The irrational basis of Christian faith: Experientialism and Emotionalism (Part 1of3)

Evangelicals are intoxicated by irrational faith rendering them intellectually impaired.

Taking your foot off the bag

During this unprecedented time of COVID-19, we can at least find some comfort in watching America’s national pastime, baseball, even though in crowd less stadiums. For this article, we will adopt a baseball expression to illustrate our main point.

Most Christians, especially evangelicals, profess to follow a reasonable faith, which is to say, one firmly supported by evidence and data. Appeals to history, archeology, science, logic and biblical data are given as proof. And while some may admit to an element of irrationalism, primarily it is a faith grounded in rationality. I would strongly disagree.

Evangelicals will debate the intellectual merits of their belief system maintaining all the laws of physics are God-given and therefore bolster their argument. But when pressed to reconcile the biblical text with counter claims, they step off the bag of rationalism to find themselves in a no man’s land of irrationalism. 

The primacy of feeling  

There was a time when evangelical Christians celebrated the primacy of emotions as the defining mark of a validated faith. It was a reaction against dry formalism which had permeated Christianity with the ascendancy of Deism. Many, not all, Christians saw this as dangerous to the very nature of salvation. Theological orthodoxy was insufficient for saving faith if bereft of its most vital element — assurance. One needed to identify a specific moment when assurance of salvation was gained. Experience did not replace knowledge but it certainly superseded it.

The age of reason was followed by the age of romanticism, the latter being a reaction against the former and for good reason. Many in society wanted an infusion of emotion which had been lost to the dispassionate objectivity of science.  God was depersonalized and with it mankind’s sense of worth. Superstition was the primary casualty of the Age of Enlightenment.

The birth of American evangelicalism must always be seen against the backdrop of the Age of Rationalism. Walking into most Christian churches was to enter a sanctuary where doctrinal precision and creedalism were highly valued. Churches were not filled with joyful choirs swaying back and forth while prisoners clapped their hands as tears streamed down their cheeks. There were no drums, electric guitars or synthesizers to raise the emotional temperature of the congregants. Church was staid and boring by today’s standards of evangelical gatherings.

Revivalism was the defining characteristic of American evangelicalism. It was charged with enthusiasm and ecstasy in its bid to reclaim men and women’s souls which had been forfeited to deistic thinking.

I have sat in many theology classes during Bible school, college and seminary. I know how tedious it can be to study Christian doctrine in agonizing detail. However, for me it was intellectually affirming and inspiring. I would compared it to building a house. I had laid the foundation when I converted knowing nothing about the faith I had enthusiastically embraced. 

My quest for biblical knowledge

After I converted I was painfully aware of my ignorance. When a speaker would refer to a specific book of the Bible other than one of the gospels, I was lost. I remember many times whomever was sitting beside me in church, Sunday school or Bible study reaching over and flipping the pages of my Bible to the correct place. It was embarrassing and I vowed I would dedicate my life to mastering biblical content, a promise I have kept for forty years.   

Knowledge is king while ignorance is a fool.

Despite conservative evangelical Christians vociferously declaring the Bible is the very Word of God, few study it as if they truly believe it let alone live by it. Throughout my evangelical experience I was constantly puzzled by the many young people I encountered who were determined to gain a secular education over a theological one. If Christianity is a dynamic daily experience with God through his living word, why calling could be higher than dedicating oneself to studying it and sharing it with others?

To put it bluntly: The vast majority of Christians place little value on having a solid theological grounding in the faith. They are content with a vague understanding of doctrine whether central or tertiary. So what serves as the basis for their faith if not theological knowledge?

As stated in the beginning, American evangelicalism is largely driven by emotionalism and experientialism. Even those who most adamantly assert the “reasonableness” of their faith, must ultimately defer to an irrational stance when backed into a rational corner. One is prone to appeal to a vibrant experience and awareness of God which offers substantial subjective proof. Others take a more apologetical approach in an effort to quell their own intellectual curiosity.

My evangelical dream was to become a Christian professor in a theological university so I could present the cogency of Christianity.  I thought most people had a distorted view of Christianity or inadequate knowledge which I could rectify. It was this thirst for knowledge which eventually led to the end of my faith. After seminary as I began to dissect my evangelical faith, it was with a goal to remove the “diseased” tissue, like pre-tribulation, premillennial dispensationalism. The more I looked, the more I cut away. I hoped this would save my faith but it instead resulted in its death. For the rationally minded Christianity has a terminal illness. 

Theologically no two Christians must be alike except in the matter of Jesus’ resurrection. Either he arose from the dead, and you’re a Christian, or he did not, and you’re not a Christian. Everything else is debatable. So here’s the fundamental question: “Is the resurrection rational or irrational?”

We have no independent records of this alleged event other than the New Testament gospels. Do they present a reliable or unreliable account of the resurrection? Do they satisfy the criteria for what we could conclude presents a rational defense?

The Bible on trial

If we consider this topic in the context of a courtroom, we would say the authority of the Bible is on trial. Is it a divine or human source. We must use words like “infallibility” or “inerrancy” in our examination and clearly define them before we proceed further.

On the spectrum of the authority of the Bible, some hold to the most idealistic position which posits every single word contained in the Bible (original autographs) is absolute and perfect in accuracy. At the other end of this spectrum are those who accept only the barest allegiance to divine authority. They only view the resurrection is incontestable while everything else is subject to possible fallibility. Whether you fall on either extreme or somewhere in the middle, your faith is primarily irrational.

I have spent more time immersed in studying the Bible than most. It has consumed an entire lifetime of full time dedicated and earnest scrutiny. My findings come at the end of decades of exhaustive research. My motive was exactly what one would expect God to reward. I wanted to find the truth to strengthen my faith. I began with the best intentions and the mind God gave me.

Those who discount my findings as those of a disgruntled or embittered apostate do so to alleviate their own insecurities. They cannot and most will not accept the possibility I might be right so they resort to personal attack. Here’s the test:

If the preponderance of evidence does not support Christianity’s claims, would you be willing to reject God and Jesus as your Savior?

The response to this question should be easy. If the data does not lead to Christianity’s conclusions, it is a false faith and should be rejected. Christians should be so certain of their faith they could easily accept this challenge. However, most will have a visceral reaction which resists even the thought of questioning it because it is a personal not an intellectual belief. It would be like abandoning your best friend, in this case Jesus.

This discussion will always come back to the beginning of that faith. How did one originally embrace a faith which has become so embedded as to be virtually irremovable? Was it through a thorough and objective analysis of all pertinent data? 

To properly vet Christian belief one would have to acquire a theological education first. Imagine going through a rigorous and formal theological education only to discover Christianity is a fabrication. Nobody goes to seminary to find the truth, they go to confirm the truth they already believe they have. The every day Christian does not possess the skills to properly appraise it leaving him or her at the mercy of others to tell them what to believe.

Christians: A bunch of backwards believers

Was your faith inherited or investigated? Ideally, every Christian should enter the faith as an adult after extensive research to ensure the validity of the faith. If such were the practice, Christianity would disappear.

Christian faith begins for most during childhood, at least in seedling form. Later as they get older it may grow and flourish into a full fledged faith but it was still “planted” in the fecund mind of a child. Nobody would contest a child is incapable of making informed decisions based on a keen ability to discern rational fact from fantastical fiction. Yet this is exactly how most begin their Christian journey.

I knew of many evangelical children who were basically scared into heaven with images of the Devil and hell contrasted with Jesus’ loving arms of forgiveness. Parents or some others evangelical leader or role model (Sunday school teacher, camp counsellor, youth pastor) evangelize children with graphic depictions of heaven and hell in order to illicit a conversion. Of course, it is all done with the best intention of saving a child’s eternal soul. This presumes it needs saving!

The road of desperation

The other path to salvation many take is along the road of desperation. They fall victim to the unscrupulous tactics of televangelists who prey on the weak, gullible, depressed, lonely and destitute of society by promising a spiritual panacea in Jesus. The elderly and sick, the psychological unstable, the unemployed, the desperate and substance abusers are all primary targets for profiteering. These hucksters offer promises of jobs, money, career advancement, healing, restored relationships and anything else imaginable to solicit funds. The catch is you must continue supporting them to keep the faith active and hence its benefits.

Young college students are also singled out by on-campus evangelistic groups because they are away from home, often lonely and intimidated by their new environment. These para church groups offer instant friendship and social support for this vulnerable demographic.

I have stated before that rational, educated, successful, healthy and happy adults do not become evangelical Christians. Jesus and his disciples, who were largely illiterate, also targeted the needy and destitute. When the educated and rich rejected the gospel it was because of their lack of faith not their wealth of knowledge.

Cognitive bias and herd reinforcement

What about the bulk of evangelical Christians who would claim they do follow a reasonable faith? It provides many answers to questions even science cannot answer. It offers a worldview which explains life’s uncertainties and complexities. Biblical prophecy seems to find fulfillment in current political events and offers a unique perspective which reinforces conviction in the Bible’s authority. 

Many evangelicals limit themselves to being exposed only to information that reinforces their beliefs not challenges them. They exist in a “bubble” of insular learning which gives the illusion of being a tested faith when it is not. Information is carefully crafted and presented in a way that seems to confirm the teachings found within the Bible. It is a powerful means of entrapping believers with their own minds. One need never be physically isolated, as many cults do, when one is imprisoned mentally.

So how much confidence should be placed in the Bible as a source? The only way to determine that is by a willingness to critically analyze its content for consistency, congruence, accuracy and plausibility, a step most won’t take. It is a vicious cycle of faith refusing to question itself. It is akin to committing spiritual suicide with little to gain and everything to lose.

This article began with the indictment Christianity is predominantly an irrational belief system with some believers displaying more irrationality than others. I hope those who disagree are willing to engage in a robust investigation to defend their position. Of course failure to do so confirms my position leaving them no choice but to participate. 

In order to confidently affirm the proposition one’s faith is on rational footing, requires a supreme commitment of time and energy and perhaps finances to acquire the necessary skills and tools. A mountain of textual data must be excavated, analyzed and resolved to settle this issue; otherwise, it is presumptive inerrancy which is irrational. 

At this point, many believers will default to the theological expertise of their pastor, teachers, professors and authors who have already undertaken this challenge. I assure you they have not, and if they have, it was done so with a strong faith bias. There is no rational road that leads to inerrancy.

How big is your investment?

One of the greatest psychological obstacles I had to overcome when I was questioning my faith was on this very issue. I pondered how my professors who had obtained advanced theological degrees could still be believers unless the evidence supported it. While an undergrad student it was easy to assume this but eventually as I progressed in my training, I devised another theory. It took some time for me to resolve this but it ultimately traces back to how much of one’s life one has invested in the faith versus how much one would be willing to give up?

All faith can be quantified on the sliding scale of sacrifice. Some devote little time, energy or money to their faith only hoping to one day get a free ticket to heaven. They are no different from unbelievers engaging in all the pleasures and pursuits the world has to offer. Others sacrifice an enormous amount building huge social and professional networks along the way. Family, friends and colleagues are all part of their evangelical culture. The thought of “blowing up” their lives for the sake of intellectual honor and integrity is unfathomable for most. It is much easier to continue enjoying the many benefits of belief and rationalizing away any doubts.

At the crossroads of a dilemma

In the final year of seminary I came to this crossroad. I was confronted with the possibility I had squandered my entire young adult life and thousands of dollars pursuing an education I no longer trusted leaving me without a career path. It would have been easy to “play at” Christianity and sweep all my doubts away, but I could not fake a faith I had serious doubts about despite having once been so certain of it. Interestingly, the further I advanced in my theological knowledge, the more doubts arose until they reached this watershed moment. 

I was never more content in my faith than when I knew the least about it. With more knowledge came more questions.

Ignorance is faith’s greatest friend and knowledge its worst enemy. 

I sacrificed my entire life when I became a born again evangelical Christian. I turned everything over to Jesus, my dreams, desires and goals. I denied myself every worldly pleasure in my commitment to follow him. I gave up comfort and happiness in exchange of discipline and commitment as his disciple. Every day I woke up with the singular goal of serving him. I prayed, studied, tithed, evangelized, discipled and ministered. Now I was about to acknowledge it had all been in vain.

The day I realized I had spent fifteen years chasing an illusion was disquieting. I was married and it was a severe recession. Neither I nor my then wife had any job prospects. We had both been trained for ministry. Yet despite the reality of my situation, I left Christianity (and my wife) and all it offered because rationally I could not justify it. Initially, I thought I would end up in a more traditional Christian setting but this was not meant to be.

I have earned the right to be heard and to question Christianity at its core. I have paid the price and have the scars to prove it. I will make one concession to appease those who cling to freedom of religion as their defense. Everybody has a right to believe or not believe whatever they want to or don’t want to believe. However, no child should be coerced into the faith through psychological manipulation and exploitation especially with a threat of eternal damnation. Also, those (adults) who are believers must keep their faith exclusively private and personal admitting its irrationality and baseless claims, otherwise, it should be dragged into the public square for unflinching scrutinization.

The presupposition of the miraculous

I would challenge any Christian to prove his or her faith can be established on a single pillar of rational evidence. One can begin with a presupposition in the supernatural and apply it to the Bible but this is only the start of the inquiry. Taking this as our fundamental hypothesis and examining the massive amount of data we have surrounding the Bible, only a gross abuse of reason can support it. Deductive reasoning is valid insofar as the data supports it. Simply using supernatural explanations to modify the data to support itself is unjustified. On the other hand, an inductive approach seems to yield the exact opposite conclusion.

Those who live by the rational sword must die by the rational sword. You cannot propose to be rationally minded only when it is convenient and then retreat to irrationalism when reason is no longer an option. Christians who switch back and forth as necessity dictates cannot boast a rational belief system. 

Groups like evangelicals are afraid not of not losing an argument as much as losing their salvation. At the root of every discussion is the defense of hope and the risk of confronting the fear of death. It is a personal fight for survival which dominates evangelical thinking thereby clouding their ability to engage in objective discourse. 

The resurrection myth: The catalyst of irrationalism

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the cornerstone of Christianity and basis of their hope. In our next article, we will offer a synopsis of why it is purely irrational to believe in it. We will use the gospel accounts contained in the Bible as our chief witnesses against its plausibility. I invite the reader to leave his faith at the door and examine the data in the glaring and unforgiving light of rational inquiry.

Published by ronarends

I was born in London, Ontario, Canada. I attended Capernwray Bible School (England and Austria), Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Il.), the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario), London Baptist Seminary (London, Ontario) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Tx.). I have had several temporary jobs over the years but my focus has alway been on an investigative study of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity particularly evangelicalism. Currently editing a massive literary undertaking deconstructing Christianity and Jesus.

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