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Age of the Rule of Faith: Valerie Tarico on the Christian Emphasis on Right Belief vs Pagans and Eastern Religions

  1. Act of Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyon) disputing with Narcissus
  2. Gnostics and Scientific-Thinking Pagans (Christians invent the Rule of Faith)
  3. Christian Exclusive Truth Claims and Emphasis on Right Belief vs Pagan and Eastern Religions (Valerie Tarico)


This is related to Jan Assmann on monotheism as a cross-cultural impediment (The Construction of Monotheism) and is a diagnosis of the real consequences and limitations Christianity produced and imposed. As we have demonstrated how the Orthodox and Catholic Christian thinks of us, hardly any among us respond to them. Conservatives in the U.S. such as Rod Dreher like to scapegoat the failures of the Christian Church upon gnosticism, to modern therapeutic culture, to transgenderism and queerness, literally to everything but its own limitations, which it created itself. Things will continue I believe to come apart at the seams. No king rules forever, and no wall is impenetrable.

“Religious belief is one of the most powerful forces in our world. Almost half of Americans insist that humans were created in their present form sometime within the last ten thousand years, because the Bible says so. (…) In the United States, religion is the best predictor of political party alliance. . . .”

Is Christian belief so widespread and powerful, Valerie Tarico asks, because as the common answer would state, “it’s true?” Cognitive science is helpful to understand the psychology of belief, which can be used to understand why belief and faith is so important in Christianity.

“As they conceive it, believing that Jesus Christ died as a “propitiation” for your sins matters enormously to God. (..) Only if you believe correctly do virtue and service become relevant. The creedal councils, canonization of scripture, inquisitions, purges, and centuries of conversion activities can be understood only in this context.

This focus on belief is not characteristic of all religions. In the ancient Near East, the birthplace of Christianity, pagan religions placed little emphasis on belief. (…) But the point of religion wasn’t belief; it was to take care of the gods so they would take care of you and your community. The word “cult” (Latin cultus, literally “care”) is related to the word “cultivation.” We talk about cultivating ground so that it will bear fruit. These days, nonprofits talk about “cultivating donors.” This kind of cultivation was what pagans thought gods cared about, and so it was the heart of their religious practice.

From the beginning, Christianity was different. Jesus worshipers cared tremendously about right belief, also known as orthodoxy. Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities offers a fascinating window into the struggles that went on during the first and second centuries as groups with different beliefs about Jesus criticized and competed with each other and one of them won out. Some (e.g., Ebionites) believed Jesus was a fully human Jewish Messiah and that Jesus worshipers must follow the Jewish law. Others (e.g., Marcionites) believed Jesus was a being from the spirit world who only took on a human likeness. Still others (e.g. Gnostics) believed that the human Jesus was inhabited by a divine “Eon” during the years of his ministry—revealing to his followers secret knowledge that would let them escape this corrupt mortal plane. Others subscribed to the Roman or “proto-orthodox” version of Jesus worship, which led to the views of Christians today. What all of these groups agreed on was that it was tremendously important to believe the right thing about who Jesus was and what Christianity should be.

This emphasis on right belief was and is unique to monotheism. For this reason, Christianity’s exclusive truth claims and emphasis on right belief helped it to out-compete other religions in the Roman Empire. Polytheists can be quite agreeable to adding another god to their pantheon. Christians persuade pagans to add the Jesus-god then could wean them off the others.”

“Eastern religions do not share Christianity’s concern with belief. Their emphasis is more on practice or “praxis”—spiritual living, self-renunciation, insight or enlightenment—and, among ordinary people, a sort of cult or caretaking of the gods like that practiced by Western pagans. Right belief isn’t what lets you move up through cycles of reincarnation or attain Nirvana. Nor is it what gets you the favor of supernatural beings.

Just as biological organisms have many different adaptive or reproductive strategies, so religions compete for human mind-share in different ways. An emphasis on propagating belief (i.e., evangelism) and purity of belief (i.e. orthodoxy) is only one of those strategies.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a movement called modernism emerged within Christianity. Modernist theologians began reexamining traditional orthodox beliefs in light of what we now know about linguistics, archaeology, psychiatry, biology, and human history. In this light, traditional Christian certainties looked less certain, and many modernist Christians have become more like members of Eastern religions in that their primary concern is with spiritual practice rather than belief. But a backlash emerged in response to modernism. People who proudly called themselves “fundamentalists” insisted that no one was a real Christian who didn’t hold to the traditional dogmas. Evangelicals inherited the fundamentalist torch, and even some of the more inquiring denominations have reverted back toward emphasis on right belief.

This is the mindset that dominates Christianity in the public square. It is the mindset that sends Christian missionaries out to seek converts in impoverished and obscure corners of the planet. It is the mindset that prints Bibles to be distributed in Iraq and has organized strategically within the United States military hierarchy, seeking to create an “army of Christian soldiers.” Hence, to understand Christianity it is helpful to understand the psychology of belief.”

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