I was raised Christian, and then started opting out as a teenager. I never harbored any ill will against this upbringing or felt traumatized by it, as many people do. I tend to think of Christianity the way I do Comcast. I generally find individual members of the organization pleasant to talk to, and while the organization as a whole is distasteful to me, I spend very little time actually thinking about it, so it’s all good.
But I must be a little traumatized, because when I do think about Christianity there are certain aspects of it that make my blood pressure go up. Things like…
The idea that without God the universe can’t function. The laws of gravity and electromagnetism stop working.
Without God humans can’t feel gratitude, love, or guilt. We are just robotic meat bags.
Without God there is no morality. We are just raping, murdering wretches.
Without God there is no depth or mystery or meaning to life. Only bits of gross matter meandering aimlessly, bumping into one another.
Put in reverse, the existence of gravity, emotions, morality and mystery somehow proves God’s existence and authorship.
The idea that anything and everything that happens is God’s will. Aunt Mimi got breast cancer? Only God knows why. It went into remission? Praise the Lord. It came back? It’s all in God’s plan. Went into remission again? Praise His holy name. She was killed in a shark attack? The Lord works in mysterious ways. Stop asking questions.
No matter what happens, God gets the credit – as long as it’s something good. The police managed to free the kids after several days of intense negotiations with the man who was holding them hostage as sex slaves? Praise the Lord! Never mind the police, who did all the work. What? Oh right, God was working through them. Still gets the credit.
Wait – didn’t God allow the man to take the kids hostage? Isn’t God omnipotent? Couldn’t he have stopped this atrocity super easily? Yes, but for some reason he can’t manage to squash this one annoying little bug Satan, who goes around doing nasty stuff like this all the time with impunity.
Or maybe he can, but just lets Satan do his thing to teach us a lesson or something. As you know, God’s intentions are a mystery which we should not question. In fact, the more blind faith you exhibit, the better you are as a person.
The fact that just thinking about committing a sin is the same as actually doing it, in God’s eyes. If I contemplate stealing a cookie I will literally be sent by God to hell to burn forever in unspeakable agony. Just for thinking about it. However, the opposite is not also true. If I contemplate sending some flowers to my sick granny, I get bupkis. Or even worse, since the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Either way, I’m going to hell.
Infant baptisms. Because you know, babies are wicked little sinners and stuff.
But wait, didn’t you get a chance when you were older to decide for yourself whether or not to get baptized again, like for real? True, when I was eight. With no knowledge of opposing viewpoints and almost no skill at making critical decisions.
Things might have gone differently if the following conversation had taken place:
Pastor Bob: This is a very important decision for you to make, Mark. Some people believe that when you came out of your mother you were just filthy with sin. You had some magic water put on your head to protect you, but that has worn off now, and you need to decide whether or not to get some more magic water on you. If you don’t, some people believe that God will hate you and not let you into heaven when you die, but instead send you to hell where you will burn forever in unspeakable agony.
Little Mark: What do other people believe, Pastor Bob?
Pastor Bob: Other people believe that when you came out of your mother you were pure and innocent, completely good, and in need of no purification, only some gentle guidance from time to time when you made mistakes, as everyone does. They don’t believe there are any powerful spirits that demand your love and loyalty, and that punish you if you withhold it. They believe that nobody knows for sure what happens when you die, but that it is probably like it was before you were born, if you can remember that.
Little Mark: What do you believe, Pastor Bob?
Pastor Bob: I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. You will have to reach your own decision based on what you now know and feel.
Unfortunately I only got the first part of that conversation.
I think Christianity as a belief system is an incoherent mishmash. Some of it is demonstrably wrong (the earth is 6000 years old, a virgin had a baby, a guy walked on the water). Some parts contradict other parts (God is kind, merciful and good, but also jealous, spiteful and cruel).
Some parts are just ghastly when you think about it. He loves mankind, but intends to destroy it if it disobeys Him. He sent His only son to earth to be killed in order to prevent the destruction of mankind, which He Himself was planning. God is supposed to be the ultimate father figure, but a real father who did these things would be locked up, probably in a facility for the criminally insane.
Some parts make no sense. God is omnipotent, but can’t do anything about Satan. He has a son, but no wife. God is actually the same as His son. And also a ghost. To explain, theologists offer their wide-eyed congregations ham-handed verbal contortions disguised in philosophical or academic language.
Well, I could go on but I feel my blood pressure going up again.
Atheists love to point out all the glaring problems with the Bible and Christianity, especially the fact that goodness and morality are innately human and not given to us by any supernatural beings. I completely agree with this, but I think it overlooks one important thing. Goodness and morality are human qualities, but so are laziness and self-centeredness. Goodness and morality require a framework of diligent practice to be activated and strengthened, whereas laziness and self-centeredness don’t require much effort at all.
The practice of Christianity, regardless of how rationally and conceptually flawed it is as a belief system, provides such a framework. Going to church every week and singing and praying is a real-good feel-good time that activates and exercises people’s innate goodness and morality and prods them to be less self-centered.
Of course many religious practices do the same thing, as well as many non-religious practices. In fact, all practices that do this have great value for this reason alone, whether they are religious or not.
Since atheism is not a practice or even a belief system, I don’t look to it to provide me with instructions on how to be a moral person. But I do think there is little value in simply being an atheist or stumping for the atheist cause if a person has not made any commitment to practicing a moral, non-self-centered lifestyle. That person is certainly not better than the Christian, even though she is right and the Christian is wrong.
Christians who know me are now likely shaking their heads slowly, filled with genuine compassionate concern for me. Christians who don’t know me are likely filled with genuine scorn. I am sure of this based on my Christian upbringing, which featured a strong us/them disposition, and this tribal mindset seems to pervade American Christianity now more than ever before. This is deeply troubling because it is precisely opposite of what humankind most needs right now.