The Jesus Cringe

The etiquette of fessing up to being Christian

by James Robinson

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On news of the re-publishing of this article, a brief comment in retort to the reactions beneath. Some of the comments, in my view, confirm completely my initial suspicions. Belief in Jesus is something that some people can categorically find ridiculous. I believe that most truths (I can not comment on the laws of mathmatics and science) are subjective. We make our own truth. So by that token, working oneself up about the faith of another is a completely redundant opposition.

My article has no intention of delving into a conversation about the merits of particular faiths. But I can see that this was quickly the direction response went in. The quote from Dostoevsky sought to bring attention to the fact that much of the morality we consider as basic tenets of decent living originate from the church, as well as the idea that humans are central in importance in the way the Earth operates. We can not escape the influence of the church – even if we can reject its central idea. The selflessness we identity in concepts like altruism and charity sit very awkwardly if we completely renounce the core senses of personal community that centuries of believing in greater forces has bought about.

Some comments made me quite curious. For instance, even if the church has been privy to covering up sexual abuse, perpetrating oppression and dishonesty – it is a long, long shot to claim they have a monopoly on such inglorious acts. To hold this against the followers of a religion is ridiculous By this token we would have stopped following rugby league and going to the doctor. Think of all the shitty things done in the name of Governments in the past ten years, far from the endorsement of the church. You’d be a complete jackass if you took that same sense of judgement out on an individual person. Just saying.

I wasn’t commenting on the church as an institution, but what we feel on a personal level to the religous individuals we come in to contact with. Holding up a torch to our condescension of the church – it is a snap judgement. Driven by our own prejudice. We let people think and act in anyway, but we raise our eyebrows when they believe in the “cloud fairy”, because we think it is strange. — James Robinson

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“If God is dead, everything is permissible.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” – Psalm 14.1

“I’m not a bad guy, I work hard, and I love my kids…so why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?” – Homer Simpson

In a 1996 essay on the importance of Fyodor Dostoevsky to American fiction writers, David Foster Wallace argued that Dostoevsky’s belief in the depravity of a life lived without a moral/spiritual core is still an example to writers, close to 150 years later.

Dostoevsky advocated his beliefs in his work. His books teemed with moral invective of the likes that Wallace claims we don’t see anymore. It isn’t cool to argue too emphatically for a moral standpoint these days. Writers won’t “dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies”.

Ideology now needs to be handled with tongs at a safe distance through the tools of parody, ridicule, satire or direct criticism. Hipster culture endlessly permeates into similarly detached derivations, each with the same nihilistic bent.

We don’t believe in anything too strongly these days. It isn’t immorality, more an emerging non-morality. But if you don’t believe in anything, is it a contradiction to definitively believe that there is no God?

This article has no concern with a philosophical or merit driven assessment of the Christian story. It is concerned with the idea that religion has become a smirking point amongst the young, the hip and the intellectual. If truth is infinitely splintered and defiantly subjective, what makes religious truth any less true? If it is now okay to believe anything and act in anyway, why do so many young people seethe at the notion that someone could devote their self to the church?

Close to fifty percent of those between the ages of fifteen and thirty do not identify with a religion. In a recent TVNZ-sanctioned survey, slightly less than 40 percent of those under forty believe that New Zealand could not classify itself as a Christian nation. While this religious identification rises in older age groups, there is no evidence to suggest that people are crossing back to religion later in life.

Between 1994 and 2004, the median age of marriage in men and women rose by over ten percent. The annual number of marriages fell by close to twenty percent. The number of people per thousand that are married fell by thirty.

New Zealand, the world, is undeniably less religious in 2009.

But consider the recent controversy of the atheist bus advertisements. Or the aggressive marketing of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Dawkins, alongside left-wing poster-journalist Christopher Hitchens is widely referred to as one of the ‘four horsement’ of atheism). Have half a dozen conversations about religion.

It seems that there’s an emerging culture that is not just not religious, but anti-religious.

You don’t have to cast a net too far to find a young, opinionated atheist ready to speak their mind.

“Anyone who believes in a man in the sky is crazy,” says Alice, 24. She adds that, “religion is for people who are too weak to believe in themselves and who have shitty friends who they can’t believe in either.”

“In a perfect world there would be no religion. Religion could provide a positive basis to a community if it wasn’t used a tool to repress and suppress.”

This is a common opinion, if an example on the stronger side of common. The Bush-era bought a base notion of ‘Christian conservatism’ into common vernacular, that is widely deriled. It is hard to see Alice’s harsh reduction of religion as unrelated. It is a blunt retort to the clichéd anti-intellectualism of religion personified by Bush-era conservatism.

Lauren, 24, cannot decide between agnosticism and atheism. She claims to not consider religion very much, but finds the culture and tradition of religion interesting.

“White, educated, middle class people, and especially the children of such people, do not typically hold strong religious views. Of the friends I had growing up that occasionally went to church, I know none that follow that same tradition as a young adult.”

Lauren points out a common, but interesting, talking point – people generally socialise with those with similar core beliefs and ideals. “There is a point when lifestyle truly influences the compatibility of two people in a friendship. People with strong beliefs about religion will gravitate towards others who share their views. Just as those who are passionate about music will do the same.“

The point comes up often. And is revealing. While people who enjoy music may find it easier to form friendships, no one would claim that a disagreement over the merits of the Cure would end a friendship. You can easily have gay friends, you can have right-wing friends, and can have friends who wrongfully undermine the cinematic output of Tom Cruise. But religion is the deal-breaker, posing a potential mismatch that is hypothetical friendship Kryptonite. To a point, like does seek like. But is it innocent that religion is a disqualifier?

Lauren continues: “Generally I am taken aback when discovering that a person has a markedly strong religious view. People my age that reference activities with Christian church groups, I know I’m unlikely to have many similarities with them. And maybe I don’t care to. I don’t want to be around sheltered, rule abiding, simpletons any more than they want to be around some sinner. I simply cannot relate to people with extremely religious lifestyles.”

Jon, 26, agrees. “Christianity is one of the powerful dividing commonalities.”

Jon moved to Auckland and discovered that many of his new group of friends had Christian ties and affiliations. Conversely, “my girlfriend and I worried at first that they wouldn’t want to be friends with us because of it. Our worries were unfounded.”

Jon presents an alternative to the common dismissal of religion, or friendship with the religious. “Christians make me feel safe. They’re less ironic and ascerbic. They’re not as judgmental and don’t make mean or rude statements that throw off a conversation. I like knowing that I’m in the presence of people who have an agreed sense of morality.”

Jon says that he is constantly aware and made to feel awkward by thoughtlessly negative comments towards religion, often around alcohol. He mentions having to point out to people that they are putting down Christianity, in front of Christians. “It is conversation that seems like easy laughs and no laughs come easier than from demeaning people that you don’t know.”

Chris, 27, echoes a similar theme as Jon. Chris moved to Vancouver, and realised that his new social set was part Christian. “I was really surprised by how aware of it I was, and how I had never even considered how unused to spending time with Christians I was.”

Matt, 26, is a recent convert to Christian faith. He contradicts a lot of the notions that Christians are separate and unintellectual. Matt came from a Christian home, but was not captivated by religion, and stopped going to church when he was 13. His parents were accepting of his decision, and the argument stopped there. He went to University and studied Philosophy. Which makes his recent conversion (after a chance invitation to a service by a friend) even more unlikely. He remembers studying ideas at University that directly undermine faith. “I remember doing an essay about how religion works as a supernatural police force and builds cooperation within a group, advantageous in competition against other groups that do not have such a social glue.”

Matt seems to understand why the university culture is geared against someone finding singular truths in their own life. “People often say that doing a philosophy degree, and studying moral relativism, should lead one to becoming more of a moral relativist. How could I come out the other end as a Christian with absolute moral rules when you spend time finding exceptions to moral rules?”

Ultimately, the process of learning and expanding analytical capabilities was not satisfying. Matt sees it as being geared away from fixed realities and truth and sends you into a process of endless searching and deconstruction. “During my study I found that in order to extend my analytical brain I had to step outside of belief systems. But I could conceivably keep doing that forever.”

Reconciling new beliefs with old beliefs was an extensive and frenzied process, Matt says. He does not believe that the world is only 6,000 years old, and accepts evolution and science as tools to reveal God’s majesty. “I am in awe of Richard Dawkins’ mind and biological discoveries, but he seems to think that science and faith can’t be compatible.”

There are huge amounts of questions that Matt still thinks over. Like the fact that he has gay friends in loving relationships, or whether the creation story can be taken at its word. But he knows that his journey is just beginning, and possesses a great enthusiasm for it. He seems to have bought a spirit of intellectualism and questioning into believing in God, that isn’t extremely present these days amongst many who dismiss religion offhand.

“Atheists who label themselves freethinkers frustrate me. I have challenged every part of my belief before locking it in, and some parts are still up in the air,” Matt says.

How was the conversion received amongst friends? “Friends have supported me in my journey but have certainly not shared my enthusiasm.”

It is hard to draw conclusions from conversations with young Christians or young atheists about the explicit nature of their own attitudes towards their own, and others beliefs. Matt illustrated an insight and inquisition into his own belief that might surprise a hard-line atheist. He also acknowledged the tensions between University and religious culture, but in no way saw intellectualism and religion as an either/or scenario. From the atheistic and the agnostic there was no dismissal of why they did not belief in God, just general acknowledgement that it was slightly nonsensical dogma. There was a recognisable sense of condescension in most people spoken too. Which locks in a near un-answerable question; why is a belief in God so laughable to those who believe the opposite?

Tim McKenzie is the chaplain at St. Aidans in Miramar, and was formerly the chaplain at Victoria University. McKenzie points to a cultural shift that has its antecedents in the 1960s. “People really argued about religion in Universities in the 60s and 70s. It opened up conflict between religious and Marxist groups on campus, with huge debate over where specific right and wrong fell.”

It opened up an intolerance and hostility towards religion, that McKenzie feels has dissipated somewhat. “Modernism gave way to post-modernity, and people started to leave people alone to do what they pleased. A separation has come out of this. And now with electronic media, people live in silos. You can program things so that you only ever read and hear what you want.”

McKenzie identifies a sense of condescension towards religion, especially from academic and intellectual spheres. But the academic snobbery is nothing new, and is driven by ever-changing strands of thought. He does feel very strongly about the supposed separation between intellectualism and religion. “Religion and intellectualism, religion and science are deeply connected.”

“They aren’t separate, and it is deeply ironic that so many think so. The west is built on Judeo-Christian reality, including Universities, which are all Christian foundations. Science today is greatly influenced by the early Western view of the ‘trustworthy’ world. All information we get from ancient cave-drawings, every well-preserved ancient skeleton, it was all from ancient religious ritual.”

Increasingly in recent years McKenzie has seen a defensiveness rise amongst Christians. The Bush-era had an extremely negative impact on this – bringing into popular consciousness a perceived set of values that was quickly stereotyped on to all Christians. “All of a sudden you had people saying ‘I’m Christian, but I don’t believe in such and such…”

Christians have been directly linked to a right-wing agenda in recent years, which amongst the typically left-leaning, educated young has inevitably set off some reactionary rhetoric. McKenzie is not in denial that this is a factor, while aware that the clichéd ‘Christian conservatism’ is a slightly crass notion. “I see how it happened. You have people who in the face of shifting sands retreated into religious conservatism as a way of dealing with modern life.”

But it is not helped by New Zealand’s adversarial media environment. “We’re so small. Opinion generally falls to one end of the spectrum or the other. No one really wants the moderate Christian opinion.”

Many church groups (including the Anglican church) supported Section 59. Many have moderate middle line opinions on gay marriage. Most believe climate change is man made. But these just aren’t the opinions called on by the media. And as a result images like 2004’s “Enough is Enough” Destiny Church march continue in our heads as images of religious belief and action – when in fact such events are an extreme part of the spectrum.

It is a cruel habit, only calling on a certain spectrum of church opinion for dramatic effect. And will continue to play into a cycle of tension, with two sides struggling to understand the other, and accept the others as is. McKenzie says that amongst young, he often sees a “nervousness in self-identifying as Christian. Not so much amongst those who have recently converted, but amongst those who have grown up in religious cultures, it is more deeply rooted. You can see that they’ve started to feel a bit marginalised.”

McKenzie mentions the notion of a post-religious world. He says that a slight demeaning of religion is strongly tied to the fall in marriage rates, and many probably see that religion “functioned as a means of social control which we’re well rid of.“

So what?

On one hand, you have a rift of understanding rising out of young people generally associating with similar people, and having limited exposure to religion in an era when the church is waning in influence and number. Younger people, more forcefully opinionated by nature are then exercising their own right to an opinion and expressing an assessment of the church as they see it.

But.

Religious affiliation has clearly been singled out as a defining, separating characteristic. It is hard to think about Christianity as some sort of friendship roadblock without feeling uneasy about the sort of systemic judgmental bent in society that that implies. This is the church. A dismissal of the church is an acceptance of ignorance about your own history, whether you respect or not the institutions it passed down.

And.

We’ve put paid to so many prejudices in the past decades, do we need to really build more up? Even if religion was a source of many prejudices, prejudice against religion is backward and hypocritical.

There is no conclusions. Only newly contorting opinion to shine a light on. This is the post-religion era. And for the church, this is their new reality.

“This is what we face,” McKenzie says.

Dostoevsky came to despise Nihilism, finding faith while imprisoned in a brutal Siberian jail. It is hard to see too many conversions in the futures of the rising tide of young atheists.

Tim McKenzie says, “people believing in nothing is not a new thing. It is a timeless, and stark, metaphysical dilemma.”

The faith we don’t find in ourselves does not put us in the wrong. But it does not give us the right to judge the faith of others.

ENDS