Are Christians Gullible?
Some skeptics consider religious belief to be a symptom of gullibility or psychological weakness. The skeptics might say that people have religious beliefs either because they do not ask critical questions about religious claims or because they are psychologically weak and feel a need for a crutch. They want the support and comfort of religious belief, which imparts meaning to their lives.
If this principle of gullibility holds for religious belief in general, the skeptic maintains that it also holds for Christian belief and for the religious claims made in the Bible. Skeptics conclude that the Bible is bogus.
What do we [as Christians] say about this skepticism toward religious beliefs? Skepticism with respect to the distinctive claims of any one religion over against the others makes it natural for people to wonder about all religions together.
The Materialist Explanation of Religious Belief
Materialism says that either God does not exist or he is essentially irrelevant. It thereby debunks religion because most religions claim that God or gods are vitally relevant. Moreover, since materialism rejects the idea of direct divine interaction with human beings, it looks for purely material causes for religious belief. Beliefs must arise from some structures in the brain, structures that in the end are a product of a long process of evolution. Materialists hope that eventually scientific research will show how such structures can all be associated with some practical, life-enhancing function.
General intelligence, for example, helps human beings to get food, protect themselves from harm, and survive to the next generation. Religious belief, like shared beliefs of other kinds, can enhance the unity of a human social group, and that in turn may help the group to act cooperatively and so survive to the next generation. The materialist concludes that religious beliefs are not true, but arise merely because they have been pragmatically useful in the evolutionary struggle for survival. They are a kind of accidental by-product of structures in the brain that natural selection favored for other, unrelated reasons.
This kind of materialistic explanation of religious belief has a considerable plausibility in our time because materialism itself is widespread and lends its support. In addition, materialism carries with it some of the prestige of natural science. But the debunking explanation based on materialism has a notable flaw: it can easily prove too much. A similar argument can be used against all beliefs whatsoever.
If beliefs are the product merely of chance evolution, they exist because they are useful for survival, not because they are true. They are a product of our brain structures, not ultimately a product of weighty evidence in favor of their truth. When this principle is followed consistently, it leads to the conclusion that beliefs in general must be debunked. And that includes belief in materialism, belief in evolution, and belief in brain structures. The debunker ends up with no grounds on which to stand to do his debunking.
Skepticism about religious belief should, nevertheless, not be dismissed too quickly. It is a counterfeit, which means that it is close to the truth. It has seen some things to which we do well to pay attention.
Why are some people so gullible about religion? If we like, we can expand the category of religious belief to include not only traditional religions but also "spirituality." People go to fortune-tellers, or they try to contact the spirits of the dead, or they try to establish spiritual communion with the trees. Why do people do such things? We can find people today who in ordinary issues show themselves to be sensible, but who have weird ideas about spirituality.
The ancient societies around the Bible showed similar symptoms. Why did the ancient Greeks believe in their gods? The Greek legends told of immoral activities among the gods, and Socrates could challenge the validity of the legends merely by pointing out the obvious fact that the alleged immoralities were unworthy of real gods.
People often seem to be more gullible in spiritual matters than elsewhere. They are more gullible about the gods than they would be if a seller tried to cheat them in the marketplace or their child tried to lie his way out of a tight spot.
Deep Personal Needs
At least three characteristics of fallen human nature help to explain this gullibility. We long for deep significance, for safety, and for assurance, particularly when it comes to the big questions of life. These longings go back to creation. God created human beings in his image. He designed that they would have fellowship with him. God met with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
According to this plan, God himself gave them significance not only by creating them, but also by giving his personal love to each of them. This fellowship would have continued if Adam and Eve had not rebelled. God would have had fellowship with each person.
God would have provided safety partly by holding out for the long-range future the promise of eternal life in his presence. But in the world before the fall of mankind, he would also have given short-range protection. He committed himself to work for their good, which would include making sure that they had food, work, joy, and physical well-being.
Finally, he gave assurance by his instruction to them and by the fact that he was a trustworthy God.
Human beings nevertheless rebelled against God. And ever since we have been looking for substitutes for God. The gods of ancient Greece were one form of counterfeit. Counterfeits must be close enough to the truth to lure people in.
They lure people in first of all by supplying a counterfeit answer for the longing for significance You are significant when you are connected to something bigger than yourself, particularly if you have a key role to play in that bigger whole. God's plan was for each person to be significant by being loved by God and loving God in return. In knowing and loving God who is infinite, each person would find supreme satisfaction and supreme meaning for his own life.
A false god offers a substitute for the true God. It claims to answer our longing for meaning by being big enough to give meaning, and by being interested enough in a person to allow him to participate. The longing in people is so strong because it is a corrupt form of longing for God himself. We were created to have fellowship with God, so that the longing originally was a longing for God. But it is corrupted into a longing that people hope to have fulfilled by a false god. Anything that promises to fill their longing—whether an idea, another person, or an idol—may be received gullibly. A person believes and receives because he desperately wants to believe and receive. This kind of longing creates much more tension for many people than cases where the stakes are not as high. Longing for ultimate meaning is more profound than longing for an ice-cream cone.
Or in a scientific investigation, for example, we might want to test whether pumpkin seeds are more likely to sprout and grow well when in contact with pure water or sugar water or water mixed with soil. We may have our opinion, but we are not desperate to have the experiment come out in one particular way. By contrast, when we are dealing with religion and spirituality, we are desperate. The desperation makes us gullible.
Care for Our Situation
A second potential source for gullibility arises not merely from our longings but also from our circumstances. How do we secure safe shelter, good crops, adequate food, a safe sea voyage, healthy children, and so on? Before the fall, God committed himself to bless mankind. But after the fall our situation is mixed. God does supply food (Acts 14:17), but on occasion he may also bring famine (Gen. 41:30-32; Deut. 28:18). People want their situation to be good. They may therefore look to magic, fortune-telling, gods, and religious manipulation of various kinds.
Now and then people may get some favorable result after they have invoked a religious procedure. Perhaps a particular instance of fortune-telling seems to work out. This favorable result seems to them to validate their religious procedure. They long to have some way of controlling their environment. So they persist in religious observance as long as it seems to bring them benefit. According to Greek religion, Poseidon is the god of the sea. So the ancient Greek citizen reasoned that maybe if Poseidon is bribed, he can help with a sea voyage. Aphrodite is the goddess of love, so she can help with love. Ares is the god of war, so he can help win battles. And so on.
The incentive here is to practice religion because it brings tangible benefits. Sure, the practitioner admits, it may not always work, but sometimes it works. And the "sometimes" offers enough incentive to keep up the practice. In fact, when a practice appears not to work, it may become an incentive to redouble one's efforts. The practitioner thinks, "I need more devotion, bigger sacrifices, more impressive ceremony." The redoubling of efforts may also include the suppression of doubts. Maybe a particular god can see into one's mind and he is not pleased with doubts. Even if he is not a mindreader, he can overhear verbal expressions of doubts. And he certainly will not be pleased if the doubts cause someone to slacken in his routine of religious ceremonies. The needs of the situation therefore put pressure on people to be more gullible than usual.
Finally, people want assurance. They want not just assurance about little things, but assurance from some ultimate rock on which to stand. This rock would be the ultimate commitment that unifies a person's life. We are designed so that God will be this rock, this ultimate commitment. God designed us in order that we might be committed to him, to "love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5).
When we forsake the true God, we make commitments to ultimates that become substitutes for the true God. In other words, we commit ourselves to counterfeits. We worship them. Worship is an expression of ultimate commitment. The Greeks had their gods whom they worshiped. Modern people may worship money, or sex, or power.
Whatever is ultimate cannot, in the very nature of the case, be weighed against some criterion that would be still more ultimate. If God is ultimate, he is the standard for testing truth, both in matters of religion and in everywhere else. When we rebel against God, we still must wrestle with issues of truth and certainty. We get nowhere without some criteria. The best criteria derive from the most ultimate allegiance. So the allegiance itself remains unquestioned. People then become gullible in the standards that they use to sift truth and to sift evidence with respect to their ultimate commitment.
If the Greek god Zeus is ultimate, the Greeks as human beings have no right to doubt him or to bring objections against him. Zeus gets a kind of "free ride" in comparison to the normal ways that Greeks might use to sift evidence in lesser issues.
An ultimate commitment of the wrong kind can easily corrupt truth. Some religions have explicitly allowed their adherents to lie whenever a lie would promote their religion. The religion, as ultimate commitment, takes precedence over normal standards for telling the truth. Even when a religion does not say so explicitly, lying becomes a temptation to those who care deeply about their religion. What does a little lie matter when the cause is right—the cause of promoting what the individual thinks is the true religion? And what about bending or concealing truth? For example, high-ranking officials among the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses have tried to bury uncomfortable facts about failed prophecies that came from the lips of their authorities of past generations.
Money as an Example of Ultimate Commitment
Or consider the modern person who worships money. Let us say that he is a successful businessman.He pours his life into making his business successful because, in a sense, that is his life, driven by greed for more and more money, and more and more success. With this goal in mind, he may be very critical and careful and sound in the way he inspects and evaluates the processes and products and sales within his business. He is not at all gullible. He will not be taken in by a vendor who makes glowing promises but has a reputation for not delivering the goods. He is a very sensible businessman because he is committed to sensibility for the sake of a larger goal, the worship of money. Money is his ultimate commitment.
But does he ever ask himself whether his ultimate commitment is worth it? Does he ask himself whether money is a worthy object of worship, and how he came to have the devotion that he now holds? Probably not.
If our businessman began to ask too many uncomfortable questions of this sort, he would already show that he was setting sail and shifting his ultimate commitments. Typically, people only wake up to this sort of question when their false god is already failing them so obviously that they can no longer ignore it. The stock market crashes, and the man's business crashes with it. Or his wife is fed up with his workaholism and files for divorce. Or his teenage son gets into trouble with drugs, and his wife accuses him of not being there for his son. Or he achieves so much success that he realizes he ought to be satisfied and yet is not. Money does not actually give deep satisfaction in his heart. Until questionings of this kind arise, a person who worships money can be gullible about his ultimate commitment.
Did the same sort of gullibility arise with the ultimate commitments of people in the ancient world? What about the people who worshiped the gods of ancient Greece or ancient Babylon? Of course they too may have fallen into gullibility. It is in the nature of things; it is in the nature of human beings as finite creatures who have the capacity for personal commitment. Ultimate commitments are, after all, ultimate.
Vern Sheridan Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for 33 years. He has six earned degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books on biblical interpretation, language, and science.
(Excerpt taken from chapter 33 of Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible by Dr. Vern Sheridan Poythress (2012 Crossway). Reprinted by permission.)