The Top 5 Misconceptions that Atheists and Muslims Believe about Christianity

It’s no big secret that atheists on the left have taken Islam in under their wing.  The loudest voice of Islamic apologetics in the West comes not from Muslims themselves, but from secularists whose pro-feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay ideologies seem in conflict with the religion of Islam.  Yet although their conclusions may differ, many of their assumptions are surprisingly similar, particular when they pertain to Christianity.

Both Islam and secular atheism are post-Christian ideologies.  Today’s new atheists descend from predominately Christian societies, never arising in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. cultures.  They resent their parent Judeo-Christian ideology as much as Muslims resent Jews and Christians.  In coming to their post-Christian conclusions, they operate under several common assumptions.  Ironically, in trying so hard not to believe Christianity, what they end up believing about Christianity is demonstrably false.  While there are certainly many more commonalities, the Top 5 that I’ve identified are:

1.  Paul changed the Christian message from the teachings of Christ to the religion we know today.

This assumption appeals to Muslims because they want to believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God and definitely not God.  Muhammad never mentioned Paul either way, but using him as a scapegoat for the deification of the prophet Jesus has been a convenient way to reduce Jesus to just a man.  For this same reason, it appeals to atheists who don’t have the audacity to deny a historical Jesus altogether, but need a reason to explain how Jesus the moral teacher became Jesus the Lord and Savior.  At first glance, it does seem like a legitimate question.  Flipping through the New Testament from the Gospels into the Pauline Epistles, one will certainly notice the difference in Paul’s tone and writing.

But the reality is, the chronological narrative of our New Testament is not the same as the literary chronology.  The Gospels were written well after the conversion of Paul, when his epistles were already in circulation.  Luke was originally combined with Acts, so the accounts of Paul and Christ were always connected.  There never was a church with a scriptural tradition that did not accept them both.  Many people erroneously believe that Paul never quotes Christ, but that’s just not true (in fact, Paul references a lot of material in Matthew that I’ll cover at a later time).  If one was going to try to make this argument, they simply couldn’t do it with the present canon, which brings us up to the 2nd myth:

2.  Books that belonged in the Bible were removed in the Nicene Council.

The theological differences between the Qur’an and the New Testament are too big to be blamed solely on Paul.  The injil (gospel) referenced in the Qur’an cannot be the same as the Gospels in the Bible, since Muhammad never quotes the canonical Jesus and rejects both the crucifixion and the resurrection.  On the other hand, Muhammad does quote non-canonical sources like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Qur’an 3:49, 19:29) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Qur’an 19:22).  It’s a reasonable conclusion for Muslims to conclude that their “real” gospel isn’t in the Bible at all, and atheists like this assumption because it suggests the religion of Christianity as we know it today is actually just derived from a piecemeal collection of texts unrelated to the original message.

For reasons I can never figure out, these critics always seem to point to the Council of Nicaea as the point when the allegedly corrupted canon was settled.  This in itself is easily refuted because the Nicene Council had nothing to do with canonization, but what about these “other” gospels?  This argument really doesn’t help the Muslims because they agree with the Jesus in these non-canonical books even less than they do with the one in the Gospels.  Of all the heterodox sexts in the first Christian centuries–gnosticism, sabellianism, arianism, basilidianism, etc.–none of them concur with Islamic theology, let alone Islamic Christology.  Ironically, the book that does seem to be an agenda-driven mixed bag of various sources is actually the Qur’an.  The books of the New Testament were acknowledged by the Church Fathers (Clement, Eusebius, Ireneaus) well before the 4th century, and aside from some questionable works like the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabus that fell into disuse, the canon as we know it today has persisted through history intact.  Contrary to what atheists seem to think, Christians don’t just believe everything that’s written.  Unable to diminish the integrity of the canon, the only recourse left is to question the accurateness of the existing canon.

3.  There are too many versions of the Bible to know what it really means anymore.

Muslims don’t really want to throw out the Gospels altogether.  They do like to claim that the Paraclete in the Gospel of John is a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad, but they don’t like the Christological content in the rest of John.  Their solution is to argue that the Bible has been copied and translated too many times too many times to be reliable anymore.  The ones who really know nothing about manuscript evidence or translation just say there are too many versions of the Bible and leave it at that.

This works very well for Muslims, because the majority of Muslims have never read any version of the Bible anyway; for that matter, half of all Muslims are illiterate and have never read the Qur’an either.  In some Muslim countries you can get a reduced prison sentence by memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t understand Arabic.  For Muslims, the Qur’an is a book forever locked in Arabic; the entire Muslim world translate fewer books than small countries like Spain, so most Muslims have no exposure to translations of any literature at all, and don’t understand that in the English language, translations of the Qur’an are just as divergent as translations of the Bible.  On the other side, most atheists that I’ve talked to have never read either book, but of course, it’s easy to dismiss a book you’ve never actually read; it’s much more difficult to read it and base your conclusions off that.  Thanks to the internet, however, anybody could compare any Bible verse of any translation and see that for the most part (except for, say, the Joseph Smith “Inspired” Translation or the Jehovah’s Witness’s New World Translation), they all say the same thing.  Those that don’t really have no excuse.

4.  Christianity spread through Colonialism.

It’s astounding how many atheists I’ve encountered who don’t know that the Coptic Christian community in Egypt or the Roman Catholic community in Iraq pre-dated Islam.  Even if they’re aware, they’re prone to take the Muslim viewpoint that Christianity is the intruder in Muslim territory.  Rejecting all historical evidence to the contrary, both generally blame colonialism and European occupation for spreading Christianity.

Of course, they conveniently ignore Islamic conquest and occupation that can attribute to the presence of Islam in territories such as India-Pakistan.  But while empires and armies are a small contributing factor to the spread of a religion, the history and the facts just don’t support this claim about Christianity.  It’s funny that Muslims can accept 19th century conspiracy theories such as Jesus Christ dying a natural death in India (while at the same time they reject this theory’s proponent, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a heretic), yet they can’t accept the natural migration of Christianity.  Much of that is due to the Islamic complex that can’t understand anyone in their right mind converting from Islam.  Atheists like to believe this myth just because they find Christian proselytizing in the West annoying, but Muslims believe it for much more menacing reasons.  Muslims feel irrationally threatened by anyone practicing another religion in an Islamic country (don’t believe it?  just look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.), but as long as they can frame the other religion as the remnant of a perceived occupation, then adherents of this religion are valid targets (seen as “oppressors” despite being the minority).  Sadly, even though Christians are one of the most persecuted minorities in Muslim countries, you won’t find much sympathy for them from the modern atheist.

5.  Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Atheists usually don’t care about the major differences between religions since they view them all as superstitions.  Thus it’s no big deal for them to accept the Muslim position that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God.  When members of other religions criticize the god of the Qur’an, Muslims love this canned response because it gives the appearance of inclusion and tolerance.  But as always in Islam, tolerance is on the Muslim’s terms.

Their response isn’t actually inclusive because it doesn’t acknowledge any truth to Christianity.  Rather, Islam is a syncretism of beliefs, so in reality this is a claim of exclusivism, because it only enables Christians to share the god of Muhammad on Islamic terms.   One really has to ignore that Muslims don’t worship Jesus as God, or believe in his death or resurrection, which are the essence of the Christian faith.  Muslims also are never willing to accept that they worship the same god as Bahai’s, because the Baha’i Faith redefines Islam the same way Islam redefines Christianity.

What’s really unusual is that some will hold to all of these myths even though they can’t all be true at the same time; who “invented” Christianity, Paul or the Nicene Council?  That’s really no surprise to me, I’ve heard atheists reject religion because of the problem of evil in the world in one breath and then in the next breath claim religion is a crutch to deal with the problems of life.  For Muslims, promoting these myths is usually from ignorance; just as Muhammad was not a scholar, most Muslims will never study any of Christian history themselves.  For atheists, these Islamic myths are a simple way to dismiss Christianity.  Although they don’t believe Islam either, the way Islam redefines Christianity is appealing to them: Jesus Christ is just a good man, the Apostle Paul is wrong, the Bible is unreliable, and Christianity is a forceful invader oppressing poor and defenseless Muslims.  Of course, they’ll also tell you that Muslims are just as bad as Christians, so at the end of the day, they really only support Muslims when Muslims oppose Christianity.  Since neither side is engaged in any research to uncover the truth, it will be up to Christians to be knowledgeable about the facts.

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6 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Christianity, Islam

6 responses to “The Top 5 Misconceptions that Atheists and Muslims Believe about Christianity

  1. How is Christianity not a syncretic faith?
    I think you’re setting up a lot of straw men here. I am an atheist, and I don’t care for Islam anymore than Christianity or Scientology for that matter. While you show a strong understanding of some strands of Christianity, I would point out that Paul and the Nicean Council are too much in the weeds to concern atheists. We’re more concerned with the basic burden of proof for ‘belief’: no one has demonstrated a reason to believe in a god, any god, let alone one who is relevant to Paul or Nicea. Until that happens, fair atheists will not distinguish between Islam and Christianity.
    Best to you.

  2. interesting, although to be fair, the idea that much of the New Testament was written after Paul is used as evidence of his supposed perversion of Christianity–as well as the confrontation between Paul and Peter documented in Acts. The truth is, Christianity did change after Paul, but not in the conspiratorial way that critics suggest. Rather than changing the message Paul changed the audience. However, as you note, the striking similarities between Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s message demands a sense of unity. also, even a cursory reading of Matthew shows that Matthew was attempting to overturn Jewish Messianic conventions and present a savior unlike what the religious leaders of the day were expecting. The problem is with this argument is that they are holding to something that cannot be absolutely verified as false–it is impossible to know what the historical record doesn’t tell us. of course, the existence of God is also something that cannot be verified as false by science, and yet only then are atheists able to recognize how problematic it is to believe what cannot be unproven…

    What’s of most interest to me is myth #4, because this complete revision of history still gets me upset, esp in light of the atrocities committed in North Africa, Europe, and Asia when Islam pushed into those areas. There was a vibrant Christian community in Persia and India that claimed apostolic succession from Thomas (after he had doubted Christ, tradition holds he went as far East as he could). This community was still alive over a thousand years later when the British East India Company pushed into India and ironically decided that maintaining the status quo was better for business than converting the populace. they actually persecuted Christians, even forcing William Carey to live in danish controlled regions of India–hardly the crusade now preached. but even hundreds of years prior to this, one of Genghis Khan’s rivals in Mongolia was a Nestorian Christian. it’s unsurprising that secular atheists would overlook this since it flies in the face of the small world they believe existed before the enlightenment. but it’s shameful that Muslims perpetuate this view in light of the horrors unleashed specifically in the name of their religion. sadly, while they insist on connecting the dots between Crusader Knights and modern Christians who share virtually no doctrinal agreement or spiritual heritage, they overlook the actions of their forbears who read (and even wrote) the exact same book as they do (interesting how having a different version of the Bible actually assists in removing culpability more than disproving the faith) and are a significant portion of their spiritual heritage. as you’ve pointed out, the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this confusion.

  3. Brian Westley

    “Today’s new atheists descend from predominately Christian societies, never arising in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. cultures.”

    Wrong.

    Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist blogger, author of “I Sold My Soul On Ebay” (from India, raised Jain)

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali, raised in predominantly Muslim countries (Somalia, Saudi Arabia), now a well-known atheist author and speaker

    Just two examples off the top of my head. India has tons of atheists and atheist organizations.

    You can’t just make up crap and pretend what you’re saying is true. That’s how religions are started.

  4. Great post! thanks for putting this out there. It seems like you hit most of the major “talking points” I hear about the Christian faith today. This is the sort of thing that believers need to know and that we need to put out there in defense of our faith in Christ. Thanks for the post.

  5. rwarez, while some later developments of Christianity, like Christmas, can be seen as syncretic, Christianity at its inception was not designed to be syncretic the way Islam was. contemporaries like Basilides and other Greco-Judeo hybrid cults show what a Hellenized syncretism would have actually looked like. Christianity was contextualized for a Hellenistic audience, such as Paul’s quoting greek poets, but that’s not comparable to Muhammad re-fitting a pagan shrine like the Ka’aba for monotheistic worship.

    Brian, Ayaan Hirsi Ali may have been a Somalian refugee, but her worldview was shaped in the Netherlands; she’s considered the quintessential “Enlightenment Fundamentalist”, so her influences are definitely not of Islamic descent. i’ll admit i don’t know as much about Hemant Mehta’s influences, I wasn’t aware of his Jain upbringing, but I believe his experiences were played out in the US. what we really see is that as a culture becomes more Westernized (contrast India with Pakistan), the rise of atheism follows. Islamic cultures have not produced an indigenous Freud or Voltaire, instead these figures usually follow the post-Christian model.

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