The third option

As a few people have pointed out, there’s something missing from my discussion of religion as the leading source of atheism. I said that when you find a mistake in your religion, you have two options: either leave the church, or become a hypocrite. The possibility of correcting the church’s error is not really an option, because the church’s whole authority system is predicated on the assumption that it cannot make any mistakes in the first place. Acknowledging the existence of an error means admitting that the church’s authority is based on a false premise.

Some people suggested that the third option is to start a new religion, or at least create a schism, but I would include that as a sub-category under the heading of leaving your old religion. When you start a new religion, or a new branch of the old one, you’re saying in effect that the old one is wrong and therefore you’re leaving it. I got to see this a lot in the Church of Christ: each half of the church split would promptly declare that the other half was on its way to hell, because they were rejecting the Bible’s plain declaration that _______ (fill in the blank: “communion is/isn’t one cup”,”missionary societies are/aren’t a permissible means of spreading the gospel”, etc). You may be staying within the broad outlines of religion, but you’re leaving your original faith.

As others pointed out, though, there is a third option, and it’s quite fascinating in a way. You can change a church founded on dogmatic tradition, provided you make the change retroactive. This is the Roman Catholic Church’s forte, but Protestantism is no mean hand at this game. The Church Council decides that God is a Trinity, and poof, the Christian church has always believed in the Trinity. Some pope decides that dead babies go to limbo? Poof, the church has always believed in limbo. Some American preacher decides that alcoholic beverages are sinful? Poof, the Bible has always declared that all alcohol is sinful. And so on.

That’s an ingenious, if disingenuous, means of solving the problem. You get to change what the church teaches, without undermining the dogmatic traditionalism, by simply revising the past to insert your new teaching into the original dogma, retroactively. And it happens a lot, even in churches that don’t make quite the stir over Apostolic Tradition as the Catholics do.

The problem is that the third option is also a tremendous source of deconversions. People aren’t necessarily any more stupid than they want to be, and when you decide to start redefining history in order to change doctrines without being honest about it, people notice. Schisms arise, and so do animosities. People fall away, unable to deny any longer that their church is simply manipulating the idea of “truth” in order to teach whatever they want, regardless of the facts. And when you realize that the religious leaders of the past (including the prophets and apostles) were just as human as today’s leaders, there’s no longer any reason to simply assume that whatever they tell you must necessarily be the truth.


  1. Arancaytar says

    The Church Council decides that God is a Trinity, and poof, the Christian church has always believed in the Trinity. Some pope decides that dead babies go to limbo? Poof, the church has always believed in limbo.

    Heh; they’ve recently made motions in the other direction on baby-limbo. At least the cognitive dissonance of retroactive infallibility seems to bother them enough, by now, to basically admit they don’t know. (“We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”) Yet they have no problem with the dissonance of the pope having a direct line and yet not simply asking “hey God, what happens to the babies?”

  2. says

    I think christianity has tried the third option to the tune of approximately 38000 times. The ponzi scheme is still around. Islam has a few, as does judaism. The more religions try to change the more they remain the same, donate to us and earn a place in heaven, don’t and rot in hell.

  3. longstreet63 says

    Oh, wow. You came out of the same version of the Church of Christ that I did.
    There was a schism every week.
    No, we can’t go there because they have the Satan-insp[ired institution of Sunday School, which is adding to the Bible, which is expressly condemned in Revelations.

    All that trouble over an instruction to the copyist.

    CoC–making it all up as they go along since the beginning of time (they claim.)

    Greetings from another survivor.

  4. Cafeeine says

    It should be pointed out that the method of retroactive re-interpretation was a lot more effective back when fact-checking was the select privilege of the very few, and in religion’s case, most of those were already committed clergy. It’s a lot less feasible in the age of internet archives and youtube.

  5. says

    I remember multiple occasions where I sat through a lesson on how the Baptists were really the oldest Christian church, if not the only True Christians™. They always track back through the Anabaptists to some previous theologian to vague mentions of small house churches that always held the True Faith™.

    And at the same time, I watched Baptist church after Baptist church go through schisms over nitpicks. (The precise wording of the communion ritual, for one.) And each side became the True Church™.

    I saw one congregation whittled down to a man and his family; all the rest were vile heretics. Last I heard, he was having difficulties with his family.

    Something didn’t quite line up between the “history” and the pattern I saw.

  6. peterwhite says

    I grew up Protestant in a place that was 95% Catholic. I was surprised to discover it was originally the same religion. By that time I had rejected Christianity but then learned all the Jewish kids I went to school with had the bible before the Christians. It wasn’t long after that I rejected all religions, followed by all gods, and then anything supernatural.

    Convergence is still a big selling point for science vs nonsense. My JW sister didn’t know that and asked me if she gave the same evidence to scientists in Canada and Russia if they would come to the same conclusion. She didn’t like my answer and gave her usual rebuttal, “I just don’t buy it”.

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