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.