Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Christians are Lame: A Graphical Investigation

I have written several times on the topic of Christian hypocrisy and uninspiring Christianity. The problem is the apparent empirical disconnect between the spiritual resources Christianity claims to offer and the apparent paucity of moral exemplars in its ranks. My basic thesis on this topic[1] goes something like: “If Jesus was who he says he was and did what the Scriptures said he did, I would expect the Church to look precisely the way it does.”
I am giving another version of this talk tonight (MP3 
- the first couple minutes are community building silliness). But this time I did something a little different. Our campus ministry has an unusually high percentage of Scientists and Engineers (Davis is a relatively technical school) yet most homiletics consist of the humanities speaking to the humanities. So I thought I’d try to plot my argument for a change.[2] Here is how it goes.

Consider a statistical distribution of human ‘goodness.’ We will assume a normal distribution normalized to a unit goodness[3] (because it is the one most are familiar with), but it works with any graphical or analytical distribution.

Therefore, there is an average measure of ‘goodness’ that we can evaluate Christianity with. Does the church, on the whole produce a higher or lower average?[4] And is that a good empirical test of its claims?
Well, if we consider Jesus’ words that ‘I came not for the healthy but for the sick’ and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ I think we could conclude that Christianity, on the whole, would recruit from the ‘low’ end of the moral goodness scale. This makes theoretical sense as well. Since Christianity requires a profession of moral failure, those for whom this condition would be most obvious are those with the most moral failure.

So we can plot a theoretical distribution of Christians with the overall population and, an expected, lower average goodness.

Now, it would be hard to assert that Christianity does not claim spiritual resources for moral progress. And I wouldn’t want to. It does and in a decade and a half in the church, moral progress has, honestly, been my overwhelming observation in this eccentric population. The Church is, in fact, a place where ground is gained in the goodness game. But it also seems like it is hard won. And this seems to be Paul’s experience of the phenomenon as well. He is constantly expressing frustration on how much progress he is NOT making.

So, back to our plot. Consider our Christian sub-sample makes moral progress. However, they started with such a dramatic handicap, that their average is still lower overall. And observable progress is not indefinite.[5] Eventually we die.[6] In the mean time, the church continues to add converts who “come in the back door” so to speak. If the church is vibrant, functional, and healthy it should have a constant stream of annoying, judgmental, hurtful people joining, keeping our overall goodness, spectacularly below average. In a sense, the healthier a church is the more potential it has for crass wickedness.
Therefore, I assert: “If Jesus was who he says he was and did what the Scriptures said he did, I would expect the Church to look precisely the way it does”…a total mess. The empirical test of the spiritual resources Christianity claims to offer is not its overall moral goodness (since we are playing with a substantial handicap) but are we, on the whole, making relative progress? The salient test is not ‘are we better than you’, but ‘are we better than we were’?

This post was written while listening to A Beautiful Lie by 30 Seconds to Mars.____________

[1] Incidentally, my whole thinking on this topic essentially emerges from a single sentence in Keller’s Reason for God.
[2] I have tried this before on this blog, including one of my all time favorite posts (and a second one that has been in the works for months) but I have never tried to preach it.
[3] Where minimum goodness is 0 and maximum goodness is 1.
[4] I think the implications of measuring the variance in addition to the average is really interesting. For example, moralism with a Christian veneer can turn people (like me) into intolerable, self righteous bigots…but then again, so can moralism with a pluralist or secular veneer. Skewed distributions are also interesting as high or low outliers affect the mean. But I digress.
[5] Though, the heart of our hope is that actual progress is.
[6] Unless you are a Pentecostal. OK, just kidding. But this was the retort that I heard to the healt and wellness movement once. If faith can translate directly into physical wellness, shouldn’t nursing homes be disproportionately occupied with Pentecostals.


You with us said...

I would make a terrible engineer, but I have always loved graphs. Your message makes perfect sense to me. My "self" hates admitting how all this applies to me. Surely I am in the one percent of Christians with moral goodness.:)

Love your point: are we better than we were?

Also, how do we compare to Jesus? Looking to the side to establish moral goodness is so human and so unhelpful in the long run. Looking at Jesus will help with humility, no?

Joel Wilcox said...

Hope you don't mind if I Facebook link to this. Because I already did. I have too many scientist friends. (I suppose I could take down the link if you want.)

stanford said...

Feel free to link, Joel. I'm honored you would.

JMBower said...

hmm...are we sure that human goodness is normalized/can be normalized?

What if we're inherently bi-modal?

stanford said...

No, we aren’t sure anything can be normalized…but as I said, it works for any continuous or graphical distribution (I personally would use a Gumble Distribution with a negative skew if I was actually going to try to approximate human goodness with a distribution). I do not think humans are bimodal (i.e. that there are fundamentally good people and bad people) but it would actually strengthen the argument of the post if they were. Because Christianity would draw from the lower mode and these people would have farther to go to reach any sort of a mean, particularly the local mean of the ‘good’ mode.

Now, if you are saying each individual is fundamentally bimodal (which I suspect you are)…I’m totally in…and that is part of the complexity. The very idea that goodness is univariate is part of the problem. Each of us has subtle pockets of beauty and brokenness, so the very argument that Christianity (or any world view) fails empirically because it does not do well on my preferred metric of ‘goodness’ suffers from confirmation bias. I am more likely to evaluate the goodness of other on metrics that I see myself as performing well on and to overlook goodness metrics that I do not possess. This adds important complexity to the argument, but I think the argument still stands.