Like any grown human being, I spend my day by day trying to understand why everyone doesn’t see the world like I do. There are definitely situations where I have answered this question, like the case of gay rights or placement in the political spectrum, but others aren’t so easy to figure out.
I’m still young, but to me the story of Christianity is so obviously a fairy tale that it seems odd for adults to believe in it. You teach your kid about Santa, knowing it is a childish story. You teach your kid about the stork, knowing it is a childish story. But when it comes to the dead Jewish guy who walked on water, it is a matter of belief or death. It is an absurd story from many angles. It is contradictory, over the top, archaic, archetypal, badly framed, and disjointed. Absurd.
So I did my duty as a denizen of the internet, and I googled up some answers. In this case, I took an opinion essay from the Christian Post called Is Christianity Absurd? by Michael Svigel (whose name I will regret by the end of this). In his essay he approaches the question of the absurdity of Christianity. I’ll let him explain:
When a person steeped in the world’s wisdom steps back and takes an objective look at what we believe about Jesus Christ, Christianity comes out looking pretty foolish. Think about it. The eternal God becoming a human being? That makes as much sense as a man becoming a gnat . . . or a blade of grass . . . or a popsicle stick. Or what reasonable person would believe that the divine Source of all creation—of life itself—could die? And what modern person would ever believe that a dead man could come to life after three days?
The absurdity mounts to such a degree that one marvels that anybody believes at all . . . yet you and I stake our whole existence on such seemingly ridiculous claims! Why?
This is my question in a nutshell, so I figured this guy was the best person to go to for the answer. Seems he is faculty at the Dallas Theological Seminary, so this guy probably knows his Christian bible. He explains that the story is indeed a little crazy:
Let me turn the tables on this. Unlike the ancient and modern skeptics who find Christianity too absurd to accept, couldn’t we just as easily believe the truth of Christianity not in spite of its absurdity, but because of it? If Jesus Christ was not God incarnate, and if He did not really rise from dead, this would mean the early disciples made up all these stories about Jesus. But why would anybody make up stories that would be difficult for both Jews and Greeks to accept? Why not fabricate more “user friendly” and less “kooky” tales? Tertullian, a Christian of the early third century, put it this way: “The Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 5.4).
Wait, that is it? It is crazy because it is true? Well I am a student of the literary arts, I respect the concept that truth is stranger than fiction. A great teacher once told me “You want your fiction to sound like non-fiction, and your non-fiction to seem like fiction.” So there is a nugget of truth in here (under a theological turd).
Svigel spends a good part of the essay describing how the story had to seem even more absurd to people in the past, 2000 years ago, who had life even harder. Imagine your god deciding to be some disease ridden flesh-sack like yourself. Makes me want to bend over and take a wafer to the mouth. Unfortunately, I don’t think it made a lot of sense back then, and it definitely doesn’t make a lot of sense now.
I’m no seminary faculty, but if you ask me it wasn’t a leap to believe in a god 2000 years ago. If someone left a piece of meat out, and magically there were maggots in it, I would be overburdened with owls and on my way to Hogwarts. But the story was still absurd, and that still doesn’t make it true. Our gut reactions to the absurd can lead to reality seeming odd, but on close examination the universe has a wonderful order to it.
So I decided to dig further, figure out if someone else could explain to me why the absurd is taken as so plausible.
Meet Chris Mooney (Chris C Mooney the novelist to his friends), he wrote an article about why people reject scientific viewpoints, and I think this can definitely help here.
His essay is much longer, so you’ll excuse me if I can’t quote all of it (go read it). Mooney begins with a story about Leon Festinger, the Stanford Psychologist who studied a group of cultists called the Seekers. When the Seekers ran into that age old doomsday problem, aka the world not exploding when their eccentric leader said it would, they did what any group would when faced with the utter extinction (of their absurd ideas), they slightly adjusted their thoughts and kept on trucking.
You see, there has been some research done on why humans, from Christians down to the lowly nuclear physicist, can be resistant to facts in the face of evidence. We let our gut react before our head:
The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds-fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course-we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower-and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
I guess this isn’t so surprising. When you flash a picture to someone their instinct jumps in the way first, and the rest of the engagement will be colored by that gut reaction. Its like whenever I see a quote by Ron Paul, it takes a few minutes longer to digest if the words said aren’t just insane drivel meant to excite first time voters.
Mooney goes on, explaining that we hold to our gut bias so strongly, that we will even shoot down scientists with no other information but the idea that they are in support of something we hate.
It even gets worse as people are more educated. All it means is they are better at articulating arguments to shut down anyone’s attempt to attack their biased stance.
Now this is my own bias talking, but I like this explanation better. At the end of the day, the absurdity of Christian belief doesn’t make it more true, but it does make it stranger when grown and educated adults are willing to defend it. Unfortunately, the emotion behind people’s belief is so strong, that the first reaction to someone questioning faith is for the mind to completely discredit the offenders.
Not that Christians alone do this, I’ve done it plenty. The question is, when can we notice it, when can we realize we are being completely absurd?