The Christian Delusion Pt.3

Derek Ouellette —  May 21, 2012

David Eller is the “natural born atheist” in this book. His cooperation is to inform the reader that the writers of this volume have not come to write it out of “revenge for having been victimized by a deceptive religion, but a burning desire for the facts.” Eller is the assistant professor of anthropology at the Community College in Denver.

Eller’s chapter, “Chapter 1: The Cultures of Christianity”, builds upon the premise laid down by Loftus in the Introduction. Eller aims to

“show how the concept of culture reduces Christianity into just another cultural phenomenon, operating by the same processes and yielding the same results as any cultural phenomenon. One of the key qualities of culture is diversity; there is no such thing as ‘Christian culture’ but rather ‘Christian cultures’; indeed no such thing Christianity but rather Christianities.” (p. 26)

The point Eller wants to make is that because people are not normally argued into Christianity, they cannot usually be argued out of Christianity. In other words, for Christianity to convert a people group, it must first convert and adapt to said people groups culture. These people become Christians because Christianity has become the cultural norm, the dominant worldview, and not because they’ve been presented logical, coherent arguments for and against it. When those arguments are presented which inevitable decisively disprove Christianity it matters little to a people who have embraced it as a cultural assumption.

He then points to a missionary handbook which effectively defines a culture. Highlighting a few key points, culture is a legacy from the past and learned as if it were absolute; makes sense to those within it; regulates a way of life; is tightly integrated; adaptive and complex. He adds, it consists of assumptions that underline the values of the culture; grounds our perception to reality; not reasoned but assumed to be true without prior proof; is seldom questioned.

Here’s the punchline: since Christianity is a culture too, it is learned as if it were absolute, makes sense to those within it, regulates a way of life; is tightly integrated; adaptable (see yesterday’s post); complex; assumes itself; perceived to be reality and true without prior proof; seldom questioned.

The Irony Eller draws out is this: those who proselytize do so based on the assumption that Christianity is true, reality. Thus Christianity is a culture that thinks it is reality while other cultures are just cultures (how does atheism avoid this dilemma, I wonder?).

The rest of the chapter is devoted to proving this point – that Christianity is a culture – and concludes:

“The hope, and the obligation, is that once people recognize the diversity plasticity, and relativity of religion, they will see little merit in it: that which is no longer taken for granted is often not taken at all.” (p.45)

When I first read through this chapter I felt relatively unchallenged (though the second time through I felt the sting a bit more). The first thing I’d like to critically reflect on is the (true) notion that (with more than implied repercussions) “Christianity” should be “Christianities”, because of its diversity. But I don’t see how this necessarily presents a problem. Scholars have long noted now that in the 1st century there was no such thing as “Judaism” but rather “Judaisms”, yet this has not prevented scholars from using the phrase “Judaism” or from finding the lowest common denominator that unites these “cultures” under a single umbrella. Secondly, while perhaps as a teenager I took for granted that Christianity was not a culture (I took a lot of things for granted as a teenager); over the years that is no longer the case. Christianity is a culture, it’s (supposed to be) the culture of the Kingdom of God. But Christianity is also cultured. It is in this world and has been shaped in large part by the ethos of each culture it engages. It also carries within it distinguished marks – ideas, habits, symbols and so on – of it’s own worldview (i.e. culture). In fact, this (I think) should strengthen the Christian cause. It does not boast – as some other religions do – to be timeless or to have it’s sacred texts dropped from the sky on golden tablets. The scriptures in fact should be read and studied in their original cultures.

So I don’t take for granted that Christianity is a culture any more than Mr. Eller takes for granted that atheism is a culture (one would hope, since he teaches on the subject!). So if Eller’s final axiom rings true – “that which is no longer taken for granted is often not taken at all” – than perhaps he should become a Christian, and I the atheist.

This again does not lead to atheism, but to agnosticism.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Josh

    I see a problem here — if Christianity (or any religion) being a culture means it should be rejected, what’s to stop one from rejecting all norms? Marriage, crime, politeness, professional behavior, the way we do anything and everything is cultural. Why does religion then hold a special place as easily rejected not held by, say, table manners? Not beating someone to death for bumping into you on the sidewalk?

    I’m not even talking about the tired “the atheist has no basis for morality” argument (while I believe this to be true, I’m not sure it’s worth very much anymore since I feel it’s been thoroughly aired and accepted and rejected by those that will).

  • Dave Leigh

    Nice work, Derek! I think you’ve nailed his blindspot in that, from what you say, he seems to overlook how his own worldview relates to culture. From what you’ve written I’m inferring that Mr. Eller has not interacted with the various theories and models Christians have adopted over the centuries regarding culture. I am thinking, for instance, of those who see Christianity as counter-culture versus those who seek a Christ-in-culture or Christ-transforming-culture motif. Does he interact with Richard Niehbur, for example? At any rate, I don’t see how Eller would reconcile his view with the swelling movement of Christianity over the centuries where culture after culture yeilded to the gospel and was transformed by the transcendence of Christ. I mean, we’re talking about entire nations or people groups turning from paganism and barbarism, animism, occultism, idolatrous religions and things like emperor worship. Likewise, we are still seeing an amazing underground movement in countries that are atheist strongholds, like China and Russian. It’s really hard for me, in those cases, to see how Eller’s contentions would hold up.

  • Don (Greywolf) Ford

    It’s easier to believe in Nothing than to have Faith in something. No one promised the way would be easy and without rocks on the path. LOL Cheers, Don

  • Howard Pepper

    Thanks for this series of reviews, Derek. I just discovered your blog, and see that you are thinking carefully, openly about key issues, which I respect.

    This specific book I’ve not read completely, but read parts of some time ago. From what you’ve written so far and what I can recall of the book, I would have the question to the authors of just WHAT is wrong in saying Christianity is wrong? Wrong that Christianity has any of the much touted “propositional truth” (of many apologists, some of whom are friends or acquaintances, though I’m now a Process Theology person who’d not use such langauge)? Wrong in that any kind of God exists?

    Perhaps Lofthus and/or his chapter authors do clarify this. I’m probably in agreement with much of their critique and also that Christianity, in merely adapting continually, does belie itself… it fails to deal deeply and fairly with it’s own unexamined (by most) assumptions; with haughty presumptions of having THE right interpretations of Scripture; with the major problems of even having God’s authority on what books should be TAKEN as Scripture, etc.

    But somebody in anthropology should also “get” that people are just going to BE religious in one way or another… sure not everyone, but the vast majority. They WILL place faith in some system (yes, via social influences and needs)…. And personally, I’m for accelerating the inevitable updating of Christianity and focusing that on the key areas for human survival and reaching toward what I think all deeper humanists and Christians (and those of other faiths) agree on that we might call “ideals” of the Kindgom (or realm or ??) of God.