticus: "
...Love thy neighbour as thyself ...", a sentiment that
has been described as "the great principle of Torah"*.
Confucius had said "Do not do to others that which you
do not want them to do to you" (Analects 12.2
& 15.24 ). The same principle was familiar in Greece, and
is known as The Golden Rule. Around 370 BC Isocrates taught
"Do not do unto others that which angers you when they
do it to you" (Nicocles 61 ). Socrates had advocated
the Golden Rule: "You should be to others what you think
I should be to you" , a principle that was widely accepted
by the Stoics and other sceptical philosophers. The principle
is also known to other religions including Buddhists, Hindus
and Jains. Indeed, Jains extend the principle to all living
Jesus said "And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek
offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid
not to take thy coat also" (Luke 6:29). This contradicted
established Jewish Law but was not novel in Jewish thought: "He
giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him" (Lamentations 3:30).
Once again, Lao-Tse was there before Jesus. He taught: "The
good I would meet with goodness. That which is not good I would
also meet with goodness".
Jesus" teaching about the fatherhood of God was an old and
familiar doctrine of the Rabbis*.
God was Abba [father] to Jews long before Jesus.
Many of Jesus" ideas reflect those of other Jewish rabbis*.
For example Hanina ben Dosa and Gamaliel the Elder demonstrated
that prayer could cure illness even at a distance. Both also
lived in poverty. When it comes to his explicit teachings, authoritative
Christian writers concede that Jesus was not original: "Point
for point, there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus that cannot
be found in the Old Testament or in the rabbinical teaching"*.
Some New Testament ideas were characteristically Hellenic in
nature. Those introduced by Paul for example are identifiably
Stoic*. Some New Testament
influences are clearly Platonic, and others are Pythagorean.
Jesus himself seems to have adopted several ideas that were
characteristic of the Cynic philosophers: voluntary poverty,
abandonment of family, renunciation of needs, and general attitude
Jesus was apparently responsible for one new teaching, though
it tends to be played down nowadays. This was the injunction
not to resist evil: "But I say unto you, That ye resist
not evil ..." (Matthew 5:39). This novel teaching authorised
Christians to stand aside and watch many millions of people
being tortured and murdered over the centuries. It is a licence
for Christians to ignore any manner of wrong, however heinous.
For example it gave Christians explicit permission over the
centuries to do absolutely nothing to oppose the burning of
old women, the prosecution of unjust wars, pogroms, persecutions,
or Nazi concentration camps. To have opposed these things would
have been against the clearly stated will of Jesus, and hence
unchristian. Although the injunction is not so popular now,
it has been followed for centuries and still stands as Jesus"
unique contribution to morality.
The Contradictions of the Old Testament mean that with a
little effort anyone can find a faith that accords with his
preferences and a moral code that is agreeable to his tastes,
even if fairly depraved.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), Economics, Peace and
The tenets, doctrines and practices of the one true religion
should be clear and unambiguous.
As we have already seen in our discussion of the Old and New
Testaments, the Bible does not provide a clear account of the
tenets or doctrines of modern Christianity. Different biblical
writers have markedly different ideas and frequently contradict
each other. Some even contradict themselves. Many passages are,
to say the least opaque, and biblical scholars often have produced
five, six, seven, or more possible explanations for a small
piece of text the story of the wedding feast in Matthew
22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24 is a good example. Jesus confirmed
that he used parables to deliberately obscure his meaning, so
it is not surprising that even the disciples were not always
clear about it. The so-called parable of the salt is another
prime example*. The authors
of the three synoptic gospels disagreed about its significance
and so give it different contexts and emphases. Neither did
the disciples understand the parable of the seed falling on
stony ground. Jesus also had some ideas that seem rather odd
and have never been explained. On one occasion he cursed a fig
tree for not bearing fruit and the tree withered away. Yet it
was not the season for figs, so he could hardly have been surprised
This lack of clarity extended to matters of the utmost importance.
As we shall see Jesus gave many different accounts of exactly
who would be saved. The apostles seem to have been confused
as anyone else. Paul thought that eternal life is to be gained
by faith alone (Romans 3:27-28 and 4:3-6, Galatians 2:16). James
thought it was to be gained not merely by having faith, but
by doing good works as well (James 2:20-26). In broad terms,
the Roman Catholic Church has followed James, while the Protestant
Churches have followed Paul*,
and their members have burned each other for centuries because
Jesus" teachings were not clear enough for them to agree.
Many Christian beliefs and practices have no foundation in
scripture at all. Indeed, it is not certain what scripture is:
different denominations have different canons. One way to justify
dubious teachings has been to claim that God approved of them,
even though there was no evidence to show that he did. These
claims were based on variations of the flimsiest possible argument:
potuit, decuit, fecit. Roughly translated, this means
that he (God) could make it happen, it would be seemly if it
had happened, therefore he did make it happen. Theologians have
used this sort of argument in attempts to establish everything
from the Immaculate Conception to the existence of Limbo. Indeed,
it can be used to justify virtually anything. The fact that
Christian tenets, doctrines and practices are not clear and
unambiguous is easily demonstrated by the huge range of beliefs
amongst Christians. Some Christian theologians can assert as
a fact that salvation is impossible except through veneration
of the Virgin Mary, while others, such as followers of Calvin,
can say that where Mary is "venerated" the Church
of Christ does not exist.
That Jesus" teachings were unclear and ambiguous is apparent
from the 20,000 or so Christian denominations that now exist.
Each believes itself to reflect his teachings more closely than
the others, and each can cite evidence to prove it. Many sects
can produce evidence to support their ideas that is at least
as good as that of the mainstream Churches. Continuing disagreements
between (and within) these mainstream Churches Orthodox,
Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches demonstrate clearly
that tenets, doctrines and practices are ill-defined and open
to interpretation. They do not all agree on important issues
such as personal wealth, war, contraception, the death penalty,
education, divorce, homosexuality, the role of women, fiscal
policy, animal rights or ecology. They do not even agree on
issues central to the Christian faith such as the purpose of
prayer, the status of the gospels, or even the number of sacraments
ordained by God. It is in fact almost impossible to find a single
area of doctrine on which all denominations agree. The World
Council of Churches still experiences difficulties in finding
a form of words for its membership criteria.
To err is human. To persist in error is devilish.
St Augustine , Sermons
Teachings of the one true religion should be free from error.
Jesus" teachings are badly flawed.
Time and time again he makes errors. He makes predictions that
are not fulfilled, he makes promises that are not kept, and
he espouses views that were common in ancient times but are
now discredited. He makes mistakes about scripture not
too serious for a man quoting from memory, but uncomfortable
when done by an infallible God whose scripture it is. Most seriously,
he contradicts himself, so that, as we have seen, he left his
followers unsure as to what his teachings were after he died.
The End of The WorldJesus
taught that the end of the world was imminent, and expressed
this erroneous belief on a number of occasions:
...Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Matthew 3:2; see also Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which
shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming
in his kingdom.
Matthew 16:28; see also Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27
So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know
that it is near, even at the doors.
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till
all these things be fulfilled.
Heaven and earth shall pass away ...
Matthew 24:33-35; see also Mark 13:30-31 and Luke 21:32-33
Ironically this is one of the matters that his followers were
under no misapprehension about. They were certain that the Second
Coming was imminent*.
Both he and they were wrong.
Powers and Rewards Jesus promised that believers would
be able to cast out devils, speak in new tongues, safely handle
poisonous snakes, enjoy immunity from poisons, and acquire healing
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name
shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly
thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the
sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16:17-18
favour certain bits of this prediction: casting out devils,
speaking in tongues, and faith healing. The ability of Christians
to handle poisonous snakes, or to drink poisons, without harm
either of which could easily be tested experimentally
appears to be far less certain, however*.
In the Appalachian Mountains there is a sect of snake-handling
Christians who are prepared to take Jesus at his word. The movement
was started in 1909 by one George Hensley. His faith was apparently
not quite strong enough, for he died of a snake bite in 1955.
The faith of his remaining followers is not quite strong enough
either, for they continue to suffer a high rate of mortality
through rattlesnake bites.
A snake handler, before being bitten
and after being bitten (right), shortly before he died
in May 2012
This is Mark Randall Mack Wolford, a Pentecostal
pastor from West Virginia.
He was the son of another snake handler who died in 1983,
also after being bitten by a snake.
regard to the prediction concerning immunity to oral poison
in the whole world there does not appear to be a single
Christian who is prepared to exercise this gift in public (though
some of the snake handlers will take safe amouts of strychnine).
Jesus also promised unlimited powers to those who have faith,
including quite specifically the power to miraculously transport
mountains (Matthew 17:20), and even to cast them into the sea
(Mark 11:22-23). Only a small amount of faith was claimed to
be necessary, yet not a single living Christian can apparently
muster enough to fulfil Jesus" promise*.
Jesus also promised rewards in this world to his followers*,
although worldly success seems not to correlate with belief,
except perhaps negatively.
Illness Like his
contemporaries, Jesus believed that illness was caused by sin*.
Also, like his contemporaries, he clearly believed in evil spirits,
which could be ordered around*.
Some demons could be exorcised only by prayer and fasting (Mark
9:29). This was quite acceptable in pre-scientific times, but
is now a minority view. Most Christians already regard such
ideas as eccentric.
Jesus made mistakes about the scriptures. He said that no one
except the son of man has ever ascended into Heaven (John 3:13).
He has apparently forgotten Elijah who did exactly that (2 Kings
2:11). This error led some Christians to deduce that Jesus was
Elijah come back to life. He said that no one had seen God (John
1:18), but the scriptures say otherwise. Abraham saw him (Genesis
18:1-2), Moses saw him (Exodus 33:9-11) and so did Aaron and
an especial honour Moses was also permitted to see God's back
parts (Exodus 33:23). The author of Psalm 63 (see verse 2) also
saw God, as did Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1), Jacob (Genesis 32:30),
and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1). Again, Jesus said that David and
others took shewbread to eat in the time of Abiathar the high
priest (Mark 2:25-26), but this incident happened not in the
time of Abiathar, but of Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-6). He also
seems to have accepted the traditionally ascribed authorship
of the scriptures, which are now known to be bogus. For example
he ascribed a psalm to David, although it is now known to have
been written much later (Mark 12:36 referring to Psalm 110:1
). He also quoted scripture that does not exist, for example
in John 7:38 he cites the passage "out of his belly shall
flow rivers of living water", which occurs nowhere in the
Old Testament. He even misquoted the Ten Commandments, thinking
that one of them was "Defraud not" (Mark 10:19).
Jesus contradicted himself on important matters, for example
about who he had come to help. Sometimes it was only the Jews,
sometimes it was gentiles as well. He seems uncertain about
who is to be saved. Sometimes belief in Jesus is enough (John
6:47), but sometimes baptism is needed as well (Mark 16:16).
Sometimes taking Communion is sufficient (John 6:54). Sometimes
it is necessary to be poor (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke
6:24 and 16:19-31). Elsewhere he says that anyone who asks will
be saved (Matthew 7:7-11) but also that some who ask will be
turned away (Luke 13:24-27). He also claimed to uphold the traditional
laws unreservedly. For example in Matthew 5:17:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets:
I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.
He goes on to say that not one jot or tittle will be changed
till the end of time (cf. Luke 16:17 ), but then overrides many
of the traditional laws. He addresses a number of questions
including murder (Matthew 5:21-26), adultery (Matthew 5:27-30),
divorce (Matthew 5:31-2), swearing (Matthew 5:33-7), an eye
for an eye (Matthew 5:38-42), and loving one's enemies (Matthew
5:43-48). In each case he overturns the traditional Law. For
example, Matthew 5:38-39:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist
not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,
turn to him the other also.
This clearly contradicts what was said previously, since it
overturns the requirements of the Law as stated in Leviticus
24:17-20. On the question of divorce, Matthew and Mark both
contradict the traditional laws, under which divorce was a simple
matter for men*. Not
only that, they are incompatible with each other as well.
According to a passage inserted in late biblical manuscripts
at John 8:1-11, Jesus abrogated the law requiring an adulteress
to be stoned. Elsewhere he abrogated the dietary laws (Mark
On top of all this Jesus neglected to teach about many things
that are now central to many Christians. He never taught about
the Holy Trinity, he never taught about infant baptism, or the
celebrating of Sunday instead of the Sabbath. He never instructed
his followers about slavery, racial discrimination, women's
rights, child labour, torture, capital punishment, or the value
of education, with the result that Christian Churches have had
a poor record in all of these areas. If he had even once mentioned
that there are no such things as witches he would have saved
millions from appalling and unnecessary deaths.
All in all we do not have a body of clear coherent truths from
Jesus. We have a collection of statements that are sometimes
ambiguous, sometimes mutually contradictory, sometimes demonstrably
false, and in many respects incomplete.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored
by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Essays, "Self
The one true religion should be internally consistent.
Theologians have long accepted that "truth cannot contradict
truth". The expectation was that theology, philosophy and
nature should all tell a consistent story. Throughout the Middle
Ages scholars tried to keep these disciplines in harmony, but
with ever-increasing difficulty. We have seen examples of consistency
problems already. Examples are philosophical concepts that turn
out to be self-contradictory, and doctrines that are claimed
to be immutable but in practice change from time to time. Later
we will look at the problems that arose when infant sciences
started to contradict religious dogma. Here are some more consistency
If an omnipotent and omniscient God wanted to save mankind,
it seems unnecessary for him to carry out elaborate charades
on Earth, the outcome of which can never have been in question.
For example, why were God's ends not achieved by, say, a click
of his omnipotent fingers? Why take six whole days to create
Earth when it could have been done in an instant? And why did
he need to rest afterwards (Genesis 2:3)? Why did a divine and
merciful Jesus kill thousands of animals (the Gadarene swine)
just to handle some petty demons, when he could presumably have
done it without harming any innocent creatures at all? Why has
God been telling Christians that promiscuity and homosexuality
were moral crimes and that their perpetrators were culpable,
when all along God had been responsible for encouraging promiscuity
and homosexuality through the human genetic makeup?
If the Church was inspired by God, why has there been so much
disagreement about what should be believed? Church Councils
from Nicæa onwards have rarely been unanimous and have
often been badly divided, despite their being helped by God.
To take a recent example, how can the General Synod of the Church
of England have been so divided about the use of third party
sperm and ova? In 1985 a motion to condemn their use as contrary
to Christian standards was defeated by 195 votes to 183. What
can this mean? That God had not made his mind up either? Or
that God does not help Anglican Synods? How can the Roman Church
be so sure that embryo research is so inherently wrong when
it has been so badly mistaken about so many things in the past?
Further, why is it that the full range of opinion may be found
throughout the various Christian denominations if God is informing
the faithful of the correct position?
There is also a noticeable inconsistency between belief and
action. It has always been difficult to find professed Christians
who live by their beliefs. The Earl of Rochester commented that
he would not contemplate religion seriously until he could find
a churchman who lived according to his principles. It cannot
be difficult to follow Christian principles if one is absolutely
certain that they are right, and if faith provides absolute
certainty, then the faithful ought to be all fully committed.
Yet, as in Rochester's time it is rare to find Christians living
by their professed beliefs, and just as rare to find a churchman
The existence of evil and suffering, and in particular natural
disasters, has caused problems from the earliest times. Most
Gnostics deduced that since God was good and the world was not,
he could not have created it another, subordinate, god
must have been responsible. The traditional Christian explanation,
echoing older religions, is that God engineers such things to
punish wrongdoers. So it was that Western crusaders rejoiced
in 1170 when the Church of St Peter at Antioch collapsed on
the Orthodox Patriarch and his clergy while celebrating mass.
For them it was divine justice, to punish sinful schismatics.
This sort of explanation was first seriously challenged in the
middle of the eighteenth century following a natural disaster
in Portugal. One Sunday in 1755 an earthquake hit Lisbon. While
celebrating Mass many pious Christians were crushed to death
as churches collapsed throughout the city. This caused a crisis
of faith throughout Europe.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the frequency of such events,
minor crises of faith occur every time another bus full of nuns
plunges down a mountainside to oblivion en route to
Lourdes, or another batch of children are crushed to death in
the crowds that go to see the Pope. Another major crisis of
faith happened globally after God wiped out some 150,000 human
lives in a tsunami on the day after Christmas in 2004. Senior
churchmen have been asked to explain such occurrences but have
not been able to proffer an explanation. The best the Pope could
do after the 2004 tsunami was to urge Christians to unite against
same sex unions and stem-cell research*.
Other Christian leaders blamed godlessness, abortion while others
joined Muslim leaders in blaming sex, drugs and alcohol. Israel's
Chief Rabbi opined that “The world is being punished for
wrongdoing”, while some Hindu leaders blamed Christian
A Methodist view attributed to God
No theologian has ever been able to produce a good answer,
which is why there is a whole branch of theology, called theodicy,
dedicated to the problem. The claim that Adam was somehow at
fault because he misused his free will implies that he was flawed
right from the start, which puts the onus back onto God. In
any case the claim is inconsistent with other facts: for example
animals suffer, yet they never sinned, nor were they expelled
from their innocent state of Paradise. Only humans were thrown
out and punished. Again, as St Augustine wondered, if evil is
caused by the flesh, how can we explain the wickedness of the
Devil who has no flesh? Evil in the form of Satan existed before
Adam, and humankind can hardly be responsible for the war in
Heaven (Revelation 12:7-9), nor can this explanation be squared
with the fact that the Bible clearly asserts that God is responsible
for creating evil.
In early times, before Christians were permitted to use icons
and images, for many centuries, Christians took delight in vandalising
statues of pagan gods and demigods. They jeered at the distraught
and terrified pagans, pointing out that their gods could not
defend their own images, and cited this as evidence that the
gods did not really exist. Such reasoning was abandoned as soon
as Christians started to use statues, icons and other images.
Some evangelical Christians who have reverted to the early Christian
line have taken to destroying images of saints in public - pointing
out that they are merely human creations and that God shows
no interest in protecting them. The Catholic Church condemns
the destruction of its own statues, ignores it's own traditional
reasoning about the implications, and complains loudly that
this should be allowed. Even a gentle kicking incites controversy.*
Why does the destruction of one statue by sceptics prove the
falshood of the religion it represents, while the destruction
of another does not?
A further consistency puzzle is provided by the Church's recent
adoption of the secular view that the Bible is not literally
true, but only true in a mythical sense. The Bible is a book
of riddles that can be understood only in historical context,
in the light of modern scholarship, and by those who understand
that babies are not really born of virgins, and corpses do not
really rise from the dead. So why did God mislead so many Christians
for so long, and allow them to burn alive anyone who espoused
the view that is now accepted as correct? Moreover how can it
have been that the truth was discovered, not by fervent Christians,
but by sceptics?
Mine anger was kindled against the shepherds, and I punished
the goats. Zechariah 10:3
Doctrines should not be contradictory, or lead to absurd or
irrational conclusions, nor depend upon irrational arguments.
Different denominations have different doctrines, so it is
difficult to give an example that is applicable to all. Indeed
it seems to be impossible to find a single substantial doctrine
to which every confessing Christian could give unqualified assent.
Most main denominations other than Baptists practise infant
baptism, so this will provide a good initial example. Baptists
and most others believe in the bodily Resurrection, so this
will provide a second.
Baptism, Original Sin and Hell
The doctrine in question is that in the event of its untimely
death an infant baptised into the Christian faith will be eligible
for a place in Heaven, whereas an unbaptised one will not*.
This doctrine underlies the common practice of rushing sickly
new-born babies to a priest for baptism, in case they should
die soon after birth. It is not unknown for stillborn babies
to be baptised "just in case ...". Some Churches advocate
the baptism of sickly babies even before birth. The life chances
of numerous babies and their mothers have been compromised by
well-meaning Christians squirting syringes of holy water into
the vaginas of heavily pregnant women*.
The fundamental problems in the doctrine can be highlighted
by a few thought experiments. First consider the case of an
apparently healthy infant who is due to be baptised within the
week, but who dies suddenly and unexpectedly, and without the
benefit of baptism. In the next cot is another baby who was
born sickly, and so was baptised immediately after birth. Are
we to say that the first child must be bound for Hell, while
the second is bound for Heaven?
The idea seems absurd. Take another case: a priest is called
to attend a sickly new-born child. On the way he is involved
in a road accident and is delayed. Had he not been delayed he
would have arrived in time to baptise the child before it died.
As it happens he was not in time, and the child dies before
he can reach it. Is the child to be denied a place in Heaven
because of a road accident in which it played no part? What
would be the position if the priest's delay were due to his
drunken state, or his decision to finish a game of poker first?
To take a more concrete case: people have died without being
able to confess because of the cowardice of their priests. A
letter from a bishop of Bath and Wells reveals that during the
Black Death priests were not visiting the sick and dying, apparently
"for fear of infection and contagion"*.
Did those who died without the last rights stand more chance
of going to Hell because a priest's instinct for self-preservation
proved stronger than his duty to God?
Such paradoxes are common to many denominations. For example
consider two people with some debilitating terminal disease
such as Huntington disease. They have identical righteous histories,
and are equally deserving of eternal Paradise, but one is run
over and killed by a bus while the other commits suicide the
same day. Is it feasible that the one spends eternity in Heaven
and the other in Hell? For the Roman Catholic Church there are
additional paradoxes of this sort. It is not difficult to imagine
situations where similar problems might arise over confessions,
or last rights, or indulgences, or the potency of relics. According
to Roman Catholic doctrine an individual's suffering in Purgatory
can be reduced by the considerate provision of earthly prayers
or by indulgences*. But
is it reasonable that an individual's suffering in Purgatory
can be reduced by the provision of earthly prayers? Consider
two men, the first of whom has no family and only a few agnostic
friends. He dies in poverty having given away his wealth anonymously.
The second man on the other hand has a large devout family,
and many Roman Catholic friends. The money he gave away during
his lifetime he gave to Roman Catholic Charities amid great
publicity, and in his will he left a large amount of money to
pay people to pray for his soul. Now as it happens the first
man was less sinful than the second, but there are no earthly
prayers for the soul of the first man, while there are hundreds
of sincere prayers for the second man. Can the second man, as
it were, get his sentence reduced to less than that of the first
man? If so, can this be even remotely considered as just? If
not, what is the point of all these prayers? Indeed how does
this system work at all? How much benefit did the soul of Cardinal
Beaufort get from the 10,000 soul-masses conducted on his behalf?
Do souls accumulate points for the number of prayers received
on their behalf? Do longer prayers score more points than shorter
prayers? Does it make a difference that some people are being
paid for their prayers? Do bishops", priests", laymen's
, women's and children's prayers score equally highly? What
if the person praying doesn"t mean it, and secretly detests
At Lourdes there are signs apologising for the fact that candles
cannot be burned at peak times because of lack of space. They
say that the visitors" candles will be lit later, and that
their prayer will be heard then. In other Churches similar ideas
are expressed about simulated candles lit by electricity
the electricity supply is switched on for a short period when
a coin is inserted into a slot, and the prayer is "heard"
as long as the candle is illuminated. The more is paid, the
longer the prayer is "heard". Do those who pay more
really get a longer hearing before God? Does he take more notice?
Do those who write computer programs to generate a new prayer
every second and run it indefinitely get an even longer hearing?
And does it matter if the prayer is publicly available on the
Internet? Does the system work in reverse too? Can one accumulate
minus points if people heartily wish one in Hell?
Too busy to spend time praying? Don't
know what to say? Just light a candle and the job is done
When tackled on these questions, churchmen generally deny that
the system works like this at all. But that then raises two
further questions. Firstly, when did the system change? There
was no doubt in the Middle Ages that the normal length of time
specified on a standard pardon was 40 days*.
Other periods were specified for nominated actions: saying prayers,
making a pilgrimage, walking in a procession, even repairing
a bridge. All this is well documented in official Church records.
If the system does not work like this now, then it must have
changed at some time between the end of the Middle Ages and
now, yet the Church has never announced that God had changed
it. Secondly, why do churchmen so rarely trouble to inform the
faithful about the mistaken nature of their beliefs, and on
the contrary continue to propagate them? Churchmen continue
to sell candles with the clear message that if you buy a more
expensive candle, your prayer is more likely to be answered.
In fact the system does not seem to have changed. At the beginning
of the twenty-first century Pope Benedict XXVI was still offering
“remission of sins” as a reward for believers who
attended a festival he was promoting.
The Resurrection, and Survival
after Death The traditional view is that on the
Day of Judgement all the graves will open, and dead bodies will
arise to be judged by God*.
As the Athanasian Creed puts it: "…all men shall
rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their
own works" (Book of Common Prayer ). That is why the Christian
Churches so often refer to death as "sleep" and why
Christians once referred to graveyards as dormitories (which
is what the word cemetery originally meant ). A little thought
shows that this position is difficult to sustain. For example
what about people whose bodies have been completely destroyed?
The Church used to burn its enemies and then scatter their ashes
in a river in order to deny them the chance of bodily resurrection,
just as some Native Americans scalped their enemies, in order
that the gods would not be able to hoist them by the hair to
the happy hunting grounds in the sky. Did the Christian method
work any better than the Native American one?
Christian tombstones in the shape of
beds - emphasizing that for Christians death is just a
prlonged sleep. They will, they imagine, be awoken one
For almost two millennia it was important to keep Christian
dead bodies intact ready for their resurrection on the Day of
Judgement. So what happened to those who failed to ensure that
their bodies were kept intact? What about, for example, those
whose ashes have been scattered from an aeroplane? And what
about amputees? Do they get their arms and legs back in the
afterlife? If they do, what about those who were born without
limbs at all? Do they get new ones? What about Siamese twins?
Will they still be joined together in the afterlife? Will it
matter if they have been surgically separated during life? We
might also speculate about the mechanics of bodily resurrection
of those who have received organ transplants. Are they resurrected
with their original organs, or the organs they possessed when
they died? Will the resurrected use these organs to think, to
breathe, to eat and digest food, and to excrete the waste products?
What is the purpose of genitals in Heaven? Surely the Christian
God could not countenance sexual activity among the heavenly
hosts? Also, when these bodies are restored, will they look
like they did at death? Will some of us spend eternity as babies?
According to many clergymen the answer is yes, since they still
assure bereaved parents that God has a special place for little
children*. Will other
dead people spend eternity as doddery old men and women? Are
there Zimmer frames and wheelchairs in Heaven or are
we all restored to the way we were at a certain age? If so what
is that age? St Augustine said it was around 30 years*.
Does 30 years represent current orthodoxy? If so what about
those who never reached that age?
The grave of Jules Verne graphically
illustrates what Christians believe will happen to buried
bodies at the Resurection of the dead on Judgement Day.
If souls are allocated at conception as some theologians would
now have us believe, what happens to the souls of aborted foetuses?
Developmental biologists have discovered that more than two
thirdsof pregnancies are spontaneously aborted
at a very early stage, often without the mother even being aware
of her pregnancy. The logical consequence of this is that well
over two thirds of all souls are automatically condemned without
ever having been born. So is the afterlife mainly populated
by aborted foetuses? Are they all in Hell? Traditionally the
position was even more bizarre. The Church taught that the life
force was contained in male sperm (which is why it is such a
grave sin to waste it). This teaching combined with modern scientific
knowledge about reproduction suggests that every individual
sperm has a soul. Can individual spermatozoa also expect bodily
resurrection? Will Heaven be largely populated by billions of
gallons of semen? Or is unbaptised semen all condemned to Hell?
Will married couples still be married? Jesus said not*,
but many grieving widows are given firm assurances by clergymen
that they will one day be reunited with their dead husbands.
What about those who have remarried after their partners"
deaths? Will there be happy threesomes in Heaven?
In fact the idea of survival of the personality presents even
greater difficulties. What will happen to homosexuals? What
about cross-dressers, sexual deviants, depressives, neurotics
and psychopaths? Will their personalities survive? Will those
who died senile remain senile for eternity? What about those
who were mentally handicapped during life? Will they continue
to be mentally handicapped in the afterlife? What exactly is
a personality anyway? Is there a one-to-one match between personalities
and souls? Apparently the answer is "no" unless we
accept that people with multiple personalities also have multiple
souls. Perhaps everyone will be made perfect as they were or
might have been at the age of thirty. But if people are to be
restored to some perfect state, then it is hardly meaningful
to speak of survival of the personality after death. Taking
away people's selfishness, jealousy, lust, stubbornness, greed,
and so on might leave them with little personality left. A personality
with all its imperfections corrected would be a different personality
altogether. If a one-minute-old foetus has any personality at
all, it is difficult to imagine that it would be sufficient
to sustain an existence throughout eternity.
Further difficulties are presented by monstrous births. One
might reasonably enquire about children who are born without
a brain (it does happen). And what of those who are born with
two heads and two brains (this happens too)? Babies like this
who survive, as some do, generally develop two distinct personalities.
Will both survive in the afterlife? And if so, what sort of
appearance can they expect to be furnished with? Again, patients
suffering from Parkinson's disease can be treated by implanting
foetal brain cells into their brains. In the future more ambitious
brain transplants will be possible, perhaps restoring those
with a deviant or pathological personality to normal. Will such
people, when resurrected, possess their original defective personality
or their medically restored healthy one? Will those with a severed
corpus callosum (causing the two hemispheres of their brain
to operate independently) have it magically repaired, radically
changing their mental abilities?
One Soul or two?
The fact that there is no satisfactory answer to these questions
suggests that the doctrine of the bodily Resurrection is badly
flawed. The personality seems, from all the evidence we have,
to be entirely dependent upon brain function. By affecting brain
function it is easy to affect personality. That is why physical
damage to certain parts of the brain affects personality. It
is also why depressive patients are given electric shock therapy
to the brain, why diseases such as encephalitis lethargica can
turn a friendly person into a vicious one, and why deficiencies
in chemicals such as iodine can turn an ordinary child into
a retarded one. Much mental activity, including mood, is affected
by neurohormones and neurotransmitters, which can easily be
manipulated. Again, we know that oxygen starvation kills brain
cells and that those who experience it often suffer marked changes
in awareness, consciousness, intelligence, memory and conceptual
ability, if they survive. Such changes in brain functionality
clearly affect personality. The more prolonged the oxygen starvation,
the greater the damage and personality change, ultimately resulting
in the cessation of mental activity and death. If the mind,
consciousness, memory and personality are irreparably damaged
by lack of oxygen, it is plainly absurd that they can survive
death intact. There is no scientific reason to suppose that
any essential part of us survives after death, but if there
is anything it must be so remote and abstract that it is hardly
meaningful to identify it with its previous owner at all. It
certainly cannot be what we know as personality, memory or mind.
More reflective Christians find this traditional doctrine something
of an embarrassment. Most theologians have also abandoned the
traditional doctrines of life after death along with divine
rewards and punishments. Some, trying to hold onto some idea
of resurrection, have returned to exotic ideas like those of
Plato, who believed people might be resurrected as spheres.
Christianity is always adapting itself
into something which can be believed. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Thought systems often change radically. As new discoveries
are made they mutate, and may even be replaced by new theories.
Aristotle's ideas of motion were swept away by those of Galileo
and then Newton, and these in turn have given way to those of
Einstein. For science, there is no shame in this. Indeed it
is the purpose of science to discover new theories that better
fit the known facts. All man-made systems might be expected
to change to greater or lesser degrees. But the position is
quite different for the one true religion, which is divinely
inspired by an infallible God. In the past, mainstream Churches
have all claimed that certain unchangeable verities had been
vouchsafed to them, often through infallible sources such as
the Bible, emperors, Church Councils, and so on. One might reasonably
expect a divinely inspired, true religion to be constant to
its own claims, especially when it has explicitly declared these
claims to be literally true for all time. As many Church leaders
have affirmed, the one true religion should be unchanging, and
should not be culturally determined.
Yet the history of the Church is one of ever-changing mores.
Virtually none of the doctrines now accepted by mainstream Christianity
can be traced back to the first century, let alone to the teachings
of Jesus. Many Christian ideas are rooted in the European culture
of the Middle Ages. We have already seen this with a number
of doctrines (e.g. transubstantiation and the Atonement). Arguably,
almost all doctrines are the product of cultural influences.
The idea of penance for example is related to medieval secular
law, which required compensation to be paid to the victim of
a crime. The Church simply adapted this so that sins (crimes
against God) called for compensation to be paid to the victim
of the crime (God). Penance is simply the payment of this compensation.
There are also echoes of ancient Middle Eastern practices.
The idea of God making a covenant exactly parallels the ancient
practice of making formal treaties to bind together two parties.
Again, in ancient times God sat enthroned in a temple, just
like neighbouring Middle Eastern deities such as Baal, Marduk
and Dagon. He gave instructions to the children of Israel about
where he wanted to reside: "And let them make me a sanctuary;
that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). From there
he could smell the sweet aroma of burning sacrificial flesh.
By the Middle Ages he had long lost his taste for the smell
of burnt offerings, and had removed himself to a heavenly court
of medieval splendour. Now, in the Age of Democracy, he has
abandoned much of his feudal overlordship, and become an advocate
for freedom and liberty.
Teachings that were once unimpeachable are now discarded (creation
in six days, Earth-centred Universe, prohibition of usury).
Heresies have come to be incorporated into orthodoxy (the Trinity,
denying the existence of witches, the Immaculate Conception).
The Ten Commandments have been repeatedly re-interpreted (capital
punishment, graven images, adultery). It is difficult, if not
impossible, to trace doctrines and practices back to the early
Christian times. The overwhelming majority are later accretions,
and if we knew a little more about the first century we might
be able to affirm that all of them are accretions.
Christians occasionally claim that their religion is the same
as that practised by their predecessors for almost 2,000 years.
If it were divinely inspired then we should not be surprised
to find it to be so. A cursory review of the history of Christianity
reveals however that this claim cannot be supported. If it were
possible to assemble five typical Christians from the years
AD 50, 500, 1000, 1500, and 2000, it is doubtful whether any
one of them would acknowledge another as a fellow Christian.
Over that time the religion has changed so much that to each
of them, the faith of the other four would seem absurd, unchristian,
heretical or blasphemous.
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside
St Augustine of Hippo,
De Baptismo contra Donatistas, IV
Access to the one true religion should be equally available
to all people.
Since early times, even before St Augustine, the Church taught
that there is no salvation outside the Church*.
There was no doubt about what this meant. The Church in question
was the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and anyone
who did not accept its authority was automatically damned*.
The Church tried people for making statements such as "everyone
should be allowed to practise his own religion" and "the
Jew and the Muslim could each be saved in his own law".
The Church of England has always regarded itself as part of
the Catholic Church and also held that there is no salvation
outside it. So too for Protestant and nonconformist Churches,
which held themselves to represent the one true Church since
the Church of Rome had erred.
All the mainstream Churches have traditionally held that there
is no salvation for non-members. Our salvation is wholly dependent
upon our embracing the Christian faith. This seems not a little
unfair on many people of the world. To start with, what is the
position of the many millions around the world who have never
even heard of Christianity? Are they all condemned out of hand,
never having had the chance to adopt the Christian faith? Again
what of the entire population of the world before the time of
Jesus, are they denied access to Paradise for all eternity because
they were unlucky enough to have lived when they did? Until
recent times this was the view of all mainstream Churches. Some
people saw this as absurd. (Voltaire claimed to have lost his
faith at the age of eleven when he learned that Caesar and Cato,
the most virtuous men of antiquity, would burn in Hell for eternity
for not having practised a religion that they did not even know
about.) What about the unbaptised children we have already mentioned,
and those countless thousands who are so mentally unfit that
they cannot form any understanding of Christianity? What about
the many thousands of deaf people who were traditionally denied
any Christian indoctrination? Are they too condemned?
This doctrine is something of an embarrassment, and it is now
often played down. In recent times attempts have been made to
reinterpret the teaching so that the intrinsic unfairness is
eliminated, for example by redefining Church so that term encompasses
everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. But this looks
suspiciously like what it is - an unconvincing story reverse
engineered to overcome precisely the above objections
I can"t believe in a God who only saves people who live
in certain latitudes.
Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury (1980-1991)
The one true religion should be fair. It should not favour
any one group of people, or put another at a disadvantage.
We have just looked at the unfairness of condemning people
to Hell for not having heard of Christianity, but there are
similar problems among those who have. As we have already noted,
in the past God was willing to perform miracles in order to
convince millions of people of the truth of Christianity. Now
he performs far fewer miracles, which are generally witnessed
only by people who already believe. But this is unfair. Why
did God routinely offer proof to non-believers in earlier times,
but not now? Why is he selective and inequitable in this way?
Again, Jesus gave understanding to some but not to others (Matthew
13:11, Mark 4:11). On the other hand apparently innocent people
were used as tools of the divine will in such a way that they
were automatically condemned to eternal hellfire. Judas Iscariot
was one who was selected for damnation. According to John 13:21-27
Judas did not betray Jesus until Jesus had selected him for
the role, and caused the Devil to enter into him. Why should
one person be given a free ride to Heaven, and another an enforced
march to Hell?
Similar questions can be asked about other groups. Take for
example people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy and experience
visions, as a result of which they become religious. If they
happen to live in a Christian country they generally become
Christians. Are we to believe that God has specially favoured
such epileptics, as was traditionally believed? Again Christian
missionaries have experienced considerable success in Africa
but spectacular failure in East Asia. Are we to conclude that
Africans are more likely to get to Heaven than Asians? Historically,
it has been easy for Christians to make converts among animists
and followers of other primitive religions, but not amongst
followers of more advanced religions (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims,
etc.). Why should God discriminate in this way? Anthropologists
have an explanation, but theologians prefer to avoid the question.
Research has revealed that belief in Christianity is correlated
with a number of attributes. It confirms for example that the
greater a person's intelligence, the less likely he or she is
to hold traditional Christian beliefs*.
Are we to believe that the dull have on average a better chance
of attaining Paradise than the intelligent ? So too, the more
creative they are the weaker is likely to be their faith*.
It also seems that alcoholics are more likely to be believers
than the population at large*.
In general women, especially those without families, are much
more religious than men*.
Another finding is that, once over the age of 60, people tend
to become more religious the older they get*.
Church membership also tends to be class-related. Those who
have moved up the social scale are less likely to be interested
in religion than those who have not, while those who have moved
down the social scale are more likely to be interested in it*.
It is also clear that children tend to adopt the religion of
their parents. These findings support the intuitive view that
an unintelligent, alcoholic, aged widow with no family, who
was raised in a strict Christian home and who has since come
down in the world, is far more likely to profess the Christian
faith than a young family man who was raised by non-Christian
parents and who has enjoyed academic, social and material success.
The implication is that the Christian God discriminates against
certain communities and social groups, in other words that Christianity
I believe in the Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic,
and I regret that it nowhere exists.
Attributed to William Temple (1881-1944), Archbishop of Canterbury
Adherents should be united in their divinely inspired belief.
In other words they should all believe the same things.
is clear enough that Christian beliefs have changed from time
to time within each major denomination. But even within denominations
there seems to be no more agreement on ethical issues than there
is between members of other religions. Can killing ever be justified?
Some say yes. Others say no. Is baptism really necessary for
salvation? Some say yes. Others say no. Is freedom of thought
inconsistent with God's demands? Some say yes. Others say no.
Does God object to contraception? Some say yes. Some say no.
Are organ transplants unethical? Some say yes. Some say no.
Is it ever moral to tell a lie (as when the Nazis come for your
Jewish neighbours)? Some say yes. Others say no. Depending upon
their own disposition Christians appear to adopt whichever theology
suits them: conservatives embrace fundamentalist theology, Marxists
embrace liberation theology, Women's rights activists embrace
feminist theology, environmentalists embrace environmentalist
theology, and educated liberals embrace mythical theology. It
is possible to believe almost anything, and interpret Christian
teachings to suit one's own ideas.
There is even widespread disagreement about what Jesus himself
taught. Disagreements about Jesus" teachings had already
arisen before the gospels were written, a fact that St Paul
makes clear in his letters. Since then the disagreements have
multiplied. With no central authority, autocephalic Churches
developed their own doctrines and practices. When synods were
called to settle disputes, the usual result was another schism,
each side proclaiming the other heretic. So it is that today
there are tens of thousands of Christian denominations throughout
the world. Typically they claim to be peaceful, tolerant and
loving. They also claim to be proclaiming God's message, and
doing his work. It is therefore odd to find that they disagree
on many fundamental matters. It is even odder that they cannot
reconcile these differences quickly and amicably. One might
have thought that if Christians received the divine guidance
they so often claim to receive then they would not have been
driven to burn each other at the stake, as they did before the
rise of secular ideas put an end to such practices.
All denominations consider their beliefs to be obviously true
and others as obviously false, so in practice belief is often
determined by geographical dominance - a fact that invites the
sarcastic scorn of philosophers. As Schopenhauer noted:
To the South German ecclesiastic the truth of the Catholic
dogma is quite obvious, to the North German, the Protestant.
If then, these convictions are based on objective reasons,
the reasons must be climatic, and thrive, like plants, some
only here, some only there. The convictions of those who are
thus locally convinced are taken on trust and believed by
the masses everywhere.*
Church schisms are often cultural as often as they are doctrinal.
For example both the Methodist and Baptist Churches became divided
over the issue of slavery in the USA. In the North, which had
a more modern secular outlook and which did not rely on the
economics of slave labour, Methodist and Baptists were opposed
to slavery. In the more traditionally Christian South, which
did rely on slave labour, Methodists and Baptists were overwhelmingly
in favour of the practice. Consequently, both Churches split
along lines corresponding to the political division. Now the
civil war is long past and the majority in both North and South
agree with secular opinion on the issue of slavery, yet in the
USA there are still separate Methodist Churches, and separate
Baptist Churches, reflecting the nineteenth century schism.
In states like California, Northern and Southern Churches exist
side by side, competing for converts against each other, yet
doctrinally almost indistinguishable.
In other parts of the world inter-denominational competition
is less restrained. Missionaries engage in what they call sheep
stealing poaching converts from other Christian denominations.
At the time of writing, the Vatican is growing increasingly
worried by the success of North American fundamentalists in
South America. Baptists and Pentecostalists there offer to teach
English to the wives of rich Roman Catholic bankers and political
leaders, using the Bible as a convenient textbook. Selected
passages are used to raise doubts about Roman doctrine, and
a steady stream of women converts are soon followed by their
influential husbands. In a few years the percentage of Brazilians
belonging to Pentecostalist sects has increased from 0 to over
10 per cent.
So far, this has not led to the sort of open rivalry found
in Papua New Guinea. There, disagreements have led Roman Catholic
missionaries to accuse Methodist missionaries of burning down
Roman Catholic churches, and to Methodists making similar claims
about Catholic missionaries. In Jerusalem it is not uncommon
for fights to break out between rival Christian sects
Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Jacobites and Copts
who for centuries have despised each other to the greater glory
of God. These fights often centre on who owns which parts of
various church buildings, and are particularly common at Christmas,
the season of goodwill to all*.
Rival Churches will not trust each other with the keys to church
buildings. Keys for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for example
have been in the care of a neutral Muslim party, the Nusseibeh
family, since Saladin entrusted them to Sheikh Ghanim al-Khazraji
in 1192. Their neutrality is still closely monitored by the
watchful eyes of burley monks from rival Christian factions.
It is hard to believe that men and women appointed by God to
spread his word should exhibit anything other than the warmest
fraternity to others so inspired. Since they do not, and since
no denomination seems to be noticeably better than the others,
a disinterested observer might well deduce that these denominations
are all equally uninspired.
One religion is as true as another.
Robert Burton (1577-1640), Anatomy of Melancholy
It should be possible to distinguish the one true religion
from other belief systems. If all were equally true or false
then we should expect them to be qualitatively indistinguishable
from each other. If one was true and the others false then we
might expect the one true one to stand out in some objective
observable way. To non-members at least, Christianity does not
stand out as different to other religions in any way. To anthropologists,
Christianity is simply one religion among many. It fits perfectly
within a network of world belief and shares many features with
other religions. For the typical anthropologist the only differences
are socially conditioned.
One difficulty for religious believers may be characterised
as the "comparative religion" problem. Ignorance allows
members of a religion to regard themselves as specially selected
by a deity. But wider knowledge of the world and its many religions
invites questions. Why do our neighbours believe things different
from us? How can we prove that we are right and they are wrong?
In ancient times this was not too much of a problem. The Greeks
for example thought that everyone worshipped the same gods under
different names. Thus the Egyptian gods were explained by an
incident during which the Greek gods had temporarily decamped
to Egypt disguised as animals. This belief that everyone worshipped
the same gods also explains the rather forced matching of Etruscan
and Roman gods with Greek ones.
For religions that make claims to represent the one true religion,
the issue is more problematic. How could the Chinese have sustained
such a great civilisation for so long, happily following their
own religion and without knowing of Christianity, or else regarding
it as just another Western barbarism? Early Jesuit missionaries
were at a loss to explain a culture that they recognised as
more advanced than their own, although its members knew nothing
of the Christian God. Crusaders had encountered a similar problem
with cultivated Muslims. It has long been known that a knowledge
of other religions tends to foster scepticism. Sceptical arguments
based on comparative religion had been increasingly voiced in
the eighteenth century a phenomenon that led Christian
authorities to discourage travel outside Christendom.
From a purely logical point of view we can broaden the point.
We can compare Christianity with any alternative religion. Our
alternative religion does not even need to be a real one. We
are free to construct a hypothetical religion, however unlikely;
or indeed any belief at all as long as it is not disprovable.
Is there any essential qualitative difference between Christianity
and a belief system that most people would accept to be obviously
mistaken? For example take the claim that fairies live at the
bottom of my garden. If that is not sufficiently unlikely then
we may refine it: these fairies are nuclear physicists who live
in an old baked bean tin. They are magic green fairies who speak
Pictish. They are telepathic fairies from Pluto. We can make
our claim as absurd as we like. If challenged to demonstrate
the truth of our claims we can explain that the fairies are
invisible. They remain silent whenever we try to listen to them.
They move too quickly for us ever to capture one. They only
ever communicate with people who believe in them. They perform
miracles, but only for true believers. How can we tell whether
these fairies are more or less convincing in any objective sense
than the traditional Christian God? The simple fact is that
The point is not a trivial one. It raises an important question
as to why anyone should believe one unprovable assertion rather
than another. The question is even more relevant when we note
that Christian beliefs so often echo those of other religions:
Virgin Birth, great Teacher, struggle with the Forces of Darkness,
Sacrificial Death, Visit to the Underworld, Resurrection, and
Deification. It is rather as though we were seeing the same
myth repeatedly re-interpreted.
Popular themes recur around the world, and may even appear
several times within the same religion. Accounts of fictitious
saints and their imaginary martyrdoms tend to fit fairly standard
patterns and not only within Christianity. It is as though
eternal myths are being adapted to current needs by changing
the details but not the substance. The kind, bountiful, all-knowing
supernatural father figure is one of many stock characters.
Christianity has at least two of these, one for children and
one for adults.
Santa Claus may be seen as a junior version of Jesus
Christ. Similarities between the two are striking. Both
are superhuman supernatural father figures capable of
miraculous feats. They both know how good or bad we have
been and will reward or punish us accordingly (although
in both cases the punishments for the wicked tend to be
played down nowadays). They can both be in many places
at the same time. Both share characteristics with earlier
non-Christian gods. Both have given rise to huge commercial
enterprises. Both are based on known historical persons:
Christ on Jesus-bar-Joseph, a first century Jew, and Santa
Claus on St Nicholas of Patra, a fourth century Bishop
of Myra. Much of the detail concerning the activities
of both is known to be unreliable historical accretion.
The continued activities of both are matters of belief,
bolstered by assurances from those in authority.
An extreme case of confusion between
the Baby Jesus and the Baby santa Claus
similarities are sufficient to cause many children to confuse
the two, or at least identify them as belonging together: "God
and Santa Claus are best friends" as one little girl put
it. Some churchmen are keen to eliminate Father Christmas for
exactly this reason. In 1951 French clergymen burned an effigy
of Père Noël in front of the cathedral at Dijon
before hundreds of Sunday school children, and denounced him
as "a Saxon myth who never existed except in parents' annual
lies to their children".
Children are not the only ones liable to confuse Father Christmas
with Jesus Christ. Sympathetic Japanese celebrating Christmas
have been known to set up Christmas crosses in shopping arcades
with crucified Father Christmases on them.
Russian Christians address their prayers to both Christ and
Christian children reach a certain mental age, they are conventionally
disabused of what they have previously been told. There is,
they are now assured, no Santa Claus after all at least
not a literal one who brings presents and eats mince pies. The
story may be true in a more sophisticated, abstract, figurative
sort of way, but no saint really came down the chimney to bring
presents to good children. Something similar happens with the
senior version of the story for those who study modern theology.
The story that had up until now been literally true, is now
true only in some sophisticated, abstract, figurative sort of
way, but no God ever really came down from Heaven to bring salvation
to good Christians.
We have here two stories within Western Christianity, both
modelled on the same pattern, one for children and one for adults.
It might seem blasphemous to compare the two, as they are so
different in importance to the Christian faith. But these differences
are matters of faith alone, and that is exactly the point at
issue. To an outsider the stories are equally likely, equally
provable or unprovable, and equally explicable. The parallel
denouement, for those with sufficiently mature levels of understanding,
is also revealing.
The religions we call false were once true.
Ralph Waldo Emerson , Essays, "Character"
The one true religion might be expected to be noticeably superior
to other religions.
We might reasonably expect the one true religion to stand out
from others in many ways. It should for example teach a demonstrably
superior morality, or at least take the lead in making moral
advances. It might be more vigorous, more certain, more rational,
more enlightened or more appealing. It might be less given to
error, less likely to follow social trends, less likely to be
confounded by science, and so on.
Let us start by comparing Christianity to Islam, its close
cousin. Parallels between Christian and Muslim beliefs and practices
are surprisingly close. Both accepted traditional Jewish ideas.
For example both found it perfectly acceptable for believers
to keep slaves, and to demand sexual services from them. Both
declared that women were inferior to men, and held wife beating
to be acceptable. Both religions advocated and practised flogging
, physical mutilation and capital punishment. Both held their
own version of divine law to be superior to ordinary human law
and both demanded the death sentence for crimes like
blasphemy and apostasy. Both sanctioned the marriage of and
the execution of children. Muslims sometimes adopted specifically
Christian practices. For example they adopted the Byzantine
Christian practice of veiling and segregating women. Both religions
have been riven by schism. Both have at times displayed intolerance
practising censorship, burning books, and waging holy
war. Both have advocated murder for example Roman Catholics
of Queen Elizabeth I, Shi"ite Muslims of Salman Rushdie.
The only real difference is that the Christian world has on
the whole become more secular so that these traditional
beliefs and practices are not now as common as they were when
the Christian Church exercised absolute power.
In some ways even modern Christianity does not compare well
with Islam. Christianity is not as vigorous or comprehensive
as Islam. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world,
and provides not only religion but also social, political and
legal systems. It suffers much less from apostasy. Its record
on supporting education, learning, scientific endeavour, and
medicine is much better than that of Christianity. The giving
of alms is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims have a
great reputation for charity and freely-given hospitality
much better than that of Christians. Muslims have always been
encouraged to learn Arabic so that they could read the Koran
for themselves. By contrast the Christian Church spent centuries
preventing ordinary people from having access to the Bible.
Again, Islam also has a far better record on racial tolerance.
Conflicts between black and white are almost unknown outside
Christendom. So too was anti-Semitism until the twentieth century.
Historically, Muslims have been not only more tolerant than
Christians but also more chivalrous. We have already contrasted
the behaviour of Christians and Muslims when they in turn took
Jerusalem. In 1089 the Christian inhabitants had slaughtered
the inhabitants, men, women and children. When the Muslims recaptured
the city in 1187 not a single citizen was harmed. Time and time
again during the Crusades Muslim commanders behaved honourably
while the Christian leaders lied, deceived, slaughtered prisoners,
and broke their word all encouraged by bishops.
As we have seen, Christianity is largely a mixture of Judaism
and various Greek religions. In many respects the earliest Christians
preferred the cruder Jewish ideas to the more refined Greek
ones. For example the Church accepted the ordeal as a method
of justice rather than recourse to the law courts , it adopted
a primitive mistaken cosmology, and rejected Greek philosophy.
Christianity is not as constant as Judaism. Apart from adding
the concept of an afterlife a little over 2,000 years ago, abandoning
animal sacrifice, and deciding that some of God's recommended
judicial sentences were perhaps a little harsh, Judaism is largely
unchanged. In contrast, Christianity has changed its doctrines
and its views on almost all important matters. Again, Judaism
is prepared to offer straight answers to ethical dilemmas that
Christian theologians either disagree about, or else duck altogether.
Furthermore, Jewish belief seems to be stronger than Christian
belief. When faced with a choice between apostasy and death,
Jewish communities have generally opted for death. Christians
in similar circumstances have more often converted.
If we look at Hinduism we find a religion that is older and
far more tolerant than Christianity. Its texts have not been
deliberately tampered with, as those of Christianity have been.
It embraces beliefs from polytheism, through monotheism, to
virtual atheism, and yet it is almost unknown for one group
to persecute another as heretics. In truth it is difficult to
find a religion with a worse record than Christianity of schism,
or the treatment of heretics, or persecution. Again, Christianity's
record on animal rights compares badly with those of Buddhists
and Jains. Its record on ecological matters compares badly with
almost all other religions, especially Taoism, Shintoism, and
animist religions. Its morality and philosophy fare badly in
any objective comparison with Buddhism. Christianity's certainties
have been decimated by science, while the views of Buddhism
have been largely unaffected. Indeed there are some scientists
who find that modern theories in physics closely harmonise with
traditional Buddhist teachings. Early figures in Buddhism, as
in many religions, seem even to modern minds to have been perceptive,
compassionate and admirable. In contrast many of the main figures
in the earliest days of Christianity appear much less wholesome.
Had they been alive today, many Church Fathers would probably
be regarded as psychologically maladjusted, sexually disturbed,
or clinically insane.
If we compare Christianity to the teachings of Lao Tse, Confucius,
Socrates, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, or a host of others, it
seems to most impartial observers to be surprisingly backward.
Many non-Christians were more moral, more liberal, and had their
beliefs more soundly underpinned by philosophy than Christians.
Christians were responsible for destroying much ancient learning,
and were almost totally responsible for the long night of the
Dark Ages. As we have seen, far from advancing the cause of
humanity the Christian Churches opposed all progress: legal,
medical, scientific, philosophical and political.
To compare the Christian religion objectively with other belief
systems is to court disappointment. Christianity is not noticeably
superior to any other religion in its morality, its social record,
its intellectual underpinning, its evidence of divine support,
or its record of persecution and mass killing. For many people
outside Christianity, there is hardly a religion in the history
of the world with which Christianity compares favourably. This
opinion is not of course shared by most Christians, but if Christianity
were visibly superior to other religions, we might reasonably
expect non-Christians to recognise the fact.
All your western theologies, the mythology of them, are based
on the concept of God as a senile delinquent.
Tennessee Williams (1912-1983), The Night of the Iguana
The one true religion should be a force for good in the world,
in the sense that almost everyone would understand the word.
We have already considered the moral record of Christianity
in some detail (pages 325- 541), so we will concentrate here
on other areas that might qualify Christianity as "good".
As a force for good, Christianity has opposed the exposure
of unwanted infants, reformed the calendar and promoted charitable
works, but it is not easy to extend this list far. Of these
three the first (saving lives) can be accepted as an unquestioned
good, the second (the calendar) was certainly useful and to
that extent it qualifies as good, the third (charity) can be
accepted subject to qualifications. Charitable works that are
claimed to characterise Christianity are less convincing than
they are often proclaimed to be. Other religions also carry
out charitable works, as do agnostics and atheists. Also, Christian
charity is not always freely given; it is often part of a proselytising
programme, which means that it is arguably not charity at all,
more a sort of investment.
Apart from these three areas it is not easy to find evidence
of any positive influence exerted by the Christian religion.
Are there any other ways of objectively establishing whether
Christians are more inclined to do good than others? As it happens
some sociologists have looked at exactly this question. In one
experiment students were exposed to a simulated re-enactment
of the parable of the Good Samaritan. While passing from one
building to another they came across a groaning man, slumped
in a doorway. Those with strong Christian beliefs were found
to be no more likely to stop and help than others. Indeed, even
Christians on their way to deliver a talk on the parable of
the Good Samaritan were no more likely than others to offer
help*. Only around 40
per cent of them asked what was wrong and offered assistance.
Of the remainder, some not only ignored the stranger in need
but also stepped over the slumped and groaning figure. Other
studies suggests that churchgoers are less compassionate than
non-believers, and also generally less open-minded. On the whole
they are less tolerant of homosexuals, unmarried mothers and
They are even less tolerant of political dissent*.
It also seems that Christians are motivated to appear more honest
than others, although they are not*.
As we have already noted a review of conviction rates reveals
that in different countries Christians are consistently much
more criminally inclined than non-believers*.
These, and similar findings, are difficult to square with the
moral superiority claimed by Christians.
If we look to the past, when the Church was more influential
than it is now, the picture is grimmer still. Christians were
brutal, even by the standards of the day. The Church and its
children were responsible for some of the greatest abominations
in human history. Christianity's record on human rights must
be as bad as any other organisation ever to have existed. The
Church history we have reviewed is one of corruption, indoctrination,
genocide, political expediency, war-mongering, anti-Semitism,
forgery, censorship, intolerance, brutality, torture, judicial
murder, hypocrisy, cultural vandalism, authoritarianism, and
self-aggrandisement. Examples of "good" behaviour
to counterbalance these features are more difficult to find.
We could cite numerous cases of Churches torturing and killing
thousands of innocent people. But how many cases spring to mind
of a Christian Church giving aid to those it perceived as its
enemies? It is easy to think of opportunities to do so, but
not ones that have been taken.
To become a popular religion, it is necessary for a superstition
to enslave a philosophy.
William Ralph Inge (1860-1954), Dean of St Paul's (1911-1934),
The one true religion should not be intellectually dishonest.
Dorothy L. Sayers remarked of the Athanasian Creed that by
the time it had informed you that God the Father was incomprehensible,
Jesus Christ was incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit was incomprehensible,
you were perfectly justified in concluding that the whole thing
was incomprehensible. But is Christianity incomprehensible because
of human limitations, or because the Churches have deliberately
manufactured an incomprehensible product?
As we have seen, Church teachings that give rise to contradictions
and incomprehensible conclusions are traditionally labelled
as mysteries. Christianity is widely regarded by philosophers
and other non-Christians as being less than intellectually respectable,
and not only because of the acceptance of these "mysteries".
We have already seen that Churches claimed to have logical proofs
of the truth of Christianity, and some still do, even though
the consensus among philosophers is that these proofs were demolished
The Church's attitude to various sciences is another area that,
according to many observers, also smacks of dishonesty. A fair
summary is that the Church fought one battle after another against
a series of scientific discoveries, and lost them all (see pages
597- 280). Each time it retreated and retrenched, rationalising
its defeat, without ever admitting to it. After a long series
of defeats, retreats, and abandoned positions theologians shifted
ground altogether and started claiming that Christian teachings
were not what everyone had always held them to be. A few examples
concern the age of the world, the movement of the planets, the
reality of Adam and Eve, and the literal infallibility of scripture.
Claims to intellectual integrity also become difficult to sustain
when Christian apologists are determined to arrive at certain
conclusions, and are clearly experiencing difficulty in formulating
credible premises that will produce them. According to leading
philosophers, theologians have employed linguistic deceits in
place of genuine logical argument and have gained a reputation
among academic philosophers for dishonesty and obscurantism.
All this is consistent with other examples of intellectual
dishonesty. As we have seen, Christian scholars over the centuries
are known to have manipulated evidence for their own ends. They
have tampered with the holy scriptures. They have suppressed
inconvenient writings. They have destroyed material that did
not match their requirements. They have assigned false authorships.
They have burned books that contradicted their beliefs. They
have bolstered their favoured line by quoting authorities out
of context and by circulating forgeries. It is also clear that
evidence against those the Church considered its enemies was
largely trumped up. Just about anyone and everyone who disagreed
with the Church was branded a Devil worshipper, a cannibal,
a child murderer or a sexual deviant (usually guilty of indulging
in orgies, sodomy, adultery, and incest as a minimum). Cathars
committed all these crimes, so did Jews and Muslims, the Templars,
Freemasons, hundreds of unrelated dissenting sects, witches,
Native Americans, the Chinese everyone in fact who did
not accept the Church's current orthodoxy. The truth seems to
be that none of these groups was guilty of the crimes attributed
to them. The evidence was fabricated, and we can sometimes see
how it was done, because the method was so crude. For example
a group of supposedly heretical canons was accused by a monk,
Paul of St Père de Chartres, of various abominations
in 1022. His account of these abominations is lifted from St
Justin Martyr's description
centuries earlier of false accusations levelled at early Christians*.
Sometimes accounts are copied word for word from earlier ones,
and as the centuries roll on the charge sheet becomes ever more
comprehensive, standardised and obviously fabricated. Descriptions
were copied verbatim from old texts to provide the charges against
The English language reveals that it is not only academics
who are critical of intellectual dishonesty. Obscurantism
is the name given to the active opposition to intellectual enlightenment
from religious motives. The Jesuits acquired such a reputation
for it that the word Jesuit can be applied to anyone
who equivocates. Dictionaries define the word Jesuitical
along the following lines "dissembling, practising equivocation
or mental reservation of the truth". Other words reveal
other traditional theological characteristics. The term theological
argument is applied to any argument that is abstruse and
pointless. The term theological odium (or odium
theologicum) denotes a type of extreme hatred that only
theologians have ever manifested. Sometimes the change in a
word's meaning speaks of the Church's role. Originally the word
indoctrinate meant merely to teach. Its use by the
Christian Churches has given the word its current meaning to
imbue with an opinion, or even to condition using mind control,
a concept approaching brainwashing. An inquisition
was originally merely an inquiry. But the Church's Inquisition
was the most feared secret police force the world has ever seen,
and the word has acquired this new connotation. Dogma
was no more than revealed truth as defined by the Church. Now,
to be dogmatic is to be blinkered, closed and authoritarian.
To pontificate, to speak like the Pontiff (i.e. the
Pope), is to behave in a pompous, dogmatic and ill-informed
manner. The slang word bull, meaning nonsense, is reputedly
derived from papal bulls. (Papal documents came to be called
bulls because they were sealed with lead seals, known as bullas.)
The Western Church was also responsible for the word propaganda.
It is derived from the title of the Roman Church's Sacra
Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation
for Propagating the Faith), the first body of professional
propagandists in the world.
The important point here is not whether the mainstream Churches
are intellectually honest or dishonest, but that according to
independent outsiders they do not have much of a reputation
for intellectual honesty. Few, if any, objective outsiders would
accept that the record of any mainstream Church in the field
of intellectual probity provides convincing evidence of its
Looking at our original list of expectations, it is probably
fair to say that Christianity does not satisfy all of them,
and there is a respectable argument that it does not satisfy
any of them.