Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

In my previous article I considered a very widespread belief amongst Christians that there is no such thing as an honest atheist – that all atheists deep down know there is a God and knowingly reject their creator because they desire a life of sin. In this article I want to examine the flip-side charge from some atheists: that there are no genuine Christians. Sometimes this takes the form of an exclamation: “surely you can’t believe that a dead guy rose again from the dead!” On other occasions it’s the old psychological claim that Christians are simply engaged in wishful thinking rather than genuine belief. But here I want to consider an actual argument, which I’ve chosen to call the “argument ad masturbatum,” the reason for which will become obvious.

Take some ordinary Christian – we’ll call him Bob. Bob is a single man in his 20s, active in church, evangelises his friends, and has just signed up for an apologetics course. However, Bob has a little secret that he hopes is never found out. He engages in regular masturbation. Obviously he doesn’t do this in the back pew on a Sunday morning or while he’s waiting for his groceries to be bagged. Nor would he do it in the presence of his mother or an officer of the law. It’s in the dark of night, when no-one is around, that he finds himself overrun by sexual images in his imagination and engages in masturbation.

What has this to do with God? Well, Bob wouldn’t engage in masturbation in the presence of other people. He’d die of embarrassment if his mother walked into his room and saw him. However, Bob professes to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, and personal God. So, if he wouldn’t masturbate in the presence of his mother, why does he do it in the presence of God, who he claims disapproves of his actions? Is it not the case that whilst he claims to believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, personal being, he actually holds no such belief? If Bob really believed what he claims to believe, then he wouldn’t even masturbate in private; since, obviously, if such a being exists there isn’t a private place at all.

Despite the rather juvenile nature of this argument, it does make a more general point. There are many cases when Christians engage in behaviour that they surely wouldn’t engage in if they really believed God was present and fully cognizant of what they do. So, would we so easily lose our temper with the seemingly incompetent shop assistant if Jesus was right there physically beside us? Would we engage in harmful gossip if God’s presence was manifest suddenly in our midst? And yet, don’t Christians claim to believe God is indeed present all the time? Don’t our actions in hundreds of situations betray our actual unbelief despite what we claim?

It’s a neat little argument. A little too neat, I think. The argument ignores some crucial features of how humans hold knowledge and beliefs, in particular the relative strength of the belief in question and the fact that many of our beliefs rarely enter our conscious awareness. Our minds are complex things, caverns holding a depository of fact, memories, beliefs and values. Millions of pieces of information are crammed between our ears in complex arrangements. However, the vast majority of it simply sits in there without ever flitting into our conscious awareness. Take my belief that “Paris is the capital city of France.” Until 10 seconds ago that belief wasn’t in my sphere of conscious awareness. It was somewhere within my cavernous brain, hidden away until I recalled it for the purposes of making an illustration in this article. However, it’s true to say that “Paris is the capital city of France” is a belief I hold even when I’m not consciously aware of it (which is most of my waking life). We find the same thing when we sit to watch a quiz show. We hear a question, and if the answer is hidden away in our mind somewhere it will hopefully spring back into our sphere of conscious awareness so we can answer. Sometimes we can’t get the answer but we know it’s in there somewhere. When we then hear the answer we might claim in frustration, “I knew that!” Again, I might be asked to make an exhaustive list of all the insects I know of. When I submit my list it might well be the case that an entomologist can name a few species I didn’t include in my “exhaustive” list but which I did in fact know about (eg, pond-skaters). These examples illustrate that our minds can contain lots of beliefs and pieces of knowledge that don’t constantly sit in our sphere of conscious awareness. They flit in and out, and sometimes we struggle to recall them at all.

It is this feature of our minds that helps to explain the seeming disconnect between Bob’s proclaimed beliefs and his actions. So, in the dark of night, Bob isn’t thinking about God. This belief – like his belief that Paris is the capital of France – is sitting somewhere else in his mind, dormant and forgotten. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. He does. When asked for his thoughts about God, his belief will come whizzing back into his consciousness as he confirms his acceptance of it as true. Moreover, look also at the nature of God compared to the nature of Bob’s mother. Bob’s mother is a physical being and should she enter the room her presence forces itself upon Bob’s conscious awareness. However, God is incorporeal and invisible. His presence is not manifest to Bob’s consciousness a lot of the time. So, the belief that God is present is not as obvious to Bob as the belief that his mother is present.

This failure to live in the conscious awareness of God’s presence is perhaps what ultimately lies at the root of what Christians call sin. The process of sanctification is thus a process by which we live more and more in the conscious awareness of God’s presence (and hence sin less). Bob, like most Christians, has only made very limited progress in that direction. He often forgets God in his day to day living, in the same way that all of us “forget” most of the things we know or believe as we go about our day to day routines. Moreover, Bob’s belief in God isn’t certain. Like all of us we believe the things we do to a greater or lesser degree, and most of the things we believe are held to some degree of probability rather than certainty. Where our belief is stronger, we are perhaps more aware of God throughout our lives.

It seems to me, therefore, that Bob’s actions do not at all negate his confessed beliefs. Instead they testify to the level of his conscious awareness of God and the degree of his belief.

And so I end this article the way I ended the companion article about honest atheists: with an appeal to the principle of charity. In any discussion we should always do our interlocutor the courtesy such that when they tell us they believe this or that we simply believe them and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed an honest account of their epistemic situation. Only by doing so can we hope to have a productive discussion about the relative merits or demerits of the belief in question. Failing to embrace this principle will leave us toying with unhelpful psychoanalysis which is patronising, self-righteous, and waste of time.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Belief, Faith, Theism

2 responses to “Are There Any Genuine Christians: An Argument Ad Masturbatum

  1. Stephen, I have to admit to finding it very hard often to accept that Christians can genuinely believe what they say they do.
    As an argument against Christianity, it is of course, fallacious, so I try not to use it as an argument. But here are a couple of instances where I think at least one might say there is a discussion to be had. First off, I would say that if you want to know what someone believes, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do. Now with that in mind:
    1. A Christian friend of mine says that he does not believe that any Christian genuinely believes in eternal torment (of any sort – literal fires or the anguish of separation). He says that if anyone did believe that then they would not rest, day or night, but they would dedicate every moment of their lives to saving souls because it would be unbearable to see your fellow humans heading towards such a terrible fate.
    2. I have never seen any Christian behave as if they thought that death was anything other than a BAD thing. Christians may be reconciled to death once it becomes unavoidable – but only (it seems to me) once they have done their absolute damnedest to avoid it. I simply can’t understand this. I’ve tried to ask Christians about this but never got any answer that made any sense to me. Yes, you might feel that you can’t selfishly swan off to Heaven leaving your family to get along without you as best they can. But I’ve never seen any Christian who seems to me to be trying to get cured out of a sense of duty. They always seems to me to be at least as keen as the rest of their family are that they stick around on earth. And I understand that from the other perspective, you don’t want to give up your partner or children so of course you will grieve. One Christian said that Christians grieve just as parents grieve at the airport when they wave their children off to go and live in a far away land – even if they know that that is what’s best for their child. But… might see the parents crying, but you don’t see them hiding their children’s passports or bribing the pilot not take off.

  2. Hi Frances,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I sympathise greatly with your first point. I too struggle to understand how anyone could believe in eternal conscious torment and yet live quite happily without bothering much to do anything about it. I wonder sometimes why this is so,. Is it the case that they just pay lip service to the doctrine – possibly through various combinations of church and peer pressure? I’m not sure, however, that I’d be ready to say they really don’t believe in Hell either. Many of these people seem to be genuine when they express their belief in Hell. Perhaps it’s just too horrible a thought so they manage to put it out of their heads most of the time. Or perhaps there are additional theological considerations on their mind. For instance, a rather twisted version of Calvinism is fashionable on some circles, which leads people to hold a sort of theological fatalism whereby they can’t do much to help those who are going to Hell, and that anyway it’s just that they go there. Who knows? But I do agree, with respect to most churchgoers it’s difficult to understand why they don’t behave differently if they really do believe in the traditional view of eternal conscious torment.

    I sympathise also with your second point, though I think it’s not quite so baffling as the first point. I think Christians are right to view death as a bad thing – despite believing in a happy afterlife. Our earthly lives are all we really know, and to leave it behind can be a scary thing. In my article I mentioned that the strength of a person’s belief is relevant, and I think it particularly pertinent here. I’ll speak personally as a person with health anxiety who fears death probably more than most. I’ve asked myself why I fear death so much. The answer lies in a few considerations. Anxiety is often an irrational fear – caused by a particularly primitive part of our brain (called the amygdala). It’s rarely something we can exercise control over. It often operates against our rational faculties. So, a few years ago I knew I didn’t have cancer, but I was terrified that I did, and even began to act as if I did (whilst knowing I didn’t!). That doesn’t make sense, but it happens when the primitive amygdala is in competition with the prefrontal cortex. Secondly, like most Christians, my belief isn’t a certainty. We accept the things we do to a greater or lesser degree. So, whilst we may believe there is some form of pleasant existence after this one, we aren’t entirely sure either and when faced with death we quite naturally fear we may be wrong. So, I don’t think natural fears of death demonstrate that Christians don’t hold certain considered beliefs about their existence after death.

    Stephen J. Graham

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