Gospel Disproof #45: A self-fulfilling prophecy

Back when I was an active member in the Church of Christ, I got myself in trouble with the pastor and the elders because I pointed out some discrepancies I’d found between what the church teaches and what it was actually practicing. For example, one of their big teachings is that the church has to have New Testament authorization for everything it does, and yet they’d taken it upon themselves to substitute grape juice instead of wine in the weekly communion. They had all kinds of arguments about why this exception—or “necessary inference,” as they called it—was ok, but these inferences were fairly easy to expose as mere rationalizations.

They, unsurprisingly, didn’t want to hear it, and the eldest of the elders took it upon himself to warn me about the error of my ways. “You think too much,” he declared. “You’re on the road to atheism. Everyone I’ve met who thought about the Bible like you do ended up as an atheist.” If he’d come up to be and literally dumped a bucket of ice cold water over my head, my emotional reaction (at the time) would not have been much different.

I tried to argue with him. I pointed out, if what he said was true, that was a really bad sign for Christianity. You have to be able to think about the truth, and if thinking inevitably leads you out of the church and into atheism, that’s pretty much the same as saying Christianity is a lie. He protested that this was not the case, and that of course Christianity was all true, but the look in his eyes betrayed a deep suspicion. He didn’t say it out loud, but his face said it for him: my warning may have come too late for this one.

At the time, he was wrong. My Christian faith was as strong as ever at the time. And yet, his prediction ultimately came true, and the fact that he made it is at least part of the reason why it came true. A lot of Christians know that too much honest thinking about your faith is harmful. In theory, Christianity does not require you to switch off your brain, but in practice that’s the safest thing to do if you want to keep on believing. And it’s not just me saying it. This elder in the church, and many others like him, have all told me the same thing. Questions are dangerous. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Of course, in apologetic/evangelistic situations, every Christian will defend the theory. Apologetics is all about claiming that Christianity has all the answers. But that’s the theory, not the practice. Behind the scenes, when Christians themselves start asking real questions, there’s a problem. Sunday school answers are just for show, for those who do not seriously question their faith. They can’t bear up under the weight of real, sustained scrutiny. Just like the elder said, if you think too much, you’ll end up an atheist.


  1. mikespeir says

    It’s not literally true of all Christians, but I can’t escape the conviction that very, very few who claim to believe really do. “I believe” is a kind of password, a key fitting the lock that opens the doors into a society in which they’re surrounded by a comfortable force field of like-minded persons.

    I was that way. I really thought I believed. I would’ve been incensed if anyone had suggested I didn’t. Sure, I realize it’s perilous to project onto others what I know about myself, but I also know by experience how easy it is to fall into this delusion. I can look back at my former self and see signs that I now recognize in those who are still in the fold.

    I think the average pew dweller would be dismayed at the revelation of his own unbelief, so much so that, like me, he’ll take whatever route, however circuitous, to avoid stumbling over certain uncomfortable considerations. But at some level he knows he’s doing it. He also understands the implications. So his life becomes a feverish cyclone of religious busyness to distract himself from them.

    • says

      I like the idea that “‘I believe’ is a kind of password, a key fitting the lock that opens the doors into a society in which they’re surrounded by a comfortable force field of like-minded persons.” This is a good analogy.

      I’d take faith/belief a step further and suggest that it’s impossible. Faith and belief exist only in the brain. We have no way to quantify their existence, or whether we have it. When believers claim faith manifests itself through behavior, all one needs to point out is that lying manifests itself through behavior as well. Considering the fact that there are so many doubters who say they “have faith” or “believe,” it just goes to show that the ideas themselves (faith and belief) are illusions.

      Belief and faith only exist in our language because they’re terms that have been part of it since language’s earliest days. But neither faith, nor belief, can ever be proved to be exist, nor is there any way to point at one belief that’s better than another. How can belief be true if you can’t see it, and when it’s so easy to delude yourself? How can you “have” faith when there’s no way to see if you really have it?

      People have ideas. That’s it. Some of those ideas, like “faith,” fall apart under scrutiny because they don’t really exist, not even as a synapse. It’s just an idea. And ideas need evidence and scrutiny. Faith and belief, of course, can’t stand up to scrutiny, or they would destroy the “reason” they’re based on. If faith or belief could stand up to the believer’s reason, they would become mere ideas and lose their sheen of exclusivity.

      • mikespeir says

        Yeah. That’s one of those things that it probably doesn’t pay the believer to think about too much. Really, what is “faith”? What’s the difference between “belief,” “opinion,” “assumption,” “conviction,” and whatnot? It seems our minds are vast gradients of attributes and capabilities, each merging imperceptibly into the next. There’s no bright, wide line between them. In fact, it’s probably not even correct to say “them.” It’s all a big “it.” We just take our red Magic Markers and arbitrarily circle this or that expanse and call it “belief” or “opinion” or whatever. They’re basically the same thing, they just have a different feel depending on the designator we apply at any given time. Use the word “opinion” on a Christian and you’re both in the secular mode. Call it “belief” instead, and he shifts into a religious mindset. Same thing: it’s just that one will save your soul and the other is, well, opinion. 😉

    • Leo says

      I’ve had similar thoughts to yours. I so often see people behave as though they do not believe, so I conclude, based on the idea that beliefs inform actions, that they do not believe. Yet one thing I’ve been taking into consideration as of late are things I’ve heard Michael Shermer say about belief. He claims that people usually form beliefs first and then we find reasons to support those beliefs second. This would certainly seem to be the case with religious belief and childhood indoctrination. So it may be that people really do “believe,” but that they have not thought much about justifying those beliefs. If they surround themselves by other people who believe and nobody who questions those beliefs, then they’ll have no reason to justify their beliefs.

      However, this does not satisfy my questions on why people act contrary to the things they claim they believe. Perhaps it is due to compartmentalizing in the brain? Perhaps one part of the brain believes and another part does not?

      • mikespeir says

        I’m thinking something like that, too. How is it possible to both believe and not believe? Crazy as it seems, I’m not sure it’s not. I know there was a time I really did believe. I mean, how could I not? I was fitted with a pair of spectacles with G-O-D etched into the lenses at an early age. So it’s hardly surprising that I saw him everywhere. After all, I hadn’t been handed any other accounting for the world around me. Surely, I did believe. But I’m not sure I was ever quite comfortable with that belief, even early on.

        What I think happened was that although I didn’t really suspect there was any other legitimate way of looking at things, I nevertheless kind-of intuited that something wasn’t quite right with it all. A lot of my Christian life was spent trying to jog everything into place. At first, I did it with the assumption that the Faith I was handed couldn’t be far off. It just needed a little tweaking, that’s all. But tweak as I might, I couldn’t get the picture to clear up. I’m guessing a lot of people get to that point, grow tired of the fight, and moan, “Aw, what the hell? So many people with such a history couldn’t be that far wrong.” And they slip into a kind of numb acceptance of the dissonance, choosing not to dwell on it for the sake of their sanity. But I tried that. It didn’t work for me.

  2. says

    The Calvary Chapel I was in substituted grape juice for wine because they said there were alcoholics in the congregation.

    This is true. But it was hardly more than a thimbleful. If you’re going to get a reaction from that much wine, you got other problems.

  3. Peter says

    Four decades or so ago I was in college and pointed out to a roommate, a devout christian who was convinced that drinking alcohol in any form was sinful, that much wine was used in the bible and that Jesus turned water into wine for a wedding celebration. He told me that the wine in the bible was “pure”. He knew that because he had been told so in church.
    At that point I gave up.

  4. Jack says


    I, too, was a very active member of the Church of Christ (piano-playing, haha). I also got a very similar response to my sincere study and questioning. My preacher, a truly good natured man, said, “Just let go of reasoning about it. You will be unhappy and unable to function as a christian if you think about it too much.”

    I constantly wanted to know more, to have THE answers that were continually promised to me but never quite showed up. When I approached my preacher about my constant yearning to more understanding, that I wanted to get to the answers; he said, “What you are going through is spiritual growth. Don’t let it bother you.”

    Those conversations have stuck with me ever since the 18 year old me heard them as the actual truths of what I was involved in. They didn’t have answers, they didn’t have much of anything except a group of people generally under control by deception.

  5. Ray Moscow says

    I blame your apostacy on denominational error. (ex-COC joke)

    And ‘pastor’?!!! Puleeze. He was a gospel preacher/minister, who only seemed like a ‘pastor’ because that was would have been his job description at any other church.

  6. N. Nescio says

    My hobby is fermenting things, and I LOVE it when fundies try to insist that Jesus and his crew drank unfermented grape juice, and not wine.

    I immediately call resounding ‘bullshit!’ and bring up Mark 2:22. Know what would make old wineskins burst if you put new wine into them?

    Secondary fermentation. The primary fermentation would likely occur in the press vat, from yeasts present on the grape skins and in the air. Given the climate and complete lack of refrigeration, sanitization, and antiseptic packaging, fermentation is inevitable.

    The only way you can insist that the wine in the Bible isn’t actually wine is by being willfully ignorant of how fermentation works.

  7. sqlrob says

    In theory, Christianity does not require you to switch off your brain

    The book it’s based on is full of internal contradictions (never mind the ones contradicting reality), so how does it not require you to switch your brain off even in theory?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Well, in theory the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. You use one theory to support the other. If you find a contradiction, just invent another theory in which the contradiction isn’t really a contradiction. And so on.

      • sqlrob says

        Given the huge number of contradictions, how is that not shutting your brain off?

      • says

        That’s a very good point. I suspect that most believers never realize that, they simply approach contradictions one at a time at each point they say, “Well, it could be true, so I won’t walk away” and sometimes even pull out the rationalization that the contradiction they are currently looking at probably isn’t one because in the past they felt they had resolved the other contradictions. If you’ve got a deeply-instilled religious belief and fear of burning in hell while you’re examining these things, that too can be a driving factor.

  8. ursa major says

    Ah, The ol’ COC.

    At my congregation the teens were exposed to some dumbed down theology (like there is any other kind?) using as a text a little book called “I Believe Because” which immediately got me thinking “If I am just getting this stuff now, this can not be the reasons why I do or ought to believe”.

    Then to add to the fun most of the theology and arguments for god and so forth were watered down medieval Catholic theology.

    Very funny for what was then a very anti-Catholic denomination.

    Oh, and the wine being grape juice, we got that too.

  9. says

    That’s interesting that you used to be a member of the church of Christ. So was I, and it sounds like we went to same type of CoC (there seem to be different types of churches that all go under the banner “Church of Christ”). I’ve posted some thoughts on my own experience here:

    I’ll post a little bit of the relevant portion:

    The absolute, number one focus of these churches was to keep themselves and their church service in complete accordance with what the Bible taught. We had no Sunday school, no musical instruments during the church service (singing was a capella) and the members of the church cited verses from the bible (or, sometimes, a total absence of verses that condoned such things) to support these prohibitions. Over at Less Wrong you can find a community of people who are dedicated to, at all costs, eliminating their own bias and following logic and evidence. The church of Christ is very similar with the exception that they are dedicated to following the bible (which they consider to be well-evidenced, and proofs of prophecies and such were regularly presented).

  10. says

    I once heard televangelist Jack Van Impe do a whole show on how the the wine in the Bible was never fermented. I had two thoughts: First, how did Lot’s daughters or Noah get drunk drinking grape juice? Second, I wanted to challenge him to squeeze the juice out of a bunch of grapes, put it in a kitchen cabinet for three months, and then drink it. The the thought of him and his wife Rexella doing that brought evil pleasure to my young imagination.
    I tried asking questions about religion at my Catholic elementary school, but all I got was the standard Catholic answer, “It’s a mystery. And shut up.”

    • jamessmith says

      btw, Bill, Jack Van Impe and Rexella, well those two are a story all by themselves. I don’t know whether you noticed, but he was very hard edged and angry in years gone by. Somebody must have told him to “soften up” for broader appeal, so he gave Rexella the job of humoring the audience so he could resume his tirades. I have watched that show since I was 10 to laugh at it….even when I was a Christian.

  11. jamessmith says

    I see a lot of parallels between all of the above statements about Christianity and the political world, or even nationalism, for that matter. We are the choir wants to be preached to. Conservative republicans listen to Rush Limbaugh, Americans stand behind a war in a country where their demon doesn’t even reside.

    I have a host of reasons why I became atheist, but they are all my own beliefs and conclusions. I do enjoy finding information that confirms my suspicions and reinforces my own world view, so I’m just as guilty. But I find myself coming to the biggest conclusion: People are generally predisposed to believe what they are born into. If zealots are born in Japan they would most likely be defending Shintoism and would laugh at a culture that insists that Christ is King. Ancient Greeks would find a single Christian god amusing for such a complex world. Southern Baptists wouldn’t be Southern Baptists if they were born in Maine. When I see this pattern, it sends a red flag up to me regarding human beliefs in general. A trinity of father, son and holy ghost? Magical. I am suspicious of the integrity of any glass that has a single nick. Question the roots of the belief and whether they test up globally.

    The fanatic always has a secret doubt.

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