Why I Have Difficulty Trusting ChristiansApril 2, 2011
I was raised with a pretty strong Christian ethic. It was a black and white world in which right and wrong were easy to identify. One thing that was definitely black was lying. I was pretty strict with myself when it came to lying. I just wouldn’t do it, even if it got me in trouble. Of course, I got pretty good at dissembling to avoid having to lie. But if you asked me a direct question, you would get a truthful answer. I was a little George Washington.
The corollary of holding myself to this ethic of honesty was that I assumed other Christians did the same. Non-believers could (and probably would) be expected to lie to me. But no mature Christian would think of being dishonest.
This expectation of honesty from fellow believers provided me with a very straightforward truth filter. When missionaries came through town regaling us with tales of the miraculous from the darkest corners of Papua New Guinea, I knew they were telling the truth. When a Christian with scientific credentials taught us that the earth was young and the fossil record could be explained by Noah’s flood, I knew it must be true. When I read Christian apologetics books by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel explaining that the Bible was demonstrably accurate and reliable, I knew I could trust them.
They were in my camp. They were fellow Christians. And Christians, more than anyone, could be trusted to tell you the truth.
It wasn’t hard to come up with reasons to doubt those who challenged the “Christian” view of things. Secular scientists or scholars all had an agenda to disprove the truth of the Bible. Of course they would lie or twist the facts in order to persist in their stubborn disbelief. Thus, mainstream scholarly consensus could easily be discounted in favor of the handful of Christians in those fields of study who were unbiased enough to let us in on the real truth.
Then one day my truth filter broke. Irreparably.
It started with science. I read a piece by an old earth creationist who presented compelling evidence for a universe that was billions of years old. Because he was a Christian, my defences were down. I couldn’t deny the obvious implications of the science. Neither could I discount him as someone with an obvious agenda. After all, he was one of us.
I became hungry to know more. Why hadn’t I heard this before? How much of modern science had I unfairly rejected? I soon dove headlong into science, opening doors that had always remained closed to me for fear that I would get my head filled with faith-destroying disinformation from a scientific conspiracy. I read and read and read. I still figured that Christians were going to be the most trustworthy, so I started by reading material by Christians who accepted the consensus views of modern science. Then I read some atheists. Lo and behold, the evolution-affirming Christians and the atheists pretty much agreed on the proper interpretation of the scientific data – that the diversity of life was the product of a long evolutionary process and that all life was related through common descent.
But more importantly, I found that I no longer needed the assurance of the Christian scientists to tell me that evolution was true; it was self-evidently true. The evidence was overwhelming. Even if every single Christian on the planet denied evolution, I knew I could not.
No wonder every textbook and University taught evolution. They weren’t deluded by animosity toward God. They were simply following the evidence where it led. It was the creationists who were deluded. They had lied to me. Maybe they didn’t know they were lying, but they most definitely had sold me a false bill of goods. This was the beginning of my cognitive dissonance. My beliefs had become decoupled from my faith community. I no longer knew whom to trust.
I began to wonder whether this was the only area in which the evangelical community had shut its ears to reality. One spin-off of coming to accept evolution was that Genesis had to be approached differently. This started me on a path of serious biblical study. Once again, I read and read and read. I soon realized that there was a wide gulf between what biblical scholars knew and what the typical evangelical Christian was taught in the pew. The Bible was not a consistent monolithic work without error. At times, it bore uncomfortable resemblance to the texts and practices of other ancient near eastern religions. Its earliest history was at odds with archaeology. Its various authors sometimes disagreed with each other. It did not always present a consistent picture of God. Half of the books were not even written by the people I had been taught to believe were the authors.
If my truth filter was broken before, now it was demolished. I had read so much apologetic material and most of it had turned out to be rubbish. I could now see how the authors had cherry-picked data that appeared to support their positions and ignored relevant data that contradicted their positions. When I came across Lee Strobel’s The Case for Creation, I could see exactly what he was doing. He had carefully chosen his interviewees. They did not represent leading scientists in their field. Rather, he had interviewed scientists on the fringes of the academic world with opinions that were unsupportable in the real world of science (eg. Jonathan Wells). Even I could debunk them now. But Strobel passed them off as though they represented the consensus of modern science. He reassured his evangelical readers (knowing that his was probably the only science book most of them would read) that they could continue to ignore the folly of the evolutionists.
Years earlier I had read Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It had been tremendously effective in confirming what I believed about Christ and the resurrection. Now I began to wonder whether he had hoodwinked me in that book too. I’ll make a long story short and simply say that, knowing what I now know about the historical issues surrounding the New Testament, I am satisfied that The Case for Christ presents a distorted view of the scholarship in that field as well.
It’s been a few years since I began to see my truth filter for what it was. I’ve come out the other side like a Boy Scout after a geomagnetic reversal – my compass now points the opposite direction. In the same way that I once distrusted non-Christians, I now distrust Christians. That’s not to say that I think the average Christian is likely to lie to me. On the contrary, I find that most Christians do prize honesty and usually try to be truthful, at least on a personal level.
The problem is our willingness to lie to ourselves.
It isn’t the secular world that force-fits everything into its anti-God worldview. It’s evangelicals who have taken fields of study, such as biology, archaeology, and biblical studies, and mutilated the square pegs to make them fit into their round holes. They rigidly adhere to a belief structure (typically stemming from a prior commitment to biblical literalism and innerancy) that can countenance no doubt or uncertainty. Thus, when evidence comes along that calls their paradigm into question, they have no choice but to deny, ignore or distort the data to make it fit. Those who are the best at denying, ignoring and distorting the evidence are heralded as apologists for the faith. And evangelicals love apologists because they do all the hard thinking for them, while invariably arriving at faith-affirming conclusions. Their books fly off the Christian bookstore shelves dispensing whatever ad hoc explanation or special pleading might be required to salvage the evangelical belief system from the perils of uncomfortable fact.
In assessing trustworthiness, my first question used to be, “Is this person a Christian?” Now I ask, “Is this person trying to defend a belief system to which he has an inflexible commitment?” If the answer is yes, I realize that I need to be cautious. Christians aren’t the only ones who do this. Atheists are more than capable of deluding themselves in the interests of rejecting theism or Christianity (as attested by the prevalence of Jesus mythicism). But no longer does the Christian ethic of honesty provide me with assurance that a Christian source will be credible. While it might dissuade them from knowingly lying to me, their prior theological commitments can easily lead them to delude themselves (and me in the process).
I’m incredibly thankful for those Christian writers, scholars and bloggers who are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. When I see that someone has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge even those truths that unsettle his or her faith, that’s when I begin to trust again.