1/12/2012 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Paul So ~
The strange thing is that while I was born as a Christian, I was never born into a Christian family that held the attitude that once someone is a Christian, that person will always remain a Christian as a True Christian. My family was, at the very least, a little tolerant enough to consider Catholics to be Christians (which is not always common among conservative protestants). However after my deconversion, I begin to meet other Christians and ex-Christians who talk about the notion of being a “True Christian”. I would often hear the “no true Christian” argument from many Christians, and I would also often hear frustration among other ex-Christians (as well as secularists who were never Christians) about the fallacy of this argument. I could almost never relate to this argument, but at the same time I am sympathetic enough to write an essay that would refute this kind of argument to show the inherent fallacious-ness. As a philosopher (or just plainly a philosophy student), I am going to use my critical thinking and logic to demonstrate why “Not a True Christian” is an overrated argument that no one should resort to.
The popular preconception that many Christians have is that to be a true Christian is to be a genuinely devoted Christian who does not doubt the fundamental teachings of Christianity. Not only does the person have genuine conviction of the belief, but such a person would also continue to believe in spite of all circumstances. Such a person would not merely believe, but would also act in accordance to such beliefs. So far this seems like a reasonable assumption on what a “True Christian” is. However, the adjunct belief is that a True Christian is someone who is authentically divinely inspired by God to the extent that such a person cannot disbelieve in it at all. So, there are several assumptions on what many Christians understand to be “True Christian”. I will go over these assumptions to see if they ever stand up to scrutiny.
The first very popular assumption is the moral assumption: “A person is a true Christian if and only if such a person is moral by following the moral commands of God”. This would also include having correct or justified moral beliefs in the eyes of God. So by this line of reasoning, Hitler cannot be called a “True Christian”, since he had incorrect moral beliefs (Racism) and committed many atrocities. However this line of reasoning is very peculiar because it leads us to ask an interesting question: What exactly disqualifies a person from being a true Christian in regards to the moral assumption? So far what is implicit in the moral assumption is to have the correct moral conviction (including moral belief) and the correct moral action that follows from obeying the divine command. But this becomes problematic when we consider another fact based on observation: nobody is morally perfect. If nobody is morally perfect, this only means that nobody acts and believes consistently in a moral manner. If that be the case, then in one moment a person is a true Christian, but in another moment the same person is not a true Christian. If person X has moral conviction Y and performed moral action Z in a certain point in time T1, in regards to the divine command Q, then he is a true Christian. But if person X at a certain point in time T2 lacked a moral conviction Y and performed an unethical action –Z, against the divine command Q, then such a person is not a true Christian at time T2. So there are times when a particular person was either a true Christian or not a true Christian. This seems to go against the preconception that once a person is a Christian, remains a Christian.
A possible objection to this argument is that it is incomplete because being a true Christian does not only involve obedience but also involves having a spiritual disposition or desire to please God and being forgiven by God through Christ. Thus a True Christian can at times be disobedient but remain a True Christian since he (or she) still has the desire to please God and is forgiven by God. There are some problems with these objections. First, one can have a misguided desire to please God in that the person is convinced that he or she is doing something for God. This is very well exemplified in religious fanaticism as well as terrorism motivated by religious zeal. Many Christians may continue to insist that such a person was still not a True Christian, but this is not consistent with the assumption that one has to have a desire to please God. What seems to lie beneath this objection is that the desire to please God logically entails actually pleasing God. However it’s obvious that this does not follow because one could have a desire to please God, but still be ignorant about what actually does please God. Such ignorance could arguably be inevitable since God is ineffable being. Second, there is a possible theological problem with the presumption of forgiveness: Just because one is forgiven, is it always the case that one will continue to remain forgiven? For some Christians, there is a possibility of “back sliding” in which one was forgiven, but returned back to the sinful life. Many evangelical Christians may object to this arguing that the person who experienced repentance and forgiveness will never return back to the sinful life. However this theological belief implies that there is virtually no freewill involved on the part of the person to either return to the sinful life or to embrace the spiritual life. This also seem to imply the theology of predestination in which the individual is permanently elected by God to be a True Christian.
The “Not a True Christian” argument also seems to be committed to the a priori understanding of being a Christian. Now, A priori is a philosophical terminology that means that something is true by definition: A triangle is three conjoined lines with three angles, A bachelor is an unmarried man, a husband is a married man, etc. In other words, the notion or term is true by its own meaning. When I say that a bachelor is single man, it is true by definition. This is not only true by definition, but it is so self-evidently true that rejecting it would sound ridiculous to anyone who knows the true meaning. Likewise, many Christians seem to have a similar view on being a Christian. I call this an a priori assumption. For many Christians, to be a true Christian is to have an inerrant view on the bible (although some Christians who are liberal Christians may deny this), believes in the holy trinity, believes in salvation, incarnation, virgin-birth etc. I think most of you get the point here…A Christian by definition cannot disagree or doubt anyone of these doctrines. Thus if a particular person calls himself a Christian but disagrees with the inerrancy of the bible, many Christians would argue that he is not a “True Christian”. However this approach is very problematic for several reasons. First, there are so many conflicting beliefs among Christians on many important matters that it is difficult to infer what it means to be a “True Christian” in any pure or a priori sense. I may meet someone who does not believe in creationism, but believes in theistic evolutionism, but still believes in the resurrection of Christ (such as William Lane Craig). Such aberration occurs within Christianity, they are still called Christians. The fundamentalists may insist that someone like William Lane Craig who believes in theistic evolution cannot be a true Christian, but from the outsiders point of view who is a true Christian? Is William Lane Craig a true Christian or is the fundamentalist a true Christian? In the early centuries when Christianity was new, there have been Christians who believed in many things that most Christians nowadays would not believe in, but which Christians in which time period are True Christians? The problem here is that it is not entirely clear which criterion we should use to assess which Christians are True Christians. It may seem self-evident to the protestant fundamentalist which Christians are true Christians, but to the conservative Catholics it is equally obvious which Christians are “true Christians”. They are using two different sets of Criterion which no one can agreeably decide which kind of person is a True Christian. Now, this doesn’t warrant the conclusion that there are no true Christians, but it does point out the weaknesses on the “True Christian” argument which is that there is no clear cut definition on what constitutes a Christian nowadays, thus being a “True Christian” could just amount to being an ambiguous Christian.
The third and final assumption is what I call the divine inspiration assumption. According to this view, to have a genuinely personal encounter or experience with God would make it impossible to turn away from God. It would also make it impossible to deliberately mistake to reject the existence of God after the personal experience had taken place. To have such an experience, but to continue to live a normal sinful life is unthought-of. So…what’s wrong with this assumption? First, the argument is question-begging because it makes an initial assumption that can be disputed; for example, such line of thinking assumes that 1) There is a God 2) There is a possible religious experience about that God 3) religious experience entails permanent belief. Because it assumes that there is a God whom anyone can have a personal experience with, through which permanent belief is formed, it concludes that nobody who has a personal experience with God could ever reject the existence of God. This line of thinking is problematic precisely because it makes certain assumptions that could be disputed philosophically, but many other believers deny it simply because they believe that the initial assumptions are absolutely correct. In the literature of Philosophy of Religion, many philosophers have strongly disputed about whether religious experience is possible at all, or whether coherent propositional knowledge can ever be formed reliably on the basis of religious experience. There is also an epistemological problem on how we know that what we experience is a religious experience, or how we know that what we interpret in our religious experience is a correct interpretation. Like, how do I know that my interpretation that a particular experience is a personal experience with God? What warrants this interpretation? Another problem with religious experience is the recent discovery in Neuroscience that religious experience has Neurobiological explanation in conjunction with other independent explanations: for example experiencing a presence of a being can be explained by being exposed to high level of electromagnetism that affects one’s temporal lobe. Many other kinds of religious experience, even near-death experienced, are progressively being explained through the eyes of neuroscience. Now, it is a given that the explanations are not exhaustive because neuroscience is still a recent science that is currently developing. So the problem of religious experience already makes the assumption of genuine personal experience with God dubious. The existence of God is also being assumed by many believers who appeal to personal experience, and this is obviously circular since personal religious experience already assumes the existence of God. The existence of God is an assumption that can be disputed by anyone on multiple reasonable grounds (i.e. problem of evil). If both of these assumptions are problematic, then it follows that the third assumption of permanent belief is also problematic. What if the permanent belief that I have just turned out to be false? After all, just because the belief is permanent does not mean that it is true, since permanence and truth are not always related (there are permanent falsehoods such as “Santa Clause Exist”).
A more general problem with the “True Christian” argument (including the moral assumption and a priori assumption) is that it commits a “not scottsman fallacy” proposed by Anthony Flew. Anthony Flew, a recently deceased Atheist philosopher, argued that the “True Christian” argument commits a “no scottsman fallacy”. He illustrates this by using an example of a patriotic Scottish who was horrified of the criminal behavior of another Scottish. He exclaims “No true Scottish would do such a thing”, and concludes that the particular criminal Scottish is not a Scottish. This is blatantly fallacious, since in spite of his criminal behavior, such a person remains a Scottish person. Similarly, Anthony Flew argues that the same fallacy goes with Christians. The whole point of this fallacy is to show that the standard universal claim can easily be changed to exclude particular members who did not fit into someone else’s preconception on what being a “True X” is, just as a Scottish patriot can easily changed the universal claim about Scottish people to exclude a criminal Scottish man. Now there are possible objections to this argument: nationality is not the same thing as religious identity, since religious identity involves more than being born into a particular nation. This objection is partially irrelevant since it misses the point that Anthony flew was trying to demonstrate the similarity between Scottsman and the Christian in that both of them change the standard universal claims to either exclude or include any individual member in order to into the preconceived notion. Such preconception that abuses the universal claim is not only presumptuous but circular. It also should be challenged.
I know this has been a very long essay, but the point that I am trying to make is that the “True Christian” argument is obviously a very bad argument for the reasons above. People who make such an argument are trying making themselves immune to any criticisms such that it seems to exempt them from critical thinking and rational discussion. It is often the case that people who do make such arguments are not interested in having a critical and rational discussion, but rather are only trying to convert other people who “were never True Christians” in their eyes. I am also trying to present you more reasons why the “True Christian” argument is not a very logical one, because it is a circular argument that changes the standard universal claims that fit into their preconception of “True Chrisitan” to exclude those who use to be genuinely dedicated Christians. I hope you guys enjoyed reading the essay…