The Problem of the True Believer
Several months ago, I wrote a short piece for skepticfreethought.com about the issue of the ‘True Believer’ mentality all too present in the church. I’d like to revisit that problem today. I still constantly hear fellow Christians respond to instances of intolerance with the assertion the the offending party isn’t “really” Christian, or at least that they only represent an extreme, fringe minority.
The main reason this claim bothers me is that it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if these extremists are representative of the whole church or not. They are still using religion to promote hatred and discrimination. Even if this only occurs in a single member of our entire community, this is not something we should view complacently. Instead, such an appalling situation should spur us to action; not for the sake of exonerating ourselves, but for the sake of those being mistreated. That is our first responsibility, not rhetorical exercises.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt 25:40)
The second reason the prevalent attitude of “True Believer” status is detrimental, is that it promotes division not simply between denominations, but in individual church communities. There are plenty of churches (if not entire denominations) that hold other church groups as heretical or ‘sub-christian’ because of ideological differences. There are still more individual churches that divide themselves into cliques because someone disapproves of their fellow members; because they see them as somehow less deserving of the title ‘Christian’ than themselves.
On an individual level, this state of mind rapidly creates an elitist attitude that in it’s least extreme treats others with contempt, and in it’s most extreme seeks to purge any particle of dissent or disagreement. Regardless of our opinions of our fellow Christians, we do have responsibilities to them. The first is to acknowledge that they are in fact a part of our community. The other is to respond to differences with humility and compassion. Disavowing each other when disagreements occur, whether they are insignificant or about core beliefs, accomplishes nothing beyond self-validation that we are a tiny minority of the pure in an rotten world. It absolves us of the obligation to question our own part in conflicts, or to recognize our own imperfections.
This is not a tendency specific to the church. It is a human reflex to prefer one’s own group or sub-group. If we are to overcome this tendency, we must remember that we are human; that we are all imperfect beings, and we see the world imperfectly. We need each other to show us our blind spots, and we can’t accomplish this by cloistering ourselves.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24)