Imagine you are a Southern Baptist and a problem occurs to you: there are seven billion people on the planet and precious few of them share your ideology. A billion of them don’t subscribe to any faith at all. Over a billion worship Allah, the wrong version of your God. Three billion subscribe to other faiths of various kinds. Nearly two billion are Christian. Among those Christians, a billion are Catholics who have Christianity very wrong indeed with their silly notions of papal infallibility, idolatrous prayers to saints, and deification of the mother of Jesus. You’re among the billion or so Protestants on the planet, but that’s not how you identify. You are a Baptist.
A generous look at the numbers places you in the less-than-0.05% of people living on earth who see God’s word for what it is. You’re about as troubled by this fact as a man who has won the lottery, but the rational part of you can see it poses a problem. You have two challenges: first to convince yourself (or remain convinced) your beliefs are veridical in spite of the low prior probability that you have it right over virtually everyone else. The next challenge is to preserve your humility – it’s not right to take open credit for having picked (or been born into) the one true faith.
You’re slightly nervous as you set out to work but quickly realize you needn’t be. You start with the easy target, the atheist. Atheists believe as they do for one or more of the following reasons:
It seems more than reasonable that a billion or so people fit this description. You’ve done well. The Muslims are next, though you hardly feel the need since it’s just obvious their religion is false. You were never one to bother with “politically correct” poppycock – you’ll come right out and say it: anyone with sense can see that Islam is divisive and ridiculous. Your pastor joked at small group that they’re so backwards, they wear their diapers on the top of their heads! It’s downright humorous to consider their confidence in their beliefs. It’s almost as though they’re immune to the gospel, which just goes to show how powerful our carnal delusions can be. You are grateful for the Lord’s protection against contrary spirits and for the clarity of your mind when it comes to these matters. The truth is so plain to you, it is frustrating that most people willfully refuse to see it. Make a mental note to pray for the Muslims.
Non-Baptist Protestants are a headache because they all seem to be wrong for different reasons. Ultimately it does seem to come down to the same thing: they don’t read their bibles and let the word say what it says. Sometimes the word is harsh. During Sunday night sermons when your pastor preaches the real meat of the word, he’s known to put his hands in the air and declare, “Hey, now, don’t look at me. I didn’t write it!” He tells the word straight, and it’s like he says, “The more ya read yer Bible, the more Baptist you become.”
Most Protestants’ are lukewarm. They sit stock-still in their pews once a week, too “dignified” to get worked up in the Spirit. It occurs to you how hypocritical this is given that most of them would stand up and cheer for their favorite football team. Your pastor’s words surface yet again: “Ain’t no football team ever saved me!” They’re in for a surprise when the Lord returns, may he have mercy. You can’t sing the hymns on Sunday and live like the Devil the rest of the week, drinking and carrying on, having sex outside of marriage, buying into the gay agenda. You can feel your blood pressure rising at that. Either it’s the word of God or it’s not, and what it says about the gays is plain as day. Now, you were never one to pick on one sin over the other. Gay marriage is just like lying or murder or adultery or any other sin, and it’ll keep you out of heaven. God loves the gays and wants them to be saved, but it’s not his will that they stay in sin. Listen to yourself. You’ve got the preaching bug again! Get on back to work.
The fact is, you’ve seen too much to doubt between all the healings and unlikely events, and the way you feel at the altar when Jesus just loves up on you. There is nothing like it on this earth; you’d be a fool to deny that. Anyone asking for more evidence just needs to get to know the Lord. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that God exists – you’re of the opinion, as it happens, that it takes more faith not to believe in God – but none of that matters when you get to know him personally. If you’re not getting to know him at your church, then find one that preaches the Bible, for crying out loud!
You consider what a blessing it is that God opened the eyes of your understanding. Your heart aches for a moment as you consider the Lost. They are so many, and you so few. Yet when did Got ever care about numbers? The Israelites were outnumbered hundreds to one, and God vanquished their enemies time and time again. It’s like your pastor says, “The very existence of Israel is proof of God’s existence!” It’s true, too, when you consider everyone who’s been after them over the years. That’s why your pastor never fails to remind you that you are spiritual Israel. It occurs to you that the problem you set out to solve is no problem at all, and worse yet, a distraction from the work you’ve been called to do. You have been called to spread the Word throughout the whole earth. You are a true child of the King, washed in His blood. You are a Baptist.
This thought experiment is comprised of actual evangelical apologetics, many of which appealed to me as a Christian. They may appear laughably absurd, but only when evaluated from the outside. A Baptist can evaluate Mormon and Scientologist claims quite reasonably, but his own faith evades his scrutiny via a robust set of tricks which have survived in human brains for centuries because they are highly contagious and difficult to extract. Our brains didn’t evolve to be scientific and reasonable but to survive and reproduce, so we suffer from a number of deficiencies which religion is more than happy to exploit. That’s how otherwise sensible people have absolutely no trouble believing their religion, their denomination, or even their individual family is pioneering a uniquely authentic, divinely sanctioned spiritual movement.
Worse still, ideas of this kind are notoriously difficult to argue. “Israel exists in spite of many attempts to destroy it, therefore God exists” is a complete non sequitur, but any attempt to explain this to a believer is to engage him on his own turf. If you find yourself bantering over what God “must have, must not have, would or would not have done,” you’ve already lost. The believer never runs short of excuses if you allow him to work within his framework. Convince a Christian that the Bible is riddled with errors and immoral teaching, and what you have left is a Christian with a new set of excuses as to why the Bible is riddled with errors and immoral teaching. A Christian will not cease to be a Christian after having been exposed to counter-evidence, for his faith forms a bubble which nothing external can hope to penetrate. He must choose to depart from it, in shifts at first, and evaluate it from the outside before real change can occur. No faith-based religion can withstand outside scrutiny, least of all the Abrahamic religions. Surviving internal scrutiny, on the other hand, is what religion does best.
Until then, have a little hope. Admittedly, faith-based religious ideas are a deadly combination of stupid and effective, but they are losing the battle. More people identify as secular or unaffiliated than ever before. Reason and open inquiry offer many paths of escape from the delusional, self-affirming solipsism of religious thought, even for the most devoted adherents (among whom I once counted myself). All we can do is gently provoke the believers in our lives to find their own.