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Friday, October 28, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Heretics Aplenty

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

According to Shane Morris of The Federalist, a LifeWay Research survey of 3,000 people found that significant numbers of Americans who identify as Christian actually embrace ancient heresies.

Tom: The survey results confirm my own prejudices, Immanuel Can. I’ve been reading for years that upwards of 80% of Americans claim to be Christian, and I’ve never been able to buy it. You can’t convince me Roe v. Wade has been law for the last forty-plus years because of 20% of the U.S. population.

Do you find the general public level of knowledge about Christianity surprising?

Ignorance and Opinion

Immanuel Can: No. In fact, when I was teaching the subject, I used to run a survey with my students. On one side, it asked them to identify the specifics of their involvement in religious activities in a series of non-sectarian questions; on the other side, it contained a very basic quiz about facts on religion. To my great surprise, there was inevitably an inverse proportional relationship between experience and opinion: the less real involvement they had, the more they were certain they knew.

Tom: Which would explain why atheists are the most certain of all …

IC: After a few years, I came to this conclusion: when it comes to faith, there’s nobody more opinionated than the person who knows practically nothing about it. Ironic, no?

Tom: Indeed. But that seems to be what this survey shows. Example: Arianism. Five out of ten survey respondents said Jesus is “the first and greatest being created by God”. That’s ignorance, sure, but it’s also heresy, if the opinion of the early church means anything. John 1 says “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made”.

But hey, five out of ten. It’s a problem.

The Basics of the Gospel

IC: Yes. And it seems even the very basics of the gospel are not well understood — even by evangelicals. The doctrine of sin is fundamental to any understanding of salvation: and what can it possibly mean that the majority do not even understand it? How can one need salvation if he thinks he’s pretty good already?

It’s very telling, I think, that the people surveyed could not even stop contradicting themselves. They’d say Christ is the only way to salvation, and then that practically everybody from any religion is also potentially saved. That doesn’t even make sense on its own terms — let alone on biblical terms.

Tom: How much of this is down to the phenomenon of “cultural Christianity”?

In North America at least — probably because of a lack of overt persecution — identifying as “Christian” is a convenient parking spot: it gets you more or less left alone by all but the most avid evangelicals, and gives you something to say if you’re dodging pushy Mormons or Muslims. But this sort of “Christian” is bound to answer survey questions like the ones posed by LifeWay much less coherently than you or I might, largely because they have no real convictions about anything spiritual.

Cultural Christianity

The atheist Richard Dawkins, for instance, calls himself a “cultural Christian” and a “cultural Anglican”. I’d never heard the term until a few years ago, and I dislike it because it makes it necessary to coin terms of contrast like “believing Christian”, which seems simultaneously redundant and absurd. But for all that, the term is out there in use, and it describes a number of people I know who are more or less agnostic on the issue of whether God exists or is as described in the Bible (and may even be skeptical concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ) but still think of themselves as “Christian” much in the way that one might prefer the Blue Jays to the Orioles.

IC: In one way, “cultural Christian” makes sense. If you’re saying, “I grew up in a culture which was blessed by having once been heavily influenced by truth, and taught basic values of human rights, hard work, freedom of conscience and godly morals, along with the rich tradition of Christian thinking, science, art, music and so on,” then it’s possibly true.

Tom: And I think, more or less, that’s what’s meant by it.

IC: But if you’re saying, “Being born in such a culture made me automatically a Christian,” then it’s simply delusional. From the first moment until now, Christianity has always been nothing but a confession of entire personal devotion to Christ. Any other supposed meaning is just rubbish.

Self-Identification

Tom: Right. But you can see how that’s a distinction that, for the most part, is lost on the takers of surveys.

IC: Oh yes, of course. One thing all Christians should know about that: the liberal-minded sorts who compile the data usually use “self-identification” as if it were a sufficient criterion for belief. In other words, if you say you’re a “Christian”, then so far as they know, you are; end of story. It’s considered unpardonably rude and illiberal — not to mention that it actually requires some discernment — to doubt the “self-identification” criterion. That means that most studies of what “Christians” believe or do are bound to be off. How badly they are going to be off depends on how liberal (and hence, undiscerning) the statistics-taker happened to be.

Tom: Well, that’s what I think too. What is really scary about the LifeWay survey is that they saw the self-identified types were affecting their results, and took it into account. So they asked a subset of their survey questions to only those evangelicals who called:
“… the Bible their highest authority, said personal evangelism is important, and indicated that trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross is the only way of salvation.”
Not a perfect litmus test, maybe, but certainly closer to the mark than, “Yeah, I’m a Christian”. And these results were in many ways worse than those of the self-identifieds.

Bad Tofu

IC: Well, if there’s anything to LifeWay’s statistics, one thing they show is that saying they believe in the Bible, evangelism and salvation actually means very little to the respondents. Isn’t that LifeWay’s point — that people talk about believing these things, but don’t have the faintest idea what they really entail? So I’m agreeing with them … but also pointing out that there’s no reasonable way we can call such people “Christians”. At most, they’re “Christian-flavoured,” like a really, really bad kind of tofu.

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