Riligulous, Mormons, atonement, atheists, and science.

The post I keep promising on porn in ancient religions is in progress, but until then, I thought I’d tackle this, because I’ve been saying it for ages, but recently came across a great example of what I’m driving at.

So in a conversation, somebody mentioned that according to Religulous, if you’re a Mormon and you stop tithing, you risk the equivalent of shunning in the Amish community, i.e. none of your family would talk to you. Somebody else said that as pretty much an ex Mormon, that wasn’t their experience at all. So who’s right? Well, they’re both right, and at least Religulous talked to some people. But I keep telling atheists that, if you’re going to make pronouncements on “religion” or even Christianity or such, be the scientist you claim to be, and go look at actual religion. So to be clear, if you personally just don’t believe in God or religion or whatever, I’m probably not talking to you. But if you’ve written any books, or go on the internet and debate this stuff, or talk to people about it, then pay attention, because I AM talking to you.

So what’s the problem here? Well, the same problem with any research, and I’m going to illustrate with Christianity. Go ask most people how atonement works, i.e. how you get saved, and you’ll probably hear something about how we’re all sinners and Jesus died on the cross to save us. If you have somebody who knows a bit more, you’ll hear stuff about a blood debt, particularly if they’re Evangelical. This theory was developed by Anselm, and is sometimes called substitutionary atonement. The basic upshot is that since we’re all sinners and thus imperfect, Jesus, who’s perfect, had to be the sacrifice to redeem us, since we couldn’t do it ourselves, being imperfect. If you’ve read anything I’ve written ever, you should realize there’s a problem coming up.

Here’s the problem. While this is the understanding of probably the vast majority of Western Christians, it’s not the understanding of ALL, and then, there’s the Eastern Orthodox to deal with. They have a whole different idea of how atonement works, essentially, Jesus’ death occurred so that we could be transformed into more god-like beings, and early Christianity held much the same view, we atoned via moral transformation. See:

The point should be obvious, reacting to only one form of atonement, say, feeling that God is owed a blood debt is barbaric, doesn’t really apply to a good chunk of Christianity, even if it applies to ALL the Christianity you personally encounter. Maybe back in the day, you could be forgiven, although assuming what you know is the totality of a thing is pretty sloppy anyway. But now, with the internet, it would take you about five seconds to look up atonement and find out that not all Christians hold to the substitutionary sacrifice version. The problem gets a lot worse when you drag in other religions, because most people who talk about the subject just assume they work like whatever religion they have some sort of familiarity with. To return to Religulous, it should be pretty clear we’ve got bias going on. I’m not saying ONLY shunned ex Mormons were contacted purposely, but it’s pretty clear they needed a wider net, if they intended to deal with the subject accurately.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, Religulous is also entirely correct. Some Mormons DO get shunned by their family for failing to tithe, or for leaving the church. And I’d agree that substitutionary atonement is pretty barbaric. I am in no way trying to pretty up the issues with religion in general, or any religion in particular. I am simply demonstrating that we need to be careful, when making pronouncements about religion or a given religion, that we’ve done our research as carefully as possible.