Nearly all the Christians, I know acknowledge that at least some subset (presumably a large subset) of their fellow believers are phonies. These fall into two categories. The first is people who are being deliberately dishonest about their beliefs for personal gain, the second is people are people who may actually believe the teachings of the Christian faith but for one reason or another they get denounced as not being “true Christians”.
In the first category, we need to look no further than American politics. It strikes me as highly likely that many people in both houses of congress, are falsely claiming to be members of the Christian faith for purely political gain. Politicians are not known to be an honest bunch and it is likely that at least some of the senators and representatives who claim to be believers are lying to get votes. What’s more is that some prominent outspoken Christians, such as Peter Popoff have been shown to be ripping their followers off and making a fortune while doing it.
Additionally, there are many people who are lying about being Christian, out of a fear of alienation or a lack of other options. The Clergy Project is an online community, whose members include active and former clergy members who no longer consider themselves part of the faith. Apparently it is not uncommon for preachers, reverends ect. to lose their faith but remain preaching because of a lack of other sources of income, identity or community. Additionally, I have heard many stories from people, both older and younger than me, who have been afraid to come out as atheist for fear of losing, jobs, reputations, community, or their relationship with their family. This seems to be especially true of people who lived in small towns in the south and midwest, come from religious families or lived during the height of the cold war. I know how painful this kind of alienation can be and I understand why it might lead some to claim beliefs they do not really have.
This brings us to the second category of phony Christians. This is a phenomenon that I find more interesting. Essentially anyone who ever shows moderation, skepticism, doctrinal inconsistency are likely to be accused of their fellow believers of not being true Christians. Any Christian who leaves the faith is likely to be met with the accusation of never having been a true Christian, even when it is acknowledged that the person in question held all the doctrines Christianity to be true and sincerely believed herself to be in a relationship with the Christian God.
Often I find this a case of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, where group members want to deny association with anyone who makes them look bad. This is often an example of question begging. It often strikes me as highly insincere.
Then again there are many Christians who claim that a “true Christian” is someone personally knows or has a relationship with the Christian God or his son Jesus. I am perfectly happy to accept this definition, but leads me to conclude that it is unlikely that anyone is a true Christian since I have seen no evidence that any such beings exist. In such an instance, anyone wishing to defend their being a Christian, by this definition, would have to actually demonstrate a God exist and that they are personally know this being.
Of course all this leads me to ask how do I know a true Christian when I see one? How can I tell the sincere believers from the phonies?
The typical response is a quote from chapter of the gospel attributed to Matthew: “you will know them by their fruits.” I run into variations of this so often that it is almost worthy of a separate blog entry. In it’s context it is presented by Jesus as:
“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
The passage itself is evidence that, at the time of writing, the author was aware of false prophets, and presumably false Christians. Christian I know, use these verses to imply that the real Christians, will distinguishable from the phonies, by their good fruits. That is there clear teachings, moral deeds, kindness to others and a general superior morality to false Christians.
I find this to be nonsense on stilts. There is no evidence that Christians are in anyway morally superior to anyone else. They make up most of the prison population and tend to live in parts of the country with the highest levels of crime. What’s worse is that the believers who seem to most sincerely believe what they profess often tend to be the most morally suspect of people I have met.
From my experiences, the people who seem to most sincerely believe the Christian doctrines are the ones most likely to defend slavery, defend racist or sexist remarks, advocate discrimination or violence on the basis of sex and sexuality, advocate hitting children as a means of punishment, relish the thought of others being tortured in hell, advocate torture in general or support politicians who advocate aggressive foreign interventions, draconian punishments or opportunistic warfare. All of this strikes me as highly morally questionable, and it is not the more casual, wishy-washy believers who seem to forcefully defend or advocate these things.
This is of course is just my own experience, but I have reason to believe it is not an uncommon experience and I can certainly provide examples of all these things, if necessary. Needless to say, I am not seeing a subset of these believers who are shining lights of morality, that I can call true believers. All evidence suggest that the more sincerely one believes the Christian doctrines the more likely one is to hold positions that are morally questionable if not downright immoral. Or at least that is the experience of many of us, who have interacted with Christians in the United States.
I may be wrong, in that somewhere out there may be a populations of “true Christians” whose, moral clarity, and insight surpass all human understanding, but I have yet to see any evidence of them. By their fruits, they have not made themselves known to me. If they exists, I love to see examples. Until then this is Mr. Wilson signing out.