The Decoder Ring Doctrine

One of the more curious doctrines of the Christian faith is what I call the “Decoder Ring” doctrine, and it basically states that unless you’re a Christian, you cannot understand the words of the Bible or the teachings of Jesus. Your spiritual eyes are not open, they claim, and you cannot understand the mysteries of the bible or God. This doctrine is not limited to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination, but it is wholly embraced by almost all forms of Christianity. My mother used to tell me all the time that the reason so much of Christianity’s doctrine didn’t make sense to me was because my “spiritual eyes” weren’t opened.

They back this doctrine with scripture: 1 Cor 2:14 “ But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Of course, to an advocate of reason the dynamic of all this is clear: ANY doctrine makes sense to one who has already accepted the doctrine as true. This would apply across the spectrum of possible beliefs. So if you happen to be a Mormon who believes Jesus walked around in North America a few hundred years ago, that idea doesn’t raise a single red flag. And if you happen to be a Scientologist who believes that the universe is trillions of years old, that doctrine makes perfect sense as well. This is the reason that faith-based doctrines are always given in small doses. The pushers of these doctrines know that until you’ve invested countless hours, boatloads of social capital, and thousands of dollars into their particular brand of faith, you’re not likely to believe that, for example, our bodies are inhabited by pissed-off aliens that a trillions of years old.

But to those faithful, your skepticism is clear evidence that you simply cannot understand. It’s not that the idea of three wise old men travelling across the desert carrying expensive gifts without transportation, direction, or security in order to donate them to an immaculately conceived baby-god sleeping in a feeding trough inside a barn while his “virgin” mother (wink wink) and father-who-really-didn’t-do-it (wink wink) look on with blissful smiles is ridiculous – it’s that you simply can’t understand it. See?

One of the few times in my adult life that I sat through a sermon took place at my parents funeral. I don’t begrudge having done so – my mother wanted the gospel preached at her funeral and as far as I was concerned she was going to have it even if I had to preach it myself – but sitting through it was painful to say the least. The preacher we found to preach it was a local guy who had never met my parents. I’m grateful to him for the service he provided. And almost if by providence, he began his sermon with a “decoder ring” disclaimer! He told us point blank as he began his sermon that if there were any in the gathering who were not Christian that what he was about to say would not make sense. He said we would not be capable of understanding the words he was about to say. As fantastic a claim as that is, I inwardly smiled knowing that it was an idea my mother agreed with completely. “Thank goodness”, I thought, “my mother is being granted her last wish”.

Once the sermon was over and I had eulogized them myself, we moved on to the burial site and the socialization began. Had I been anywhere BUT the funeral of my own parents, I would’ve cracked the joke that kept scrolling through my mind “Great sermon Pastor, I think? Honestly, I couldn’t understand a word of it.” Still, I found the entire “decoder ring” doctrine fascinating – not so much the doctrine itself but the fact that people don’t seem to see the obvious problems with it.

First there’s the obvious objection – what could be more pretentious than to assert that an intelligent human being who speaks the same language you speak cannot understand plain English (or whatever language you happen to speak)? Unless you believe that there is some magic which scrambles a non-believers brain, on what grounds could you possibly assert that someone else is incapable of grasping something you are capable of grasping. It’s a condescending proposition.

But let’s say for a moment that this was somehow true… that your very acceptance of a doctrine provided you with a magical decoder ring that enabled you to understand normal, everyday words and that someone else’s disbelief disabled them from understanding those very same words. What exactly would this mean?

(Keep in mind that this doctrine is not limited to Christianity; I’m going to approach it using Christianity as the example, and you can apply the principles to whatever faith-based system you like. Scientology is another very good example.)

The premise here is that once you accept that the words of the bible are true, only then are you equipped to understand what they mean. Belief precedes understanding. What a fantastically backwards idea! The adherents of this doctrine are literally admitting that they accepted a doctrine prior to understanding it. This is reason in reverse – literally the opposite of the process by which a proposition ought to be accepted.

The next time you meet someone who tells you that you cannot understand the gospel message because you are not a Christian, ask them this simple question: “What came first, your choice to accept the gospel message or your ability to understand it?”

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