“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith. Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible. If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t. It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective: seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation. Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence. A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin. The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”
Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity. Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics). Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable. Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position. The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.
Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts. A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality. These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own. For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists. The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity. Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form. In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.
But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire? Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality: men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once. In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions. The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses. One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.
Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people. Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity. Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith. At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove. Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading. I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about. Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery. Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.
Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture. That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders. The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines. I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible. First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality. These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world. Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality. Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons. Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent. I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies. Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.