The Appeal of Christianity


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Authorities Assessed
Old Testament
New Testament
Apostolic Traditions
Church Fathers
General Church Councils
Early Christian History
What Jesus Believed
Who Founded Christianity?
Creation of Doctrine
Origin of Ideas & Practices
The Concept of Orthodoxy
Origin of the Priesthood
Maintaining Deceptions
Suppress Facts
Selecting Sources
Fabricating Records
Retrospective Prophesy
Ambiguous Authorities
Ignore Injunctions
Invent, Amend and Discard
Manipulate Language
Case Studies
Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
Managing Inconvenient Texts
Christianity & Science
Traditional Battlegrounds
Modern Battlegrounds
Rational Explanations
Religion in General
Christianity in Particular
Divine Human Beings
Ease of Creating Religions
Arguments for and Against
Popular Arguments
Philosophical Arguments
Moral Arguments
Supernatural Arguments
  • Miracles
  • Revelation
  • Faith
  • Practical Arguments
    Record of Christianity
    Social Issues
  • Slavery
  • Racism
  • Capital Punishment
  • Penal Reform
  • Physical Abuse
  • Treatment of Women
  • Contraception
  • Abortion
  • Divorce
  • Family Values
  • Children
  • Romanies
  • The Physically Ill
  • The Mentally Ill
  • The Poor
  • Animals
  • Ecology
  • Persecution
  • Persecutions of Christians
  • Persecutions by Christians
  • Church & State
  • Symbiosis
  • Meddling in Governance
  • Interference in Politics
  • Abuse of Power
  • Church Law and Justice
  • Exemption from the Law
  • Unofficial Exemption
  • Financial Privileges
  • Control Over Education
  • Human Rights
  • Freedom of Belief
  • Religious Toleration
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Freedom of Enjoyment
  • Attitudes to Sex
  • Celibacy
  • Sex Within Marriage
  • Sex Outside Marriage
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Homosexuality
  • Transvestism
  • Prostitution
  • Pederasty
  • Bestiality
  • Sadomasochism
  • Necrophilia
  • Consequences
  • Science & Medicine

  • Ancient Times
  • Dark and Middle Ages
  • Sixteenth Century
  • Seventeenth Century
  • Eighteenth Century
  • Nineteenth Century
  • 20th and 21st Centuries
  • Medical Records Compared
  • Violence & Warfare
  • Crusades
  • God's Wars
  • Churches' Wars
  • Christian Atrocities
  • Cultural Vandalism
  • The Classical World
  • Europe
  • The Wider Modern World
  • Possible Explanations
    Summing up
    Marketing Religion
    Marketing Christianity
    Continuing Damage
    Religious Discrimination
    Christian Discrimination
    Moral Dangers
    Abuse of Power
    A Final Summing Up
    Search site
    Bad News Blog
    Religious Quotations
    Christianity & Human Rights
    Christian Prooftexts
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    Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which every one in himself calleth religion.
    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan


    Religions and other bodies of belief compete with each other for acceptance. Often it is possible to identify specific aspects that appeal to people and give one religion an edge over another. One important characteristic of Christianity, arguably its prime selling point, is paternalism. God takes care of us. He watches over us all the time. We turn to him for protection. He is firm, yet gentle and understanding. He knows all that we know, and much, much more. He is big and powerful. He is the ultimate in dads who can beat up your dad.

    This characteristic did not escape Sigmund Freud, who made the observation that "at bottom God is no more than an exalted father"*. Freud contended that religion plays on the infantile aspects of people by reinforcing the childish residues in their psyches. This was an unwelcome revelation, for he found it painful to reflect that the majority of moralists would never rise above what he saw as so infantile a view of the world. Perhaps as a result of his insights, the Western Churches have been playing down paternal aspects of Christianity. Christians are now discouraged from thinking of God as a big old man, dressed in white and sitting on a throne in the sky. However, it is clear that many still conceive of God as a powerful wise old father figure, and not all of them are young children. Sociological studies show that nuns, unmarried girls, and older women tend to have attitudes towards God that are particularly similar to their attitudes towards their own fathers*. Other paternalistic elements are not difficult to find in Christianity. The brotherhood of man depended not only on the Fatherhood of God but also on the Fatherhood of the Clergy. All priests are "fathers". The titles patriarch, abbot, pope and padre all derive from words meaning exactly the same thing "father". Traditionally when a boy joined the Church he was adopted by his bishop, exchanging his own family for that of his bishop. Now he had a big powerful family for life, with a range of father figures who would always be bigger and more powerful than himself.

    We often believe things not because they are true but because we should like them to be true. Most drivers of motor vehicles believe themselves to be above-average drivers. Similarly a disproportionate people imagine themselves to have better than average senses of humour, to be more intelligent and fair-minded than they really are, to be more honest than the norm, and to have unusually gifted children. As Francis Baconput it “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true” It is conceivable that people believe in a paternalistic God for a similar reason — that they would like a paternalistic God to be looking after them. Freud thought there was something in this idea: "Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctive desires"*

    The second most important factor is fear. Most people are at some stage afraid of something: of the dark, of the unknown, of defeat in war, of illness, of hunger, most of all of death. Educated people in ancient times recognised that fear was a useful tool for keeping order, and some suspected that their ancestors had used the gods in order to keep the masses under control. Some, like the Roman historian Polybius, believed that the ancients had been rather clever in inventing both gods and the concept of punishment after death, in order to help keep order. Certainly fear plays an important role in Christian belief. People often become religious in times of danger. Huge numbers of people became religious in times of pestilence and in the aftermath of natural disasters. As Arthur Clough observed:

    And almost every one when age
    Disease, or sorrow strike him
    Inclines to think there is a God
    Or something very like him.*

    Workers in particularly dangerous jobs are renowned for their religiosity. In the past miners and deep-sea fishermen were remarkable both for the strictness of their adherence to Christianity, as well as to their intricate and extensive superstitions. Now that mining and fishing is so much safer, the religiosity has largely evaporated along with the superstition. In times of peace, soldiers are no more religious than the population at large, but in time of war they often take an interest in the possibility of divine protection. During World War II it was popularly said to be impossible to find an atheist in a foxhole. Actually the tendency to become superstitious seems to be related not so much to danger as to nervousness. Actors, singers and other performers like high-profile athletes also tend to become highly superstitious. This may help explain the common phenomenon of the international footballer carrying magical charms, crossing himself, or dropping to his knees to give a prayer of thanks when he has just scored a goal. Not so many mathemeticians do that after solving a difficult problem.

    Approaching death also causes worry, which seems to encourage religious belief. A number of sociological studies have shown that people become more religious as they get older*. Among anthropologists it is a commonplace that religions such as Christianity feed upon the fear of death. Many sects deliberately generate fear. Threats of damnation, torment and hellfire could not be better refined for producing terror among believers. Satan too, looks suspiciously like the personification of an instinctive fear, especially in his serpentine guise. Clarence Day, in This Simian World, made the point in a graphic manner: "The snake, it is known, is the animal monkeys most dread. Hence when men give their devil a definite form, they make him a snake. A race of super-chickens would have pictured their devil as a hawk". Closely related to the fear of death is the promise of eternal life. Less reflective members of society are keen on immortality and find attractive the image of themselves living forever in Paradise. Until recent times theologians encouraged their flocks to imagine themselves in eternal Paradise looking down on the souls in Hell and gloating over their suffering. A few hellfire preachers still portray the life after death like this, and the idea still has great appeal.

    In addition to the emphasis on a father figure, and a reliance on fear, a third major element in Christianity is indoctrination. The power of this element is clearly apparent when one compares people's religion with that of their parents. What is consistently found is that the overwhelming majority of people adopt their parents" religion, especially if they get on well with their parents*. Of those who change allegiance almost all are accounted for by people changing for non-religious reasons, for example adopting the religion of their spouses. Thus the religious profile of a country will change only slowly from generation to generation. In a homogeneous country like Greece, where the Greek Orthodox Church accounted for 99 per cent of the population in the last generation, it still accounts for 98 per cent of the latest generation. In England the Greek Orthodox Church accounted for rather less than 1 per cent of the population in the last generation, and sure enough continues to account for less than 1 per cent of the new generation. The same phenomenon may be observed in other countries where national religions have become virtual monopolies. The stability of these proportions indicates that people are simply adopting the local norm. If people were making reasoned informed decisions, then one might expect the one true religion (and its one true sect) to be equally represented everywhere.

    Several other factors seem to play a part as well. We have already seen that the need for superficially plausible explanations is one such. Sociologists have also suggested that organised religion gives a sense of identity and the comfortable impression of having an appointed place in the order of things*. As Robin Dunbar puts it:

    It is surely no accident that almost every religion promises its adherents that they — and they alone — are the “chosen of god”, guaranteed salvation no mater what, assured that the almighty (or whatever form the gods take) will assist them through their current difficulties if the right rituals and prayers are performed. This undoubtedly introduces a profound sense of comfort in times of adversity.*

    We have already seen how heavily the concept of fatherhood features in the Church, but this is only part of the story. Becoming a Christian not only replaced one's own father; it replaced one's whole family. As one leading churchman put it "He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church for his mother"*. So it is that the Church is not just an impersonal organisation but "Mother Church". Everyone has a role in the Christian family. As well as calling their head an abbot (father) monks call each other "brother". Friars are also called fratres, i.e. brothers. Similarly, nuns call their chief "mother" and each other "sister". Fathers and mothers address their underlings as "my son" or "my daughter" or "my child", even though these underlings might be two generations older. Priests address their flocks in the same way. For some unmarried and childless Christians the Church appears to serve as a family substitute*. The idea of marriage features heavily within Christianity. In many Churches little girls wear wedding dresses for their confirmation.

    Nuns are referred to as brides of Christ. Some wear crowns, following the Orthodox (and ancient Jewish) practice for new brides, and some wear wedding rings.

    The idea of nuns as brides of Christ has been current for many centuries, but Churches have become reticent about the concept of "brides of Christ" and wary about the public seeing new nuns in their wedding dresses.

    This photograph of novice nuns is entitled "A Meeting of the Brides of Christ on their Wedding Day to their Lord at the Nunnery in Godalming, Surrey". It was taken at the Ladywell Convent and is one of a series on the lives of nuns taken by Eve Arnold during the mid-1960s. It was bequeathed to the V&A in 2010.


    Just as nuns marry Jesus, Clergymen are said to "marry" the Church when they take Holy Orders. Bishops impale their heraldic arms with those of their sees, as though they were married to them. Monks and nuns were once expected to bring a dowry with them when they were admitted to their religious orders.

    In most countries priests have always enjoyed normal family lives, often openly, sometimes concealed, especially in modern times. Monks and nuns also enjoyed some liberty at times, but when they took their vows of chastity seriously the results were what any modern psychiatrists would predict of anyone deprived of normal family relationships: widespread homosexuality, pedophilia, a range of psychotic conditions and erotic hallucinations.

    Normal desires for children might be sublimated so that Jesus became not only a nun's absentee husband, but also her absentee baby, for which she could substitute a replica doll, as shown on the right.


    Religion can also be used to validate cultural values. National Churches often reflect local norms, sometimes to the extent that non-believers are considered to be dangerous, subversive and not really worthy to be full citizens. Examples from the recent past are Orthodoxy in Greece, Roman Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland, Presbyterianism in much of Scotland, Mormonism in Utah, and Methodism in Fiji. In some countries the links are still strong. In Greece anyone who does not belong to the Greek Orthodox Church is widely regarded as not truly Greek. Until the nineteenth century the whole of Europe had similar ideas. To be European was almost the same as being Christian.

    Churches in the USA maintained a high level of religious belief, approaching 100 per cent up to recent years. The explanation seems to be that religion has become associated in the popular mind with being a good American. As one researcher put it "Americans feel alienated and unidentified unless they belong to one of the major religious divisions"*. Atheism is perceived as being tantamount to communism and thus un-American. Certainly atheists and agnostics are subject to criticism and hostility* and are made to feel like outsiders. As one sociologist observed:

    Religion in America has become an American religion, which is mostly secularised, middle-class and supportive of an individual and national "good image" ...*

    Many Americans associate their religion so closely with their country, that they find nothing at all incongruous in Jesus assisting his followers in their national sports.


    Ironically, American Christianity thus bears a remarkable similarity to the traditional Roman religions around the time of Jesus. It is not so much concerned with any external divinity but with the state itself. Believers are good citizens who are loyal to God and the Emperor / President, whose beliefs encompass state ideals, and who are bound by an approved moral code. It seems to be for this reason that atheists and agnostics are stigmatised in the USA. The same pressures may help to account for the spectacular success of certain American religions that view the United States as God's "own land" or "promised land".

    Child Praying by Lawrence Nelson - Posters of this picture are popular in the USA
    The image deliberately conflates American Liberty with religion, as though they were related.


    There are evidently people in the USA so unworldly that they find images of Jesus holding a US flag entirely compatible with their theology.

    Jesus with an American flag

    In this image Jesus kneels by an American flag, and appears to be tending a crack in the Liberty Bell. Next tobe him is a document starting "We the people ...". Standing on the bell is an American eagle. The message seems to be that Jesus is closely attached to republicanism, democracy and liberty, and especially to republicanism, democracy and liberty the USA. Since the mainstream Churches have traditionally been keen supporters of monarchy and opponents of democracy, it is not obvious whether this image is propaganda designed to misrepresent history or a spoof.

    Mormonism teaches that Jesus Christ has appeared on American soil, which might be seen as one step better. The characteristically American version of Jesus favours political conservatism, patriotism, and a typically American clean-cut image. This looks suspiciously like an example of people favouring gods who resemble themselves.

    Some interesting American Christian reasoning

    It is not difficult to find other Christian sects whose God looks like a bigger and better version of themselves. Thus the Orthodox God is clearly Greek, or Russian, or whatever, depending on the Orthodox country in question. Czar Nicholas thought of the country he ruled as "Our Russia entrusted to us by God", and also refered to the god in question as "The Russian God". The Calvinist God is a highly judgmental God, resembling an exaggerated hellfire and brimstone preacher. The Roman Catholic God is a ritualistic infallible absolutist God (one small step up from the Pope). The Puritan God is obsessed by sexual morality (like leading members of the Festival of Light). The Anglican God is a tolerant, open-minded, earnest God fond of the Middle Ground (just like a liberal cleric). In each case God is the image of his followers seen in a convex mirror.

    So far we have seen that belief is related not only to paternalism, fear, and upbringing, but also to social conformity, and for some at least, the need for a substitute "family". And there are other factors that appear to play a part, often linked to particular personality types. Sociologists have suggested that sexual deprivation may be one of the roots of religion*. There is evidence that guilt plays an important role. For example, young females who suffer from feelings of guilt appear to be particularly attracted to Protestant groups that emphasise sin and salvation*.

    Christians confidently affirm that God agree with them: even though he fails to mention his views to other Christians who do not share them.



    More generally, Christianity seems to attract particular personality types. For example, religious people have been found to be more suggestible and dependent than others. Religious students have reported a greater degree of personal inadequacy and anxiety*. Neitzsche called Christianity a sickness arising from the envy of the underprivileged ... H. L. Mencken put it even more brutally:

    God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters*.

    Sociological studies tend to confirm Mencken's intuition, in more diplomatic terms*. Studies, mainly in the USA, suggest that religious conviction is related to factors such as feelings of guilt*, neuroticism and other mental disorders*, alcoholism*, criminality*, lack of education and lack of political awareness*, lack of family*, lack of self-esteem and feelings of personal inadequacy*. Social pressure is a major factor in determining religious attachments. This is as true for new converts as for others. Over 40 per cent of converts, when asked some years ago, admitted that they had been converted as a result of social pressure or intimidation* (judging by evangelists' modern techniques the figure may now be much higher). A study carried out on some of Billy Graham's teenage converts found that the most important factor in the retention of their new religious convictions was the acquisition of new friends*. The second most important factor was parental reaction.

    The cartoon below, published in 1922, is by a popular Roman Catholioc cartoonist, E J Pace.
    The appeal for young men who consider themselves inadequate is not difficult to see

    Social factors are clearly important. The upper classes favour mainstream churches, while the lower classes favour small sects and are attracted by fundamentalism*. This is not a new phenomenon. New and informal sects have always appealed to the lower orders. King Charles II noted that Presbyterianism was "not a religion for gentlemen". Some Churches were open and specific about their target markets. The Salvation Army for example was firmly targeted on the working class market, and the Methodists concentrated specifically on the upper end of the same market niche. Even in allegedly egalitarian societies it has been observed that traditional Churches meet the needs of the upper classes while evangelical sects tend to meet lower class needs. Church membership in America has been found to be directly related to social class*. A study in California suggested that evangelical sects appeal to working class people by offering a fantasy world*. Certainly more people seem to be drawn to authoritarian denominations in times of financial stress and insecurity*.

    Christian advertising with a clearly identifiable target audiences


    Another motive for the socially underprivileged who join sects is that they achieve a sort of social status*. They are accepted as social equals within the sect and even see themselves as members of a spiritual élite.

    The same idea pervades the social spectrum. As one social researcher in the USA observed: "The Church is now a reflection of the economic ladder. Ascent on this ladder is validated by escalation to congregations of higher social and economic rank. For every rung on the ladder there is an appropriate congregation, with ushers of slightly more refined dress, and somewhat more cultivated ladies" affairs"*.

    One other factor that plays a part is the need for ritual. Every religion has rituals. Generally the need for Christian ritual seems to affect only a small number of people. Converts from Western to Eastern Churches often mention ritual as a key reason for their conversion. In the past the effects have been much greater. The whole of Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity rather than Roman Catholic Christianity or Islam, specifically because of its mode of worship*.


    To sum up: from the non-believer's point of view Christianity flourishes through a mix of fear and paternalism, supplemented by social pressure and manipulation of personal inadequacies. For a few the provision of specialist services such as flagellation or ritual may play a significant part. It is not necessary that a conscious choice be made on the part of Church leaders to make their religion attractive to potential adherents. The mechanisms may well be unconscious, as we have seen with the Virus of the Mind theory of religion


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    § For attempts at scientific theories into the origins of religion, see Dennett, Breaking The Spell and Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

    §. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, Hogarth Press ( London, 1913), p 244.

    §. A. Godin and M. Hallez, "Parental Images and Divine Paternity", in From Religious Experience to a Religious Attitude (ed. A. Godin) Lumen Vitae ( Brussels, 1964), cited by Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 184.

    §. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Letters on Psychoanalysis, "A Philosophy of Life".

    §. Arthur Hugh Clough , Dipsychus, I, ii.

    §. A number of sociological studies illustrating the correlation between old age and the strength of religious belief are cited in Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 68-70.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 30-32, citing a number of studies in the UK and USA.

    §. Various interesting sociological theories about the origin of religious behaviour are discussed in Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 180-201.

    §. Robin Dunbar, The Human Story: A New History of Mankind's Evolution, Faber & Faber ( London, 2004), p 191

    §. St Cyprian, De Ecclesiae Catholicae Unitate, 6.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29, citing C. Y. Glock "The Sociology of Religion" in Sociology Today (eds. R. K. Merton et al), Basic Books (New York, 1959).

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29, citing W. Herberg Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Doubleday (New York, 1955).

    §. C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, Religion and Society in Tension, Rand McNally ( Chicago, 1965) and Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, Harper & Rowe (New York, 1966).

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 29. The evidence is cited on pp 25-9 and discussed on pp 203-6.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 154. See also pp 198-9.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 195-6. See also p 99.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 202.

    §. Henry Louise Mencken, Notebooks, "Minority Report".

    §. "The greater his disappointment in this life, the greater his faith in the next. Thus the existence of goals beyond this world serves to compensate people for frustrations they inevitably experience in striving to reach socially acquired and socially valuable ends." Davis K., Human Society, Macmillan (New York, 1948), p 532.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 189, 195-6.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 135-9, 199-201.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 145-8.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 148-9.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 110-1.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 194.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 126-30. More recent work is consistent. See for example Vassilis Saroglou, Vannessa Delpierre & Rebecca Dernelle, Values and Religiosity: A Meta Analysis using Swartz's Model, Personality and Individual Differences, 37 (2004) 271 — 734. According to this paper (from a Catholic University) “Across all 21 samples, religiosity was associated with high importance attributed to the conservation of values, mainly Tradition and Conformity; similarly, religiosity was related to low Self-Direction”. A negative correlation was noted between religiosity and what the paper calls Universalism (which the authors explain as “understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature”

    §. E. D. Starbuck, The Psychology of Religion, Walter Scott ( London, 1899).

    §. F. L. Whitam, "Peers, Parents and Christ: Interpersonal Influence in Retention of Teenage Decisions Made at a Billy Graham Crusade", Proceedings of the Southwestern Sociological Association, 19 ( USA, 1968), pp 154-8.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, p 163, citing a number of studies in the UK and USA.

    §. N. J. Demerath, Social Class in American Protestantism, Rand McNally ( Chicago, 1965).

    §. W. R. Goldschmidt, "Class denominations in rural California churches", American Journal of Sociology, 49 (1944), pp 348-55.

    §. Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi, The Social Psychology of Religion, pp 176-177.

    §. W. Stark, The Sociology of Religion, vol. 2, RKP ( London, 1967)

    §. G. Winter, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, Macmillan (New York, 1962), p 77.

    §. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 269, citing the Russian Primary Chronicle which explains how Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, identified the one true religion.

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