A secular case for Christianity?

April 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

One problem with Bari Weiss and some of her acolytes is that they’re religious. I don’t hold that too strongly against them, but a journalist believing in religious dictates is a journalist who doesn’t care about evidence. It’s a journalist who falls prey to the bane of journalism—confirmation bias.

But a secular case for Christianity? Why not a secular case for Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? It turns out that you could make a similar argument for all religions, but it’s an argument that involves gutting Christianity of everything that characterizes it: in particular, the belief that Jesus came to earth as God/The Son of God, was crucified and resurrected, and this story, taken as true, affords all who believe it the chance for eternal life. Author Tim DeRoche, instead, makes the “little people” argument for Christianity: he avers that even if the story isn’t true, the myth is good for the well being of yourself and society.

Click to read (if you subscribe; it may be paywalled otherwise):

DeRoche is described on the site this way:

Tim DeRoche is the bestselling author of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the LA River. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. His third book publishes in 2022.

I won’t dwell on his piece very long. DeRoche was brought up religious, drifted away from Christianity, and then returned to the faith when he married a “devout Christian”. That got him thinking about the religion and whether he was, indeed a true Christian, especially because that he didn’t fully buy into the Christian myths of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. But he was married to a Christian and going to church. What could he do?

He joined online communities that call themselves Christians, but not because they accept the Christian mythology. Rather, they are “Christian” for three reasons:

a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life.  I won’t deny that this is true for many; it’s just that I prefer to find meaning without relying on stories whose veracity I doubt. And of course there are the downsides of religion, too numerous to mention.

DeRoche:

This community is where you’ll find the parkour artist Rafe Kelley, an avowed rationalist, interviewing Jonathan Pageau, an Orthodox icon carver, talking about “bridging the mythological and scientific worldviews.”

It’s where Paul Vander Klay, the pastor of a dwindling Dutch Reform congregation in Sacramento, amassed over 20,000 YouTube subscribers by doing hours and hours of commentary on the biblical lectures of nonbeliever Jordan Peterson—much to the chagrin of some leaders of his denomination.

It’s where the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron engages with the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke on the failure of our institutions—including our Catholic ones—to help people find meaning in their lives.

Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.

But the root causes of our current discontent are secular ones. It’s not clear to me how Christianity (or faith itself) can deal with those “root causes”, much less the discontent they produce.   It might make you forget them, or, as Marx posited, help the desperate and downtrodden find solace in the presence of a heavenly father and the promise of better life to come (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). But if, like DeRoche, you don’t believe in that stuff—in heaven or maybe not even in God—what solace do you get?

b.) Christianity helps you live a better life. 

Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.

Two responses:  The Bible also contains a lot of stuff that would worsen life: like the need to leave one’s family to follow Christ, or about how not to strike your slaves the wrong way, or about how women should not speak. To pick and choose the “wisdom” you use to lead a better life requires a winnowing process that, as we all know, presupposes a non-Biblical and secular point of view.

Second: secular humanism contains a lot more wisdom about how to life a good life and build a healthy society. If you want to do those things, don’t read the Bible, read the great secular ethical philosophers of the past and present, whose views are based not on superstition but cogitation and reason.

I needn’t point out the divisiveness of Christianity or of other religions, for DeRoche does that above. The question is whether the world would be better off now had religions never existed. I can’t prove that it would be—though that’s what I think—but neither can DeRoche prove that it wouldn’t be.

c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world. 

And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.

Of course, the spread of the “Islamic meme” over the last 1500 years has also been correlated with moral improvement, though most of that moral improvement, as Steve Pinker documents, has actually taken place in the last couple centuries.

But do I really have to inform DeRoche that correlation is not causation, and a lot of things have happened in the last several millennia? The rise of rationality, science, transportation, commerce, democracy, and communication have also been correlated with moral improvement, an indeed, those features might indicate a genuine causal relationship. This is the case that Steve Pinker makes in his two books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. (For a short read on his case for reason and secularism as pivotal in morality’s advance, go here or here.) Pinker makes the opposite case from DeRoche, and Steve actually has data and arguments, not just correlations.

I won’t go on, but I will say that I’d love to hear Pinker debate DeRoche on the subject: “Resolved: Christianity is the main cause of moral improvement in humanity.”

37 thoughts on “A secular case for Christianity?

  1. DeRoche: “And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.”

    That would be better phrased as:

    The first 1800 years of the spread of that meme were not correlated that well with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, etc.

    Then, in the last 200 years, especially in those countries where that meme has been in retreat, and where swathes of the population no longer believe it, there has been markedly decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, etc.

  2. DeRoche should be asked to consider two things: (1) whether what he really finds compelling about Christianity is the respect that is offered to him by Christians; and (2) how he feels about seeing honest nonbelievers disparaged while he enjoys that respect.

  3. Assertion a. may have some truth to it, but I would strongly contest b. and c.

    If Christianity helps grown-up people get through the day, then that’s their choice. What is not acceptable is forcing their beliefs on children who do not yet have the cognitive ability to tell truth from falsehood. Especially when one of those beliefs is that it is virtuous, and even preferable, to believe something without evidence.

    Religion should be an activity for consenting adults in private.

    1. > Religion should be an activity for consenting adults in private.

      Preferably involving a naughty-nun costume.

  4. I struggle with this idea for a number of reasons. First, what is the point of a Christianity shorn of its myths? Why even call it Christianity? Second, while the Christian epoch, if we chose to so characterize it, (eventually) correlates to an improvement in society, Christianity itself was clearly a more direct cause of intolerance, repression, and ignorance. Third, which parts of Christianity are you going to pick from the buffet? Love thy neighbor or kill a sodomite? If you can pick the good ones, why do you need to justify them by wrapping them in vestments? At that point you are just confusing people by calling it Christianity. Similarly, the Church of Satan might be secular humanist, but it’s not doing itself any favors by using that name. Fourth, I don’t think you can really use an ideological framework like this without implicitly relying on some sort of justifying myth. Better to just figure out what is right and wrong, live that, and if you need to feel a sense of purpose go join the Shriners or the Elks or the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo.

    1. … the Church of Satan might be secular humanist, but it’s not doing itself any favors by using that name.

      Oh, I think there’s method to the madness. It forces religious observers who seek special favors from the government (decalogue monuments or Christmas crèches on public property, for example) — or at least forces those who would accommodate them, since the believers themselves are usually beyond reach — to face the starkness of their hypocrisy (and does it all with mordant, attention-grabbing good humor.)

    2. For people who never believed in this nonsense, the secular case for Christianity seems like a waste of time. The point of the exercise, like other things religious, is whatever they make up. The secular case for figuring things out was made a long time ago. The problem is that people like being stuck upside down in a backwater.

      I remember talking to some Christians about John Shelby Spong, who promoted a secular, revised version of Christianity. They did not see the point; to them, the religion shorn of its myths was of no value. However, they did not believe in all the myths — there were those that they did not take literally and those that they did.

      It is not easy for people to give up their religious traditions. Secular Christianity, which is not new, seems like a yearning to hang on to what they can about their religious tradition without coming across as completely stupid. The same applies to the other religions.

  5. Recently, I’ve been attending church with my partner. I converted when we were dating, and joke that I should get an A for effort for the decade I put in practicing. Eastern Orthodoxy is not for the faint of heart. It’s like pre-Vatican two Catholicism but harder. When I encountered a personal tragedy that led to an accounting of my belief structures, I found that Christianity didn’t reconcile. So I stopped going. My partner isn’t hard core, and after we moved to a town where there isn’t an Orthodox congregation it just sort of fell off the map. But my partner does find their faith meaningful and has been wanting to get back to going. I respect this, so we’ve been driving up north to a bigger city to attend a Greek congregation. I’ve been using that time during the liturgy for reflection. The music is nice, the icons pretty and the ritual aspect is familiar. The flow of the Lenten services, especially, does evoke… something? And then I listen to what we are actually reading, and how the creeds you must recite force you to say that you literally believe in things. So I don’t say those (and got a stink eye from the deacon last week).

    Today I have a volunteer obligation, so I didn’t join. I find my work education folks about my state and it’s democracy to have greater spiritual meaning, anyway.

    All that to say, been there, done that, and I don’t think his case holds water. Go if you want, get out of it what you will, but at the end of the day there are better humanistic ways to better yourself and the world.

  6. Recent events have got me considering Christianity like never before, as well as the possibility that everyone (but a select few) has a religious impulse.

    Some of the loudest voices in new atheism have since become high priests and priestesses of Woke. Funny how that works.

    1. Abd what about “recet events” have made you consider Christianity? The horrible and immoral barbarism in Ukraine?

      If you have a religious impulse and are a reader, let this person know.

      And what is your explanation for the loudest voices in new atheism becoming high priests ad priestesses of Woke. Let’s take the four horsemen. Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris are hardly “high priests of Woke”, and you know Hitchens wouldn’t be. Neither is Pinker. What the deuce are you talking about?

  7. For many, religion is what makes their wretched existence on Earth bearable, with promises of eternal bliss in the next world from virgins to populating other planets with your family. For others, it justifies their biases, hates and discriminatory behaviors. While there is no doubt much good that has been done because of religious conviction, the evil is far greater.

  8. I 100% agree that we can find meaning and wisdom in mythology, though I can’t imagine there is a good case to prioritize one mythology over another, or treat mythology as true doctrine. I certainly don’t believe one can find actual meaning for their life in mythology (save someone who finds a passion for the study of world mythologies—but I assume that’s not the kind of meaning DeRoche is referring to).

    I’m also EXTREMELY skeptical of the claim that a rise in Christianity correlates to (let alone caused) a rise in morality. The 500 year period of European history known as “The Dark Ages” is a rather large data set that one would need to ignore (imo) to make such a claim.

  9. The idea that our morals are better when they are based on rational argument than on religious teachings can’t be stressed enough, IMHO. Anything learned in Sunday school can be easily abandoned later in life or simply when not around other religious people. It can easily be dismissed as just something one does in church and not so applicable in the “real world”. On the other hand, if one knows why a certain rule is a “good thing”, violating it seems more like a “bad thing”.

  10. a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life.
    And what meaning is that? Isn’t the big takeaway from Christianity “Christ died for your sins”, i.e. substitutionary atonement, i.e. you messed up but it’s all good if some blameless person gets punished for it? I’ll take secular, evidence-based approaches, like Restorative Justice, or working to alleviate the conditions that lead to messing up in the first place. Or is he talking about a meaning like “endure your suffering and ignore the suffering of others and you’ll get Pie in the Sky When You Die”?

    b.) Christianity helps you live a better life.
    Tell it to the victims of clerical abuse. To the women in the Magdalen Laundries (and their babies buried in mass graves). To the families impoverished by prosperity gospel hucksters. To the spouses of domestic abusers who are told to suck it up and pray harder. To gay children kicked out of their homes.

    c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world.
    Don’t make me laugh! Christianity’s rise is correlated with the destruction of ancient knowledge and the loss of the beginnings of science, with institutional slavery and genocide, with the subjugation of women, with the spread of diseases and the denial of healthcare to millions. It’s the rise of the deistic and atheistic Enlightenment that’s unequivocally correlated with moral improvement in the world.

    I needn’t repeat Steven Weinberg’s dictum here — we’ve all read it a hundred times.

    1. Bravo!
      The Dark Ages were dark because the christians were destroying so-called Pagan knowledge e.g. Greek science eventually came to us via the Islamic culture.

    1. … if you don’t sin, Christ died for nothing!

      I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime trying to do my part, contributing at both home and office. 🙂

    2. I celebrate a secular Easter.

      The one where bunnies hide chocolate eggs which are ceremoniously placed in colorful plastic baskets. It gives meaning to life, helps us live better lives, and improves the world — one marshmallow Peep at a time.

  11. ” the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.”

    One of these things is not like the others.

    1. I was about to post exactly this comment. Maybe they think that many people who struggle to find meaning do so because they are childless.

      1. Maybe so. That’s a good explanation. Though a declining birth rate doesn’t necessarily imply a big increase in childlessness. I thought it just reflected the usual Christian “be fruitful and multiply” worldview.

      2. I think the author would say it’s the other way around: people who think life is meaningless, or worse, will hesitate to have children.

  12. People who make a secular case for Christianity strike me as similar to those who advocate using Tarot Cards not because they’re magic, but because they can be useful tools for gaining insight into your problems.

    “Yes of course we’re making stuff up and reading meaning into it — that’s what’s so great about the Tarot! When our minds interpret symbols by drawing from what may be repressed desires and unadmitted truths, they construct a clearer path before us, showing us the options and making a choice between them. Reading the Tarot is more accurate when we reject the idea that it’s showing us an Occult World and recognize that it helps us recognize our own inner world of the self. The Tarot helps you find meaning in your life….”

    And blah blah blah … until one day you stay home because “the cards say it’s an inauspicious day for travel.”

    b.) Christianity helps you live a better life.

    I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the real moral force of Christianity or any other religion is sitting in a group of easy-going friends and judgmental acquaintances when a Volunteer Sign Up Sheet for (Good Cause) is passed around the room or hung up prominently on the back wall.

  13. Christianity gives a counterfeit meaning to your life – don’t waste your time, try meaningful relationships.

    Reason and compassion help us to live a better life.

    Secular morality’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world.

  14. I’m going to be your friendly neighborhood contrarian today!

    I absolutely agree that one does not have to be a Christian to be a good person (I’m an ex-Christian atheist). However, I think there is something to the idea that “the rise of Christianity correlates with moral improvement in the world,” for reasons described by Joseph Henrich in his excellent book The WEIRDest People in the World.

    In brief: Starting in the early Middle Ages, the Church banned marriage between cousins, something that had been very common. The Church had a selfish motive: banning cousin marriage weakens the power of the extended family, and weaker families = stronger Church. However, it had an unintended consequence: now that cousins were off-limits for marriage, young people had to search for prospective spouses outside their extended family and, hence, had to learn to trust and get along with strangers more.

    Henrich claims that this led (eventually, after many centuries) to the modern liberal mindset, where the focus of the moral universe is the individual and their conscience, not a collectivity such as the clan or tribe. This, in turn, includes a focus on preventing harm and on justice, rather than on tradition and deference to authority.

    So, the Church has, indirectly, laid the groundwork for what we today recognize as secular Western morality. How’s that for irony? I highly recommend Henrich’s book.

  15. I am so over the lapsed or supposed secular person declaring that religion has some truth or value.
    I am pretty convinced (but of course, can’t prove it) that they are all secretly religious. It carries so much more weight when someone from the secular world declares religion has value – it’s a tactic.

    I have collected such declarations over the years (and this site often identifies and comments on such) – and each time my bulls*** radar is tingling.

    I guess I should go through them all and collate the tell-tale signs that hint at the writer being a believer…but that takes effort…well, I’m an atheist, and I am just going to declare that faith has value, so now my contention is that my contention about supposed secular writers being secret christians is based on faith. So there. See how that works…

    1. I’m certain there are people who spend their leisure hours trolling for atheist, liberals, whatever just so they can play a role in order to push their agenda. As you suggest, you can sort of smell it in the words they choose. We see it with the “I’m not religious but if I were…” comments, as well as the “I didn’t vote for Trump, but …” comments.

Leave a Reply