Overview:

The evidence for Christianity may be lacking, but it sometimes does deliver on one promise, the promise of hope. But look closer, and you’ll see that Christian hope has downsides.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Here’s an interesting thought experiment from Tracie Harris of The Atheist Experience podcast. Suppose I put an ad in the local paper and say that I help people find jobs. I’m retired from business and have experience and contacts that I’d like to share. I only ask that job candidates come to my house, give me their resume, and tell me about their background. That usually takes an hour or two, but my help is free.

But there’s more to the story. When the applicants leave, I throw their resumes in the trash. I give them hope that I can help them, but I don’t actually help them. The truth is, I have no real business experience at all.

What do you make of this story? I am a caring and helpful person who offers hope to people? Or a jerk who wastes their time, plays with their emotions, and deludes them? Have I replaced their drive to get a new job with complacency?

Christians make much of their religion’s precious gift of hope, but these same pointed questions could be asked about that as well.

What’s the harm with Christian hope?

Christians will point to elderly people who’ve been Christians all their lives. What’s the harm in their believing that they’ll soon be in heaven, reunited with loved ones? Surely you don’t want to attack Grandma’s Christian beliefs at her age.

Another example is someone living in abysmal circumstances—a child soldier in Somalia or a prostitute in Thailand, say. Or someone in a Third World prison or a young mother with a disease that will shortly kill her. Christianity can give hope when things are hopeless.

I agree that there’s no point in attacking a frail person’s worldview, and I have little argument with someone who clings to a delusion they need to get through the day. It’s the rest of humanity that I’m asking to throw away their crutches.

Let’s consider six problems caused by Christian hope.

1. “It’s consoling” isn’t good enough

Sam Harris in The End of Faith says,

[Belief in the afterlife] is deeply consoling if believed, but you really shouldn’t believe it simply because it’s consoling. For example, say I believe that a diamond the size of a refrigerator is buried in my backyard. If you ask me why I believe that, I would reply, well, it makes me feel good, it gives my life meaning. That’s clearly a crazy answer. For a belief to [tell us something useful about the world], it can’t be held just because it feels good to hold it.

Christians may respond that the difference is one person who believes in the giant diamond vs. a couple of billion who believe in Christianity, but of course this is just the argumentum ad populum, the bandwagon fallacy. Here is Robert Pirsig’s response: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”

Lots of people believe in astrology and homeopathy, but that doesn’t make them true. Evidence should be the guide, and you shouldn’t believe Christianity’s claims without good evidence.

Steven Pinker pokes holes in the idea that false beliefs should be comforting:

Saying that something is so doesn’t make it so, and there’s no reason why it should be comforting to think it so, when we have reason to believe it is not so. Compare: if you’re freezing, being told that you’re warm is not terribly soothing. If you’re being threatened by a menacing predator, being told that it’s just a rabbit is not particularly comforting. In general, we are not that easily deluded. Why should we be in the case of religion? It simply begs the question.

Some answers come to mind. Maybe the appeal is Christianity’s promise of an afterlife. Or maybe it’s a cultural custom. Shermer’s Law notes that as an adult, you use your intellect to defend indefensible beliefs you hold only because they were part of your upbringing. Whatever the reason, believing just because it’s consoling is indefensible for most adults in the West.

Read more in this series: Downsides to the hope offered by Christianity: not seeing reality clearly

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file
has already earned my contempt.
He has been given a large brain by mistake,
since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.
— Albert Einstein

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...