Yuriy, why, in your opinion, believers do not tend to critically evaluate things that they believe in? Why there is almost no discussion inside Slavic church community about essential issues that so many people are concerned about? Some of these are: Does God exist? If God does exist, why is there evil and so many wars in our world? Why do innocent children die?
First of all, I would never want to speak for all Christians because Christianity is very diverse and encompasses a broad spectrum of people with unique ways of thinking. There are indeed some very educated Christians (and plenty of very stupid atheists). In fact, I have met some Christians who are more critical of their Christianity than some atheists are critical of their atheism. However, in my experience, they tend to be far more theologically liberal, often label themselves as “Christian agnostics,” and are usually shunned by Evangelicals in the same way atheists are.
Overall, I think there are reasons why many Christians that I have met refuse to critically examine their beliefs. The biggest contributor is that our minds are not perfect. There are over a hundred cognitive biases that negatively affect our critical thinking and reasoning abilities. I rarely believe something with 100% certainty, even though I may have very good reasons to believe it, because I am aware of the many ways that human minds make logical mistakes. Religious people and secularists are in this same situation, we all have serious epistemic limitations. Given all of that, I think there are a two key reasons religious people don’t examine their faith. I believe the first of these applies to a smaller number of more vocal and fundamentalist Christians, while the second is more broad and probably applies to most.
First, there is a psychological observation, known as The Dunning–Kruger Effect, that has demonstrated that the more ignorant a person is, the more confident he/she is, conversely the more knowledgeable a person is, the less confident. In my experience this is often true. People who know very little about a subject tend to have the loudest and most abrasive opinions about it, because they don’t even know enough to be aware of how little they know.
I have brought up some of my concerns regarding certain Old Testament atrocities to friends who were very confident in stating that the Bible doesn’t contain such passages even while admitting they haven’t actually read the Bible from cover to cover. When confronted with the textual citations, they remained just as confident and instead said things like “well that’s just the Old Testament, you’re not supposed to follow it today.” However, I don’t think this main reason for most Christians, just for a vocal minority.
The major reason, in my opinion, is because of the positive emotional connection that people have towards their faith. There is cognitive bias called “motivated reasoning,” which makes it difficult for people to think objectively about subjects that have emotional proximity. For example, if my dearest friend, whom I have many positive feelings about, is accused of a crime, I will be strongly inclined to take his side and ignore or reject any evidence that proves him guilty. Even if he really is guilty, my emotional connection to him will subconsciously compel me to defend him, because I have such positive feelings about him.
For most Christians, their faith is that friend, it offers them a feeling of purpose, a beautiful vision of an eternal paradise, it tells them their life matters, that they have a powerful ally that will fix everything one day, and it prevents them from thinking about the horrifying reality of death. If I was writing a children’s storybook and wanted to dream up the most appealing fantasy I could, I would include all those desirable elements. Who would want to critically examine a friend like that?
So why do religious people spend so little time and attention to discussing these big questions? Perhaps, some are afraid to open up Pandora’s box. Maybe they think that answers to these questions are self-evident, and perceive that beginning a conversation about them, may demonstrate that they are not. I think there are also many believers who think the answers are so obvious that we should move on to something more opaque like the doctrinal disagreements between Baptists and Pentecostals.
Recently I found out that a group of young people from one large Slavic church in California decided to leave Christian faith and embrace atheism. Why, do you think, young people leave Slavic churches? Is traditionalism one of the causes? Maybe hypocrisy and double standards that might exist in Slavic community?
The incident you are referring to concerns a friend of mine, who was a youth minister at one of the largest Slavic churches in the United States. Over the last few years we have had numerous discussions about religion and philosophy. I can’t say that I convinced him into anything, for he is far too clever be manipulated into anything (having recently completed a Doctorate in Law). However, exposure to some of the ideas and literature that I sent his way enabled him to learn more about and to critically examine his faith. He had been such a stalwart defender of Evangelical Christianity, I was quite surprised to hear from him regarding his journey away from faith. He published a lengthy document outlining his personal reasons for changing his mind. It was read by tens of thousands of people, which resulted in some “coming out of the closet” saying they too had these doubts but were too afraid to reveal them.
As to why Slavic youth is leaving churches, I believe the reasons are manifold. I curate a private online community where a few hundred Slavic youth who have left the church can connect with one another. I recently conducted a small survey within this group, asking about the reasons why people left the church. The most popular response was an exposure to higher education (biology and psychology are the top offenders), and the second most common reason included studying the Bible and/or theology only to see inconsistencies in it. Responses like “reading atheist books” or “seeing hypocrisy by Christians” were certainly there, but about ten times less common. In any case, while it’s certainly true that some Christians are hypocritical, many others are very admirable and charitable people. I think leaving faith because of hypocritical Christians is a poor reason to reject Christianity, because it does not inquire whether it is true or false. I would not reject Mathematics because some of its practitioners are bad with numbers. I believe a person should reject an idea because it is false, not because some its champions fail at expressing it.
You were a part of the church since you were a child. How would you describe the state of Slavic churches in America at present time? I am interested in your viewpoint based upon your experience.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I want to be very careful to not stereotype all Christians as though they are exactly the same, this would be sloppy and unfair. Likewise, I can only speak to what I have seen, not all churches and congregations. In my opinion, Slavic churches in America can be split up into three groups based on their approach towards modern (specifically English speaking) culture. We can generally call these groups: the fundamentalists, the moderates, and the progressives. Baptist and Pentecostal churches I have attended, tend to be conservatives and moderates, while charismatic and non-denominational churches tend to be moderates and progressives. While there can be significant doctrinal differences between all these Slavic churches, their approaches towards culture have been very similar with other churches in their group.
The fundamentalist churches are generally smaller (though a few are quite large) and function in isolation from American society, culture, and norms. The dress code, music, social order is very strict and in many cases this produces a subset of young people that are forced to live a double life. For example, one of my old acquaintances would dress up in a skirt to church, but kept a pair of jeans in her backpack, to change her outfit in the bushes on the way to school. These ultra conservative churches seem to be dwindling in size for two reasons, first they are unable to have any meaningful impact on the culture, and two, there is an exodus of youth to moderate/progressive churches. Fundamentalist congregations are also a favorite example used by many progressive leaders to show an example of the kind of “stale” and “irrelevant” church that they want to avoid becoming. In the end, these churches seem to be known for little else than the jokes that are made about them, by Christians and atheists alike.
The moderate churches tend to be the largest and attempt to retain both the traditional Slavic culture as well as showing a small openness to the American culture. For example, congregations like these may start incorporating some English language sermons, perhaps in their youth service, but still have significant restraint against “Americanization.” Overall, these churches appeal to many large families as they attempt to create a place everyone can be welcome, including very conservative parents and more progressive children. My feeling is these churches will continue to slowly assimilate into the culture, and in a few generations will become fully Americanized. In my experience I have seen churches in this category that have been abusive, irresponsible, and unhealthy. At the same time, I have seen others that have provided valuable services to the community, and generally seem to be healthy environments.
Finally, we have the progressive churches, which I think are the most interesting group. These are usually led by very strong entrepreneurial leaders who are very conservative regarding doctrine. Often, from the side, it seems as though these churches are founded on the leader’s dominant voice and distinctive brand of preaching. In many cases these congregations are large and growing but mostly by taking in transferring members from the more conservative and moderate churches. There is frequently initiatives to introduce English services and attempts made to attract American locals, however, this usually fails and the progressive churches remain 99% Slavic.
In some cases the progressive churches are small and struggling to grow because there are few older Slavic immigrants in the area that are interested in a cultural evolution, and the younger people would rather attend an American church with far better music and production values. Overall my judgment is that some of these congregations seem to try too hard to appear “cool” and are run like corporations, with too much focus on marketing, branding, and image. This may lure in the young and unsuspecting, but seems to be an inauthentic way of dealing with some of the most important questions about reality.
You identify yourself as atheist. Do you subscribe to any moral code? Do you have absolutes or is everything relative?
Surely, everyone heard the popular paraphrase from one of Dostoyevsky’s famous novels: “without God everything is permitted.” I think the opposite is true, with God anything can be permitted. We can simply look through the Old Testament, and cringe at the horrific atrocities, murder, rape, slavery, genocide, infanticide, all of which is purportedly permitted by the God of the Old Testament. At the end of the day, if there is a God, and he tells you to kill your own child (like in the story of Abraham, or in various Old Testament stories where the Hebrews were commanded to kill children) even murder becomes permissible and even noble.
I think that if God’s opinion is the source of our morality, then it is a subjective standard that could change at any time, just like it changed from the Old to the New Testament. It is also arbitrary because it could have been literally anything, so long as God willed it. If God decided hate is good, then hate is good, if God decided love is good, then love is good. Ultimately, if God’s moral opinions are grounded in Gods nature, how can those moral opinions be used to judge whether Gods nature is good? It’s like inventing a new measuring ruler and using it to measure itself, to see if its correct.
As an agnostic-atheist, my moral standards do not come from someone’s opinion, I don’t have a rule book that I must follow “because Darwin said so.” Instead my moral standards arise from objective facts about sentient creatures such as ourselves. I believe that our morality is foundationally grounded in our nature. Regardless of whether there is a God or not, our nature is what it is. Whether there is a God or not, 1+1=2, and in the same way moral judgments can be made irrespective of the truth of theism. So how do I do this?
First, I postulate that it is an objective fact that for each person certain things are good (or helpful) while other things are bad (or harmful). For example, eating poison is harmful or bad, while eating a healthy lunch is helpful or good. I don’t think we can find anyone in the world, theist or atheist, that can disagree with this fact.
Second, I view morality as a set of rules that governs relationships between creatures that can have experiences. I cannot do anything evil or good to a rock, because that rock cannot experience the sensation of good or evil. I can only do good or evil towards people who are able to have the experience of being recipients of evil and good. People can feel the evil of physical torture, rape, emotional abuse, betrayal and hatred; because of our nature, these things are intrinsically painful. In addition, people can experience the good of kindness, cooperation, and love; because of our nature those things are intrinsically pleasant. This provides for us an objective way of discerning which actions promote good and which actions promote evil.
Third, I perceive that our motivation for doing good and evil unto others arises out of a desire to have others treat us in kind. This is just like the “golden rule” of Jesus (which existed before Jesus, and was said by Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster and many other philosophers). At the end of the day, our motivation for doing good to others is that we value goodness want other to do good unto us. I want to help others, because I value the experience of being helped, and want others to will help me when I need it.
It seems impossible to get away from some kind personal interest when it comes to moral motivation. Even within Christian doctrine, if you act ethical, you will be rewarded with an eternity of pleasure with Jesus, and if you are unethical, you will be punished with an eternity of pain; at its core it’s a very simple system of “stick or carrot,” punishment or reward. The only difference is, in the secular worldview there is no cosmic judge, but usually nature itself equalizes everything and those who “live by the sword, die by the sword” while those who help others in times of need, receive help when it is needed. At the end of the day, my ethical system has changed very little since I left the church, and almost everything that was “sin” (theft, rape, murder, betrayal, etc) is still immoral, and in fact I am more cognizant of the reasons I avoid it.
Photo: Yuriy Stasyuk
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