AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post reflects “atonement theory”, which I now reject. I’ve kept it to show where I come from.
Science and Christianity have never coexisted well. From the beginning of the scientific age, Christians have been unable or unwilling to reexamine their interpretations of the Bible in light of scientific developments. In all fairness, scientists for the most part are blinded from what they cannot observe by a notion that knowledge can come only from what is observable. While I have plenty with which to criticize the scientific community, my concern here is with Christians.
Beginning with Galileo’s proclamation that the Sun, not the Earth, lies at the center of the universe (notwithstanding Joshua 10), Christians have erroneously construed threats to their interpretations of Christianity as threats to God himself. To the detriment of our faith (and the faith of many unbelievers), Christians have approached in the most uncritical manner issues such as the Big Bang, the age of the earth, evolution, and climate change. My faith happens to be threatened by none of these.
So I’m going to take this time to talk about a current of scientific thought that, though more subtle than each of these, has the potential to be a significantly more legitimate and substantial threat to the Christian faith. This current, which exists in many variations, generally comes from the behavioral sciences—generally, psychology and sociology. I’ll be honest, this scares me.
Let’s begin with Phineas Gage, the well-known railroad worker who suffered an iron rod through his head, damaging his frontal lobe. Debates exist over the exact facts of the Gage case, but it is generally agreed that post-accident Gage was not the same as before. According to Harlow:
The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.
The Gage case is one illustration among many of our dependency on our nervous system.
In many ways, we also seem quite dependent on our upbringing. For most people, the environment in which they grow up—how they were raised by their parents, their socioeconomic standing, whether they were abused, whether they were successful early—will shape them at least as much as their biology. As an example, the American black community is 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Take a second to soak that in. Now, before I go on, this statistic has as its cause many factors. Part of this is no doubt attributable to racial profiling. But a large part I believe is attributable to present and, especially, historical income inequality.
The black community has been fighting an uphill economic battle since they were brought to America as slaves. Even after slavery ended, Jim Crow segregation laws continued. Jim Crow created a vicious feedback loop: as resentment and disempowerment accumulated, blacks increasingly turned to crime; as many turned to crime, they were increasingly distrusted by whites; as they were increasingly distrusted, resentment and disempowerment accumulated; and on and on. Even with Jim Crowe abolished and our various civil rights acts and amendments, we are still fighting history. Currently, blacks are unemployed at twice the rate of whites. The black-white income gap is the highest it has been since the census began tracking information on this subject in 1984. For the unbelievably disproportionate percentage of blacks who will end up in prison in this country, as a group it’s hard for me to point a judgmental finger. I refuse to believe that blacks are inherently less virtuous than whites. But these problems in the black community aptly demonstrate the powerful force that is disenfranchised history and upbringing.
It is well-argued that Christianity is nothing if people lack meaningful choice in their life, that is to say: if people cannot approach a situation with options and have the capacity to make a real choice among those options, then one has to question the justness of God—really, whether there is a god at all. While we are not saved because of our deeds (really, we are saved in spite of them), the salvation of every Christian is going to depend on choices that have to be made by the individual.
However, it is clear that your “choices” are going to be shaped tremendously (if not determined) by factors that you just can’t control. So the question I have is what god would send people to Hell for things that they have no control over? Nothing I can think of could be more harsh. Harsh hardly captures it.
My point here is not to resolve this question, or even begin to. I have many reasons to believe that there is a God. My point here is to frame the conversation. Questions like this have to be addressed honestly. If God really exists, then scrutiny along this line of questions should not too big for him. Don’t get hung up on the examples I have provided. Instead, use these as evidence that people are predisposed to conduct based on circumstances that are uncontrollable. This is a trend I see in many things.
I welcome input on this issue and will continue to post on my thoughts as they come to me.