Image via WikipediaWith the chaos of daily life in modern Western civilization, the consideration of a deep philosophical question like "What is the meaning of life?" seems quite low on one's list of priorities. There are countless tasks I must complete each day in order to maintain my socio-economic and cultural status. After realizing this cycle appears infinite, one assumes his/her "purpose" is to be a cog in a machine - indeed, the word "career" seems to have replaced "purpose" in our society.
But eventually, there is a break - you have a moment of time that has not been reserved or booked or clouded with efficiency, and you look up at the stars and wonder what it’s all about. This is inevitable. Our brains are machines of curiosity. We wonder and speculate, and then, if the curiosity gets the best of us, and we begin to investigate.
How did this all come about? What is my purpose? What will happen after I die? I used to have simple and comforting answers to these questions. “God created the earth and its inhabitants in seven days. My purpose is to worship my creator, and spread the good word of His son, who died as a sacrifice so that we can have eternal life. If I have faith in Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the light, I will go to heaven when I die.” This explanation was sufficient for almost two decades of my life, but eventually my mind started to wander. I became a bit more inquisitive. I had more and more time to look at the stars and ponder.
I began to ask myself questions like, “How can God be a single entity, yet also three?” “If everything is predestined, how can we also have free will?” “If god has chosen souls in advance for heaven, why would he create people just so they can go to Hell?” To these sorts of questions, I would always get a response like, “He is God, and mere mortals cannot understand his infinite nature.” That explanation is adequate, but if that is the case, why do we claim to know when he has answered a prayer? And how can we have the ability to determine which parts of the Bible should be interpreted literally, and which are metaphorical? I wanted to find out more about God, but I wondered how much I could trust Man in this pursuit. How do I know that what I’ve been taught and raised to believe all of my life is actually true? What if I had been born in Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia? Would I be an adherent of Islam today?
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” So I decided to investigate. As I searched, I began challenging myself, and my presumptions. I later realized that instead of finding justifications for my faith, I only found more questions.
Devout Christians often claim the Bible is God’s word, and thus “inerrant”. After examining the canonical gospels, however, one might beg to differ.
The most minor issue with the New Testament has to do with a number of discrepancies between the gospels. For instance, Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” takes place on a “plain” in the book of Luke. Matthew recounts eight beatitudes, while Luke only mentions four. Matthew places the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead in a different location than Mark and Luke. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the cleansing of the Temple at the end of their gospels, while John places this event at the beginning of his. There are myriad other similar examples, but let’s move on.
Throughout the book of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear to his followers that the “Son of Man” will arrive very soon. However, there is no indication that this event transpired within the set timeframe (or at all).
“…I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”
“I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
“…the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds…he will send his angels…they will gather his elect…I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”
If the gospels accurately depict the life of this Christ character, why do the Epistles of Paul (written before the gospels) contain no mention of Christ’s virgin birth, his miracles, his parables, his sermon on the mount, or the Lord’s Prayer? If these attributes were known in the first century of Christianity, Paul would have been the one to know them. Paul does not even pretend to have met a savior such as Jesus Christ, and knows nothing of his teachings, since he does not include a single sentence quoting Jesus in any of his writings.
Christ was said to have been a Jew living in Palestine during the first three decades of the Common Era, thus he and his followers would have spoken Aramaic. Why then were the gospels written in Greek? Authors far removed from the purported events must have written these accounts. Indeed, the authors of the four canonical gospels are not known, nor is the time or place of their authorship. There is no mention of these documents in the historical record until 150 years after the events they describe allegedly took place (the first mention of a canonical gospel – John – was by Theopholis of Antioch in 180 AD). Even if Mark was written shortly after 70 AD, as many apologists claim (though there is no evidence of this), there is still a 40 year gap between Christ’s alleged death, and the first written account of his life. This means that no account of Christ’s life in the Bible was written by someone who had met him, or even seen him. All accounts of his life and teachings are based on hearsay, and 18 years of Christ’s life are missing from these writings.
There is no mention of a Jesus of Nazareth who was called “Christ” from any of the nearly two-dozen historians who lived or traveled in the Mediterranean region during the time Jesus is said to have lived (though there was later a popular forgery, but for concision’s sake, I won’t get into that). This is odd because he was allegedly quite popular, often preaching to large crowds, and having a very controversial execution, according to the gospels. After Christ’s death, the following event takes place (in Matthew): “…many bodies of the saints…were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” This zombie-related incident was not recorded by any historian. The same can be said of other Biblical events that would have been witnessed by many, such as Herod’s mass slaughter of infant males.
Like myself, Robert M. Price was a Christian fundamentalist for a large portion of his life. His interest in apologetics eventually led him to receiving his MTS degree in New Testament studies, and later his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Drew University in 1981. After several years of pastoral work and teaching, Price enrolled in a second doctoral program at Drew, receiving his Ph.D. in New Testament studies in 1993. But the more he learned, the more he discovered “that traditional Christianity simply did not have either the historical credentials or the intellectual cogency its defenders claimed for it.” Price explains: "...Thus I forswore the harmonizations used by apologists to keep the Bible sounding inerrant and authoritative. I concluded that my faith must in the end be sacrificed to keep myself honest with the text. Otherwise, if I twisted the text for the sake of my faith, what could my faith possibly be worth?"
Justin Martyr, one of the first Christian apologists, wrote the following:
“And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.” (Apology I – chapter 21) Aside from historical improbabilities, inconsistencies, and other major errors, another cause for my skepticism regarding the claims of Christian dogma is the “hero archetype” that Christ fulfills. There are dozens of pre-Christian pagan messiahs with whom Christ shares many traits. These include Attis of Phrygia, Buddha, Dionysus/Bacchus, Hercules/Heracles, Krishna of India, Mithra of Persia, Quirinius of Rome, Jao of Nepal, and many others. For instance, Horus of ancient Egypt was born of the virgin Isis-Meri, accompanied by a star in the east. He was a child prodigy, teaching in the Temple at age 12. At age 30 he was baptized by Anup, and began traveling with 12 followers, performing miracles such as walking on water, exorcising demons, and raising Osiris from the dead. Upon his death, he was buried for three days, and then resurrected. His followers called him “Anointed One”, “Good Shepherd”, “Lamb of God”, “Lord of Lords”, “King of Kings”, etc.
Justin Martyr, one of the first Christian apologists, wrote the following:
“And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.” (Apology I – chapter 21)
“And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Æsculapius.” (Apology I – Chapter 22)
But this vehement advocate of Christianity also had a simple explanation for all of these antics: It was the Devil’s fault…
"It having reached the Devil's ears that the prophets had foretold the coming of Christ, he set the Heathen Poets to bring forward a great many who should be called the sons of Jove. The Devil laying his scheme in this, to get men to imagine that the true history of Christ was of the same character as the prodigious fables related of the sons of Jove..."
In its context, this could be a valid excuse. However, this explanation cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. If god is omniscient, and he wants us to believe the Bible is his word, why didn’t he include some text clarifying these matters? Why did god feel it was necessary for his son to fit the savior archetype so well? It would have cleared up a lot of confusion if he could have simply stated why pre-Christian myths feature saviors possessing the exact same supernatural attributes as Jesus Christ.
Where is the evidence of omniscience in scripture that apologists claim? There is no mention of the discovery of electricity, or DNA, or the various technological advances that would take place, such as the development of automobiles, or satellites, or the Internet. There is no cure for cancer. A mention of any of these or similar topics would lend credibility to the claim that the Judeo-Christian scripture was divinely inspired. In reality, everything in the New Testament could have easily been written by a man living in the Middle East during the first or second century CE.
It can be said that the Bible’s claim to inerrancy is problematic, as is its historicity. “Okay, fine!” one might say, “These so-called ‘holy books’ are just a bunch of plagiarized mythology carelessly throw together and given a historical backdrop. But they still contain wonderful moral precepts like the Golden Rule. I mean, where would we get morality if not from religion?”
Is the Bible really a reliable guide to morality? Many would agree that the Old Testament can be counted out as a candidate, since God advocated the death penalty for the most mild of offenses, allowed fathers to sell their daughters into slavery, allowed masters to beat their slaves, encouraged sectarianism, and implemented genocide on a regular basis.
But the picture usually painted of Jesus Christ (in Sunday school and in mainstream discourse alike) is that of a great moral teacher who healed the sick, advocated on behalf of the poor, and resisted an oppressive and unjust Roman empire. However, when reading the gospels objectively, one would not find consistent moral teachings and actions. In one breath, Christ would say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in the next, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” He goes on to say, in Luke 14:26, that “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children…he cannot be my disciple.” Before Jesus is crucified, a woman pours ointment over his head to prepare him for burial (as was the custom). This bothers Jesus’ disciples, who think it is a waste of money, which could have been given to the poor. Jesus responds, “…you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me (Matthew 26:11).” Also in the book of Matthew, Jesus compares a foreign woman to a dog, curses a fig tree, and recommends castration to his followers.
Needless to say, the aforementioned information (which is just the tip of the iceberg) has contributed to an erosion of my faith. I find it confusing when others still believe so vehemently, even claiming certainty, that the Bible is the perfect message of an omniscient deity. However, this phenomenon of irrationally persistent belief has been studied meticulously. In psychology, "confirmation bias" is a tendency to search for (or interpret) new information in a way that confirms your preconceptions. As professor Tim van Gelder puts it, "...One of the most obvious manifestations of belief preservation arises when we consider whether a claim merits our acceptance. When we have a pro-attitude to the claim we tend to actively seek evidence confirming or supporting the claim, and fail to seek evidence going against it. That is, in our search for evidence we try to bolster our beliefs rather than challenge them." Psychologist Robert E. Ornstein once observed, "Conceptions often act as barriers to understanding." He further explains, “It is quite difficult for us to alter our assumptions, even in the face of compelling new evidence. We pay the price of a certain conservatism and resistance to new input in order to gain a measure of stability in our personal consciousnesses."
Either Yahweh created the universe, or he did not. Either he inspired the Judeo-Christian Bible, or he did not. Both cannot be true. If the Bible contains errors, then it is not the word of an omniscient god, but of Man. If it is the work of Man, then it is open to interpretation. If it is open to interpretation, it is open to analysis. Upon analysis, I found countless errors, inconsistencies, and mythologies. Any Christian would agree that these problems occur in other religious texts as well. Absolute truth exists, though it is not always accessible. There are some questions we will never be able to answer, and that vulnerability scares many of us. But pretending to be certain in the face of mystery does not make us correct.
After the aforementioned realizations, I was no longer safe in the comfort of my dogmatic shell. I could no longer have simple black and white explanations for the intricacies of existence. I could no longer let theologians and priests think for me…
I must state plainly that I am not claiming to be certain that Yahweh does not exist. Far from it - certainty requires proof, and proof is hard to come by. In fact, the only thing I can prove, beyond any doubt, is that I exist. I am constantly experiencing my own consciousness. Whether the sensations, memories, and events I experience are illusions or not, I cannot be certain. Instead, I will opt to act according to the consistencies I have observed around me.
Conclusions are formulated by analysis, by weighing evidence. Many conclusions are temporary, and can be altered according to new information. In the case of religious dogma, my reasons for doubt significantly outweigh my reasons for belief. But uncertainty isn't acceptable for some people - they fear death. They need an absolute explanation, even if there is no evidence to support it. "Someone, hurry up and answer me! I just want to be comfortable and docile, and follow orders!" scream the bewildered masses. Most people seem to accept the supernatural explanations that are most popular in their region of birth. Americans are overwhelmingly Christian. Iranians are overwhelmingly Muslim. Vietnamese are overwhelmingly Buddhist. Why doesn't the same thing happen with fire? Why is there such a global consensus that fire is hot, and that it can burn things? It is simply because the existence, properties, and effects of fire are testable. There is no way to test the existence of an invisible entity that does not leave footprints, or DNA, or any evidence of its presence. There can therefore be no proof that these entities do not exist. No one can prove that Yahweh does not exist, just as no one can prove Zeus, Santa Claus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not exist. Again, the evidence that they are only mythological characters outweighs any other unfounded claims.
Well, now that I have to think for myself, make my own decisions, and accept responsibility for my own actions, with no divine assistance, I’ve got some very profound philosophical questions to answer…
What is my basis for morality? Well, first of all, the “moral teachings” of Christ that would actually be accepted by today’s progressive standards (love, generosity, equality, etc.) were also written about by secular philosophers like Plato and Socrates centuries before Christ’s alleged existence. These are clearly not his own ideas. Plato and Socrates were mere humans, making moral observations without even pretending to receive divine consultation. It seems that morality is innate – derived from human experience, observation, and remarkable intellectual capacity to imagine the situation of others. This is known as “empathy”. From this perspective, one might observe: “To cause, proliferate, or contribute to human or animal suffering is immoral.” Does someone need to believe in a specific supernatural entity on insufficient evidence in order to conclude that torturing children is morally wrong? What is morally upright then? To help others, to love others, to live in harmony - refraining from murder, theft, etc. A general moral outlook would suggest that we should seek to understand, empathize, and co-exist with everything around us – all life on earth. After all, there is lots of evidence that earth exists, and no evidence that heaven or hell exist. I think Earth should be a higher priority.
Another question would be, “Where do I find happiness?” I must admit theism offers quite a bargain in this department. As I recall, no matter how bad things got, I could always take refuge in my imaginary friend. And no matter how many naughty things I did, I could always transfer the burden of guilt to his shoulders. Happiness can be different things to different people, but I am personally glad to be autonomous, and delighted when others can live happily and peacefully, free from arbitrary constraints. I am also happy that I no longer fear a cosmic dictator who has me under constant surveillance, legislates against certain uses of my genitals, and threatens me with an eternity of torture if I question his infinite love. Fear can cause a lot of anxiety, not to mention irrational submission. Aside from conquering fear, I also enjoy creative expression, free inquiry, traveling, visiting with friends and family, music, learning, etc. I also appreciate the small things in life, like taking a walk, or cooking. John Lennon would say, “Happiness is a warm gun.” I would say it’s a warm burrito.