If you believe that Christianity is the least tenable of the major religions, as you should, the question of the top three objections to that religion is a conundrum. It’s like picking the three finest jewels from a dragon’s horde of millions of precious items. There are too many problems to decide which are the most fundamental, damaging, or embarrassing to a religion like Christianity.
I’ve racked my brains to settle on what I think are the three most important objections specifically to that religion. These are meant to be general enough to apply to all major forms of Christianity, but not so general as to apply to all theistic religions. The question of whether God exists in the first place, for example, is obviously primary, but that issue doesn’t distinguish Christianity from the other faiths.
These three strike me as equally important, but I present them here in a logical order that shows how the problems unfold.
(1) Christianity trivializes God by literalizing its myths
Yes, there are Christian philosophers and mystics who devise abstract theologies and there are progressives who call themselves Christian even though they strip Christianity down to Stoic wisdom or interpret the theology as a series of naturalistic metaphors.
But the essence of Christianity for two millennia has been the idea that God incarnated himself in a particular man who lived, died, and lived again at a particular time and place. That creed could be read as metaphor or allegory, midrash or fiction, but most Christians read it as a literal, historical report of actual events. Yet a proper religion should be pleased to feature myths that don’t have to masquerade as anything else.
Christians aren’t so pleased, so they’re preoccupied with questions of historical fact, which leads them to follow Paul of Tarsus in thinking that religious beliefs are more important than ethical deeds. Strangely, Paul wasn’t interested in any historical Jesus, but his Gnostic, Orphic theology entailed that we’re saved from sin by our beliefs, not by our actions. Specifically, we have to believe in Jesus to get into Heaven, according to most Christians, since God-as-Jesus stood in for us and already performed all the righteous works we could ever hope to accomplish.
Eastern Orthodox Christians likewise emphasize the Incarnation and faith in Jesus, but they don’t think Jesus substituted for us or paid the price for sin. Instead, they think Jesus united human and divine nature, so our job is to emulate Jesus and deify ourselves. We do so by repenting and meditating upon Christian symbols until we cleanse our mentality so that we can participate positively in divine energies in the afterlife, rather than being cursed by sin and ignorance to experience God’s immediate presence as horrific.
As time passed, the Christian beliefs in question became more and more irrational, since the evidence faded and the times changed. As a result, the average Christian’s religious experience is thin or delusional. To compensate, the Christian will assume certain conventional poses, adopting this or that prescribed slogan or mantra to pretend she’s “caught up in the Holy Spirit.”
Any such heartfelt expression of spirituality must be severely limited in this religion to protect the prerogatives of Christian institutions. This pattern was established early on when Christian Gnosticism was declared heretical. Christian literalism began not as any need to protect the evidence of an actual miracle, but as a Machiavellian ruse to establish the chain of spiritual custody from God to Jesus to the apostles and thus to the established Church.
Politics thereby tainted Christian scriptures, which were catholicized by redactors and by the council that created a biblical canon to counter Marcion’s more straightforward Gnostic canon. Indeed, Christianity is essentially a political, literalized or historicized version of the ancient Mystery cults that’s lasted for two thousand years.
Needless to say, a god that could fit within a single ancient Galilean man would hardly be worthy of worship, let alone a deity that’s tainted at every turn by the Church’s tawdry history. None of the Church’s sins would matter much if Christianity hadn’t made an idol of literal, historical truth. If the Church’s later history of political maneuvering and casuistic exploitation of laypeople’s ignorance and gullibility is profoundly disappointing, why should anyone expect the religion’s origin and early history were pristine and supernatural?
(2) Christianity trivializes the world, by concentrating apparent divinity within Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross
Christian literalism is only one side of the duplicity that’s integral to this religion. The doctrine of the Incarnation is just a self-contradiction, like the talk of a squared circle, so you can emphasize either side of the contradiction to obtain different disasters that result from the essential senselessness. By identifying God and supernature with a part of nature, Christianity reduces the former to the latter, which obviates the need for religion by eliminating the strangeness of the sacred.
But the same two-sidedness also reduces the wonders of nature to the puffery of the only begotten Son of God, all the rest of the universe being a fallen place. This is why pride is such a sin in Christianity and why this religion conflicts with secular humanism, because Christians are preoccupied with the life of one particular character in their story.
The more spiritual or existential reading of the myth would be that Jesus is a model of what we’re all supposed to do. As in Hinduism or Jainism, perhaps we’re all inherently or potentially divine. Eastern Christianity comes closer to that mystical, more pantheistic conception, but as long as “the gospel” is literalized, Christians will be forced to demonize secular displays of heroism.
Christianity thus stands opposed to the humanistic spirit of science and of authentic philosophy, since reason would be part of the fallen world. True, you would need reason to appreciate the mere literal truth of Christianity’s historical claims. But reason is treacherous for the Christian, since the historical evidence for Christianity turned out to be far too weak to justify the certainty that Christians need to motivate their crusades against all non-Christian ways of life.
Most infamously, three of the four alleged eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s life turned out to be two redactions (Matthew and Luke) of a single source (Mark), while the fourth (John) was a late Gnostic gospel which presents an altogether different Jesus and which may also have been based largely on Mark. Critical historians regard Acts as tendentious and only at times accidentally accurate as an historical account of events. Paul’s epistles, which conflict with the catholicized portrait of the early church in Acts, say barely a single word about the historical Jesus (especially in the original Greek).
Christian literalism thus turned out to be a blunder, since the appeal to certain alleged historical facts in first-century Palestine promoted reason as an arbiter of that religion, and critical investigative methods eventually stripped Christianity of its authority, by demonstrating the surprising extent to which the facts are not on its side.
However, Christian duplicity comes to the rescue, as the Christian compensates by turning from reason to faith whenever the road gets rocky. The Christian is thus encouraged to think that only Jesus was fully divine in nature, all the rest of nature is fallen and governed by devils, and she can therefore dismiss any argument or scientific finding she doesn’t like, as an evil distraction. Christianity thus degenerates into a self-reinforcing delusion.
(3) Christian duplicity makes for inherent theoretical contradictions that prime Christians to overlook their religion’s institutional compromises
From the beginning, Christians made a virtue of the blatant self-contradictions in their core doctrines. Paul said the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing and unsaved (1 Cor.1:18). Jesus was both fully God and fully man. God is one but also three separate persons. The Creator of the universe became a man who was betrayed and who died a despicable death. God loves us but he also insists on punishing everyone in Hell forever unless we admit we deserve to be crucified and thank God for dying in our place. Or God is perfect but his cosmic handiwork is flawed and overrun by devils, and the universe needed to be rescued by a crucial act of divine bridge-building that happened to occur on our planet in the first century CE.
To be a Christian is to accept the foolishness and the incoherence of some such doctrines and to have faith in God anyway. This can be explained in terms of the evolutionary handicap principle. We prove how strong and reliable we are by the extent to which we’re able to cope with extra hardships. The peacock with the largest, most cumbersome tail proves that it’s genetically fit, because the preposterous tail doesn’t slow it down. Likewise, we show off how much surplus money we have by wasting it in acts of conspicuous consumption.
Embracing absurdity can be the whole point. In the case of religion, we prove our loyalty to the cause by accepting what are actually asinine, untenable principles. This is most apparent in cults such as Scientology, which have laughable, plagiarized creeds. But Christianity is the only major religion that explicitly makes a virtue of the admitted foolishness of its central teachings.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell showed how such loyalty tests could be exploited for dystopian purposes. As we know from logic, you can prove anything from a contradiction (by reductio ad absurdum). This means that once you can get someone to accept both sides of a contradiction as being true, you own that person’s mind since you can get him or her to believe anything.
Similarly, once you enshrine the follies of the Incarnation and the Trinity, the inerrancy of man-made scripture, and the delay of the Second Coming, you can get Christians to take in stride the fact that the Church made its home in the very same Roman Empire that had supposedly executed Jesus. Christians would come to accept that the Church has a right to torture and to execute heretics and unbelievers in Jesus’s name, whereas Jesus said his followers should turn the other cheek. Christians became glad to make excuses for war, slavery, misogyny, imperialism, consumerism, and grotesque wealth inequality.
As far as anyone can tell from the New Testament, Jesus was a counter-cultural figure who renounced the secular and religious conventions of his day, contending that the present order was doomed to be turned on its head by the power of God. His preaching was comparable to that of the Essenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics. He said people should live as though the world is on the verge of ending and their eternal destiny in the afterlife hangs in the balance. His ethical standards were high, since he said God judges our hearts and minds, not just our rote adherence to rituals. He said we shouldn’t strive for earthly happiness but should spend all our time helping the poor and the sick, since worldly success at other people’s expense is futile in the big picture.
But Christian institutions betrayed Jesus’s message over and over again and trained Christians to be alright with that, by indoctrinating them with absurdities.
For religious folks who turned the humiliation of crucifixion into jewelry they wear around their necks, it’s a wonder Christians aren’t more ashamed of their religion. Indeed, that capacity for self-deception is itself miraculous if anything is, but it inspires confidence in an altogether different sort of deity.