When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me

PEG says:

To have a religion is to hold a belief about metaphysics. Either you believe that Allah is God and Muhammad is his Prophet or you don’t. If you do, and you eat pork, this will not make Muhammad more, or less, the Prophet. The two things aren’t related.

From where I sit, and with apologies for my firmness of tone, that’s almost completely wrong for most of the world’s religions. You are not a Jew because you hold particular beliefs; ditto for being a Hindu; ditto for being a Buddhist; ditto for any number of other religions. Sociologically speaking, religion is a matter of affiliation, and secondarily of practice, but for most of the world’s religions these two questions are formally the predominant ones, certainly more so than belief.

Christianity, of course, does define itself in terms of belief. But from the epistemological standpoint of PEG’s questioners, I think PEG is wrong about Christianity as well.

Consider: a man, in his heart, believes that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, died for the world’s sins, and was resurrected to life eternal. Someone who believes this is some kind of Christian, yes?

Now consider that this man takes the following actions: to denounce Christianity as false and evil, publicly desecrate the host, and persecute Christians even to death.

We know such men exist. Why they do what they do may be debated. Perhaps one cannot bear the guilt of knowing what his God suffered for him, and he assuages his guilt by this kind of extravagant and violent rejection of what he knows to be true. (That would probably be Dostoevsky’s version of the character.) Another, perhaps, lives in a society in which Christians are generally persecuted, and it is fear that inclines him to join, even lead, the majority, against the dictates of his conscience. Undoubtedly there are myriad other examples, each with his or her own reason.

Now consider another man. He is a pious follower of the church. Prays daily. Tithes. Does frequent deeds of charity in the name of and through the organs of that church. In his personal life, he does everything he can to lead the life, if not of a saint or a martyr, then certainly of an exemplary follower and devotee of Christ.

But in his heart, he denies the divinity of Jesus, the historicity of the resurrection or any of the miracles.

Again, we know this man exists. Why doesn’t he announce to the world that he is not a Christian, and at least leave off from praying? Again, there could be many reasons. One has a sentimental attachment to the ceremonies she grew up with. Another lives in an overwhelmingly Christian community, and doesn’t want to rock the boat. Another wants to set a good example for his children, as his parents did for him, and doesn’t want to burden them with his unbelief. And so forth – again, any number of possible examples, each with his or her own rationale.

By PEG’s definition, the first type is a Christian, and the second is not. Religion is, he says, a matter of metaphysics – what you actually believe. I don’t think that’s a good definition of “religion” – but it’s a perfectly workable definition of “Christian” from an idealist rather than sociological perspective.

But from the outside, the only way I can judge either of them is by their actions. And even the statement, “I affirm that I am a Christian” is an action. It is not, in and of itself, a belief. It is a statement of belief – and speaking is an action.

When someone asks PEG, “How can you be a Christian and do X,” that person is doing exactly what PEG – by his own definition of religion – is asking them to do: understand the contents of his heart and judge his religion accordingly. Unpacking the question a bit, it goes like this: You say you are a Christian (an action). Yet you do this thing that, I thought, Christians considered sinful (an action). So either I don’t understand what Christians think you should or should not do, or I need to determine which action – your profession or faith or your act of sin – is a better guide for me to understand what you really believe.

PEG could answer in various ways. He could say: some Christians may consider X a sin, but I don’t, and I according to my faith I have the competency to make that judgement, so I see no contradiction. He could say: yes, it is a sin, and I struggle against it because I do believe it is a sin, but I am weak, and it is precisely because I know that I am weak that I am a Christian – so, again, there is no contradiction. He could also say: well, yes, I’m a “Christian” in the sense of affiliation with a church, but I don’t believe everything my church tells me to believe – I am competent to make my own calls on these questions, whether my church says I am or not.

And, depending on his answer, his interlocutor might decide, “yes, he is a Christian” or “no, he isn’t a Christian.” The purpose of the question is simply to get more information that bears on the question. So I don’t see why it’s baffling.

Perhaps the bafflement comes from the nature of the “X” in question. What if “X” wasn’t “joke about grabbing your wife’s boobs” but “cover up the crime of molesting little children by your own hierarchical subordinates.” If someone asked “How could bishop so-and-so do that, if he really is a Christian,” I should hope the answer would be, “indeed, his actions were gravely sinful, and if he doesn’t understand that then I, too, question the sincerity of his profession of faith.” Because if that isn’t the answer, then on what basis can anyone ever question the authenticity of someone else’s professed faith?

Now, PEG may simply be saying that formal statements of affiliation or belief should always be taken at face value. If someone says he’s a Christian, there’s nothing to discuss: he or she is a Christian. But what if the person who says so was never baptized properly? What if the person who says so also denies the divinity of Jesus or the historicity of the resurrection – but persists in asserting he or she is a Christian. Should that assertion be taken at face value? If so, then what happened to PEG’s original claim that “religion” is a matter of the content of belief? But if not, then we’re back to judging actions by some external standard: this is what Christians do – in this case, the kinds of statements they make – to show that they are, indeed, Christians.

And if that is the case, then I have to ask why these particular actions are favored. Compare two bishops: one covers up the rape of children and believes that this was the right thing to do. The other denies the historicity of the resurrection, and believes that this, too, is the right thing to do. Are we supposed to judge the authenticity of people’s Christianity by the orthodoxy of their formal faith statements (which are, again, actions, statements of belief, not the beliefs themselves) but not by any of their other actions? Really?

It seems to me that the only safe place to go from PEG’s premise – that Christianity is a matter of belief, of metaphysics – is to conclude that nobody can know whether anybody else is really a Christian; that, indeed, it’s exceptionally difficult to know if you yourself are a Christian. That strikes me – as a non-Christian – as an admirable place to go, and an excellent addition to PEG’s standard answer to his questioners. “How can you do X if you are a Christian?” “Well, I like to think I am a Christian, and I believe I am one, but maybe I’m not.”