The Scourge of Black and White Thinking


I often talk about the dangers of black-and-white thinking I encountered in my evangelical past. American conservative religion puts things in nice, neat boxes, with defined boundaries. The Bible is inerrant, they claim. If it wasn’t, it couldn’t be trusted at all (a strange concept considering no one claims that about any historical document). People are “sinners” steeped in original sin and totally depraved unless they are regenerated by conversion to Christ. One is either saved or under God’s wrath; on the way to heaven or destined for hell. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thinks the case of county clerk Kim Davis (refusing to give out marriage licenses to gay couples in Kentucky) is proof that there’s a movement toward the criminalization of Christianity, based on the belief that anyone who allows or tolerates gay marriage just can’t be Christian. There’s a line drawn in the sand and heaven forbid if you cross it and try to create a gray area, between these stark spiritual “realities.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist) imply that I was guilty of cherry picking the Bible for suggesting there could be shades of gray within its pages, when I wrote “3 Ways Atheists are Good for Christianity.”(Andrews briefly mentions me and Greg Brahe in one of his podcasts called The Butterfly Effect, August 25, starting at 7:40). He suspects my take was merely a tactic to legitimize faith in a world where fundamentalist religion is becoming obsolete. I certainly don’t blame him for that immediate reaction. Behind his microphone, I’d probably do the same. I don’t trust the agenda of many in the conservative evangelical movement because I know where they are coming from, having walked in their shoes. I definitely have that in common with Andrews.

But I don’t get the concept that Andrews espoused that Christian faith is “either true or it’s not.” Which Christian faith? There are many shades. Or, when he says that “there’s original sin or there isn’t,” implying if there isn’t (or if its Western meaning—as opposed to Eastern Orthodox—is erroneous), then faith in Jesus is a sham. Or, that “there’s a heaven and hell or there isn’t,” as if they must go together or no afterlife can exist. I don’t get the notion that there’s something wrong with choosing what’s probably more historically accurate in the Bible, better translated, more true to the original meaning, language, and culture; and closer to the primary sources. Or, that history teaches us the modern fundamentalist way of viewing the Bible is an invention that the Bible itself doesn’t claim. That there can’t be a mixture of uncertainty and high probability in historic faith.

One example is the practically impenetrable case that Jesus did not believe in, let alone teach, a literal, eternal hell. The linguistic and historical evidence is clear that the notion of eternal damnation is pagan in its origins and more derived from Augustine’s theology, not Judaism’s or Jesus’. The terms “hell” and “eternal punishment” are mistranslated and inserted into the New Testament, not derived from a fair reading of the original Greek. [Samples of sources: Razing Hell, Putting Hell Under Fire, and Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem).  The vast majority of early church fathers were what we moderns would call Universalists. This doesn’t make all of Christianity false; it makes a certain narrow, conservative view of Christ’s teachings historically inaccurate.

I fear black and white thinking is a scourge on our society and not just due to conservative Christians. Apparently some atheists measure faith by it. Politics is inundated with it. Candidates demonize the other across political parties (and with Donald Trump, usually within it). Perhaps it is the root of our culture war. Unless you believe the way I do or my political party does or my religion or lack thereof does, then you are suspect at best and the enemy at worst. I am guilty of it myself. The truth is that most of us are more complex than that. We are usually walking shades of gray.

That’s why I have no trouble finding good in atheism. Or, even among evangelicalism, despite my often strong critique of its premises and practices. In the end, we are on the same team of humanity, trying to make sense out of life and what’s best for the world. Naturally, this doesn’t mean there should be no debate or strong criticism of ideas that are harmful or have no logical, historical, or scientific basis. But maybe we should relax a little more and accept that although there are fundamental things in life that are truly black and white (things like human rights and its corollaries), gray is here to stay, and sitting down and drinking beer together while discussing issues is better than tossing sound bites at each other from our religious, political, and ideological podiums. Now that would be a better forum for the political debates! A friendly pub.

How do you think black and white thinking harms society? Or does it?

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4 thoughts on “The Scourge of Black and White Thinking

  1. Yes and no. Of course it has it’s place in that abuse, murder, theft, etc. are not okay. That said, we take it too far and consider most everything black and white, while truly I think most things are gray. The result of this is that we debate issues instead of having conversations about them. When in politics, businesses, and relationships we debate, there’s little to no compromise, understanding, or compassion. Conversely, when we see and name things as grey, that opens the door for a conversation, which leads to compromise, understanding, and compassion.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Lang. Especially in politics and religion, there’s the all-or-nothing attitude that couched as heroic, but all it does is divide.

  3. Well done!
    But I don’t think it’s black and white thinking harming the country, rather, the conditions that drive it. Anti-intellectualism.
    It is well accepted that in times of societal stress people get panicky and clingy, forming groups and seeking to simplfy their environments. Add to that certain political groups bent on demonizing non-secular and scientific knowledge (elitists, beware!) in a country of people that only read books three minutes a day and there you go.
    I think this is why such a dull show like The Walking Dead is so popular. It offers an enemy that is purely irredeemable, no nuance is required in understanding the motives or background of the zombie. Everything we hoped to find in the godless commies! What a nice escape in a world where everything requires so much thought it makes my head hurt. Oww!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Dietrich. You’re on to something. It’s too much work to solve problems in the gray… much easier to put things in nice, tidy white boxes and decry everything outside.