Christianity's Colossal Catch 22
In the world today, there are over 40,000 denominations of Christianity. Apart from the periods when the Catholic (or universal) church dominated the political and religious landscape of the European world, there has not been a united church. The early Christians varied in beliefs, doctrines and teachings every bit as much as Christians disagree today, and it's hard to pinpoint what the "true" faith may be amidst all of the varieties. Christians are often eager to demonize and criticize their brothers and sisters in Christ when faced with disagreements, and are quick to point out that people who disagree with their interpretations are not "true" believers, dragging believer and non believer alike into the endless cesspool of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. So how are people not associated with Christianity supposed to gain an understanding of the God that Christians worship? Ultimately, there are four options. All four have their own problems, and that's what this hub will explore and identify in-depth.
Where Does the Idea of Catch 22 Come From?
The Four Paths to Christianity's Version of Truth
Most Christians will kindly and patiently explain to those with a curiosity about the faith that there are four ways to come to an understanding of the Christian (and Jewish) God that their faith is based around. Unfortunately for the skeptic, these paths are all fraught with problems of their own, and they're difficult to grasp. Are any of these methods reliable? Is there any way other than simple blind faith to grasp the principles and doctrines that Christianity hinges upon, or are skeptics, non-believers and adherents of other faiths simply left swinging in the wind to find their own answers - that may or may not prove to be accurate or realistic in and of themselves?
These four methods are:
1. External Testimony
2. The Holy Spirit
3. Personal Experience
4. Biblical Study
If all of these methods are unreliable, what path is there for the common person to come to truth? Are they simply left to rely on the method or collection of method that feels "right" to them? What if none of them do? The more these questions are asked, the more frustrated a lot of Christians become - but they're important questions. It's equally important to recognize that absent tangible, real evidence, coming to a conclusion based on anything but faith becomes less and less likely. Unfortunately, the problem my be resolved if the beliefs of several denominations that believe (amongst other doctrine) that God personally selects who will be saved prior to their birth - and that humanity ultimately has no choice in the matter from the very beginning. If predestination is correct, then there is unfortunately nothing to be done - and no amount of will could possibly bring a person who was not selected for salvation to God's grace.
External testimony comes in many shape and sizes depending on where you live in the world. In the United States, external testimony comes in forms most recognizable as preaching, churches, the personal testimony of a believer, charities, outreach groups and missionaries. Missionaries are the most prevalent form of external testimony in areas like Africa where indigenous tribes and cultures are still separate from the world at large and may not have had an opportunity to hear the Biblical tales. It is practically impossible to grow up in the United States or most of Europe without hearing about the Bible, God and Jesus. You'd think that this would mean that missionaries are practically irrelevant, yet they remain as persistent as ever.
The problem with external testimony is that for the questioning mind, there may be no justifiable reason to accept what a relative stranger says as absolute truth without any complimentary evidence. Unfortunately, many people still are far too willing to take the word of someone at face value. Combined with tales (but never evidence of) miraculous healing or other claimed supernatural events, many people simply do not know enough to question what they're being told. For the natural skeptic, however, who is familiar with the exaggerated nature of testimony in general, testimony is ultimately insufficient evidence for the supernatural - let alone a specific, proposed deity.
There is no way for the believer to demonstrate their claims other than to assert them and simultaneously assert the need for faith - which is Biblically defined as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1). Blind faith is simply believing something - most likely because a believer hopes it or wishes it to be true. For skeptics, however, faith is an insufficient justification for belief, and testimony on the street corner or the pulpit cannot be relied upon for supernatural truth. For extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is required - and taking the word of someone simply doesn't fit the bill for belief.
The Holy Spirit
According to the Bible, after Jesus died, was resurrected but prior to his ascension into heaven, he promised his disciples that he would send someone to them to help them in their mission to spread the gospel and convert the world to Christ. According to believers, the Holy Spirit bestows various gifts upon the faithful, including (but not limited to) speaking in tongues, prophecy and wisdom.
The problem is that believers of almost all denominations claim to have the Holy Spirit, but if the Holy Spirit is, in fact, providing them with interpretations of the gospels and of ultimate Godly "truth", it is providing contradictory information. Obviously Christians get around this problem by claiming that denominations that disagree with their doctrines, dogmas and interpretations are not "truly" filled with the Holy Spirit - and that their denomination is. Once again, non-believers are confronted with the "no true Scotsman" fallacy and left with no recourse. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit - like any other supposed spirit - is invisible, and ultimately undetectable. Believers can claim that they have it, but it cannot be demonstrated to be true. They can claim to see it in others - typically only others that agree with them on matters of doctrine and interpretation - but once again, skeptics are left with the problem of external testimony, which has been shown to be unreliable. While the Holy Spirit may or may not exist, there's simply no way to detect its presence, which makes it indistinguishable from a spirit that doesn't exist, so the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit is not a reliable method for determining ultimate spiritual truth.
Have You Ever Had an Experience You Can't Explain?
Many believers from many different religions, denominations, faiths and beliefs throughout the world have claimed to have personal experiences from whichever deity they subscribe to. The presence of personal experiences from hundreds of faith throughout the world and throughout history seems to indicate that for any particular religion to claim that a personal experience is from their specific deity is unlikely - almost impossible. That being said, we all have experiences in our life that may not be easily explained. That doesn't mean, however, that we get to decide where those experiences came from or what they mean simply because it creates an explanation that we are comfortable with. It's astounding to me the sheer numbers of believers who have an unexplained experience of one sort or another, and without investigating it, examining it or looking into it just decide (apparently by some force of will or desire) that not only was the experience supernatural in nature (while simultaneously telling non-believers that God cannot be proved in the natural world, although he apparently performs miracles and experiences for people constantly) but that it was caused by a very specific deity. It's no surprise that in the overwhelming number of cases, the deity attributed with the experience is either the very same deity that the individual already believes in, or is a deity that is prevalent in their culture and country. That is to say that it's very rare for someone raised in the United States to have a personal experience that they're convinced came from Allah - and it's equally unlikely that someone born and raised in the middle east would have an experience attributed to Jesus.
The problem with personal experience should be evident to almost everyone - there is no possible way for the believer (or new convert) to validate their claim to a source behind whatever experience they believe that they had. There is no way to tell that a prayer was answered by the deity that was prayed to, or if it was coincidence or chance. Even when the experience itself is demonstrable - which it almost never is - the cause behind the experience is not. The believer simply decides that the experience was caused by the God that they chose to attribute it to, and there's no way to either affirm or deny that self-prescribed cause. When only the end result of the experience is observed, attributing a cause to it is not only dishonest, but it's ultimately simply assumption - and assumptions/assertions cannot be demonstrated, proven or shown to be true.
I believe that believers truly believe what it is that they experienced came from God. Belief, however, does not make it factual - and with no way to demonstrate it, repeat it, test it or reliably attribute it, the believer is left with yet another unsubstantiated claim that cannot possibly be used as evidence for the God that's getting the credit for their personal experience.
The Bible, as described by Christians, is the word of God. Whether their particular denomination ascribes to the idea that it was inspired by, dictated by, or interpreted from God itself, is infallible, accurate,etc. is secondary to the point. It's possible that the Bible, written by man, was influenced - not by God - but by the time, culture and experiences of the men that wrote it. It's possible that it's a combination of divine inspiration and cultural influence. It's possible that it was simply written by men. Regardless of its origins, the Bible is THE book to gain an understanding of the Christian and Jewish deity found solely in its pages. Therein lies one of the fundamental problems with relying on the Bible for spiritual truth about the God that it is written about.
Despite what many Christians profess, the Bible cannot be used to prove the God discussed in its pages. Attempting to do so is circular reasoning - and it opens up a slippery slope. If the Bible can be used to prove that the Christian God is real, then it should also be logical that the Koran or any other Holy Book from other faiths could be used to prove their God/Gods as real. This claim, however, raises an outcry from the Christian community. They claim that the Bible is somehow special - and that other Holy Books - even older Holy Books - somehow don't count, thus introducing the fallacy of special pleading.
Even more than that, there's another problem with using the Bible to determine truth about God. The Bible even states that problem emphatically. Anyone who is literate can pick up a book and read it from cover to cover, gaining an understanding of what it says, teaches and claims. I have read the Bible multiple times, both as a believer - and now, as an atheist. But when I quote Bible verses to refute claims that a particular Christian is making, they are equally quick to assert that I, as a non-believer, am unable to truly understand or interpret what the Bible is saying due to the fact that I do not have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. According to the New Testament itself:
"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14)"
If non believers cannot be expected to understand the Bible simply by reading it, we uncover the truth of Christianity's Catch 22 - which means they have to find a believer (who at least claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit and may or may not have had personal experiences) to explain the words of the Bible to them - which brings us full circle to the beginning with no justification in sight.
On top of that, the Bible that the overwhelming majority of Christians read today is an English Translation from another language and another language and another language before that - all the way back to the original Hebrew or Greek. As Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out in his writings and lectures, copyists made errors along the way - and in many instances, uncovering what the original text said is next to impossible - if not completely impossible.
A Lecture on the Bible
With all four methods of determining Biblical truth shown to be unreliable at one or more points of contention, it seems impossible for a non-believer and skeptic to convert to some form of belief. With Christians of varying denominations vying for position and power throughout the world, each with their own claim of absolute knowledge and truth, how are skeptics expected to determine which, if any, are right. Is it not easier, all things considered, to withhold belief until more reliable, non-contradictory evidence can be presented, leaving no room left for doubt and unbelief?