Soteriological Slide

I quickly drew this diagram as a dialogue tool to facilitate discussing the question “Who is a Christian?” with ‘progressive’ Christians. This diagram is only the condensed form of the full version below. Click “read more” if you care to explore my ponderings further.

Progressive Christians often claim that when thinking about salvation, they lean toward pluralism or universalism. (see my post on Soteriological Scope) However, sometimes these progressive Christians reveal that they still carry hints of that old school notion of “our way is the best” which is actually more consistent with exlusivism at worst or inclusivism.  I think such a soteriological slide is due to the fact that it is really hard to sell an ideology (to ourselves or others) without at least hinting that it is the best among options.   The diagram below is meant to further this discussion. Note, it should be clear that this same outline could be applied to all sorts of worldviews.
Related PostSliding into Heresy & Orthodoxy Watchdogs

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33 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

33 responses to “Soteriological Slide

  1. Looks about right to me. This diagram highlights something I find strange about “progressives”:

    I can understand the mentality that says that religions are human constructions crafted specifically to “offer benefits” to their followers. But once someone believes that, the logical thing to do is just jettison religion and seek those benefits through more effective means.

    If religion is a utilitarian tool, then surely it’s only effective when people actually believe it?

    If someone is going to pick a religion that promises desired benefits, or if they’re going to modify their existing religion to better match their desired benefits, then they clearly aren’t choosing it because they believe it.

  2. DaCheese

    How does this diagram work with faiths where adherents believe that various paths are good enough for the average person, but that they themselves have been chosen to walk a narrower path? Eg. Judaism, or (as I understand it) Sikhism. Seems like that gives them an “out” here.

  3. @JS Allen
    Thank you for letting me know you agree with the structure.
    I have had this debate with several liberal/progressive Christians but most recently with Zero1Ghost and hopefully he will show up to discuss. Having your comments should make the dialogue interesting.

    I think I disagree with this sentence of yours.

    But once someone believes that, the logical thing to do is just jettison religion and seek those benefits through more effective means.

    What if:
    (1) Jettisoning religious thinking is very difficult.
    (2) What if self-deceptive, reflexive intuitions are more efficient heuristics than any contrived ones.

    I agree when you said,

    If religion is a utilitarian tool, then surely it’s only effective when people actually believe it?

    So are placebo medicine — more effective when trusted (believed).

    Your last paragraph hits some truth, but ignores a common phenomena. If something is perceived by the brain as beneficial, the brain will slowly alter data in, re-align other values and such until “believe” becomes ‘natural’, without a measure of will which would (as you say) not count as real belief — the kind that amplifies placebo. Thus a person comes to believe their own choice under the deception that it was made under free will– they don’t know they are just choosing it because it is more efficient, they think they are choosing it rationally and thus believe freely.

  4. @ DaCheese :
    Such cases, I would envision, would progress:
    Blue box –> Purple box –> Green box

  5. Nice breakdown in the flow chart, Saibo. Definitely worthy of a save to the hard drive.

    I think another way to state the problem is “Is it true and *therefore* I believe it or is it true *because* I believe it?” Stepping outside of our own belief systems in order to examine them is exceedingly difficult for most people. In the case of progressive Christians, it might be simply needing to finally pick a side while allowing other people enough space in their beliefs to be wrong without those incorrect beliefs being fatal to their souls. At some point a person makes a choice (and I am using that word ironically) and just has to move on in their life.

    Someone has said that religion is not the pursuit of truth but instead it is the pursuit of security (properity, health, social, existential). Although your chart makes a good point, it is not the level at which most religious people are operating. I think most people stop at the purple box and don’t go any further.

    -Sheldrake

  6. In Daniel Dennett’s new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, Dennett speculates that the placebo effect gave superstitious people a survival advantage. Our most gullible and optimistic ancestors were prone to believe in assistance from an imaginary God, and thus outbred their peers, passing on their superstitious genes to all of mankind.

    The problem with placebos, as you say, is that they’re not placebos if we know they’re placebos. We can’t just make ourselves some sugar pills, eat them, and expect the same result that the placebo control group got in some double-blind study — it just doesn’t work that way. That’s what’s so clever about this site, which sells placebos.

    Note that when I said, “they clearly aren’t choosing it because they believe it”, I wasn’t saying that they don’t freely choose the belief. I was simply saying that their choice of the belief is motivated by utilitarian reasons, rather than by a conviction that the belief is true. In other words, they are choosing the belief before it has become self-reflexively delusional — and they are recommending that others do the same. They are explicitly arguing that others should give up their traditional self-delusions and replace them with more “effective” delusions. The progressives are generally more honest about it than others; you can usually get them to acknowledge that utilitarian concerns are primary.

    IMO, they tend to stop at that acknowledgment, and sweep the remaining issues under the rug. At a minimum, this acknowledgment should move the progressive to your green box, and ultimately, move them to a more scientific frame of mind:

    What if self-deceptive, reflexive intuitions are more efficient heuristics than any contrived ones.

    Exactly. The question here is how to turn a contrived belief (one that was selected consciously for utilitarian benefit) into a deceptive, reflexive belief so that it can work as a placebo. At a minimum, a progressive pastor could just lie to his congregation and convince them that the his theology was true, so that the flock would gain the placebo effect benefits of belief. He could use all of the pomp and pageantry of religious ritual to embed the useful beliefs into people’s heads.

    There are a few challenges with this mindset, though:

    1) Is it Ethical? Knowingly deceiving patients by prescribing placebos as part of routine medical care is generally considered malpractice. It can be done in very limited cases, but only where the medical profession has hashed out the ethical considerations. The pastoral profession hasn’t even attempted to set up guidelines about when it is acceptable to prescribe religious placebos. When a pastor who would sue his doctor for lying about physical health, happily creates theological sugar pills to take care of the psychic health of his congregation, I think there is something wrong.

    2) Is it better than truth? One should only prescribe a placebo if there is no available medicine that works. Before pitching a placebo theology, we should be convinced that the truth would be significantly less effective. If a pastor is knowingly promoting a placebo theology, he is essentially saying that a scientific naturalistic atheist worldview would be less effective at achieving happiness. I find that bizarre. Such a person doesn’t believe that any theology is true enough to promote for truth’s sake, but thinks that knowingly promoting something untrue is more worthwhile than promoting his own lack of belief. Before dedicating one’s career to such a position, one would want to be absolutely sure.

    3) Is religion the best placebo delivery mechanism? Progressives who knowingly attempt to tweak theology for utilitarian reasons, seem to thrive the most in places where religion is already dying. In an environment where religion and superstition are under constant attack, it seems rather foolish to choose a modified ancient religion as a delivery vehicle for a new placebo. In the modern secular world, we have a tremendous amount of knowledge about how to manipulate beliefs, and we keep adding to our knowledge store. It’s more than a bit ironic that evangelicals are resorting to using cognitive psychology and techniques from marketing and political campaigns to help spread what they see as ultimate truth — while the hapless progressives are donning the mantle and techniques of ancient religion in a Quixotic attempt to spread new theology that they believe to be “useful”.

    4) Burning Bridges – Religions like Christianity and Islam have some very strong safeguards against “progress” built in. There are built-in claims about what will happen to people who attempt to change things. Additionally, there is a “weight of orthodoxy” that the new system needs to overcome — if a pastor wants to sell a completely novel theology, he has to explain why the previous thousand years were so wrong. Often, when you want to build a new foundation, you have to torch the past and burn it to the ground. For a religion like Christianity or Islam, this turns everything upside-down. A true believer will say, “I can’t be sure of anything else in life, but I know that the faith handed down is true”. The progressive must say, “I can’t be sure of anything else in life, but that the faith handed down is wrong and must be burned to the ground before progress can be made”. If one is forced to attack the heresy clauses and ancient weight of heresy, it’s hard to see what benefit there could be in building on that foundation.

  7. Speaking of placebos, have you heard the band “placebo”? They were a favorite of mine around the time that I broke my back, and probably relevant to anyone who deals with brokenness on a daily basis. Talented chaps, those. In addition to “post blue”, they did “meds“, and (especially!!) “song to say goodbye“, which all resonate with my friends who help people.

  8. Ian

    In the right hand column a major ‘reason’ would be that it is *true* (whatever that means for the person concerned). I.e. Jesus actually was the son of God, actually did rise from the dead, God actually did author the bible. So what Christianity gives above all others is truth.

  9. @ Ian:
    Interesting, I guess it exposes my bias. I think precious few people embrace religious ideas because they are “true”, instead, they grab for other reasons and the brain makes it seem “true” to the new believer and they may think that is why the grab it, but with very little effort we could find deeper motivations.
    If I put “True” on the list, most Christians would thus, as expected, run to that one and then dialogue of the more foundational reasons would be undercut — which is exactly what the mind does — which is what I tried to explain to JS Allen above.
    What do you think?

  10. Ian

    I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. The bible study I lead (as you’d imagine, mostly Christian), I try to raise those kinds of issues. But the ultimate thing for these folks is that there is no Allah, or Shiva, God is the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus, and is made manifest in the Holy Spirit.

    I agree 100% that the *reason* people think that is nothing to do with trying to find the truth earnestly. But I think the majority of people can’t separate them, so would find your diagram puzzling. In short, the diagram presupposes that no religion is True with a capital T.

  11. which is exactly what the mind does — which is what I tried to explain to JS Allen above.

    Does the word “tried” indicate that you think you didn’t succeed? I felt that your point was pretty obvious and non-controversial. You’re just saying that people are great at convincing themselves of things; especially when there is something in it for them, right?

  12. @ JS Allen
    Sorry, friend, your comment was sooooo long, I needed time to sit down, read it carefully, figure out how to respond. And so I was procrastinating the project!

    So yes, I am saying people’s brains are great at convincing their reflective selves of things that their brains feel as useful. “Self-deception” has got to be one of the key adaptive functions of humans. I don’t think this is non-controversial. Its far-reaching nature is more disturbing than most people would comfortably want to entertain, I would think.

    So I will tackle part of it now:

    I was simply saying that their choice of the belief is motivated by utilitarian reasons, rather than by a conviction that the belief is true. In other words, they are choosing the belief before it has become self-reflexively delusional — and they are recommending that others do the same.

    I am not sure what you are trying to say that progressives do. I think they grab into Christianity for a bunch of mixed reasons and their brain helps them accept all sorts of twists and contortions in logic — post-modernistic being their favorite. And yet, part of them still buys into the implications that a consistent progressive stance would not tolerate — they want their cake and eat it too. But even this I think is unintentional and not done before it is self-reflexive nor is it consciously utilitarian.

    So I think we are disagreeing. That is why I said I don’t think you understood me — or I am confused.

    So before going into all you 4 points (wheeeew), I needed to take a break here to see if we can reach understanding.

  13. @ Sheldrake
    Thank you. I think another is: “My mind woven together ideas to appear truthful to me, so I can honestly and sincerely believe them and thus empower the belief.”
    Yes, most folks skip purple and go right for the red box.

  14. @ Ian
    I think that many conservative, orthodox Christians would comfortably move through the diagram landing comfortably in the red box with ready answers. They think that because of its unique truths and offerings, all the other blessings flow. So I don’t think they’d see the chart as biased. But we’d have to ask. They may find it odd that I asked the question that way, but they’d have not trouble answering them, I’d imagine. But I am not certain.

  15. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Great post. Great chart. Even better discussion in the comments. 🙂

  16. it is really hard to sell an ideology (to ourselves or others) without at least hinting that it is the best among options.

    I think I would agree, but add there is something much more complex going on as well. We are highly motivated to maintain the internal ‘integrity’ of our own belief systems. If we are already embedded, then it’s not only ‘the best’ according to us, but it also holds what we think is the stability and security for the whole system surrounding us.

    Progressives (and maybe liberals to an extent too) have a real problem in that they have admitted there is a problem with their past faith, or parts of it. That’s both dangerous but also heroic (in fact, it slides well into the first steps of the Hero cycle, I would say).

    They seem the most likely to freely admit that they pick and choose what they feel important in their sacred texts. Even more, they pick and choose what they like in other worldviews and traditions too! There is a certain brand of strange honesty in this, and blatant inconsistency. This sometimes happens, being caught in the middle of change (and has consequences too, as JSA suggests above).

    I think most progressives would answer “Yes” and “Yes” going through your diagram and so end up in the green box. They might identify themselves as Christians in a historical or social sense. They recognize that things do adapt or change over time and so have decided to face the consequences of the errors of the past. They are in the process of reconstructing themselves and their communities (or at least should be, imo). If they still want to have a claim on what is a ‘true Christian’ then they might as well drop the whole idea of being progressive.

    If they answer “Yes” and “No” in your diagram, then they are deciding to live in their parents’ house, in a sense, and ignore just how complex everything outside has become.

  17. @ Mike :
    Yeah, I am very fortunate to have lots of great contributing commentors on my site. I learn lots from you folks.

    @ Andrew :
    I absolutely agree with you. That was my point. Well stated.

  18. @ JS Allen
    You’d go comfortably into the red box, right?

  19. I really enjoyed this post and the comments. I’m neither atheist nor progressive nor fundamentalist. I was a fundamentalist Christian and have woken up and smelled the coffee, so to speak. I started a blog myself and have had several progressives comment there to tell me how my thinking is all wrong and what I need to do to preserve my faith. This article and the comments that follow are exactly what I’ve been trying to say, but haven’t been able to put it quite so succinctly.

  20. And yet, part of them still buys into the implications that a consistent progressive stance would not tolerate — they want their cake and eat it too. But even this I think is unintentional and not done before it is self-reflexive nor is it consciously utilitarian.

    So I think we are disagreeing. That is why I said I don’t think you understood me — or I am confused.

    No, I think we’re agreeing. If they were completely consistent, most progressives would end up in your green box, and then on to naturalism. But for whatever reason, they don’t follow things all the way through. They are being inconsistent, and are rarely consciously lucid about their scattershot application of skepticism. They accept the presupposition that their choice of religion is based on utilitarian reasons, yet they cling to a semblance of the old faith.

    You’d go comfortably into the red box, right?

    Not a chance. I think that many progressives end up in that red box, and it’s tragic. The red box is the ultimate utilitarian bias, where you have people arguing about which religion is “better” at achieving some goal. People in the red box are practically atheists, but consider themselves to have great faith — and they’re using delusion to solve problems that should be solved with science.

    Personally, I wouldn’t even make it into the blue box. Instead of answering “yes” or “no”, I would answer “I don’t know and I don’t care”. Asking whether a particular religion offers us better “benefits” is like deciding whether or not to adopt geocentricism based on the benefits it offers — it undermines the whole basis of belief.

  21. @ D’Ma
    Thank you for the compliment. And as you can see, it is the folks who comment here who help me clarify my thoughts and expression.
    BTW, may I ask, “How did you find this blog”?

  22. @ JS Allen

    “Not a chance.
    -JS Allen

    Wow, see how important it is to stop and ask during a conversation?
    So, you think you escape the whole questioning?
    So, how would you modify the questioning to capture something close to your position?
    Since you didn’t tell us, let me see if I can read between your lines correctly (and having read your blog some). Maybe you decided to be a Christian because it is “True” even if it does not offer benefits and requires sacrifice. You are a follower because it is right — irrespective of consequece.

    Perhaps if I added Ian’s suggestion, you’d fit more comfortably . Maybe I should put “(j) Truth” or “(k) It is Right”. But I don’t know if you read my comment to Ian, but I suspect that those who would choose these choose following what is true or right because they feel the other religions don’t offer that and thus the religion offers them the benefit/utility of following truth — which is important to them for some reason (another conversation, as you can imagine).

    So I will stop speculating. How should I modify the chart to find a comfortable, if not perfect, home for you?

  23. Sabio,

    I found it through Lorena and Zoe. I’ve visited several times and read quite a bit here. I appreciate the journeys of other people who have come out on the other side of Christianity and aren’t necessarily bitter.

  24. @ D’Ma Ah, thanks for commenting. Indeed: Bitterness ain’t worth keeping in one’s cupboard, eh?

  25. Wow, see how important it is to stop and ask during a conversation?

    Yes, I think you do a very good job of that here. To be clear, I wasn’t disagreeing with your flowchart. Your stated goal was to facilitate discussion with ‘progressives’, and I think your flowchart is quite insightful for that purpose. I was trying to stay away from discussions about how I would respond to the questions in the chart, since I wasn’t in your stated target audience. Your chart is very good for the stated target audience.

    For a conservative, your strategy is probably completely different.

    In “The Matrix”, Morpheus asks Neo if he will take the blue pill or the red pill. The blue pill represents belief in a fantasy that will bring great benefit, while the red pill represents belief in a reality that will require great pain and sacrifice. I think that the vast majority of people, including most “progressives”, have already swallowed the blue pill. They accept the presupposition that belief systems are measured by utility. Your flowchart is quite appropriate to people who have swallowed the blue pill, and is quite perceptive.

    On the other hand, atheist naturalists like Dennett and Dawkins strive to take the red pill, as do theological conservatives. If someone is convinced that he has swallowed the red pill, he won’t be capable of responding to questions about the utility of beliefs. It’s not even a matter of tweaking the question — the whole thing just doesn’t parse.

    You could try to take a step back and ask why someone would choose the red pill or the blue pill. The blue chauvinists could say that people choose the red pill out of utilitarian motives, and the red chauvinists could say that people stay with the blue pill out of some principled stance. But I think both routes lead to a fruitless infinite regress. Determinist Atheists like Dennett, and Calvinist Christians like me, would agree that it’s a moot question. People choose the red or blue pill because they’re predestined to. After they’ve swallowed a pill, you can reasonably show flowcharts which describe their choice processes. Motives will either prioritize utilitarian as master (blue) or utilitarian as slave (red).

    Since you didn’t tell us, let me see if I can read between your lines correctly (and having read your blog some). Maybe you decided to be a Christian because it is “True” even if it does not offer benefits and requires sacrifice. You are a follower because it is right — irrespective of consequece.

    Well, your interpretation is rather charitable and flattering. It’s tempting for someone like me to say, “Yes, I swallowed the red pill”. But simply saying it is not the same as being “a follower”. Anyone can say anything. Practice reveals philosophy, as we’ve discussed before. This house, this house, this house…

  26. @ JS Allen
    I forgot that you were a Calvinist. Thank you for the explanation. It still comes down to “Truth”, I think — your red pill. But with Calvinists, there is no decision, though, as you say, many orthodox people may be under the illusion that they made the decision.

    But I still think I could capture this position in the flow-chart with some tweeking ! 🙂

  27. good diagram, interesting discussion. the right side does indeed show your bias towards religion as a human construction. for more conservatives they would deny this question and seek to stone you (or whatever they do). i think progressives would end up in the green box one way or another. then as Grim stated, they’d ask “so what?” i think even then they would highlight certain aspects of Christianity that they like against other religions… things like grace, redemption, social justice (least of these, Matt 25 stuff), and admit the shadow side of the traditions too.

  28. @ Zero :
    Thanx.
    I get that Progressives, while ending up in the Green box (as you admit), would nonetheless often slip to being tempted into thinking that their faith offered something uniquely superior to other faiths and non-faith worldviews. It is as if their mind is divided on this issue and they are not aware of the division.

    I agree when you say “they would highlight certain aspects of Christianity that they like against other religions… things like grace, redemption, social justice (least of these, Matt 25 stuff),…”

    But all these things are offered in other religions and non-religions. So the “highlighting” is the key issue here. So if truely in the green box, the Progressive would just have to say say something like: “Well, I was born here so Christianity speaks to me and since we are religious animals, it is the religion I will play with since I am bound to play with one.”

    But don’t you think that some progressives would want to think their position is much less relativistic than that? That is the point of the post — but maybe that was clear to you.

  29. yes, it was crystal clear and progressives really don’t care or think about it too much. i think i’m rare because i do. speaking about this issue a pastor friend of mine, he wrote this blog post entitled Soteriology as a Mountain not a Lump of Dough. sorry for the indirect link, his blog is a little funky. this is pretty much where i stand.

  30. @ Zero : thanks for the thoughts

  31. I guess you could tweak it by putting a question at the very front, “Did you swallow the blue pill or the red pill”, and then the rest of your chart stays the same after that 🙂

  32. Actually, dude, I am very suspect when someone claims their position is totally escapes classification. It sounded a bit like the intellectual move of those that say, “Christianity is not a religion”. Then you added the loft red and blue pill analogy to show how everyone else is deluded. Because in the Matrix, they had a choice to bravely take the pill or not — eh?

    Now, I doubt that was exactly what you were doing, but it had flavors of that to me. So let me try to tweek the diagram to capture your position to some degree:

    So, in my diagram I think you should answer “Yes” to the blue box. Christianity offers you obedience to the Truth (with all its positive and negative consequences) whether you freely choose it or not. But you believe you were fortunately predestined to that and so the purple box makes not sense. So I should have a PINK box prior to it saying, do you think your embracement of Christianity is predestined? NO continues to the purple box, and YES continues to the green box.

    Does that work?

  33. I don’t think my position escapes classification at all. I’m just saying that your original chart places everything into one single classification, when there are other possible classifications available. The choice to put things into a single classification seems reasonable enough for describing progressives, but I don’t think it works for a broad swath of people: atheists like Dennett or Dawkins, Calvinists, maybe even many Buddhists?

    I’m not certain which of the other classifications I would fit into, but I’m virtually certain that I don’t fit into the utilitarian classification that your blue box presupposes.

    The discussion of redpill and predestination wasn’t meant to say that the people who disagree with your initial framing are luckily more “lofty” and “brave” — quite the opposite. The point is that there are other reasons, besides utilitarian, that a person could choose a belief. Undoubtedly, many people choose many soteriological beliefs for utilitarian reasons. However, your flow chart is incomplete unless all people choose all soteriological beliefs for utilitarian reasons. I don’t think you would make such a sweeping generalization, so the logical step is to ask what other reasons someone could arrive at a certain belief.

    I can immediately think of two additional explanations that should be plausible to most non-Christians; I am sure there are others:

    First, kin selection in evolutionary biology suggests that the species will do better as a whole, if individuals sometimes sacrifice themselves on behalf of others. At the evolved level, this is unconscious (i.e. deterministic) — by instinct, you risk your life to save your brother. However, when we become consciously aware of this instinctual pattern that has been predetermined by evolution, we might extrapolate that into our approach to belief systems. We might semi-consciously reason, “A belief that requires self-sacrifice is automatically better than one which gains me something”. This general thrust seems quite likely.

    In other words, our fundamental approach to “belief” could be programmed by evolution, and we just fabricate “utilitarian” motives to explain our behavior to others.

    The second possibility: Our cognitive machinery comprises a lot of different systems (brain, hormones, etc.) that were evolved for a very different world than we live in now. For millions of years, we didn’t even have “belief systems” that we could choose. The ability to “choose a belief” is extremely new in evolutionary terms, and is built on top of ancient systems that weren’t specifically adapted for this purpose. Because of this, there are bound to be impedance mismatches and errors. However, we are evolved experts at rationalizing things. When our impedance mismatches lead to maladaptive behaviors, we fabricate “utilitarian” motives to explain our behavior to ourselves.

    In other words, our fundamental approach to belief could be an accidental side-effect of evolution, caused by impedance mismatches rather than beneficial adaptation.

    I’m not strongly attached to either explanation, but I think both are strong possibilities that probably combine to influence how we fundamentally approach belief.

    If either explanation is even moderately plausible, it limits the applicability of the original flowchart. The utilitarian motivations could just be fabrications made up to excuse some other pre-programmed reason, so it wouldn’t make sense to talk about what a belief “offers”. Asking what a belief “offers” could be almost as foolish as asking a criminal to explain why he murdered an innocent victim — you’re just asking to receive a litany of fabricated excuses.

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