Archive for September 30, 2008

The Psychology of Christianity Part I

Blogger’s Note:

The following article is not meant to provide a comprehensive philosophical dissection of the religious establishment of Christianity, but to merely postulate my own observations and theories as to the psychological underpinnings and ramifications that exist within the structure of modern Christianity. Having been an “insider,” at one point, I feel that I am in a good position to report on some of the common themes and fundamental innerworkings of this religious juggernaut. My interest is in the psychology behind it, rather than proposing a counter-theology, or antithesis to Christianity.

I am sure that, despite my best efforts to promote an intellectual presentation of these concepts, there will be those who will take offense to them and will therefore, rush to defend their precious Christianity. To that fact, I will only say this: Any belief system worth believing in should stand up to scrutiny and be subject to review. All too often, people blindly devote themselves to a cause without really understanding it or why they have bound themselves to a particular ideology. If you are easily offended by a critique of Christianity, ask yourself why. If you are secure in your beliefs, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone says to the contrary. Plus God is big enough to defend Himself, right?

To clarify a few necessary points, and hopefully avoid tedious rebuttals and interjections over semantics, I will spell out my definitions of commonly used phrases such as “Christian, Christianity, God, Church, Heaven, Hell, prayer, Born-Again.
Here are my definitions as follows:

Christian– a person that professes to follow the teachings of the Bible, and respectively consider it to be the “word of God.”

Christianity– a religious cultural movement based on the Judeo-centric teachings of the bible.

God*- or as I like to refer to it as “the big ‘G.'” The God character of the Bible, who is presumably the creator of all existence, who is incidentally omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, which is to say, all-powerful. Not to be confused with the little ‘g’ god(s) of a lower order. *When referring to the accepted Christian interpretation of the God of the Bible, I will refer to this entity in the masculine “He,” “Him,” “His,” etc., to keep in tradition with the Bible.

Church– not only the building that houses Christians during services but the Church Body Politic itself. When referring to the latter, I will use the pro-noun version for clarity.

Heaven– the eternal realm where God exists outside of time. This is often interpreted as eternal paradise where most Christians believe they will finally end up after Judgment Day.

Hell– where everyone else is destined to end up. An eternal realm of separation from God, where occupants will be subjected to torment, suffering, and everlasting damnation.

Prayer– one way communication with God. This usually takes the form of requests to God for the perceived needs of self and others. This is not to be confused with a dialogue with God, which by definition is a two-way conversation.

Born-Again– this is the status of a person after accepting Jesus into their life. They are essentially re-born into a new life of devotion to Christ and the Church, thus someone who is “Born-Again” becomes a practicing Christian.

A Word on Christians

The name ‘Christian’ is supposed to signify a follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings. However, this title can be misleading. While the early Christian church was formed from the cult of Christ that originated with the 12 disciples, modern Christianity has strayed from the teachings of Jesus in some amazingly fundamental ways. One such way is the philosophy of mainstream churches concerning money. A common thread of teachings among especially evangelical middle class Churches is the emphasis of monetary and material prosperity among members who tithe. This trend is supported by a singular, rather obscure verse in the Old Testament (Malachi 3:10), which actually considers tithes in this context to be food.

This practice of money-hoarding by the Church, is blatantly at odds with Jesus’ philosophy concerning money, and also betrays the lack of faith in God to provide what is needed. Bible literature is replete with examples of Jesus’ recognition of the corrupting effect that money can have on people, and therefore maintained a rather consistent position on the rejection of materialism (see such verses as: Luke 16:13, Mark 10:17-25, Matthew 16:24-26). The accumulated wealth of the church was to be used for charitable purposes. Where is the televangelist that has committed him- or herself to a life of poverty, and where are his/her followers? One only need visit a large modern church to observe the lavish facilities, cars, equipment, and production materials that good money can buy.

This double-standard has not only strayed off-course from a very straightforward precept that Jesus taught and practiced, but also has the effect of reducing Christianity to a mere designer religion. Believers can cherry-pick which teachings best fit their lifestyles and there are just as many churches that exist to accommodate any belief. Just as Western civilization has created an arena for seemingly limitless accommodation, this is true for the Church as well. Such avenues of Christianity I call Americanized Christianity, or Westernized Christianity. If the goal and purpose of a Christian, is to closely follow and practice the teachings of Jesus, wouldn’t it be important to mimic ALL of them as laid out by the Gospels regardless of the fickle cultures of the times?

In fact, Christianist would be a more accurate title for the modern churchgoers who are enchanted with Christ and of Judeo-centric culture. I define a Christianist as someone who is infatuated with the dogma and syntax of the culture that rose out of the cult of Christ, rather than a true practitioner of Christ’s direct teachings. For example, by my definition, a true Christian would emulate Christ in word and deed, and not rely on the interpretations given to them by their clergy or apocryphal text such as Paul’s letters in the New Testament. A Christianist, by contrast, would approach the study of Christ much like a historian, incorporating the ever-evolving mythos of Christian-centric culture into their own beliefs. They are more interested in Christianity than Christ. This is, arguably, the approach that many modern so-called Christians take.

Just because one is “Born-Again,” it doesn’t mean that they cease to be a regular person, or lose bestial impulses, or are now protected under some sort of supernatural forcefield that keeps their desires away. In my experience, I have seen quite the contrary. Christianity gives a person a pious mask to wear in front of others, while inside, the person is still driven and tempted by the gamut of human desires and emotions that non-Christians are subject to. The pressure to “act the part” is compounded by the expectations from society to “fit the role,” and may be the force behind “binge sinning” that is so widespread among ostensible “Believers.” Or perhaps it is simply that their normal human behaviors come to the surface more visibly because they have taken the path of religious idealism.

This brings me to an important observation of the practice of dissociation among Christians. There has been a movement in recent years to make Christianity more user-friendly. One such method has been to euphemize certain name associations. Christians have become “Believers,” the more authoritarian, “Scriptures” are used in place of the Bible, Jesus has been traded for the monarchical “Lord,” and Satan or the Devil have been ambiguously re-labeled the “Enemy.” This softening of traditional names not only has had the effect of dissociation from, perhaps, negative connotations that these names have historically implied, but also to return the Bible story to a more archetypal form, much like the Jedi “Force” in the Star Wars mythos. This euphemization has had the subtle but powerful effect of appealing to the broader humanistic sensibility towards myths.

Christianity as a myth

To study the psychology of Christianity, we must understand the power of the myth as a function within a society. I use the term myth to signify symbolism and imagery that permeates through culture and time. From ancient myths such as Beowulf, Homer’s Odyssey, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the modern myths of the comic book superheroes Superman, Spiderman, and Batman, the power of the myth has lost none of its potency to inform, entertain and teach us. Common myths have been passed along through generations and seem to cross barriers of differing races and cultures, presenting common themes and lessons.

The Bible, as it is contemporarily presented, is one such myth. But more accurately, it is a myth derived from previous myths. Many of the stories contained within the Bible have more ancient origins and have been adapted and mutated over the years, but this fact is hardly, if at all, recognized within the ranks of the “Believers.” The one “book” that is the Bible is actually comprised of several “books” and letters that have been authored by many and compiled over centuries. It was only through the organization and political influence of the Roman empire, which was incidentally a man-made institution, that gave birth to the compilation known as the Bible. This point is historical fact, but rarely scrutinized or acknowledged by the average “Believer.” Once again we are presented with the practice of cherry-picking and convenient denial of important facts by “Believers” as to the foundational structure of Christianity.
This is important because in most cases, the “Believer” will resort to the Bible as the final authority on any matter, whether they interpret it literally or allegorically. This practice would be similar to pointing to Homer- and Plato’s epic storytelling of the Greek gods as a final authority on spiritual and moral matters. To contemporary Christians, this idea would be ludicrous, but strangely, they see no connection between the abandoned arbitrary worship of the dim gods of the ancient world, and the similar faith of Christians in mythological storybook heroes.

The Bible borrows its creation story from a much older version that originated in ancient Mesopotamia, most notably elements from Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Sumerian cultures. There are many creation stories from the ancient world and there are also various recognized “Cradles of Life,” Mesopotamia being only one of which. Is it just mere coincidence that the world’s most dominant religion sprang from the part of the world that birthed the first empires? This is a testament to the exploitative nature that influential civilizations have on their subjugates, rather than the power of the message itself (the Bible). When Christianity became the standard of the land, it only needed be enforced and imposed by its zealous followers.
Still other myths and rituals taken from surrounding cultures were incorporated into the mythos of Christianity in order to better assimilate the heathens and pagans, making a smoother transition for the potentially converted. Christmas and Easter are perfect examples of how Christian and pagan traditions were blended to bring together different ways of spiritual practice in order to bring more followers into the fold. This once again illustrates the “designer” appeal of Christianity, and also its adaptability as a “borrower” of other traditions.

Coming Soon: Part II: Christians, God, The Bible, and Faith