I’ve encountered an argument, from a few people at this point, that goes something to the effect of the following:
If someone says that they are a [Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc] but doesn’t think that [Christ was divine/gay sex is wrong and awful/all laws of Leviticus should be obeyed/etc] then they aren’t actually of the religion that they claim, even if they genuinely believe themselves to be.
Some of you are probably wondering why I appear to be attacking a strawman. Others may note that there is a difference between suggesting that a necessary condition for being a Christian is believing in ‘the teachings of Christ’ and believing that all Christians must abhor sodomy, where the former makes a little more sense based on conventional use of the term. It may be fair to note, ‘hey, it says here in the bible that gay sex is bad!’ and hope that someone who treats the bible as a sacred text will have an explanation as to why they don’t think it says that, but even the word ‘Christianity’ itself has the name ‘Christ’ in it, so certain positions on Christ’s divinity and wisdom seen essential.
But I think that all arguments of this form are uniformly wrong-headed. I’m going to explain why I think this, and I’m mostly going to talk about Christianity as an example, but what I say should extend to any religion and even any ideology like ‘Marxism’ or ‘Liberalism’ in general. though I think it’s particularly and more practically pertinent to religions.
Also, let me just get this out of the way: I’m not saying something like ‘we shouldn’t put people into boxes, dude!’ because we absolutely must be able to sort people/things into categories if we’re going to talk about them, and those categories must have content.
So, yeah: Christianity. There is a very diverse array of beliefs and sets of beliefs that are supposedly ‘Christian’. They run the range from looking almost like the sort of thing you’d expect from the Taliban to something resembling the most liberal of Humanisms. How can all these things be ‘Christianity’? Well, they can be Christianity because Christianity is what Christians make of it.
Theology and hermeneutics are the ‘sciences’ of developing religious doctrines and of interpreting what sacred texts – like the bible – are ‘really’ saying. For example, many Christians will read a passage and think ‘ah, this is a metaphor or an allegory’ and they will try to build their principles around what they think that metaphor or allegory is for rather than the most obvious reading that comes to mind. Two Christians from different communities could read the same passage but come to radically different conclusions as to what that passage says.
One instinctive response for many secular people, upon seeing this process, is to accuse one or both parties of dishonesty or glibness. We can point to a passage and say ‘look here, it clearly says that X is a sin, and over here it talks about magic’ and so on, and we think that rather than admit that the bible is both evil and crazy/superstitious, Christians are deluding themselves in order to continue to believe what they want. This response is understandable, because most of what secular people read when it comes to philosophy is quite clear. It’s written by people trying very hard to be very explicit as to what they mean, and it was written recently enough that we don’t have trouble translating or contextualising what the author is saying. But this is a more unreasonable position when it comes to religious identity. It degrades our ability to figure out what’s going on with religious people and their religious beliefs in their religious communities and their religious conversations precisely because they really and truly believe all that glibness. And understanding people’s beliefs is what we’re trying to do in the first place.
One of my favourite books on social identities describes them as having both a ‘nominal’ and a ”virtual’ component. Basically: the name we give to our identities is a very important part of what those identities are, even as the experience of living out those identities, or fleshing them out with ideas about the world and ourselves, is also very important. Again, I think that for many secular people, this seems a bit strange, because we imagine that the name of something simply serves as shorthand for the content of that something. ‘Liberalism’ is nothing more than a convenient way to refer to a set of ideas about justice or individual rights, according to this understanding. And again, I think that makes practical sense when discussing modern ideologies. It even makes sense, practically speaking, to treat ‘Christianity’ as, at the very least, shorthand for certain beliefs about Christ’s divinity, etc.
But ‘practical’ doesn’t always mean ‘rigorous’, nor does it give us a tool for every problem or every situation.
When we look at a community of religious believers, we see that the beliefs that they think are required of someone who calls themselves a Believer – the things that a Good Christian must consider true, for example – we see two notable traits: first, that those beliefs often change over time, and second, that they are constantly being debated or contended. Some beliefs seem more stable or ‘sacred’ than others, and they seem to change less, but there is a constant process of negotiation and discourse over what the Book really says, and how to live according to it. If you took a snapshot in time of one particular religious community’s beliefs, you’d have a fairly stable ideology, but I don’t think that such a snapshot would be very useful in understanding religious communities and religious people. That process of trying to figure out the authentic Truth is an important part of what they do.
My suggestion is to define Christianity as ‘the community of people who call themselves “Christian” and search for religious truths in “Christian” texts and scriptures’. I recognise that this is very broad – anyone who takes the name ‘Christian’ could potentially qualify – but, well, Christianity is very broad. And I’m not sure we want to become theologians ourselves by going to the bible and saying ‘here is the correct reading that you have to follow if you are actually a Christian’. This is what religious fundamentalists do. And yes, it certainly violates the dictionary definition of Christianity if someone says ‘I’m a Christian but I think that Christ was just a man’ or whatever, but the dictionary isn’t a source of Truth. It’s a description of linguistic conventions, designed to make communication easier.
And what about communication? We still need words to describe particular sets of beliefs, and if we don’t actually think that ‘Christianity’ entails any such thing, then how do we talk about those beliefs?
The way out of this is to compromise. Even if in principle we should make no further assumptions about ‘Baptists’ or ‘Lutherans’ or ‘Catholics’ than we should about ‘Christians’ in general, we can still treat certain doctrines as institutionalised within those communities. We can do this by focusing more narrowly on specific groups. However, even among Catholics there can be quite a wide variety of ideas as to what being a Good Catholic involves, for example. So we can also try to talk about the beliefs themselves rather than the groups of people that putatively hold them, if possible. And we can be flexible about our terms, and be willing to change them to suit the discussion, since our goal is to talk about things, and not dictate or mandate certain True things. Unless we’re actually members of the religion in question, of course. Then finding the Truth is what we’ve set out to do in the first place.