Thursday, May 2, 2013

Christianity's Culture of Pious Fraud

As I reflect on the time I spent as Christian, I can look back and see things that should have been obvious clues that something was not exactly right. The Bible itself contains many of those clues, but even outside the Bible, Christianity seems to have an ingrained sense that taking liberties with the truth is acceptable and even encouraged as long as it bolsters faith, reassures the doubting and furthers "the cause of Christ and His kingdom." One is left to conclude that for all their talk of having the truth, Christians in general seem to have a careless disregard for it. Most seem to be willing to believe anything as long as it conforms to their expectations.

This is nothing new. I recently finished reading The Myth of Persecution by Notre Dame professor Candida Moss wherein she shows how the persecution stories of the early Christians were largely exaggerated, contorted and in many cases just plain made-up. Indeed, early Christians writers prove themselves to be quite unreliable and untrustworthy. Similarly, Bart Ehrman shows in Forged how the New Testament itself was subjected to its own brand of pious fraud. Early Christians writers like Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, and especially John Chrysostom evidently had no compunction whatsoever about stretching the truth.

Jerome writes to a young presbyter about the time he asked his teacher, Gregory of Nazianzus, to explain a difficult line from the Gospel of Luke and Gregory playfully replied, "I will tell you about it in church, and there, when all the people applaud me, you will be forced against your will to know what you do not know at all. For, if you alone remain silent, every one will put you down for a fool" (Jerome, Letter to Nepotian). Jerome goes on to say, "There is nothing so easy as by sheer volubility to deceive a common crowd or an uneducated congregation: such most admire what they fail to understand." Of course, Jerome is not necessarily advocating for the use of deception, he's merely pointing out to the young presbyter how easy and common it was in their day to impress people with total bullcrap. It seems not much has changed. Jerome, a noted writer of some pretty blatant hagiography, seems to have no problem with using propaganda-style tactics, even putting forth the Apostle Paul and Jesus as examples of people who used things like deliberate obfuscation and quote-mining when Jerome defends his own tactics employed against Jovinian in his letter to Pammachius:
[Paul], then, if any one, ought to be calumniated; we should speak thus to him: “The proofs which you have used against the Jews or against other heretics bear a different meaning in their own contexts to that which they bear in your epistles. We see passages taken captive by your pen and pressed into service to win you a victory which in the volumes from which they are taken have no controversial bearing at all.” May he not reply to us in the words of the Saviour: “I have one mode of speech for those that are without and another for those that are within; the crowds hear my parables, but their interpretation is for my disciples alone”? The Lord puts questions to the Pharisees, but does not elucidate them. To teach a disciple is one thing; to vanquish an opponent, another.
Jerome tells his detractor, hey, if you don't like my misdirection tactics and deliberately taking things out of context, take it up with Paul and Jesus because they did the same thing. Jerome obviously thinks it's fine to pull out all the stops when you're just trying to "vanquish an opponent." At least Jerome seems to advocate reserving this for the opposition rather than trying to fleece the flock. Too bad he seems to be an outlier among his contemporaries in this regard. Indeed this is the same sort of excuse one will typically get from Christians when they are called out for using ad hominem attacks. They'll point to things like Jesus calling Pharisees vipers and Paul inviting his opponents to go castrate themselves and consider it acceptable behavior based on those examples.

Back to the point. Modern Christianity has not shed its propensity for trying to pass off stories with a ring of truthiness to them. Staying outside the Bible for the time being, I tried to compile some examples of lies, myths and legends that I can recall that I’ve been told over the years from pastors, evangelists, Sunday school teachers, Christian school teachers, and other church leaders. Many of these things are easily refuted now thanks to the internet. While there may have been excuses for some of them to have been circulating 20 years ago, there’s really no excuse now. Even before I left Christianity, these things bothered me. If Christians were supposed to have the Truth, why were they so often willing to perpetuate these lies, myths and half-truths? Why were they so readily accepted? Why wasn’t there a more concerted effort to debunk and root out these things? How could Christians claim to have “the Truth” if they never demonstrated any real concern for the truth?

More to the point, why didn't I care and why didn't this set off all kinds of bells and whistles for me? These should have been huge signs that Christians in general are credulous and will accept anything uncritically as long as it fits their expectations and reinforces their beliefs while others are more than willing to just make stuff up to sate these waiting appetites salivating for bullcrap.

Why, for example, does it seem that scams like multilevel marketing schemes find such fertile ground in churches? Why are so many church goers so easily swayed into believing the claims of pseudo-science and so-called alternative medicine? Why are so many convinced that stuff like chiropractic, homeopathy and other forms of fraudulent nonsense are actually legit?  Why are urban legends so easily disseminated in Christian circles when virtually everyone is carrying around devices in their pockets and purses that could debunk this garbage with a simple 20-second Google search?

Just a few weeks ago my wife received a well-intentioned email from someone trying to get her to return to belief in Christianity. What did that person send over that was supposed to be so convincing? It was a story about a student who confronted his atheist professor and "proved" that God existed with the punchline being that the student was Einstein. The story just reeks of urban legend and has been thoroughly debunked. I continue to see it show up in my Facebook News Feed, posted by Christians of course, with likes and confirming comments from others. Apparently none of the people liking or commenting ever bothered to check to see if it's true and the ones who I know for a fact do know it's not true (because they've used it and been shown that it's not true) aren't trying to correct the others either. And it's not just uneducated laypersons that do this. It's well-educated, otherwise intelligent people that I've seen circulate this legend specifically. In fact, the first time I ever saw it was in an email from a seminary-educated ruling elder at a PCA church who was notorious for propagating nonsense like this.

Over the years I bought into my fair share of them. In the early days of Snopes I can remember browsing the site and discovering that, contrary to what I had been told by a visiting evangelist in a revival service, Joshua’s missing day had not, in fact, been discovered by astronomers using a computer to calculate the movement of the heavenly bodies like a clock. It seems that evangelists are the most prone to use made-up and unverifiable stories to bolster their appeals. One would think this kind of behavior would be abhorrent to Christians and yet it's not. It's welcomed.

When they're not using completely made up stuff they're using half-truths. I can recall another evangelist telling the story of how Tennessee Governor Ben Hooper was able to overcome his bastard status and achieve success because a preacher reminded him that God was his father. The first part of that is correct. The second part...not so much. These are just the instances where the facts can actually be verified, but who knows how many of these stories I heard about unnamed people in unnamed places having miraculous things happen to them were completely fabricated whole cloth.

Scientists drilling in Siberia never heard the screams of the damned in hell. Noah's Ark has never been found. Proctor and Gamble doesn't support Satanism. Vultures haven't been multiplying in greater numbers around the valley of Armageddon in recent years. Airlines don't make sure to have at least one unbelieving member on each flight crew just in case the Rapture happens mid-flight. The Apple logo is not a reference to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Someone in a Sunday school class I was attending a couple years ago who worked for a creationist organization told the class that they could go online and read about a man who actually survived living inside a whale. I assume this person was referring to James Bartley. This, of course, was put forward as proof that the Jonah story could've happened.

Chruch-goers often assume that their seminary educated pastor knows what he's talking about when he brings up things like "the original Greek" or makes appeals to historical or archeological evidence, but this is apparently not always the case. It's just another opportunity to repeat half-truths and made-up stuff. Contrary to what I heard, “eye of the needle” does not refer to a gate outside of Jerusalem that a camel could perhaps squeeze through. The Greek words agape and phileo don't have a meaningful semantic distinction in the Koine Greek of the New Testament. There's no evidence that the high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies if God struck him dead. Jewish and Christian scribes did not go to great lengths to ensure accuracy and did not perform ridiculous rituals after writing each line or each letter in the divine name.

There's precious little evidence that Gehenna was ever a burning trash heap in the Hinnom Valley. I can't even find a reliable source that persecuted Christians really used the Ichthys as a special code to identify each other. The best I can find is a reference to "ancient Christian tradition" and yet how many times have I heard that one repeated like it's established historical fact?

I once heard an evangelist say that in Habakkuk 3:3 where we read, “God comes from Teman,” teman in Hebrew means “nowhere”. You have to imagine him saying this in a way that was an attempt to convey profundity. I went home, consulted Dr. Strong and discovered that this was completely made up. According to my Hebrew lexicon, "teman" refers to an area of Edom and came to mean "south" because Teman was south of Israel.

Another whopper I've heard was that the word “cannibal” comes from the Hebrew words for “priest” and the god Baal and this shows that the priests of Baal used to eat babies. This isn't true either. The word cannibal wasn't even used until the 16th century and refers to the Carib people.

Other stuff gets repeated about historical heroes of the faith. Luther comes to mind. Ask people about what his most famous words were and most will likely say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." The problem is, there's very little evidence that Luther ever said that at Worms. Ask them what Luther was doing on October 31, 1517 and they'll tell you he was nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. The problem with this is the two primary sources for that information are not Luther himself and neither would have been present at Wittenberg in 1517. Only one was written while Luther was still alive. That doesn't matter to people because those story elements make for better drama.

Along those lines, I had a pastor once tell me that it wasn't a big deal when Christian writers tried to pass off hagiography as legitimate biography because those writers were really just telling about what Christ had done in and through those men. The goal was bringing glory to Christ so there was no need, for example, to include dirty details about racism or antisemitism or other sordid things about the person.

While attending Christian school I was taught quite a few things in the area of "science" that were simply false. Most of them were related to evolution and the idea of an old earth. Turns out fossilized human footprints have not been found with dinosaur footprints. Darwin did not have a deathbed confession. NASA and the Apollo astronauts were not worried about moon dust at the time of the moon landing. Darwin was not a racist. Darwin never admitted that evolution couldn’t explain the eye. Most mutations are not harmful. The second law of thermodynamics does not make evolution impossible. Neanderthals were actually quite different from modern humans. Radiometric dating isn't wildly unreliable and inaccurate. Transitional forms have been found in the fossil record. Evolution can account for speech, intelligence, morality, music, etc. Ocean sediment and population growth do not disprove an old earth. Mt. St. Helens does not show that the Grand Canyon could’ve been formed in a short amount of time.

What is true is that my high school science education left me completely unprepared for college level science courses and I purposely avoided them out of fear of what I might be confronted with.

I've heard other stuff about evolution and Darwin that wasn't true from guest speakers and preachers. For example, I've been told that crime rates go up in places where evolution is taught and emphasized. It turns out the inverse is probably true, though correlation does not equal causation. I've been told that evolution teaches that might makes right and that evolution is a religion. Most recently I heard one that apparently D James Kennedy was repeating that Huxley’s grandson admitted on a talk show that Darwin’s theory was adopted because scientists didn’t want to be held accountable to a creator and instead wanted to be able to fornicate.

History wasn't much different, unfortunately. I should have known something was amiss when my seventh grade history teacher told us that Noah's curse on Ham applied to black people and I had to point out that this wasn't the case even according to the Bible itself. As would be expected, I had to later discover that many of the Founding Fathers were not, in fact, devout Christians. Hitler and Stalin did not base their views on Darwinism. Archaeologists have indeed found things that contradict the biblical record. Upon his conversion, John Newton did not repent of his slave trading and pen “Amazing Grace”. In fact, Newton makes for an interesting character study in the whole idea of contemporary myth-making in Christian circles. I mean, who doesn't love a good redemption story, right? Knowing what I know about Newton now, I have a hard time trusting anything the man ever wrote about himself.

In addition to redemption stories, Christians love to make up and embellish martyrdom stories. You can check out the book I referenced at the beginning of this post, but the oft-repeated sentiment that Christians were systematically persecuted by the Roman Empire from Nero up until Constantine is simply not true. Many of the martyr stories either never happened or were completely embellished. This still happens today. In spite of what you may have heard in a Michael W Smith song or read in her mom's book, Cassie Bernall probably never said "Yes!" Even the publishers of her mother's book admit that we'll probably "never know" what really happened. Does this stop people from turning Cassie into a modern day martyr? Hardly. People want to hear these stories and they want to believe them, so people produce them with either good or ill motives and others completely buy into them.

I'm not trying to imply that Christians have a monopoly on passing off made up and exaggerated bullcrap as the truth. I'm merely asking why it's so accepted in Christian circles and why Christianity seems to be largely populated with individuals who will believe anything. Do you accept Paul's excuse that it's all part of God's plan to fill the church with gullible half-wits so he can get the glory (1 Cor. 1:26-29)? Are people who are given the "gift" of faith simply more prone to deception? Much is said about the oft-lauded faith of little children who will believe virtually anything an authority figure tells them, including stories about fairies that exchange coins for teeth and jolly old elves that live at the North Pole and deliver presents to millions of children. Is this the example adult Christians are to follow? Why? What happens if you don't just believe everything you're told on faith? I suspect I may have an idea.

Furthermore, why are we to merely assume that myth-making and exaggeration was somehow suspended during the so-called "apostolic age" while the New Testament documents were being produced and circulated? How is such an exemption not simply special pleading? Mother church has a well-established track record of pious fraud. Why should someone assume that those 27 documents are somehow immune to lies and half-truths? Because people were supposedly willing to die for those accounts? What people? The ones whose deaths are recorded centuries later in martyrdom accounts?

If even the basic claims of Christianity are true, what does all this documented pious fraud mean for skeptics? What does this mean for people who don't simply accept extraordinary claims on faith, especially when they've clearly been lied to time and time again? As George W Bush said, "Fool me once, shame on - shame on you. Fool me - you can't get fooled again." Apparently there's little hope for skeptics unless we abandon reason, skepticism and inquiry; or at least turn it off when we read the Bible and go to church. I've been warned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The problem is, every time I go looking for that baby, all I find is filthy stinking bathwater. There's a saying about insanity and expecting different results.

The real conundrum appears to be that if Christianity is true, God has set things up this way. Credulity and gullibility are rewarded. Doubt and skepticism are punished. People face virtually no negative consequences for believing too much, but they face infinite consequences for believing too little. If that's the way God has truly engineered redemption, people like me are damned for thinking critically. At the very least we have to work really hard to contort ourselves intellectually to justify believing. On the other hand, for the gullible and intellectually lazy, it's an easy ride into eternal bliss. As a teenager I read a book by apologist Josh McDowell called Don't Check Your Brains at the Door. This now seems like the wrong advice to be giving to doubters.
The safe side is the best side. It is far better to err on the side of belief, than on the side of infidelity. God does not threaten anybody with eternal punishment for believing too much.

Danger lies on the side of investigation, on the side of thought. The perfectly idiotic are absolutely safe. As they diverge from that point,—as they rise in the intellectual scale, as the brain develops, as the faculties enlarge, the danger increases.

-Robert Ingersoll, The Talmagian Catechism


  1. If it weren't for lies, evangelicals wouldn't have much at all to back themselves up. My preacher ex-husband is a pathological liar (possibly a textbook narcissist to boot), and I've met a number of other pastors who were like him. It got so hard, after I had deconverted but not yet left church, to keep my silence when I heard preachers say things I knew, totally knew, were flat-out untrue!

    If you ever want to see some real fun, look up Mike Warnke's debunked "testimony" sometime; a Christian news site investigated it because it was just SO out-there it demanded corroboration. I'll spoil it for you: he was never, ever, ever a Satanic high priest, a Wiccan high priest, a baby murderer, a drug dealer or abuser, or a harem-keeping sex god. When even the Christians are going "man, that's too much," you know the dude was out of hand.

  2. I can't believe I forgot about Mike Warnke. In retrospect, I probably forced him out of my mind after I found out about the whole fraud thing. What an embarrassment. I had several of his recordings.

    You're right. That guy was a textbook example of how uncritically Christians will accept anything that conforms to the narrative they want and expect. What is really surprising is that to this day people still give him money. The testimonials on his website are sickening.

  3. Yikes, I had no idea that guy was still preying on Christians. You'd think he'd have slunk off by now. I guess he doesn't have a lot of other job skills besides conning gullible people, and religion's the best con of all. Those people writing those testimonials may well have some explaining to do about Warnke's conduct when the next scandal rolls out.

  4. As I studied the "creation" myths from the early days of Scientology and the "scriptures" of the Mormons I began to recognize parallels to the stories I heard in church. The more I studied, the harder it got to critically analyze the obvious lies of the former while embracing the (to me) more subtle lies of the latter.

  5. 'Michelle Remembers' freaked me out for a long time, especially as I lived not far from Victoria, BC. Man, it seemed like everyone was being possessed by demons in the 80's. They were even planning on making a movie of Michelle's incredible story, but that was kiboshed when the Official Church of Satan stepped in and threatened to sue. You gotta know you've stooped pretty low when the Church of Satan is ready to sue you.

    1. That book helped fuel a lot of nonsense, hysteria and copycats. The sad thing is, there are people that still believe her account.