Atheists at Church part 2: What does ‘Christian’ mean?


Imagine a healthy discussion between an atheist and a Christian. Both want to back up their case with some facts.

For instance, the atheist (let’s call her Alethea) might say:

And her christian friend (I’ll call her Fantasia), could argue:

  • The Australian Constitution explicitly invokes ‘Almighty God’, a christian term.
  • Historically, most Australians have been christians and most Australians’ ancestors were from majority-christian countries
  • You noisy atheists are trying to take religion out of politics, but 70% of Australians are christian, according to the census!
  • How can you say most christians support gay marriage? Tell us what real christians think!

What do these statements have in common? They appear to contradict each other strongly, and yet each of them is justified to some extent. How can this be?

The problem is a failure to define what we mean when we say ‘christian’. In a country like Australia, where many identify with a nominally christian culture, but very few are devout, practising or religious, anyone can cherry-pick statistics to back up their arguments. Neither Alethea nor Fantasia is especially wrong in what they say, but unless they define their terms, they haven’t told us anything particularly useful. I’ve seen both atheists and christians pick and choose in this way to support their case.

Fred Nile

Fred Nile, on the size of the christian vote

Here’s Fred Nile, of the Christian Democratic Partydefending the targeting of school children for indoctrination:

“It is a pity that some parents write letters requesting their children be withdrawn from SRE, which is their legal right under the NSW Education Act 1990!

This means their children are missing out on this most important area of life as we are all body soul and spirit and the vast majority of Australians, over 80% believe in God”

And here’s his mancrush Brigadier (ret1) Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby, spurting in outrage at the revelation that the majority of christians support equality for gay couples:

“Certainly my work with Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox churches leaves me in no doubt that the great majority of their adherents don’t support same-sex marriage,” said Mr Wallace, the Lobby’s Managing Director.

“I think a simple additional question on the poll that determined if the person actually attended a church might have made the result more informative,” he said

You can’t have it both ways, chaps. If we’re a nation of cultural christians, then we’re a nation of christians who support gay marriage. If the only christians are the homophobic ones, we aren’t a majority-christian nation.

The word ‘christian’ means different things to different people, and each of us is free to self-identify as we wish to. Personally, when I use the term ‘christian’, my default meaning is someone who would endorse the Nicene creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I think the Nicene Creed broadly covers a reasonable baseline for common christian beliefs. You are free to disagree with me. Many do. Some fundies, for instance, don’t consider catholics to be True Christians™. So if you’re telling me something important, do be clear what you mean when you say ‘christian’, and let me know when you change your mind.

Jimbo The Clown

Fortunately, in this series of posts, I’m only thinking about church attendees and the assumption that they are all necessarily believers in god. Hopefully defining ‘church attendee’ shouldn’t be an issue, though I’m sure Jimbo The Clown could argue there’s a special way that True Christian Phobos ‘go’ to ‘church’.

We can use a multitude of facts about the nature and extent of religious beliefs to filter nonsense from reality. But we need to say what we mean, to avoid equivocation and No True Scotsman claims.

1It still stands for ‘retired’.


  1. Honest Bob
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 23:33 | Permalink

    How is this a “healthy discussion”? You set up a truth/fantasy dichotomy amongst the participants and then repeatedly use insulting labels and innuendo about Christians.

    You have no intention for a “healthy discussion”, it’s just another “let’s have a go at some cheap shots at Christians”.

  2. Ken West
    Posted September 9, 2011 at 08:47 | Permalink


    How do we implement this great insight of yours? Are you suggesting that we change the Census form to remove the Christian tick-box and replace it with the Nicene Creed and “do you agree”? Doesn’t seem to be too practical!

    If we go down the track of clarifying beliefs, it might be worth replacing “No Religion” or “Atheist” with a positive statement of belief.

    It would be tragic, having made the alleged mistake of giving Christians too much political power on the basis of dodgy statistics, to repeat that mistake with the godless.


  3. Posted September 9, 2011 at 10:14 | Permalink

    “Personally, when I use the term ‘christian’, my default meaning is someone who would endorse the Nicene creed”

    Most people who identify as Christian are unsure what the Nicene creed is, and when it’s explained to them as being the basis of any number of derivative things they do agree with, will agree with some portion of it to an extent with caveats – for a start the current common incantation of it excludes the entirety of Christianity outside of Catholicism.

    It’s been a routine assertion by the atheist foundation of Australia for a while now – circa the census campaign – to establish the Nicene creed as the benchmark of Christian faith. Whether or not someone is Christian is a matter of self identification. There’s room for some subjective judgement here, someone who identifies as Christian yet routinely murders people and publicly proclaims fealty to Zeus is likely to attract some polite inquiries as to their committment, but that’s where the benchmark is. Frustrated insistence that one’s faith is invalid through refusing to endorse the creed or refusing to agree with more extreme beliefs that sometimes seek to establish authority by attaching themselves to Christianity, is a bit sad. We’ll figure out what our faith means to us guys, the community endorsing no faith at all is probably the least help :)

  4. trixie melodian
    Posted September 9, 2011 at 10:38 | Permalink

    Geordie – then Dave’s point stands, if Christianity is all about self-identification, and the idea of “what it means to be Christian” and the beliefs you hold are simply your own personal interpretation of a few Bible stories, then how can bodies like the ACL, Fred Nile, Access Ministries etc claim to speak for 70% of the population? And when they do make outrageous claims like “all true Christians abhor homosexuality”, why aren’t the rest of these Christians speaking up?

  5. Posted September 9, 2011 at 16:51 | Permalink

    Geordie – then Dave’s point stands, if Christianity is all about self-identification, and the idea of “what it means to be Christian” and the beliefs you hold are simply your own personal interpretation of a few Bible stories

    It’s a little more complicated than me reading through it, having a coffee while I mull it and defining my own orthodoxy, but OK.

    Then how can bodies like the ACL, Fred Nile, Access Ministries etc claim to speak for 70% of the population?

    They can’t. But by the same token there’s a gajillion fringe lunatics out there who declare themselves authorative over run-of-the-mill mainstream belief structures.

    And when they do make outrageous claims like “all true Christians abhor homosexuality”, why aren’t the rest of these Christians speaking up?

    Well other than me now, why would we bother dignifying their vitriolic corner-case ranting with an answer? Does anyone honestly think when these people crap on that they ARE actually representing 70% of the population?

    I just kinda figured when nutbars claim to speak on behalf of other people, they were ignored.

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