This site is about the Just World Fallacy, so for serious, thoughtful Christians, my writing about Christianity, a religion that sees the world as inherently unjust, must seem odd and incorrect. Please bear with me.
Why do so many American fundamentalist Christians oppose abortion while opposing social programs that help living human beings?1 Why do so many American fundamentalist Christians support political and social policies that neglect or even actively harm other human beings when the traditional image of a fundamentalist Christian is associated with turning the other cheek? Why is it so easy for American fundamentalist Christians to behave as if they were negligent assholes when it comes to government policies affecting strangers they will never meet? Aren’t the political behaviours and opinions of the Religious Right in the United States the furthest thing from true Christian behaviour?
Christianity is one of the world’s “great” religions, i.e. one of its most popular. There are currently approximately 2.4 billion adherents, or 1/3 of the population of the earth. If these numbers are correct, Christianity is the most popular religion in the world. That’s a little disingenuous, because there are three major branches of Christianity with numerous sects within those branches; one Christian does not necessarily believe what another believes despite claiming to worship the same god.
The central belief of traditional Christianity is that man is sinful – that human beings are flawed and bad and live in a corrupt world that must be endured until death. However, by behaving properly and enduring this vale of tears, we can attain the kingdom of Heaven. This belief comes from Judaism, a religion famous for enduring awful things.
However, over time, this belief in fallen man in a fallen world has dissipated. It is still very much alive in Orthodox Christianity, and it is alive to an extent in the Roman Catholic Church, but it is nearly absent or completely absent from certain sects of the third branch of Christianity, Protestantism, particularly evangelical sects. (Though there are some Protestant sects where the belief is as strong as ever. This is a diverse religion and it is hard to paint even one third of it with the same brush.)
Look at the so-called “prosperity gospel” for example – Jesus wants you to be rich and successful. This is the furthest thing from Christianity; Jesus if he were still alive, would not want anyone to be rich. He famously said “the meek shall inherit the earth.” That didn’t mean materialists shall inherit the earth then and it doesn’t now, either. The prosperity gospel is actually heretical. Seriously. Long before Protestants rebelled, a Catholic Synod ruled that Christian sects which held human beings to be good and the world to be bad were not actually Christian, they were heretical. I.e. if you think that God wants you to exploit this horrible world for your own personal gain, that is heresy. Many of the early Protestant sects, which emerged well after the synod, regarded usury and avarice as major sins, and so would regard the prosperity gospel as heresy much like the Catholics should. (Of course real world authority figures in the Catholic Church did not behave as though avarice was heresy, but that’s a different story.)
But though the prosperity gospel is unchristian and kind of offensive, it is less of a problem than some of the other supposed tenets of Christianity currently in vogue – beliefs in which the congregation are allowed or even encouraged to actively hate other people (and/or promote their suffering). Take, for example, the curious nature of some “conservative” Christians, who will go out of their way to look after family and community members but who will vote against distributive justice policies. Or the millions of Christians who believe abortion is murder but who will not vote for politicians with policies which reduce harm in the world they live in. (Or the fewer numbers of “Christians” who think it is is okay to murder abortion doctors.) 2
How is it that so many millions of fundamentalist Christians have lost their way? Why are there so many “Christian” bigots who judge everyone different from them? Why do self-proclaimed Christians assassinate doctors? (Doctors! I mean, of all the people in the world to assassinate…)
I believe the answer lies in the Just World Fallacy. The Just World Fallacy is the belief that the world is fair – or was fair at some time in the past – which is something clearly contrary to our life experience and to traditional Christian teachings. The unconscious or semi-conscious belief in a fair world allows us to play many mental tricks on ourselves, but the two worst ones are victim-blaming and a deep nostalgia for the fair past, often coupled with a determination for a fair future.
The Just World Fallacy causes victim-blaming because, in a fair world, suffering must been deserved. If the world is fair people must suffer for actual reasons, and not just because suffering happens. A fetus is innocent because it has never had a chance. So killing a fetus is murder. However, the moment that baby is born, it is sinful and it has free will. So everything the baby, the child, the teen or the adult does is willful and any suffering it experiences is completely deserved. 3 How this belief evolved in a religion which used to believe that the world is suffering and the point is to endure that suffering as well as possible is a long, complicated story which I am not capable of telling. But the Just World Fallacy has overpowered traditional Christian beliefs in many parts of the United States, at least when it comes to beliefs about strangers. (This is an important distinction. Many evangelical Christians do “Christian” things for the poor and suffering in their local communities and are seemingly able to ignore or overcome the Just World Fallacy when it comes to people they actually know. However, when it comes to strangers or theoretical “typical” people, the Just World Fallacy is in full force.)
The Just World Fallacy also causes people to believe that something – a force, a person, a group of people – has made the world less fair than it should be when the world appears as unfair, as the United States appears to be towards Christians at the moment. This feeling that society was once fair but is now not fair then allows for conspiratorial thinking and blaming events or entire groups of people for why the current world doesn’t appear fair. This view can regularly be seen in the politicized Christianity of the United States. Christians traditionally rendered unto Caesar but, in the last few decades, American Christians have been encouraged to vote for a new Caesar, specifically to vote for a political party and a set of policies that promise to restore something to the US that has supposedly been lost since childhood. Thoughtful people can see the ruse but many more seem to be convinced by it. (Prior to George Bush Junior, Republican presidents had never really done anything to help their evangelical supporters but the evangelical supporters still voted for them because of the vague promises of restoring the US to its former glory. Evangelical support for Trump, who is the furthest thing from a Christian man, is a far more glaring version of this phenomenon.) Evangelicals see vague promises of the childhood they remember in Republican rhetoric and figure voting for these people, regardless of their actual policies or actions while in government, is more likely to return the world to a just and fair one that they remember than not voting or voting for the other party or supporting a third party with actual Christian values.
Yes, many Christians are taught that the world is unjust and cruel and that suffering is inexplicable and a major component of existence. But they are also taught that the universe as a whole is actually fair and just – you behave properly, you will get to heaven. Since Christianity’s inception, there has been a push-pull between
- those within Christianity who believe that the world is awful and man is sinful but remorse, repentance, faith and spreading The Word will get him to heaven (this is sometimes expanded into moral behaviour, sometimes including “good works” or in the case of some sects, some people are just chosen ahead of time)
- those within Christianity (or on the fringes of Christianity) who believe that the world is awful but man is good and spreading this goodness will get him into heaven.
The latter view – that of the Gnostics – is heretical but it has never been entirely stamped out. And though there are few openly Gnostic sects in existence, the germ of the idea that the world can be made just by the righteous is a prominent feature of many evangelical Christian sects (as well as many supposedly secular political ideologies). When a Christian actively participates in politics, she is rejecting the traditional Christian view which says “render unto Caesar” and instead she is embracing the heresy of Gnosticism, which we now know as a variation of the Just World Fallacy.
This wouldn’t matter for the rest of us except for the crucial point: the belief in a just world – or a world which can be returned to justice through righteousness – causes the belief in the justice/fairness of suffering. If you’re rich or poor, you deserved it. If you got pregnant out of wedlock, you deserved it. If you were raped, you deserved it. Because the world is fair and bad things happen to bad people while good things only happen to good people, government certainly shouldn’t do anything to help those who are suffering because of their moral failings. The belief in the justice or fairness of suffering – as opposed to the reality of suffering – is the justification for victim blaming: you must have done something wrong to deserve the awful thing that is happening to you.
This is how someone who claims to have Christian values can support harmful government policies. This is why abortion is murder but poor people I’ve never met should be allowed to starve to death; they deserve it. The fetus is not of this world and so cannot deserve its “suffering” (if you can even consider abortion as suffering). But the teen girl who got pregnant because of some stupid abstinence-only sex education, and who will now live in poverty for the rest of her life – well, she deserves it because she should have known better. The government certainly shouldn’t help her; they will only encourage her to have more babies.
And the less nefarious side of it is true too: I am rich and successful because I deserve it. This belief, which the Prosperity Gospel taps into but which is also a huge part of the American Dream – the idea of a the “self-made” man – allows the rich to think they got rich on their own, that they never had help from family or friends (except those they’ve already rewarded), or their community and definitely not from the government which taxes them at too high a rate. (When you’re rich it seems to be very easy to forget about all the benefits you got from society and government along the way.) So the rich, whether Christian or not, support the same policies which reduce help for the suffering.
To someone who is essentially an atheist, all of this is very frustrating. Especially when unchristian Christians speak publicly in defense of policies that actively harm real people alive at this very minute. Hypocrisy is one thing. We all do it. But self-righteous hypocrisy is the worst. The evangelical “Christians” of the United States, who actively vote for policies which harm their fellows citizens are effectively destroying their own religion. Personally, I don’t care if Christianity dies. I do care that people suffer and die in part due to policies enacted by supposedly god-fearing, “good” people.
- To be clear, legal abortion is ethically superior to no abortions because it prevents actual suffering in the world and values existing life over potential life. The latest objection to legal abortions – about heartbeats – misunderstands the science and the nature of the heartbeat. It’s a sliding scale which pro lifers try to move every time they think they have medicine on their side. They don’t – the heartbeat at 6 weeks is not indicative of a human or a human consciousness. ↩
- I have been told that God does not want distributive justice, God wants Christians to give of themselves to help their communities. Let’s say we grant that’s what God wants (as if anyone could know). The problem with this, for those of us who do not believe in the Christian God, is that this attitude does not make our world better and does not help enough people. It doesn’t help enough people both because individual charity is frankly not enough in a post-industrial world – there are just too many of us – and because it’s selective and sporadic and inconsistent. ↩
- One more favourable interpretation of this view is that Christians believe that abortion denies the sinful human the chance for forgiveness. If I believed in God, I could perhaps come around to that argument. But there is no god, so there’s no argument here. ↩