So much of what Jesus Christ taught (or is purported to have taught) is helpful, inspiring, and/or good.1 I think we should embrace these messages, generally. Still, some of what he taught when interpreted by mainstream Christianity is problematic to my mind. And a few things that Jesus taught are problematic when taken at their plain meaning. A similar pattern emerges when extending the analysis to include the words of Jesus’s various disciples as recorded in the books of the New Testament.2
This document focuses mainly on the purported words of Jesus Christ and occasionally dips into other New Testament writing to deal with highly problematic aspects of Christian culture and practice, generally. I will also call out specific aspects of Latter-day Saint culture3 since I know it best and it will be more relevant to most of my readers. Still, many of these examples will apply to some extent to larger swaths of Christianity.
Also, because I have been evaluating Christianity from the perspective of a parent wanting to raise my children well, I follow up some of the problematic teachings with thought questions related to parenting.
I touch on a few of the many good aspects of Jesus’s teachings and Christian culture below.4
Christianity promotes love and selflessness.
The Gospels promote many beautiful ideals:
- “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
- “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:38–45)
- “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:34–40)
It’s difficult to overstate the power of these ideals. These ideas existed (though sometimes to a lesser degree) in other cultures or religions, but they are persistently and emphatically stressed by Jesus in the Gospels and echoed elsewhere in the New Testament. Much of the good that has been done in the Western world in the past 2000 years was motivated, at least in part, by these ideals.
Idea of eternal life may diminish existential anxiety
The idea of an after-life may diminish existential anxiety for some people (see here but note that neutral acceptance is associated with the lowest levels of death anxiety).
Attending Church is healthy
Attending Church regularly was shown to be associated with 33% less all-cause mortality compared with women who never attended.
In some ways Jesus promoted equality of the sexes
In some ways that may have transcended his society Jesus fought against patriarchy.
There are aspects of Christian teaching, some which derive directly from the words of Jesus, which seem problematic to me.
A belief in the teachings of Jesus may promote:
Reluctance to question
The desire to maintain a belief in God and Christ can hinder a person from searching for and then fairly evaluating the evidence that might contradict or deservedly weaken that belief.
Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemies against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation need a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”
Matthew 16:1–4 (similar)
The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.
Matthew 12:38–40 (similiar)
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
This avoidance of introspection seems to be directly correlated with level of cultural totalism (i.e., JW > Mormon > Seventh Day Adventist > Evangelical > Catholic > Protestant > Unitarian Universalist). Generally, the stronger the belief in God and Jesus and the literalness of Biblical claims, the less likely a person or group seems to be willing to confront facts which might potentially undermine that belief.5
How do I encourage my children to follow truth when asking for sufficient evidence for some religious premises is considered adulterous?
According to John’s gospel, Jesus said to Thomas, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
And in Mark 16:16 Jesus says “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
I have not encountered a convincing argument or demonstration that belief without sufficient justification is a virtue, as I discuss in this essay. In general, I believe the most moral way to live is to exercise our confidence in a proposition in direct proportion to the weight of the evidence for the proposition.
Why would I teach my children that they must believe things on inadequate evidence under penalty of some kind of eternal torment (of one form or another, whether separation from family or God for eternity or misery inherent to the condition)?
Second-coming nihilism and anxiety
Whereas the belief in the resurrection may quell anxiety, a belief in Jesus is also tied to a belief in his second coming, and the second coming may promote nihilism and anxiety.
- It deeply affects how Christians live today, causing many fundamentalist Christians to be ill-prepared for living a full life (anecdotes here).
- It colored expectations within the early LDS Church (see here)
- Throughout its existence, LDS members have been told they will live to see the second coming.
- LDS members today have vivid and concrete expectations for Jesus’s immediate return.
Why would I want my children to have the expectation that life is for sure going to become cataclysmically bad and then all problems will essentially be “solved” by Jesus coming again?
Eternal judgement anxiety
Most people focus on the immediate consequences of their actions. What harm will my actions cause? What good will this do?
In the back of many orthodox Christian minds is the idea that the wrong beliefs or actions might result in their eternal torment. In the back of every LDS mind is the belief that they might be separated from their family (except for short visitation rights) and persist in this state full of regret for what might have been (missing out on living a life of complete joy and endless creation) if they fail to live strict covenants.
A single unrepentant “sin”, no matter how small, may be enough to separate a person from God and their family for all of eternity. Why would I want my children to believe that?
An attitude of “doctrine over person”
The viability of any individual relationship is conditioned at least somewhat on both parties upholding certain fundamental principles related to minimum levels of respect or consideration for the other (e.g., respect for the other’s body and/or autonomy); however, some New Testament verses put undue weight on the nature of a person’s religious commitments compared with a person’s existing relationships (what has been referred to elsewhere as “doctrine over person”).
John taught that if a person believed in a different doctrinal version of Jesus Christ (i.e., the gnostic doctrine) that a disciple should not greet such a person or invite them into their house. 2 John 1: 7-11
Jesus Christ discouraged a disciple from burying his father with the statement “let the dead bury their dead”. This teaching is used by many believers to prioritize Church and religion over family and non-believers.
“Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:61–62)
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
Why would I want my children to be taught that they should not greet people who believe differently than them? Whey would I want my children to be taught to hate their family if they don’t subscribe to the same set of unfalsifiable beliefs?
An emphasis on “sin” instead of morality
Christianity and Mormonism both place a strong emphasis on “sin”, and this can stunt moral reasoning and warp behavior so that what is most moral is secondary to what is considered “sin”, no matter the moral consequence or magnitude.7
Consider Richard Bellrock’s arguments in Sin Does Not Exist: And Believing That It Does Is Ruining Us.
Why would I want my children hyper-focused on whether their actions offend God or the Holy Ghost (i.e., a focus on “sin”) versus having them focus in a measured way on seeing how their actions impact others for good or bad in the here and now (i.e., a focus on morality)?
An emphasis on obedience instead of morality
According to John, Jesus said “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience is sometimes emphasized by Christians, for example. The LDS Church amplifies the importance of obedience by claiming that obedience is the first law of heaven and encourages members to follow the prophet, even if they know that what is being asked is wrong: “Always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” (with a wink that they would never ask you to do anything wrong).
I currently view obedience as a neutral value: it merely amplifies the intrinsic morality of the thing that was instructed (because now an additional actor has been engaged in the activity, whether it was good or bad). We should obey when the thing is good and there are good reasons to obey. We should decline to obey when the thing requested is morally bad (at least in the vast majority of cases). I can imagine only very extreme circumstances—like the heat of battle—where high-stake instructions must be executed without a chance to explain the rationale for a specific request that would otherwise be questionable, and those exceptions would be made clear to soldiers in advance. Even then, soldiers are taught that they must disobey unlawful commands.
Why would I want my children to be taught that they should obey leaders, even if leaders are wrong?
Division in families over belief
If everyone does not believe in Jesus (in the same way), this may generate conflict.
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Disunity based on unfalsifiable beliefs
Beliefs grounded dogmatically in the unverifiable promotes eventual disunity, I think. There are tens, if not hundreds, of Latter-day Saint schismatic groups and hundreds if not thousands of schismatic Christian groups.
The history of Christianity can be viewed as one of unreconcilable differences centered in dogmatism over unfalsifiable beliefs (e.g., consider the history of the Trinity).
And the emphasis in the LDS Church is sometimes on separation, not unification.
Why would I want my children to adopt unfalsifiable beliefs that would then separate them from all the other humans with contradicting unfalsifiable beliefs?”
LDS leaders have taught really disparaging things about former members across the history of the Church.
Why would I attend a church where leaders consistently speak in ways that egregiously, inaccurately, and unfairly undermine the character and motivation of former members—me, my wife, my children, and my own brothers and sister?
Potentially harmful sexual attitudes
Religious belief is correlated with teenage pregnancy (see this plot). In addition, while an emphasis on total abstinence before marriage may be beneficial for some individuals and has some clear advantages (e.g., no risk of pregnancy or STDs), the all “off” and then all “on” nature of sexuality in this model seems detrimental to some individuals and relationships.
Sexuality is rife with moral concerns. Christianity tends to deal with sex via guilt and shame, and Latter-day Saint leaders have consistently taught that sexual sin is next to murder in severity, which again, may warp an individual’s moral calculus.
Why would I want my children to be taught that sexual “sin” is “next to murder” instead of teaching and supporting them in how to navigate this difficult moral landscape with an emphasis on consequences that are proportional to genuine consequences?
Racism or the idea of specialness of certain groups
Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon can be read as condemnations of racism.8 However, the Book of Mormon and Bible both deal with race in ways which sometimes amplify racial differences and diminish some races compared with others. Racism is arguably part of the Old Testament worldview, and some actions of Jesus can be viewed as racist (e.g., initial actions towards the Canaanite woman). The Book of Mormon spends considerable energy on curses and marks of the curse that are related to race, and modern LDS leadership expected Native Americans to become white as they embraced Mormonism.
Why would I want my children to ever have reason to view racial differences as anything other than interesting (and relatively minor) human variation?
Latter-day Saints, in particular, view themselves as a “special” people (peculiar, treasure, salt, etc), and even though this is meant to imply extra duty and service and not necessarily that God loves them any more than other people, the message is still implied. Isn’t it enough that my children know they are special because of who they are intrinsically and the love we share for one another as a family?
Reluctance to unequivocally condemn slavery
Because neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament unequivocally condemn slavery, the Bible was used as justification for slavery for centuries (discussed here among many other places).
Brigham Young’s speech to the Legislature in 1852 demonstrates this connection:
I will remark with regard to slavery, inasmuch as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses, which they have in their families and their classes and in their various capacities brought upon themselves. And until the curse is removed by Him who placed it upon them, they must suffer under its consequences; I am not authorized to remove it. I am a firm believer in slavery.
The Bible repeatedly implies that slavery is acceptable, so how do I teach my uniquevical condemnation of it when the Bible is so lax about it?
Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek and walk a mile with our oppressors, but everyone accepts the necessity of and praises our military (by far the largest on earth). At least in the New Testament Jesus’s teachings leave us mostly in the dark in deciding how and when we are justified in raising up a giant military for our defense and the boundaries for extracting information from combatants (consider that Bruce Jessen considered himself a devoted followers of Christ while creating and executing disturbing enhanced interrogation techniques, aka torturing terrorists and suspected terrorists). Do we ever even have a chance to be kind to our enemies or oppressors? It seems like we equip and expect our military to obliterate any potential threat before there is a possibility that we might be harmed in any way. But nobody even questions our need to have the most supreme military on earth, so it feels like we only give lip services to Jesus’s teachings in this arena and just assume that he would be fine with our military efforts.
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?” (Matthew 6:25) Latter-day Saints scope this injunction to apply to the apostles, but other Christians have little reason to discard this statement. Everyone realizes that this kind of life is basically unsustainable for any significant portion of the population. 401Ks, insurance, savings accounts, the stock market are all things the vast majority Christians believe in or otherwise accept as the way things are simply done.
Why should I teach my children those sayings of Jesus that seem untranslatable to their lives and which most Christians downplay or ignore anyway?
Reluctance to fully accept homosexuals
Because the Bible is typically interpreted10 as condemning homosexuality on some level, many Christians and most Latter-day Saints discourage homosexual relationships. I believe that homosexuals are just as deserving as anyone to live a life that includes sexual intimacy (practiced in responsible and thoughtful ways).
Why would I want my children to be taught that homosexuality is a “temptation” or “affliction” that must be struggled against instead of teaching them the principles of morality?
Even though there are so many wonderful teachings in Christianity, I have argued above that it is also layered with many questionable or potentially damaging teachings. My hope is that I can teach all of the wonderful parts of Christianity to my children and simply leave behind all the things that are of questionable value.
And speaking directly to an LDS audience, could I really teach my children a nuanced position in the LDS Church when the LDS Church declares most of its positions in absolute terms? For example:
- “At times, following the prophet may be unpopular, but following the prophet is always right.” source
- “We should disconnect, immediately and completely, from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith” source
- “When … inspiration conveys something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear.” First Presidency Message from here
Why wouldn’t teaching all the good things of Christianity and leaving behind all the bad or questionable things be _an_ optimal approach for myself and my children?
What are the transcendent teachings of Jesus and his disciples that I ought to be incorporating into what and how I teach my children?
A comment on /r/exmormon discussing similar points, some in slightly different ways.
The purpose of this document is to point out potentially problematic Christian teachings. Obviously, one’s view on the veridicality of Christian supernatural truth-claims has significant bearing on how they will interpret a priori the goodness of various Christian teachings. For example, they might argue that if Jesus said something then that is reason enough to assume that his teachings then represent optimal goodness, case closed. I believe that naturalism is best supported by the evidence (i.e., I am skeptical of supernatural claims, not because I have any reason to reject them outright but simply because the evidence is insufficient to accept them, to my mind). Still, as much as possible, I would like to sidestep the veridicality of Christian truth-claims and focus on the inherent goodness intrinsic to its teachings. Hopefully, many Christians, at least while considering this essay, can set to the side the veridicality of the truth claims found in the Bible. More fundamentalist believers in Christianity will probably find this task difficult or impossible to do, so perhaps this is not the right place (or angle) to discuss differences in worldviews with fundamentalist Christians. ↩
Although many Christians do not view the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormons) as a Christian denomination (see this wikipedia page for a summary of the issues), Latter-day Saints believe in the New Testament and their doctrine and culture is still reflective of much of the Bible and much of the Protestant culture, especially from the early 1800s. Regardless of how a person views the theological divide, many cultural issues are similar and find their motivation in New Testament scripture. As a Latter-day Saint, I studied most of the Bible (using esword and while consulting several modern Bible commentaries), read the New Testament many times over, and I read and studied the four Gospels themselves dozens of times. More importantly, as a Latter-day Saint, I viewed myself as a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ. ↩
Many books and articles have been written on the positive aspects of Christianity and/or attempting to weigh the good verses the bad of religion and religiosity in general, and I am only scratching the surface in this essay by listing a few examples. For a good overview, see chapter 6 of Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi’s textbook Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity. ↩
Regardless of typical Christian anticipation for the second coming, the data suggest that the writers of the New Testament anticipated the second coming to occur within their own lifetime. For instance, here is Dan McClellan, Bible scholar and former scripture translation supervisor for the LDS Church, discussing Luke 21:10-11, “the data indicate that these authors anticipated these things [cataclysms typically associated with the second coming] happening within their lifetimes in the first century CE And the same is true of the book of Revelation.” ↩
To be clear, I am not arguing that good and evil do not exist or that we should not consider the impact of our actions on others. On the contrary, I think morality is very much a real thing: I view it as an emergent principle. Hence, it is because I care about the moral consequences of my actions that I think notions of “sin” are problematic. “Sin” is focused on following the will of God and/or offending him through actions that are contrary to one of his commandments. This is problematic because 1) the commandments of Christianity come to us with questionable provenance—it is not at all clear or certain that they represent the mind and will of God, 2) the commandments often seem to fail to transcend the contingencies of a specific time and place (e.g., neither the Old or New Testaments condemned slavery), 3) focusing on the impact of our actions on God (i.e., “will this offend God or violate one of his commandments?”) may distract us from focusing on and gaining more perspective on the impact of our actions on others (which is arguably a more important focus in trying to minimize harm and maximize the benefits of our actions), and 4) if I were, hypothetically, asked by God to do something that I know is wrong and he refused to give justification (i.e., that it was for some greater good), I would choose to disobey God (i.e., I would “sin”) rather than do something that seemed evil to me (i.e., would result in harm for a conscious creature). While some of the commandments may provide us some assistance in deciding what is moral, ultimately I view “sin” as a feature of the map and not necessarily the territory. ↩
The way Jesus dealt with other groups can be viewed as condemning or transcending racism for example. And the teachings of Paul are fairly universalist with regard to race. Some passages in the Book of Mormon can also be viewed as transcending or condemning racism (e.g., 2 Ne 26:33 “…he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”). ↩
Justifying slavery seems consistent with the Bible, even though I find that worldview deeply offensive and problematic. I am reluctant to even outline the rationale against slavery since it should be self-evident. The core problem of slavery is it enables a system where some humans are deprived of self-determination, and almost everything we value as humans hinges on self-determination. It also implies a power differential based on fiat, and whomever is endowed with that power to make those decisions seems like an arbitrary, and self-enforce and self-aggrandizing, assignment. ↩
Some Christians have argued that the Bible is more nuanced on the topic of homosexuality than is commonly appreciated and that it does not really condemn homosexuality in the way that most Christians believe, for example. ↩