I’ve recently had the privilege of revisiting an anthology of autobiographical essays written by several prominent conservative Christian philosophers titled Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers. I was especially impressed this time around with the honesty that all of its contributors exhibited. None, for instance, says that the primary reason that he or she embraces Christianity is because its truth claims are so well justified that no rational person could possibly resist believing them. Instead, common motives given for maintaining religious affiliation include inner joy and peace, the desire to belong to a community of care, a heightened sense of purpose and meaning, and confidence in the veridicality of religious experiences had during one’s youth. Many also highlight consolation received from the gospel’s most important promises, such as remission from sin or postmortem reunion with loved ones. It is, then, concrete social and psychological benefits that generally draw and sustain them, not the unassailable rationality or persuasiveness of Christian truth-claims. Strikingly, no contributor says that the discipline of philosophy led him or her to faith in the Christian god. Frederick Suppe even acknowledges that philosophy had proven so “hazardous to faith” that he eventually decided he had no choice but to surrender his reason and “buy the whole thing, without reservation or hesitation.”
While impressed with their candor, I was also unsettled by the self-serving nature of their chief reasons for joining or remaining part of a faith community. For most contributors, when the gift of faith and its benefits was offered, they accepted gladly and without hesitation, overjoyed that the creator of the universe had chosen them to play for the winning team. There is virtually no mention of all those unfortunate people who never were—nor ever will be—offered this same gift. One wonders: What of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, and Wiccans who either weren’t presented with the Christian message or have no reason to believe that it offers a path to salvation or liberation more compelling than the one with which they’re already familiar? What of those raised in agnostic or humanist households? What of people who, perhaps because of chronic illness or some great personal loss, simply cannot believe that a benevolent deity presides over this world?
All contributors are (or were) professors (1) whose research is highly regarded by colleagues in their respective areas of expertise; (2) who have been well-compensated for rewarding work; (3) who were granted extended periods of leave at some point during their careers to travel and pursue writing projects that brought them personal satisfaction; and (4) who obtained a measure of job security unavailable to most of the world’s labor force. Furthermore, they all have spent the better part of their careers in wealthy, industrialized nations, thereby benefiting from fine health care, abundant food, clean water, and a variety of rights and freedoms denied to many around the globe.
But all that has not been enough. These authors also must savor the feeling of being “nourished and refreshed” repeatedly by a sense of God’s loving presence. They seize upon the inner peace that comes with knowing that one day, after a life of extraordinary privilege here on Earth, things will get even better as they “bask eternally in the Beatific Vision,” all the while relishing the companionship of others of God’s favorites. They have been saved, and it feels so good that they can’t imagine ever having to give up this magnificent windfall. For those who haven’t been offered this precious gift, well, that’s just too bad. As Paul once put it, God as creator has every right to make some people exclusively for the purpose of being annihilated and others for eternal communion with him (Romans 9:19–24). Because this is so, the elect ought just to be grateful when the gift of faith is extended and try not to focus too much on all those unfortunates—who, by the way, account for the overwhelming majority of our species.
I once gladly accepted the gift of salvation too. It felt good knowing that I was on the winning team and that I would be rewarded in the afterlife for doing what was asked of me. And, like so many of these authors, I also believed I had felt the joy of God’s presence while gazing at a majestic mountain peak or over an open prairie in full bloom, and I took comfort in the knowledge that I had been set free from sin and its postmortem consequences. My religious beliefs and experiences gave me a sense of peace. As a well-educated white male of privilege living in the developed world, I can’t say I really needed any of this, but it felt wonderful nonetheless. Why deny oneself this extra pleasure?
Nearly a decade ago, the sudden onset of a chronic, painful, and incurable rheumatic illness triggered an intensive reevaluation of my religious beliefs. Because things had gone reasonably well up to this point, I had never really been pressed to question the worldview I was sold. But I soon found myself standing on the outside of life looking in, where I began to see what so many others in my position do: gratuitous suffering—suffering that serves no real purpose—is everywhere. Healthy people may not see the pain all around them, but those who have entered what Laurie Edwards calls “the kingdom of the sick” very often do.
The problem of suffering and evil, which has given theologians in monotheistic traditions fits for millennia, suddenly became deeply personal and pressing. Given the overwhelming magnitude and variety of gratuitous suffering worked into the very fabric of God’s world—indeed, worked into a cruel and wasteful evolutionary process that extends back hundreds of millions of years—it seemed that I would have no choice but to dispense either with God’s power or God’s goodness. Because I simply couldn’t convince myself that a creator has no power to alter the structure of his own world so as to relieve at least some of our suffering, I felt I had no option but to surrender God’s goodness. If there is a deity at all, I concluded, he can’t be the benevolent and all-powerful sovereign most Christians claim to worship today. Any creator of this world is not worthy of our worship—of fear, awe, or even pity but certainly not adoration.
So, I joined the godforsaken of this world, partly because I had no choice but also because I wanted nothing to do with a creator who made a world such as ours and then did nothing whatsoever to diminish gratuitous suffering. Should there be a creator (I doubt there is), I decided that I would stand in solidarity with those he has rejected or simply ignored. I came to feel that you can’t have it both ways: either you accept the gift of faith and its benefits or you stand with the mass of humanity for whom the traditional Christian god has shown no regard. I chose solidarity.
For me, the decision remains a profoundly moral one. On the one hand, like Pascal we can wager on the existence of a deity and his offer of eternal bliss in the absence of convincing evidence and hope for the best. Of course, if we do, we also ought to admit to ourselves that we have let fear and egoism get the best of us. Perhaps far worse is that we end up aligning ourselves with a cosmic sociopath who habitually ignores the cries of good people in tremendous pain and even creates a majority of us solely for the purpose of being destroyed (Paul) or suffering eternally (the Synoptic Gospels). This is one option, but it is not a particularly honorable one. The other is to stand in solidarity with all those about whom this creator doesn’t give a damn. Maybe we lose out on eternal life, but we can do so with the confidence that sympathy and solidarity are far more noble aspirations than aiming to save one’s skin from hellfire and savor endless bliss, all the while aware that billions upon billions of others have been exterminated en masse or are enduring unimaginable suffering elsewhere without hope of reprieve.
Applying the term wrong to a Christian’s decision to accept God’s gift of salvation admittedly may be pushing it a bit too far, partly because many adherents today truly aren’t aware of just what kind of mercurial and often inhumane biblical character it is to whom Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox communities have historically professed allegiance. To do so, then, may constitute a failure to account for an adherent’s unique epistemic situation and limitations. Nevertheless, in communities where members clearly are aware of the unsavory features of the biblical god—especially his utter indifference toward the present well-being and postmortem fate of a majority of Earth’s inhabitants—but gladly accept this gift anyway, I think it’s fair to say that such a decision likely indicates a lack of sympathy for all those for whom salvation necessarily remains out of reach, as well as an excessive preoccupation with securing a future of personal gratification and ease. Needless to say, neither character trait is particularly admirable.
Although probably evident to many readers by now, the following point ought to be made explicit: when referring to God, I am referring to the deity in whom Christians traditionally have professed faith, not the god of all-inclusive love introduced by progressive theologians during the latter half of the twentieth century to accommodate our more refined moral sensibilities. This deity, say progressive theologians, cares deeply for all he has made, and he desires to redeem all living organisms rather than a mere handful of Homo sapiens who have had the good fortune of being introduced to the gospel and managed to accept its central tenets on faith. But this god is limited in his ability to relieve suffering and, like us, he is still maturing intellectually, emotionally, and even morally. Furthermore, unlike the omniscient sovereign of ages past, he hasn’t the slightest clue as to what the future holds. The future hinges largely upon what kinds of decisions we and other sentient beings make in response to God’s “luring” us toward aims that he believes will prove most conducive to eudaimonia. If God’s intentions for us are to be realized, say progressives, they will emerge not through an exercise of divine power or coercion but through God’s gentle persuasion.
However, as Richard Dawkins and other outspoken atheists have repeatedly pointed out, even though this overhaul of the divine character was introduced in academic circles well over a half century ago, it has been adopted only by a very small minority of adherents around the world. More important, it bears little resemblance to the Bible’s protagonist, whose unchecked power, unabashed favoritism, capriciousness, and cruelty seem to know no bounds. Because progressive theologians’ newly minted deity either has no power to alleviate suffering or has chosen not to make use of what little power he does have, he has virtually no chance of being embraced by Christian communities on a broad scale. For most people, a god without power—or, alternatively, a god without the will to use it—is no god at all.
My hope is that more and more will surrender their allegiance to the impulsive, egomaniacal, vengeful, sexist, ableist, hyper-punitive deity of traditional Christianity, whose arrested moral development should automatically disqualify him as an object of worship in the modern era, and take their place alongside the vast majority of our species for whom he seems to show little or no interest. If someone who disaffiliates from Christianity’s traditional god should subsequently choose to affiliate with the far more humane deity introduced by late–twentieth-century theologians, I happen to think that that’s perfectly acceptable. To be sure, the likelihood of such a being actually existing would seem rather low. But atheists, agnostics, and members of other religious communities are not the only ones to underscore this point. In fact, I am not aware of any reputable progressive theologian who would deny that the following claim bears a low degree of probability: “A creator exists, and this creator happens to possess exactly those qualities that progressive Christians ascribe to him.” This is precisely why faith—believing beyond or, in Kierkegaard’s case, even against the evidence—must play an essential role in any adherent’s life. Any ethically responsible religious praxis today, then, will not only require severing ties with Christianity’s traditional god but will also involve conceding that one must venture an epistemic leap that far surpasses what the currently available evidence would seem to support.
But to all those conservative professors of privilege who contributed to Philosophers Who Believe and who have maintained allegiance to some form of Christianity’s traditional deity, I would say: Have you not enough as it is? Will financial stability, superb medical care, a rewarding vocation, freedom to speak your mind, and access to the all the food and entertainment you could ever want simply not cut it? Must you also lay claim to the inner joy and peace that the sensus divinitatus occasionally bestows on you as you climb majestic mountain peaks? Must you also draw daily consolation from the promise of eternal bliss? And, do the rest of us really not matter to you? Solidarity or salvation—I am not convinced you can have both. I wish you would stand with us.
Clark, Kelly James, editor. 1993. Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press.
Edwards, Laurie. 2014. In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America. New York: Bloomsbury USA.