The Trouble with Christianity: A Psychological Perspective

The Trouble with Christianity: A Psychological Perspective

by Richard Markham Oxtoby


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ISBN-13: 9781785352898
Publisher: Christian Alternative
Publication date: 04/29/2016
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Richard Markham Oxtoby is a clinical and industrial psychologist who spent more than 33 years on the staff of the Department of Psychology of the University of Cape Town. Since taking early retirement at the end of 1999 he has been involved in business consulting in the area of human relations, conflict resolution and executive coaching, concert-giving in the field of Renaissance and Baroque music, and the writing of books.

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The Trouble with Christianity

A Psychological Perspective

By Richard Oxtoby

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Richard Oxtoby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78535-290-4


The Meaning of Words

It is not the case that our apprehension of a general truth is dependent on its accurate verbal expression. You cannot rise above the adequacy of the terms you employ.

– Alfred North Whitehead. Religion in the Making

Words, whether written or spoken, have no meaning in themselves. Their meaning, (which is at least subtly different for everyone who uses them) resides in the intellectual abstractions which make up the concept to which we attach those verbal labels (of, for example, an 'apple', a 'person', 'love', 'compassion', or 'hatred').

These abstractions are made by our nervous systems, and are of two types: Primary Abstractions and Higher-Order Abstractions. Primary Abstractions result from the interactions between our sensory receptors and the world around us in which we 'live, and move, and have our being'. They in turn become the raw material for Higher-Order abstractions. The contents of thought are a mixture of Primary and Higher-Order abstractions. The way in which both these types of abstractions arise is described in some detail in the next chapter.

Letters and words are part of the physical world: they belong in the same category as all the other physical things we encounter every day. The intellectual abstractions which make up the concepts we have of things, and which form the basis of all our intellectual activity however humble it might be, belong in a different category. They are part of the realm of non-physical reality, which is in no way either superior or inferior to concrete physical reality, but must not be confused with it. Assuming that intellectual abstractions are physical realities is to commit what the profound mathematical philosopher A. N. Whitehead described as, 'The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness'.

It seems more and more clear to me that this fallacy lies at the root of many of the problems which academic, and sometimes everyday conversations run into from time to time. Prominent among these, and of particular interest and concern to me at the present time are the questions of the Existence of God, the Nature of Time and Space, and the so-called 'Mind-Body Problem' – the conundrum posed by the attempt to reconcile the fact that mental state and bodily condition are clearly closely related to each other, with the question that if 'the body' is understood to be a purely physical entity and 'the mind' to be at least partially defined as a non-physical entity, how can they possibly interact with each other? In this book, my primary focus will be on 'The Concept of God' – does such a 'being' have any objective, 'real world' physical existence. It is my contention that many, perhaps most, Christians make erroneous judgments in this matter and that this is the most fundamental 'trouble' with Christianity.

Some readers may find the next chapter quite heavy going, and that they are not particularly interested in the technicalities of how concepts are formed. I hope that those readers who feel this way will simply skip to the end of the chapter and carry on reading from the last two paragraphs of that chapter.


How Concepts are Formed

It is characteristic of the learned mind to exalt words. Yet mothers can ponder many things in their hearts which their lips cannot express. ... We know more of the characters of those who are dear to us than we can express accurately in words.

– Alfred North Whitehead. Religion in the Making

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BCE), human beings have five senses – Vision, Hearing, Touch, Smell, and Taste. Since Aristotle's time many more senses have been identified, now believed to be about 20 in number. Some of these bring to our awareness various aspects of the physical environment both outside and inside our bodies, others (such as the electroreceptors which respond to changes in the electric fields around us) provide information which various systems within our body use, but of which we have no conscious awareness. There is no reason to think that we now have a complete listing of all the sensory receptors in the human body.

The basic unit responsible for the transmission and processing of information in the nervous system is the neurone. Most of the neurones in our body do their work by responding to the stimulation they receive at one of their ends (where the cell body is located) by releasing neurotransmitter chemicals from the terminal buttons at their other end. These in turn stimulate any other neurones with which they are connected (by means of a synapse) to discharge their dose of stimulating chemicals, and so the chain goes on, with many side-shoots and sometimes doublings back on themselves. With any one neurone (and there are estimated to be about 86 billion of them within the average human brain) making up to several thousand synaptic connections with other neurones, it is perhaps hardly surprising that it has been estimated that there are probably more than 1000 trillion neuronal connections in the human brain. It is this huge network of inter-connectedness which makes possible the remarkable feats of which the human being is capable.

Sensory receptors

Some of the total collection of neurones are modified in such a way that it is not the arrival of neurotransmitter chemicals from another neurone that stimulates them to release their own dose of chemicals onto the next neurone in the chain, but rather the receipt of physical stimulation (within certain upper and lower limits) from some other source, for example, sound within certain pitches and degrees of loudness, and light within a certain range of wavelengths and degrees of brightness.

Bundles of these specially modified neurones form the sensory receptors which constitute the interface between the physical world and our experience and understanding of it. Activity in these receptors is the first fundamental step in the process of converting the events of nature into our intellectual knowledge about those events.

Four things are particularly important to know and remember about the performance of our sensory receptors. Most fundamentally, our nervous systems are inevitably digital processing systems which convert the processes of continuous change within the human body into a series of digital events. I describe the system as inevitably a digital one because every neurone, whether it is part of a sensory receptor or just involved in transmitting information, acts in an 'all or none' manner, not becoming active until it has received a certain minimum amount of stimulation which causes it to 'fire', and release a dose of its own neurotransmitter onto the next neurone in the chain of which it is a part. In this way it is acting as an analogue to digital converter, aggregating the total of all the events influencing it between each digital signal into a single digital event.

Each of those single digital events gives a useful summary of the total amount of stimulation received since the previous one, but gives no information about the moment by moment subtle changes continually taking place in the neurone's environment. It is of course possible that there are other components of the brain which provide such more detailed information, but if there are, we as yet know nothing about them. Certainly so far as what we do know about the nervous system's role in transmitting and processing information, some detail starts to be lost at the level of the most basic communication-units in the system.

The second very important characteristic of our sensory receptors is that each receptor responds only to changes in environmental stimulation: a constant unchanging stimulus eventually ceases to initiate any response from a receptor. Thirdly, each different type of receptor responds only to changes in certain types of stimulation. For example, light waves, so far as we know, do not cause any response from our taste or smell receptors. And finally each receptor responds only to changes in a particular type of stimulation within certain limits. For example, unless these occur within a certain range of frequencies, the organ of hearing within the ear does not respond to the changes in air pressure, the alternating waves of compaction and rarefaction of the molecules of air which, when they occur within a certain range of frequencies, give rise to the sensation of sound. Events whose physical characteristics fall below a certain point exert no influence on a receptor, while those that fall above it either produce no effect, or they damage or even destroy the receptor – for example, exposure to light which is too bright can lead to blindness, and to sound which is too loud, to deafness.

Because the unaided human body is not able to respond to stimulation which is outside certain limits, unchanging, and of certain types, (for example, we have no direct bodily means of detecting the presence of radioactive radiation) an important part of the work of scientists and engineers has been devoted to designing and constructing equipment which converts changes in things for which we have no natural receptors into forms of energy-change which we can become aware of – for example, the movement of a pointer on a dial or changes in a numerical digital display, or perhaps variations in the pitch of a sound. Although some impressive successes have been achieved in this field, there is no way of knowing what sort of energy changes may be going on in our internal and external environment of which we are completely unaware, and therefore for the detection of which no equipment has yet been developed. As the eminent twentieth-century British Biologist J. B. S. Haldane asserted, 'The world is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose,' a profound truth which not just scientists, but anyone making any pronouncements about the 'nature of reality' needs to constantly remember.

The limitations of all intellectual knowledge

It follows from the above that all our intellectual knowledge is of necessity only a partial picture of what that knowledge is about. There is more to any particular 'violin', or 'chair', or 'toenail', or any other aspect of the universe than we can ever capture in words. This fact has enormous implications for all discussions about religion, spirituality, love, and indeed any and every aspect of life in general.

So far I have discussed only the way in which our sensory receptors extract a limited amount of information, albeit highly focussed information, from the environment in which we exist. These abstractions are the raw material out of which all our perceptions are constructed. But this abstracting property of our nervous systems is not restricted to the domain of sensorily-derived input. The whole structure of neurones is hierarchically-organised in such a way that large quantities of information are reduced to a more limited number of what we experience as abstract principles at progressively higher and higher levels of abstraction. If we call the abstractions derived from the activity of our sensory receptors Level 1 abstractions, the continuously present abstractive process (constantly active as long as our nervous systems are functioning) operates on those abstractions themselves to form what we might call Level 2 abstractions. These in turn become the basis of Level 3 abstractions, and so the process continues for as long as we are thinking. The concepts to which we attach words like 'water', 'soil', 'bread' and 'dog' are relatively low-level abstractions. The concepts to which we attach verbal labels such as 'imagination', 'peace', 'happiness', and 'misery' are much higher-level abstractions: the final abstractive process is just the last of a long series of abstractive processes that have preceded it.

This process of the generation of a set of abstractions of ever-higher degrees of generality is what underlies all thought. It is because the physiological process of abstraction exists that we are able to sometimes see that a number of similar things and events are instances of a single general principle. If we were unable to see any general principles operating in the world we would have to use every bit of our brain power to process the millions of separate bits of information that our sensory receptors deliver to us every day. Our minds would be choked with a surfeit of information, and the concept of knowledge would be meaningless. In A. N. Whitehead's vivid phrase, the process of abstraction is the way in which 'the infinitude of irrelevance is kept out of thought'.

The basic building blocks of the language in which we express our thoughts are the verbal labels we attach to the abstractions which are usually generated automatically, and totally unconsciously, by our nervous systems.

Our language thus consists of words whose meaning resides in the chain of abstractions to which those words have, by agreed convention among the users of the language, been consistently attached. The important thing to remember in any discussion about the nature of reality is that some words are linked to aspects of the physical world through fairly short chains of abstractions, words like 'flower' and 'tortoise' for example. Others like 'fantasy' and 'forgiveness' are linked to aspects of the physical world through relatively long, and sometimes very long chains of abstractions.

What this means is that the fact that we have a name for something does not mean that the thing so named has any real physical existence. The whole argument between atheists and those who assert that God exists is actually about whether or not the word 'God' refers directly to something which exists in the physical world, or whether or not it refers to something which exists only as an abstraction in the thought processes of human beings. If the latter, is the set of abstractions so labelled drawn from real-life human experiences, or from fantasies created by, for example, the very human desire for feelings of safety and security – to feel that there is a powerful someone or something looking after us (provided of course, that we behave ourselves!)?

In this book I shall argue that insofar as within Christianity the term God, (the central and most fundamental concept within any religion) is regarded as referring to a property of the universe of the same general type as the Force of Gravity, the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces and the Electrostatic Force, then there is nothing irrational in its fundamental concept. More than that, if that property refers to certain established psychological facts about the effects of various forms of behaviour on human experience, then Christianity has a chance of being a potentially hugely powerful force for good in the world. It could inspire even more widespread efforts than it has so far, to make the world a better place – to increase the sum total of human happiness and to decrease the amount of pain, suffering and misery which at present abounds so horrifyingly in the world.

On the other hand, insofar as Christianity continues to retain at its heart the concept of God as a 'being' who is some sort of invisible Superman, Super Scientist, Super Engineer and/or Super Policeman, an old man, with or without a beard, who lives somewhere 'above the deep blue sky', with the further properties encapsulated in its Atonement Dogma, of an omnipotent God who is a cruel, controlling despot who created the universe, and despite being all-powerful, had, contradictorily enough, no option but to create it containing flawed human beings who could only be saved the eternal punishment their wickedness demanded by sacrificing his 'dearly beloved son' to a horrible and painful death, Christianity will become more and more sidelined in the lives of ordinary human beings in their attempts to make the world a more humane place. As discussed at greater length in my The Two Faces of Christianity, the theory of the Atonement is so full of logical flaws, and so contradictory of the ethical principles of its appointed leader, Jesus Christ, as to invalidate any religion espousing it, for any role in perfecting human life and behaviour. Insofar as Christianity retains such a barbaric concept in its core, it will remain largely powerless to put an end to cruelty, war and other humanly-caused suffering.


The Nature of God

To-day there is but one religious dogma in debate: What do you mean by 'God'? And in this respect, to-day is like all its yesterdays. This is the fundamental religious dogma, and all other dogmas are subsidiary to it.

– Alfred North Whitehead. Religion in the Making

The most fundamental thing wrong with Christianity, (and the religion as a whole is a very mixed bag of by no means fully consistent ideas), is that the concept of God held by many Christians is completely at variance with what is implied by Jesus' ethical principles. I believe that those aspects of the nature of language expounded so far in this book provide a rational basis for establishing a better concept of God than that which many people believe lies at the heart of Christianity.


Excerpted from The Trouble with Christianity by Richard Oxtoby. Copyright © 2015 Richard Oxtoby. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Meaning of Words,
Chapter 2. How Concepts are Formed,
Chapter 3. The Nature of God,
Chapter 4. What God is Not,
Chapter 5. So What is the Trouble with Christianity?,
Additional Reading,
A Few Words of Thanks,
Also by Richard Oxtoby,

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