What You Believe Matters
In recent weeks, a Toronto United Church minister stirred up a surprising amount of controversy with her new book, and possible firing from her church. Although she’s a minister in the allegedly Christian United Church of Canada, Gretta Vosper has been an open atheist for years.
Leaving aside the implications of this whole story for the rapidly-dying United Church, I want to address the topic of her book, since it’s currently in the public eye.
You might think that a former Christian who no longer believes in God would be trying to convert Christians to atheism, and Vosper is, but in a particularly sneaky and nonsensical way. Apparently, she’d rather change Christianity into atheism while still calling it Christianity.
The book is called “With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe,” but perhaps a better subtitle might have been “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One.” Despite the somewhat novel element of the atheist minister, the worldview being proposed is hardly original. I feel like there must be thousands of books that have been written on exactly the same topic; that oh-so-trendy idea that being a Good PersonTM is more important than believing what is true. I’d be surprised if another one isn’t published before I finish typing this sentence.
Cashing in on Ignorance
Although books (and movies, and blogs, and youtube comments) of this kind thrive on controversy, there’s typically little originality to the arguments or conclusions they contain. To me, the only thing shocking about this poor woman’s idea is how some people actually take it seriously.
I can’t be the only one who sees a slight contradiction in writing a book about your beliefs, when you believe that beliefs don’t matter. Why not just sell a gold-plated book promoting asceticism? Or maybe some leather-bound PETA pamphlets?
Obviously Gretta thinks my beliefs are pretty important, if she went to all the trouble of writing a book just to change them. Or, is it a little more likely that she knows her writing is meaningless, but that many people will buy it unquestioningly?
Being a Good Person
Just being a good person and never worrying about what that means seems super simple and very practical… until I meet someone who doesn’t believe the same things I do.
As it turns out the world is a bit bigger than my local community center (aka United Church) and if I go outside, I’m going to meet someone who disagrees with me on how to be a good person. If I go far enough outside, I’ll meet someone who thinks that the way to be a good person is to kill me. And the same is true for anyone. Somehow, I highly doubt Ms. Vosper would approve of an ISIS terrorist killing her for not believing in Allah, yet it’s either that or admit that his beliefs matter.
I really think that the current fashion of pitting of belief and action against each other is in some sense an outgrowth of the protestant heresy of sola fides, which does the same thing, only exalting belief and claiming that actions are inconsequential. From one error, others tend to grow and multiply. The United Church of Canada is perhaps the perfect illustration of the results of this heresy, giving license to every moral whim of modern society, and putting the good ol’ Christian stamp of approval on it.
Fulton Sheen once said, “if you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave.” And this is why we need to believe what is true before doing what is good. If we accept the idea that beliefs don’t matter and just strive to be “good” with no definition of being good, we will quickly and inevitably believe whatever justifies our actions.