Why Put Up With The Absurdity of Christianity?

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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?

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11 thoughts on “Why Put Up With The Absurdity of Christianity?

  1. I think we may be equivocating on the word “absurd.” Let me try a different word. Scholars use the criterion of “embarrassment” when evaluating whether or not a historical narrative is likely to be true. When we tell stories about ourselves or our heroes, we tend to downplay the most embarrassing parts. However, the story of Jesus is riddled with elements that someone would have changed or edited if they were trying to create a glorified fiction about a hero. It just doesn’t read like a fabrication. And that’s actually a pretty substantial defense of the historicity of the gospel narratives.

    • Which sounds good, except there are attempts to edit the narrative, even if we only take into account the creation of the New Testament after the Old. It was essentially an ‘update’ and addition on top of what was already created, in order to take a wrathful and strict deity and create one that could represent the suffering Jews of that period. No longer was it stories about god backing the Jews in war, or god destroying foreign deities with hellfire, it was a personable god who would like you more in the next life if you suffered in its name.

      But differences in absurdity aside, the important point is that Christians learn to defend the absurdity instead of questioning it.

      • I’d like to point out, a bit late, that the criterion of ’embarrassment’ did not originate in Biblical Studies but in general ‘history.’ Historical analysis has long used it to differentiate probable fact from probable fiction. Will Durant, I believe, was the first to use it extensively. His work was on Julius Caesar.

        So by saying ‘Christians learn to defend absurdity instead of questioning it,’ you’re effectively throwing ashes on quite a few (i.e. virtually all) historians who utilize sources that are older than, say, one or two hundred years. Because they, even more so than Christians, use the criterion of absurdity (or ’embarrassment’) to make finer distinctions around source material.

  2. As a non-Christian, I have to say that I think Jesus had some revolutionary and very helpful things to say. As religions go, you could probably do worse.

    At the same time, it might be easier to understand why people believe this little story if you saw it more from a psychological perspective rather than a logical one. Human beings have believed in the supernatural for a very long time. There must be a reason for it. It must do something for us that other things don’t do. I would go with making life comprehensible for us, explaining things we can’t explain still, making things a bit less scary–especially that nasty thing we call death. Jesus is but one of many silly stories people still believe. I think people believe them for basically the same reasons.

    • It would be difficult to do worse without purposely picking something cannibalistic (and even Christianity has an element of that). It is our own bias, because of the power of Christianity, that makes the statements of Jesus seem overall good and revolutionary. The good statements from Jesus usually amount to the ‘golden rule’, which were not created by Christians. If you look over all the words of Jesus, you’ll find the rest is cryptic, or scary. Jesus always gets a pass though, because we have been told ‘whether you believe in him or not, he still said good things’. Few people research if they actually care for everything Jesus said.

      Also, we should beware using the ‘we have done it for a long time’ excuse for anything. We shouldn’t look at how long something has been done, but if it has been successful at its task. Superstition has lead to death, disease, prejudice, jealousy, and any other number of negative words I could stuff here. There is a reason for it, our gaps in knowledge. But when those gaps are filled, we should not leave people thinking the world is on the back of a turtle because at one point in the past people didn’t know. We DO know now, and they should know better.

      • Yes it is. But you’re an intelligent internet user, so that drives my chances of guessing right up pretty high. If you have been born in a country with any heavy christian population, which you have good odds of, then my statements stand. If you haven’t, then you would just correct me. But considering you came to defend Jesus, it was easier for me to assume.

      • Happy grandiosity! Either way, thanks for leaving your comment. I love any opinion on my thoughts I can get.

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