Persecution vs. Persecution Complex

An interesting perspective, and the book “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom” by Prof. Candida Moss is going on my “to be read” pile, along with a couple of other ones she’s published (see “tsundoku“).

The most important point of the article, in my opinion, is that presenting yourself as “persecuted” does not exactly foster a relationship of conversation and equal exchange of ideas. It sets up the person who disagrees with you as evil and relentless, when in fact many of the concerns about “persecution” today in the US are about disagreements concerning issues like same-sex marriage, access to women’s healthcare and birth control. While these issues engender a lot of disagreement, it would be hard to classify that disagreement as “persecution”.

But a particularly vocal group wants to portray that disagreement as coming from a fundamentally evil source, and cast opponents as persecutors, which is useful to those making the claim and portraying themselves as martyrs, but completely ruinous to the conversation. You don’t, by definition, have a pleasant conversation about differences in opinion with a martyr.

See “The War on Christmas“, now in its seventh consecutive year of re-runs, or the recent flaps about how Obama is persecuting Christians because he supports access to contraception as part of a comprehensive healthcare package.

The other point of note here is the rejection of a common claim that backs up Christianity as the “one true religion”: how many people have given their lives for the idea. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t do so if it wasn’t true, right? Unfortunately the problems with that claim are two-fold: (a) many different, mutually-incompatible religions have their own martyrs, and (b) over the course of history, people have proved to be quite willing to die for ideas that end up being wrong. People die on both sides of wars and inquisitions, after all. In fact many of the religious conflicts in history have generated martyrs for both sides, which are fighting in direct opposition to each other, and therefore cannot both be right. The fact that we are willing to die for ideas that may or may not be correct demands investigation into why we humans have a tendency to do so, but it serves poorly as a demonstration of the veracity of any faith claim.

An author I’d like to try to get on the radio show, if possible.  Her book is available here.

Update: a better article from the Daily Beast here.

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Which version of Christianity, exactly?

The irony about having discussions about Christian theological issues is that, in order to have the discussion, you first have to figure out what the person actually believes.  You have to actually define first what version of Christianity they agree with, out of the 40-odd thousand different versions that are out there.  You’d think that having a common religious text would mean some level of common religious belief; but even though everyone claims to be the ones who were fortunate or smart enough to be able to interpret the Bible correctly, there’s no guarantee which each person’s definition of a defensible, “Christian” position will be on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, literal creationism, evolution, the death penalty, the roles and rights of women in their organizations, their families and in society, whether the fires of Hell are literal or metaphorical, whether Hell is eternal or temporary, whether Hell even actually exists or not, what happens to children who die before they are baptized, whether baptism is even necessary or not, whether salvation comes through faith or through good works, homosexuality, whether the “Fall” was literal or metaphorical, which of the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy still apply and which we can ignore (tattoos, anyone?), slavery and whether it was ever acceptable, at what point does a soul “enter” the body, what’s the correct way to determine when a human life begins, stem cell research, euthanasia, end-of-life dignity, healthcare and contraceptive care, etc. etc., ad infinitum.

It’s not that people can’t have different opinions on these issues: they can, and they do.  But you can find denominations that support both sides of each of these issues, and both will claim absolute certainty and Biblical authority for their position, and find no reason to be concerned that other denominations reach the exact opposite position using the exact same text.

You can’t all be right, you know.  You can all be wrong, but that’s a different conversation.

As an outsider looking in, when you realize that the phrase “I’m a Christian, therefore I believe X” is true for all possible combinations of positions on the issues above, for so many values of X, you start understanding that perhaps people are bringing their own morality into the equation, and then just choosing the interpretations of their religious text that agree with their pre-existing position.  Believe in support for same-sex marriage?  Sure, you can justify that biblically.  Believe that gay people should be stoned to death?  Yup, you can justify that biblically too… and in fact you can do that one much more directly and with less logical leaps interpretation (you see, it says you’re supposed to, pretty clearly).  Therefore, it seems people’s morality precedes their religious beliefs, which technically makes the beliefs themselves unnecessary (other than as selective post-facto justification) as the foundation of a moral framework.

A quick Google search will easily prove that, no matter which position a person supports on the issues above, there are plenty of religious authority figures who have posted long, detailed explanations of why theirs is not just the best interpretation of the religious texts, but is in fact THE ONLY possible logical interpretation.  Truth!  And they have the piles of quotes to support their view and the context to prove their way of thinking, and the arguments about why anyone who uses other passages to prove a different point is missing the bigger picture and doesn’t understand the context.  If you disagree with it, it must be a metaphor for something else, or it meant something else at the time it was written and therefore mustn’t be taken literally, or it no longer applies because of this other passage.  If you agree with it, it’s just true.

I’ve spent a large part of my life having discussions with people about issues like the ones above, and it never ceases to amaze me.  Perhaps I should be less surprised, considering how fractured the interpretations have been since the very beginning: even in the first centuries of the Common Era, various sects were sniping at each other over fundamental issues like whether Judaic law still applied, whether Jesus was actually a regular man with a divine spirit inside, whether Jesus ever even took physical form or was just a kind of ghost that people saw… I mean, these were groups of people who, just a few generations removed from when the guy was supposedly walking around, couldn’t come to an agreement on what it all meant.  You’d think someone who had the power to create the entire universe could have made his message a bit clearer, instead of using all that awesomeness to imprint his image on toast.  Because how clear can your message be when your followers have created over 40 THOUSAND denominations with different interpretations of it?

To answer the most common question I get when posting this kind of message: why do I have the discussions in the first place?  Well, because the people I have the discussions with are in the position of making decisions or passing laws or voting on issues that affect me, my family, and the education, well-being and rights of the people around me.  They use religious reasoning (or rather, religious rationalization) to reach a decision on what votes to propose, what standards of education to apply, how to vote.  If they didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have to have these discussions in the first place.  But I do, and the arguments before the Supreme Court starting tomorrow, Tuesday March 27th, 2013, on the constitutionality of prohibiting same-sex marriage, are proof that these conversations still NEED to happen.

Mind you, I probably still would still have the conversations: for learning purposes, since the way the brain processes information is fascinating to me.  But I wouldn’t HAVE to.

And this should be the first lesson to impart in all of these conversations, but it’s almost always the hardest. No matter what you believe on quite literally ANY of the religious truths you hold dear, in the context of the whole world, you’re in the minority.  That doesn’t necessarily make you wrong, and it doesn’t make the majority right: but you do have to live with those other people, and the plurality of thought and belief they represent.  My first recommendation, if you want to get along, is to start working on reasonings for your positions that work *without* relying on your unique interpretation of your religious text: most people just won’t believe it applies to them.  Just judging by the numbers, it’s most probably wrong anyway.