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Why Is Christianity So Popular?
The Need for a Creation Story
The Christian creation story is one of many contradictory tales written to explain the unknown method of man’s inception. Successful religions generally employ these unsupported narratives to provide followers with a comforting explanation for why we exist. This is because the uncertainty that prevails when creation stories are absent would have made ancient peoples anxious for answers. Studies show that feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, randomness, and a lack of control motivate people to construct patterns and other illusions of order, including God. It's likely that creation myths perform the same function, making them gratifying to believe.
In proportion as any man’s course of life is governed by accident, we always find that he increases in superstition.— David Hume
To an outsider, the Biblical creation story is no more plausible than that of other religions, past or present, and only Christians and Jews give it special significance. Unfortunately, the disagreements generated by this global collection of contradictions may be the most prolific prelude to war and genocide to have ever blighted the planet. An atheist might point out that, rather than one account being correct, a hundred mutually exclusive creation stories only demonstrate the human need to invent creators. As will become clear, the characteristics of the Christian creator make it particularly appealing.
Features of the Christian God
The chief purpose of creation myths is to explain our observations; to know why the sun shines, the rain falls, and the night descends. The impact of these natural phenomena on the lives of ancient peoples would have led them to ascribe their god with significant powers. Indeed, there is a natural order that relates ontological categories with their capabilities. A rock is inconsequential, but an animal can provide food, pull a cart, and respond to stimuli. Animals are inferior to the hunting ability and intellectual prowess of humans, while that which dictates night and day must be greater still; a being with the power and perpetuity to match its effect on the world.
Such powerful, eternal beings are typically given a physical form so that our minds can comprehend them. Invariably, it's a human form (anthropomorphism), which seems a bit contradictory of the above discussion. However, if we consider the psychological comfort that such a belief generates, it's not hard to justify. For example:
- If God is more perfect than we are, then we share some of his perfection by looking like him. We elevate ourselves towards the perfection we have embodied in him.
- We fear and discriminate against races and species that are different. Therefore, we desire the utmost similarity in our God, as greater dissimilarity must lead to greater loathing. If God looked different, our basic tribal instinct would tell us he'd detest us, and vice versa. Cultural selection would banish such religions from our timeline.
In Judaism, this second notion extends to calling themselves God's chosen people. However, it would take a remarkably narrow-minded being to create a whole world of people before discriminating against 99% of them, which may be why Christianity doesn't go this far.
Sometimes the necessary attributes of God clash with the attributes we desire him to have. For example, an omniscient deity would be able to discern our faith without worship. It makes no sense to worship God unless to extract his approval. However, believing you have the approval of God is quite comforting. Therefore, God was given a wholly human ego, and Christians have built magnificent churches, resplendent with gold candlesticks and goblets, to satiate it.
Despite the teachings of Jesus, the hoarding of wealth within the Church is necessary to support the egotistical definition of God that our psychology craves. As with nearly every religion in history, we want gods that are grateful for our worship and offerings.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.— Proverbs 1:7
The Psychology of Christianity
The above quote from the Bible is an apposite summary of the Christian message because it describes the three steps of the religious conversion process:
- Accepting one's weakness, hopelessness and ignorance with an act of submission (fearing god).
- Tearing down the strengths of others and reducing them to one's level. If knowledge begins with faith, then all other knowledge becomes false and irrelevant. All of one's failures are also irrelevant; and all people are equally worthless without faith (much like the `original sin').
- Creating a form of strength that puts oneself above others. This is the `wisdom and discipline' that is spoken of. As nonbelievers are fated to despise this wisdom; they are left without it and become `fools'.
In one sentence, the Bible reveals the psychology of Christianity; i.e. the desire to blame weakness on universal, unavoidable defects, to claim the strengths of others are irrelevant and false, and to exchange one's natural pursuit of strength with a supernatural solution that is far easier to achieve. The weak become the strong and, through rejection of the religion, the strong become the weak. It's the antithesis of Darwinism and a psychosis of petulance.
At the height of its power, the Church persecuted scientists and philosophers who derived knowledge through other means (fools certainly do despise wisdom). In a world populated entirely by Christians, the wise would be those who could convince others of their delusion to the greatest degree. Whether by speaking in tongues, elaborating on deep conversations with God, or by prophesying the end of days, a new Dark Ages would ensue, stifling human progress.
The Wise Christian: Becoming The Alpha
What is the Point of Christian Prophecy?
Evolution has left us with a desire to compete with each other, but as all Christians share the same belief, equality within a religious group is difficult to avoid. When immersed in a religious environment, the satisfaction of feeling superior to nonbelievers will be absent, meaning other methods must be used to achieve dominance. In order to become the `religious alpha', Christians will claim special knowledge of God, special communication with God, or they may even claim to be God (see video). This desire to be superior will also produce many false prophets.
The Bible contains prophecy about the end of the world that, without a date, can never be proven wrong. As a result, Christians are continually making false predictions. The perpetual failure of apocalyptic prophecy suggests many Christians suffer from an unyielding desire for death. Beyond an eagerness to reach heaven, a desire to die conveys a recognition that no more can be gained from this life. Indeed, once one accepts Jesus, heaven is guaranteed, and all good deeds result in the same conclusion.
This abandonment of ambition mirrors the hopelessness that is present before conversion, showing that it isn't cured by religion; it is substituted by an ambition that is too easy to achieve. Indeed, once a prophecy is proven wrong, followers typically refuse to recant, instead seeking other charlatans who can fulfill their apocalyptic fantasies. This metamorphosis of death into a joyous affair makes one thankful for the religious aversion to suicide.
For a few reasons, belief in doomsday prophecy can actually reinforce the delusions mentioned earlier.
- As conversion requires giving up on Earthly pursuits, the destruction of the Earth makes these pursuits even more futile. The prophecy provides the satisfying belief that one’s prior failure at Earthly pursuits is of no importance, and other people’s success is all in vain.
- It reinforces the idea that one is special (they'll be saved), and that they'll be recognized for being special very soon. Criticism of their barmy beliefs will cease, and critics will be punished.
- Belief in doomsday prophecy removes one's most basic responsibility: to survive. This promotes greater trust and reliance on God, and confidence that he will terminate one's existence at the opportune moment. Indeed, one follower of Harold Camping said (see video below): "It's like we have no control over anything, it's all in the Lord's hands".
Essentially though, prophecy is about dispelling uncertainty about the future, making it a great source of comfort to those who have convinced themselves the end of the world is a good thing.
Doomsday Cult Followers
Growth of the Jesus Legend
A rational person would assert that men are incapable of miracles before suggesting the gospels are fictional works. Indeed, we do not read Hansel and Gretel and assume witches exist. Yet, for various reasons, converts to Christianity are motivated to believe the Bible is true, meaning rationality is exchanged for a biased interpretation of the evidence.
Given the lack of primary sources, one may debate the very existence of Jesus in history. Our knowledge of Jesus comes from the four gospels, written around 65-70 A.D. (Mark), 80 A.D. (Matthew and Luke), and 90 A.D. (John). The death of Jesus would have occurred around 30-40 A.D. meaning a gap of approximately 40 years. It's unlikely that the gospels were written by eye-witnesses, although Mark supposedly wrote the account of Saint Peter. The other gospels borrow much from Mark, while the gospel of John appears less historical. Other works, such as Josephus' account, appear to have been edited by early Church leaders to include Jesus.
It's important to note the oral tradition by which information diffused through the ancient world. The growth of the Jesus legend from man to God incarnate is evident in the correlation between the time of the written account, and the mentions of divinity. John's gospel repeatedly refers to a `son of God', whereas Mark talks of Jesus as a man.
Most believers claim the Bible was written by God working through men. Thus, even for Mark's gospel, the message must come from God to Jesus to St. Peter, and finally to Mark. This elaborate game of Chinese whispers was finally set upon by Church leaders who produced the first version of the Bible. The gospels could be distorted from the original version or completely fabricated at any point in the process. Indeed, other Biblical events such as the Great Flood are described in earlier works with no reference to the Christian god. The Virgin Birth is also replicated in numerous earlier religions. The Bible may simply be an embellished collection of ancient fables, where all miraculous deeds happen to be attributed to the Christian god instead of Zeus, Horus, or Anu.
Christians were persecuted for many years following the death of Jesus, and Christianity would have remained a marginal cult if it had not converted the Roman Emperor, Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century. Perhaps this slow emergence was a blessing in disguise as it allowed time for the legend to develop and it ensured the absence of reliable critics.
The Psychological Appeal of Christianity
In general, Christianity appeals to weak, impoverished, vulnerable, and depressed people because it presents them with a way out of their mess. It attributes their misery and failure to unavoidable defects and sins that afflict everyone equally. It relegates the achievements of others into insignificance. It presents people with an easily achievable supernatural goal that puts them on a pedestal relative to others.
However, Christianity augments this simple formula for a religion with other attractions. It makes sure god is anthropomorphic, that creation is explained, and that there is a route for Christians to achieve even greater prestige by prophesying and preaching to their inferiors. Furthermore, the religion includes a ready-made legend; a savior from their misery, built into a god by the exaggerations of peasants, and filtered through the process of cultural selection by the judgments of countless story-tellers. This is what makes Christianity so popular, and it's why understanding the psychology of what makes us tick is so important.
© 2013 Thomas Swan