A Proposal to Watch Our Language

No, I’m not talking about swearing. I’m also not arguing that we should ban words; that would be too Orwellian. I do believe, however, that it would benefit skeptics to voluntary eliminate or modify a few words in our vocabulary: Christian, Muslim, etc. Every time we use these terms we project unity upon a disunified tangle of multiple religions. In the case of the various Islamic religions, we should either say Sunni or Shiite (or Nation of Islam to describe those who believe Wallace D. Fard is god), or we should amend the label to “Sunni” Muslim or “Shiite” Muslim. The same goes for the multiple Christian religions of the world: there is no “Christian.” There are Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, etc. Even “Protestant” is a generous label, since it encompasses Baptist mega churches, Pentecostal snake handlers, more mild Lutherans, rustic Amish, and many more. There is no “Christianity,” and the failure of a Christian god to communicate a correct religion both historically and in the present to the various Christian religions of the world is a sign that there is no “truth” behind any of them. Instead we only have an amalgamation of different human inventions, often in conflict with each other, which has caused the Christian religions to self-destruct into various factions. We skeptics should not help apologists put the pieces back together.

I grew up as a member of the “true” Christian community. Well, that’s what I was told, at least. Our small desert church was little more than an isolated cult of a couple dozen families. We were one of those “non-denominational” churches, which really meant that we were Protestant. We were no ordinary Protestants, however, as our church practiced speaking in tongues, performing exorcisms, and I have explicit memories of our paster reciting poetry that included demons urinating on people. When a family left the church (as my family later did) we children in our isolated, living room private school were informed that we would not see them again because they had left the “true” way.

Fortunately, my family left this “true” desert cult and returned to civilization when I was ten, but we were still deep in Protestant-ville. A member of the Christian club at my high school once informed me that they had one “Catholic” member on their leadership committee, but the rest were “Christian.” Wow, wah? Historically and in the present the Catholic church makes up the majority of Christians worldwide. The Protestants in many portions of America, however, are so isolated on our new continent, which we have only occupied for the last couple hundred years, that they forget how they belong to a minority Christian faction that did not even begin until the 16th century. If these are the “true” Christians, it sure took a whopping fifteen centuries after Jesus for his “true” message to be figured out.

Recently I watched an interview with Penn Jillet that included an interesting segment: Penn Jillette: ‘Christian’ Is A Made-Up Word. The modern use of the term “Christian” began as a strategy to unite the unharmonious factionalism that has historically divided the various Christian religions. We can see some early 20th century rhetorical strategizing about this term in the writings of Episcopalian C.S. Lewis:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted.

-Mere Christianity

Lewis’ description of Christianity as a hall with many rooms I can at best describe as “cute.” It sounds as if he is describing one of his friend Tolkien’s grand Elven halls. But the house is cracked and divided at the seems when we consider the history of Christian schisms and congregational disputes. Perhaps Christianity is a battle-torn group of trailer homes. We always need to remind an apologist from a particular trailer that they don’t own the park. Fortunately, we live in an age of better housing options, however, and many people are leaving the trailers for other world views. Apologists want to unify the park to build fences around it, but we should not let them stop fighting one another.

So what is the history of this thing we call “Christianity?” Well, traditionally it all goes back to a guy named Jesus from Galilee. Historical Jesus studies have reconstructed that Jesus believed he was a flesh and blood man, who foresaw an end-times apocalypse in his own generation: “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34). After his crucifixion, various personality cults emerged describing Jesus in conflicting ways. For Paul, Jesus was the “first fruits” of the resurrection of the dead, which would come very soon in an impending apocalypse (1 Corinthians 15:20). Of course, neither Jesus’ nor Paul’s apocalypses happened, and cults blossomed instead like brambles poking and starving out each other. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was a divine being who had revealed esoteric knowledge. Marcion held that Jesus had come to replace the god of the Old Testament, who was an imperfect divine being that had created our flawed physical universe. The Docetists maintained that Jesus only appeared to be physical, but was actually only a spiritual apparition. Irenaeus, a proto-Orthodox, attacked many of his fellow Christians as “heretics.” Eventually, the Catholic church became the dominant center of Christianity, but then the Eastern Orthodox Christians had a schism with them in the 11th century. The Protestants further broke from the Catholics in the 16th century, and then the Protestant sects divided and broke from each other. Henry VIII created the Anglican Church to divorce his wife. Mormon Christians believed that Jesus had visited Caucasian Native Americans, and they developed a new canon of scripture. Even the mainstream “Orthodox” Christian sects cannot agree on the canon of the Old Testament, divided over the status of more than a dozen books. Today, bizarre new Christian religions form, such as the Urantia Foundation, which believes that Adam and Eve were space explorers.

Which is the “true” Christianity? Each Christian will claim his or her own. How can they justify it? They’ll all point to their different scriptures and theological treaties. In almost two millennia Christianity has moved nowhere towards coherence. Initial deviations in trial and error is understandable in testing something that is true. Eventually the results will line up. But instead Christianity has merely splintered into more and more factions, into greater and greater discord, exactly as one would expect if there was no true object under investigation.

Today apologists are trying to blur the divides by merely using the label “Christian,” but sharpening the distinctions eliminates this confusion. Does William Craig believe in Papal infallibility? Nope, because he is Protestant and belongs to a religion that began in the 16th century. Is sola scriptura the correct method of forming doctrines? Then it is astonishing that it took god fifteen centuries to get the right books to a mere fraction of his followers. There is no “Christian” and there is no “true Christianity.” Every time we skeptics use these words we allow apologists to blur and confuse the issue. Sharpening our vision and revealing all the cracks reveals what a shattered visage the world’s monotheistic religions are, consistent in one aspect alone: their failure to reach any true and demonstrable deity.

-Matthew Ferguson

4 thoughts on “A Proposal to Watch Our Language

    • Well, I would recommend refuting the central tenets shared by all of them to wipe them all out simultaneously. Refuting the existence of god, for example, refutes every variety of Christianity at once. But I also think that it is important to emphasize the multiple varieties of Christianity to show how they cannot even create a coherent message.

      I don’t disagree with your approach, but I do think that it is compatible with mine. I am just adding another argument against them. Thanks for reading!

  1. I just wrote you an extensive reply which I lost when my browser refreshed (NOOOO!). I have since installed the Lazurus add-on to prevent it happening again, but being time poor these days will have to summarize as this was a serious procrastination in the first place with a major uni assignment due on Tuesday.

    Thank you for another delightfully written blog entry on this most important topic of counter-apologetics. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your writing style, from your elegant analogies to the concise and precise nature of your arguments.

    While I agree with your sentiments in this article, I think of the generic term “Christianity” as equally useful for we anti-apologists whenever we are attacking the body of the hydra rather than its many contradictory heads. What I think you have made an excellent case for however is that we should be vigilant whenever we notice an apologist “circling the wagons” and uniting the many “Christianities” if it is giving too much weight of advantage to their arguments. Like for example when they pull out Pascals Wager (which they all seem endlessly to do). Even if we discount all the thousands of other mutually exclusive religions and allow them to maintain the dualism of Christianity vs atheism, the question arises “which Christianity?” The safer wager quickly becomes atheism as there have been more than 30000 different Christian denominations throughout history, and even if we take into account commonalities of salvation doctrines, you would think the number would at least be in the hundreds if not thousands of options. We then get 50% chance of being right for atheism to half a chance in 100-1000 on the Christian side making Pascal’s wager a win for atheism rather than the other way around.

    I see this problem with language as similar to my own misgivings about using the word “spirituality” as it has so much superstitious baggage, but even for a secularist, no other word comes close to conveying the same weight of meaning. It is still such an important part of flourishing as a human being, even if you don’t believe in the supernatural or any notion of an intangible and immortal human spirit.

    Your continual assumptions of the historicity of Jesus I must say are like fingernails down a chalk board to me, but since Richard Carrier continues to waste his time defending Atheism+ and feminism in his blogs instead of finishing and publishing his book on this subject, I am thinking our debating this topic will continue to remain on hold. I recently gave a talk for Sydney Atheists on the evidence against historicity from the epistles which you can find here if you’re interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0buUlbkcGOc&list=FL1OvDFxe2pVJk5_LfG4l7ug&index=1 While I am not entirely happy with it (I read too much and made a heap of mistakes like saying “22 scholars” instead of “epistle writers in my opening) it still stands as a reasonable summary of Doherty and others on the subject of mythicism. I would also concede your point from an earlier entry that the book of James might be homonymous rather than pseudonymous, so I would also ammend that part of the argument, but I would still argue that pseudonymous is the more likely of the two given what we know of early Christianity, and even more likely for the book of Jude than for James which is the better of the two anyway for making my point.

    I apologize for not reading/responding much lately, but I am back at uni doing a Dip Ed and the workload is insane. I’m also a single father and trying to run my own IT business on the side to pay my way through uni which leaves little time for sleep or leisure. Your blog is one of my favorite indulgences though, so I anticipate being back here much more often than I perhaps should be. Thanks again for your time and expertise in writing this most excellent blog.


    • Hey Alaric, good to hear from you again.

      Yeah, definitely take my advise in this article sparingly. I’m certainly not arguing that we can never use the word “Christian,” but we should also be careful in how we use it. In the new blog that I just posted I used the term, but I always put quotations (“Christian”) around it to emphasize the artificiality of the term.

      We will definitely revisit the historicity argument in the future. With regard to Jude and James, it is tricky where they factor into the historicity debate. They could be homonymous, in which case they wouldn’t be as relevant for the argument about Jesus’ brothers, but let’s assume that they are pseudonymous. If they were pseudonymous, the argument can go that they would have included mention of being Jesus’ brother if that was an early tradition. The absence of these references may imply that it wasn’t an early tradition and only a later post-Markan fabrication. However, I think the argument can also go the opposite way. If the letters are pseudonymous, the implication was that the authors were writing to be “the James” and the “Jude.” We can expect forgeries to Peter and Paul, but why Jude or James? If they weren’t believed to be Jesus’ brother, they would be relatively obscure and less important church figures. If they were believed early on to be Jesus’ brothers, however, then they would have more authority, which may incline a forger to attribute an epistle to them. I think the argument is at best a draw with these two letters.

      I agree that the historicity issue is one that skeptics need to seriously debate, but let this blog be a warning about a tactic that apologists can likewise use against skeptics. I do not want skepticism to become polarized between “Historicists” and “Mythicists.” I am sure you can see how damaging an angle that could be for apologists to exploit. You and I certainly agree on one central foundation: Jesus has a perfectly natural explanation. We are first and foremost Naturalists who reject supernatural accounts of Jesus. Whether or not we do so on the grounds that he was an obscure Jew or a mythical creation is a secondary concern. So we certainly agree more than disagree.

      I appreciate your reading and comments! Good luck with balancing school, work, and family life! Try to find time for some rest on the side ;-)



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