Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Orthodoxy, or Not All Squares Are Rectangles

"There are over five hundred million Christians around the world!" said the guest speaker at the church we were visiting for the third time. I did some quick mental math -- 500 million was the number you got when you took the estimated number of Christians worldwide (1.5 billion) and subtracted the estimated number of Roman Catholics (1 billion).

Lately, I've spent a lot of time asking myself whether correctness of belief is something that matters to God. In the American Evangelical Christian culture that I've been part of for most of my life, believing the right things is of utmost importance. "What you believe determines how you act," they say. They're right about that, of course, but they immediately turn and say that "faith" is what saves a person from burning in fiery damnation for eternity, as opposed to "works", and spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars trying to convince everyone to believe the same things that they believe.

One of the tenets common to the American Evangelical Christianities is that Christianity is the only true religion, that all non-Christians (and most Christians) have wrong beliefs and are therefore doomed to everlasting hellfire. "You can be a good person," they say, "and spend your life doing good things, but if you don't believe in Jesus, then it doesn't matter to God."

Within each sect of American Evangelical Christianity, additional beliefs are tacked onto this central one in order to differentiate between "true" Christians and "sinners following a false gospel." This is where you get churches insisting that the Earth is 6,000 years old, evolutionary science is a lie, homosexuality is a sin, and that Jesus is going to return any day now to destroy the world and slaughter most of its inhabitants. These become core doctrines.

The results are easy enough to see: We teach our kids to fear science and disrespect their teachers. We elect politicians who deny equal rights to gay couples. We pretend climate change is a global conspiracy because 1) The Earth isn't old enough for the historical data to be true, and 2) Jesus is coming back soon, so who cares?

All of this is underscored by the fear that deviating from any of these beliefs leads to a seat in hell.

That fear keeps people from taking the compassionate stance on anything. We get "hate the sin, love the sinner" types, who say that homosexuality is sinful, but that the government shouldn't be in the business of regulating who can love whom, and that churches shouldn't be so judgmental. We get the belief that the Universe was deliberately created to appear old, which allows us to do science, but that it was created only 6,000 years ago. We get tension between what the American Evangelical Christian churches are insisting is true and what our consciences tell us is just and no way to resolve it without damning ourselves, either to an eternity of eternal conscious suffering or to a lifetime of knowing we are assholes.

All this to say, I have trouble with the idea that God cares about what people believe in. When I read the gospels, I see a call to be compassionate and do good, and to encourage others to do the same, not to engage in rigorous academic exercises to determine which thoughts are the correct ones to think.