A friend of mine posted a religious meme a little while back that annoyed me. I mean, people are posting religious memes all the time, but this one got on my nerves because it read like a direct accusation that people who aren’t focused on God all the time are inherently selfish and self-absorbed. So I said something about it. We had a brief conversation, and the part that stuck out to me was when she that she couldn’t promise not to post anything offensive in the future on account of Christianity being inherently offensive due to its claim to be the only true religion.
So… is that true? Is Christianity inherently offensive? And, if so, is it because of its exclusive truth claim?
As usual, this question is complicated by the fact that there are just so many versions of Christianity. Some of them I think are offensive, and some I don’t. But then, maybe that makes the answer simple: if there can be versions of Christianity that aren’t offensive, then Christianity must not be inherently offensive.
But that’s kind of dodging my friend’s assertion, because of course she means her Christianity is inherently offensive (and, by implication, those versions that aren’t offensive are not valid Christianities). So let’s examine that.
First, I’m not going to make any claims about what is or is not a valid Christianity. That’s not my issue to sort out. I don’t buy the baseline claims of any of them, so it would be a pointless exercise. I’m just going to talk about what makes some versions offensive.
I guess the place to start is to think a bit about what makes a claim offensive. Because I don’t think that mere assertion that one proposition is true, and another false, is offensive by itself. If I say it’s true that the earth is round, and false that the earth is flat, that is not an offensive claim. And, despite the common assertion that “you’re only offended because I’m speaking the truth,” I don’t think people are generally offended by truth, either. No, I think that what makes a claim offensive is a perceived combination of negative judgment and falseness. In essence, if I feel you are judging me negatively based on a false premise, I am likely to be offended.
By way of illustration, do you suppose that a woman might be offended by the claim “girls can’t do math,” because she believes it’s true, or because she believes it’s false? Do you suppose she might find it offensive because it indicates a positive judgment of women, or a negative one? Or, think about some time you, yourself, may have been offended; was it because you thought the offensive idea was true or false? I’m betting you thought it was false.
I suppose someone could feign offense if you made a negative, but true, judgment about them. But, in that case, they’re not actually offended. They’re ashamed and trying to cover for it. Note, however, that even the feigned offense is an attempt to deny the truth of the statement, not confirm it. Even in this case, offense is inextricably tied to the perception of falseness.
Of course, the mere fact that someone finds your position offensive doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re incorrect. It only means that they believe you’re incorrect. So if you find that you’re regularly offending people, you need to consider that something is going wrong in your communication. You’re saying things that are wrong, or you are failing to persuade your audience that you’re right. Either way, it means that you still have some work to do – whether that be in reevaluating your presentation and argument, or questioning the actual truth of what you’ve said. In neither case should one be proud of being offensive.
Unless, of course, you’re just a jerk who gets off on upsetting other people to no purpose.So, how does this tie back to the original question of whether Christianity is inherently offensive? Well, it boils down to this: I don’t think things that are true can be inherently offensive. They can be perceived as offensive, but only to the degree that they are perceived as false. So I would say that the kinds of Christianities that proudly describe themselves as inherently offensive are probably correct, in that they are both judgmental and false. It is not the fact that they claim to be true that makes them offensive; it’s the fact that they claim they right to judge people negatively (in many cases to the point of inflicting real harm on people), while appearing to be false, that makes them offensive.