My Son Got Baptized

A few weeks ago my wife informed me that our youngest son was going to be baptized.  She told me that she wanted me to be there to support him during this important event in his life.  I had very mixed feelings about this, but I decided to do the “good for the family” thing and go without any argument on my part.

The backstory is that a few weeks ago, she asked if I wanted to go to  graduation party for one of the kids in the church and I told her I didn’t care to.  She got moody for a few days, and when she asked me again, I gave her the same answer.  She then went off on me a little about me not wanting to spend time with her and the kids.  Which is not true: I actually do, just not around church folks, since I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing… And all that.  So I finally told her that I didn’t realize it was that important to her, and conceded.  It actually wasn’t that bad.  They are a very gracious family and didn’t bring up anything about me not being in church for a while.

So this time, when she asked, I said yes almost immediately.

So this Wednesday night I got to the service in the middle of the announcements, so I actually had to look around for a seat.  I noticed some of my wife’s baptist family sitting near the front.  They came just for the occasion, so I decided to go sit in an empty seat near them.  None of them know yet that I’ve rejected their religion, so I was hoping none of the regulars would do that awkward “We haven’t seen you in soooo long” spiel that I was almost expecting and blow my cover, so to speak.

A bit after I sat down, one of the men in the church came over and shook my hand.  He had the strangest grin on his face as he said, “It is sooo good to see you.”

So then they baptized about 15 people, my son among them.  As I was sitting there, my chest got tight and I had a bit of difficulty breathing when he got into the water.  I still don’t know exactly how to explain what I was feeling.  As I write this, I am re-experiencing that exact same feeling.  It’s a bit of sadness combined with disappointment in myself for not being able to really explain my side of things, partially because of his age and partially because I don’t want to mess things up, as far as my relationship with my family.  There’s also some lack of sureness.  There’s a bit of doubt about whether I’ve made the right decision about my faith (although that goes away pretty quickly when I look at the evidence) but more about the future of my family.  I do not want to lose them.  I don’t want my family to fail.  And that’s constantly on my mind.  I know if it fails for “difference of view” reasons, that would be my fault for realizing what a sham Christianity is, but I cannot continue to live by a faith that isn’t true.  So I’ll keep doing everything I can to keep the peace and make this strange new version of my family work.

Anyway, when they started baptizing these kids and teenagers, the rest of the youth group would run up to the front and hold up signs they had made for each of those being baptized.  They had personalized each sign with a pithy saying or rhyme for each person.  All of this was accompanied by cheers and clapping.  It was very irreverent to the baptists in the family, but that’s just run of the mill for this church.  I guess they’re keeping it “relevant” for the youth.

All the while this was happening, I was thinking about the power of indoctrination.  Everyone was so into what was going on: buying every word he said.  The pastor made sure to tell everyone that once they were baptized their lives would be changed.  “You’ll be a new person” he said.  Ironically (or maybe not), the next day my son continued to act exactly as he did prior to being baptized.  No change at all.  I remember when my older son was baptized, I had the exact same observation about how rude he could be to his brother.  Only this time, I understand why there was no change: it’s just water, not Jesus magic.

After the last baptism, they asked everyone to stand, so I slipped out the back.  As I was walking into the foyer, one of the assistant pastors nearly ran my down.  She also had that weird grin.  “I just wanted to let you know how happy I am that you came tonight.”

As I was walking through the foyer, the other assistant pastor said something about how wonderful it was for my son to be baptized.  I just kind of nodded and said “Mmhmmm” or something.  It was all so surreal.

Anyway, that’s what happened.  My son got baptized.  I’m still processing the experience.

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Two Approaches to Atheism

I’ve been watching videos on Youtube the last few days and found some interesting views on Atheism.

One of the most relevant for me is Neil Carter of the Godless in Dixie blog on Patheos.  I personally identify with many of the things he has said and written about.  We both live in the south.  We both come from fundamentalist/ evangelical backgrounds. We are both teachers.  We are both trying to find our place in this new world of rejecting the norms of the society we find ourselves in.  I really like Neil’s advice in the video below.  I think this is pretty much where I find myself right now.

Another view that I am starting to identify with is David Silverman of American Atheists.  He has been an atheist since he was a kid, and is the president of a major Atheist organization.  He has a different perspective.  I aspire to be this open about my beliefs (or lack thereof) someday.

That being said, I see the value of both of these views.  Both have a relevant place, but It seems to me as a continuum, with Neil’s position being a great starting point, and David’s being a great fulfillment.  That’s an oversimplification, but hopefully you’ll get my point.

In a conversation with my wife last night, who still goes to church and identifies as a Christian, she asked me why I have to obsess with “this stuff” so much.  “When will you just make this who you are and get on with your life?”  As a response, I showed her Neil’s above video.  Neil does a great job of explaining the difficulties of openly identifying as an atheist where I live.  In addition, all of my immediate family are deeply spiritual people who base their entire worldview on the Bible.  So in order to not sour my relationship with them, I am trying to ease them into who I have become.  But that’s just my personal journey.  It’s probably similar to some others’ journeys, and completely different that another others’ journeys.  Either way, I see both of these views as important, viable ways to address where I am.  It’s not an argument, it’s just different ways of addressing the situation.  As David Silverman says at the end of the video, “Avoid attacking intramovement” (other views on atheism).  We’re all out there doing what we can, where we are.

Building My Post-Christian Community

I’ve been thinking about the concept of community lately.  I think it’s because I miss the weekly social interaction I had when attending church.  Even so, I’m not so sure that was really the best kind of “community”, and I think I was looking for something more fulfilling even when I was in church.

Community is roughly defined as a group of people with similar interests (like religion) or people who live in the same society.  The dictionary definition really seems to sum up the experiences I had with community in the church.  It seemed like we all would see each other on Sundays and Wednesdays, sing some songs, listen to the preacher, shake hands, make small talk, and then go our ways.  Many people didn’t seem to care anything about the rest of your life or your interests outside the walls of the church.  Sometimes there were other functions sponsored by the church- a cookout, a movie night, bowling… whatever, but again, it was “if you show up, great, if not, so what.”

It seems to me that real community cares about others, their lives, their interests, and who they really are.  And that’s what I have been looking for.

About a month ago, I was sitting at my local pub enjoying a craft beer.  This is something I’ve been doing for over a year now on most Fridays after work.  It’s a small place, and everyone seems to know each other.  There is aways stimulating conversation and something interesting going on.  When regulars walk in the door, they are usually greeted by name.  On more that one occasion, someone has made the statement, “I feel like I’m in an episode of Cheers.” Anyway, I was sitting there, talking with a couple who is usually there at the same time as me, when another regular walks in.  He sits down and joins the conversation.  After a while, he switches over to the seat next to me.  We start talking and before I know it, he asks me to join a group of guys who play disc golf on Sunday afternoons.  I’ve never played disc golf, but it seemed like a fun way to pass the time, so we exchanged info.

That Sunday, we all meet up at the park and play a round of disc golf.  Needless to say, I sucked at it, being my first time and all, but I enjoyed it.  Of the four of us who showed up, three were beginners, and one was actually pretty good.  He showed us the ropes and gave us pointers on some of the more difficult shots.  After the round, we walked over to the pub across the street from the park (pretty convenient, eh?) and drank beers and had some appetizers.

The next week, we did it again, but it rained, so we just sat in the pub and talked (beers, etc.)

The next week I was out of town, but everyone else played.

Then two days ago, I went and played again.

Every time I’ve gone, there have been different people.  Mostly the same, but the group changes slightly each time.  What happens though is starting to feel like community.  We hang out, have fun, have real conversations about the rest of our lives, and even break bread together, although it’s usually “liquid bread”.  These guys are normal people with no agenda (unlike church people) and they seem to be interested in the things important to each other.  There have been conversations about each of our jobs, families, and other things we care about.  One of the guys invited me and the wife to a get-together at his house.  We met some other interesting people and actually hung out until midnight talking politics, canning and pickling, and dirt bikes.

So is this real community?  i don’t know. But it seems more authentic that what I had at church.  And there’s no reason to pretend I believe that exact same thing as everyone else.

Last night I was messing around on the Internet when I came across this thing called Sunday Assembly.  This looks interesting. It’s been described as “atheist church”.  Apparently the founders wanted a community of like-minded people to be able to come together and share common pursuits with, similar to the way they did in church.  So they came up with the concept of something similar to a church, but without religion.  So they meet in an auditorium, sing songs, listen to people speaking, have a moment of self-reflection, and share snacks: everything you do in church, except god.  They try not to make this about anti-religion, but about celebrating life.  They try to keep it positive.  Here’s a quick article and video about it.

This sounds interesting.  This might be something I’d like to experience.  I actually looked for a local group, but the closest one is ninety miles away.  Maybe one weekend I’ll take a road trip to see what it’s all about.

Either way, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.  I think that the strength of a community lies in its members and how they contribute to the community.  Relationships, after all, are between people, and if people don’t want to tend a relationship, the relationship will be weak.  I realize this statement can be self-applied to my previous christian relationships, but frankly, I hadn’t had any common belief to them for quite a while.  Now that I have people with common beliefs, I feel like I can built relationships and a community that is authentic and right for me.

Talking to Dad about (the problems with) Christianity

My Dad came to visit for a few days this week on one of his whirlwind trips across the country.  It was nice to be able spend some time with him, considering all that he’s been through these last few years.  While he was here, I knew I wanted to discuss all of these things I’ve learned about the problems with Christianity and maybe even get to the real point and “come out” as an atheist to him.

You have to know a little about my dad.  He was my pastor from about the time I was 14 until I left to join the Army at 18.  He is on the board of the oneness pentecostal denomination (small though it is) that I grew up in.  Whenever you ask how he is, his response is usually, “I’m blessed in the Lord.”  EVERYTHING about his worldview is based on his “relationship” with Jesus.  But at the same time, he is very resilient when it comes to any kind of personal or religious issue, and he is very accepting of others in a way I’ve almost never seen of any other person, let alone a oneness pentecostal minister.  As an example, years ago when it was revealed that my brother’s fiancé was pregnant, all my dad did was hug him and tell him how much he loved him.  Another example of my dad’s acceptingness of others’ differences is the interfaith minister’s group my dad attends in his hometown.  He is good friends with baptist and catholic ministers, etc., and even calls them his “brothers in Christ”; not a common traits for the closed-minded, “we’re the only ones with the truth” oneness pentecostals.

So dad came in on Monday, and I wasn’t sure how he would react to “the news”, so I decided to wait.  On Tuesday we worked on a project together, which took nearly all day.  That night, my wife asked if I had talked with him about “important things.”  She was worried about the reaction when she and the kids left for church on Wednesday night and I didn’t go with them.

So on Wednesday, Dad and I went out to breakfast.  I started the conversation with a line of reasoning from John W. Loftus’ OTF.  I started with the Religious Diversity Thesis in my own words.  “I read that there are about 40,000 Christian denominations in the world.  Many of them are mutually exclusive of one another, meaning that one group would send the other group to hell for their beliefs and vice versa-  Since they can’t all be right, how do you know which one is the right one?”

His response was something about the basics of christianity and knowing in your heart that you had a relationship with god.  So I set a little groundwork and explained that the reason I left the UPC church was that I realized it wasn’t biblically right (he agreed with me) and that I had been looking for the “right” church for the last six or so years through much study and research, so I could know which was the right way to worship god.  After all, if god is a “jealous god” and Paul said to not fall for those who taught “other gospels” then there must be only one “right way” to worship god.  And with 40,000 extant ways, many mutually exclusive, there are a lot of people who have it wrong.  He said it had to do with “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  So I restated that it’s basically up to your own interpretation.  He sort of agreed with me.

Then I shifted into John W. Loftus’ Religious Dependency Thesis.  “You know that most people stick with the religion they were born into?  If you were born in India, you’re probably going to be Hindu, and if you were born in Japan, you’re probably going to be Buddhist, and if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’re probably going to be a Muslim- and if you were born here, you’re probably a Christian of some sort.  Most people don’t really look at the religion they were born into to see if it’s right or not.”  He responded that his grandfather was a Methodist preacher until he saw the “light of Jesus’ name”  (BTW, that’s oneness pentecostal code for “we reject the trinity concept and as a result, when we baptize people, we say ‘in Jesus’ name’ instead of ‘father, son, and holy spirit'”).  I told him that I didn’t think that was a good analogy, since the pentecostals originated in the methodists, and they’re very similar anyway, not to mention that was a common thing at that time since that’s how the pentecostals came about.  Then I told him that there are some people who do switch religions, but the majority stick with their culturally inherited one.

Then I asked, “If your version of Christianity is culturally inherited, and there is no right version because its a matter of personal interpretation, how is one ever going to figure out which is the right one?  THAT doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.”

I brought up the differences in opinion of the early church that are extant in the new testament.  I showed him Romans 3:28 and the surrounding verses and James 2:24 and surrounding verses where Paul said that “a man is justified by faith apart from works”, and “James” said that “a man is justified by works and not faith alone.”  He said he’s have to look at his commentary to see what the original language said.  So I pulled up the verses on the Blue Letter Bible website where you can get to the Greek dictionary.  Sure enough, they use the exact same Greek words to express opposite versions of how one is justified.  My next question was “if the men who wrote the Bible can’t even agree on how one is justified, how are we to know how to be justified?”  He responded that he never had a problem with this.  He said that either way, he felt that he was justified. He went on to talk about how they were really saying the same thing, and that works will follow your salvation regardless.  I gave him the analogy that if Hitler was on his deathbed and “believed” with all his heart then died that Paul would say he was saved, but “James” wold not, since “faith without works is dead.”  He saw my point, but didn’t necessarily agree with me.

We spoke on and off most of the afternoon.  I brought in textual criticism, archaeology, and a bit of science.  I could see his wheels turning with frustration, but all he could answer was that none of this had ever bothered him because he was sure in his salvation.  Finally I replied with, “Well, it does bother me.”  I told him that I had spoken with my (former) pastor and he couldn’t provide any answers other that to recommend a book that brought up more questions and didn’t make Christianity look very good since it used untruths to make its points.  I also told him that I had been corresponding with my cousin (a pastor) who couldn’t answer any of my questions, but only define the religio-philosophical problem that I was giving examples of.  I told him that I had important questions that needed to be answered, and no one seemed to be able to answer them.

Then my wife came in and asked if he was going to go to church with her and the kids.  He decided to stay with me.  I think that’s when it hit home.  He said, “Well, I can see you’ve lost faith in the church.”

I said “Yes.  And Christianity too.”

He asked if I still had faith in god.  I said, “I’m still holding out for god.”

What I didn’t tell him is that I do not, in fact, believe that the god of the Christian faith exists as claimed by Christians, but I would like there to be a god, because that’s where my comfort zone is.  I’ve always believed there’s a god, and that’s a hard thing to let go of.  But considering the evidence, I can’t believe.  It’s one of those things that you really can’t unsee.

I think this conversation will continue, but I don’t really think he will be the one to bring it up.

The Case for Christ

So it’s been a few months since I actively stopped going to church.  One night, My wife and I have a conversation about it.  I basically summed up my arguments as to why I could no longer go to church with “It’s all bullshit”.  She thought about it, and a few nights later she told me that she had come to grips with a lot of this when she started attending the UPC church years ago.  She basically said that she realized her baptist grandparents were saved, even though the UPC church says they’re not.  She then went on to say that she even considers her dad OK, even though he is a member of what he calls the one, true religion, “non-practicing Catholics.”  She said that he is more of a Christian, by his attitude and actions toward others than many of the active Christians she knows.  I have to agree with her.  He is one of the best people I know.

So since I’ve quit going, the music minister sent me a text asking how I was doing.  I replied that I was well.

Then two Sundays ago, I get a call from one of the men in the church, who I used to ride motorcycles with.  He left a message asking me to call him back.  I put it off until Tuesday night.  He called back and we talked for a while.  I tried my best to lay out what I had been through as quickly as I could.  He expressed his worried disapproval and finally concluded by asking me if I had ever witnessed a miracle.  Well, no.  I never have.  I’ve been told by others that they knew someone who heard someone else say they had witnesses a miracle.  For all intents and purposes, I think most situations that people call miracles are coincidences.  And I also think it’s interesting that the closer you get to the third world, the more miracles you see.  And isn’t it interesting the near lack of modern medical equipment that could confirm a miracle claim in the third world…  But I digress.  He went on to tell me about a miracle that happened to him.  Apparently his dog was hit in the head and his son said the dog was dead.  He called the pastor, who proceeded to pray for the dog, and he was healed.  I think he made my point for me without even realizing it.  But he asked if he could pray for me that I’d witness a miracle.  Sure.  What harm could that do?  I’d love to see an actual, verifiable miracle.  Wouldn’t you?

Then a couple of days later, my former pastor sends me a text asking if we could talk.  So I called him and we set up a breakfast meeting for last Saturday.  Over the course of an hour and a half, I laid out most of everything I had learned, and concluded by telling him that I no longer believed.

One of his concerns was that I had mentioned that Matthew had mined the Septuagint for his “prophecies” concerning the messiah and had misunderstood it, and therefore pictured Jesus riding two donkeys into Jerusalem simultaneously based on his misunderstanding.   My former pastor proceeded to tell me that the Septuagint wasn’t written when Matthew wrote his gospel.  OK…

Then he told me that he thought that “my searching” was a good thing, since it showed that I was looking for the truth.  In fact, I had told him several times that that was the whole reason I had started questioning Christianity in the first place: I wanted to know the truth.  I had even said that I thought it was interesting and ironic that my search for the truth had lead me out of Christianity.  But even so, I’ll grant him that my search is definitely not over.  There is always more to learn.

So he concluded by asking if I would be willing to read a book.  Sure.  I’m always open to reading a good book.  So he orders me a copy of The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He also orders me a copy of The Case for a Creator, also by Strobel.  I was a little anxious to see if these books might contain that one thing that I might be able to pin my hopes on that Christianity had some sliver of hope left.  After all, he is a pastor, and he has to know something about these books and the knowledge they contain.  Maybe, just maybe, he knew something that I hadn’t looked at yet.  So we said our goodbyes and promised to meet again in a few weeks time to discuss the books.

The next day, as I was running around town doing errands, I stopped by the local bookstore.  In the religion section, they had a copy of The Case for Christ.  So I sat down and started reading.  Very quickly, my hopes dried up.  It’s written on quite a low level, and is dry: that formulaic, leading kind of dry that so many Christian books are written in.  I got about half-way through the first chapter and had to quit.  I skipped to the end of the chapter and realized there were “study questions”.  I’d been had!  This wasn’t a real book about facts and serious inquiry, it was a Christian self-help book.

So I looked up some reviews of the book online to see what others had said about it.  Not surprisingly, all the Christian reviews were glowing.  But then I came across a couple of  blog-length critical reviews of the book.  I also found one for The Case for a Creator, which I am nearly finished with reading.  It is over at the Daylight Atheism blog on Patheos.com.    Apparently, my initial assessment was correct.  These books are nothing more than self-help books trying to keep those Christians with little or mild doubt in the pews.  When you actually look at the claims made in these books, it’s easy to see that they haven’t got a leg to stand on.

Frankly, I am quite disappointed that my former pastor would recommend these books.  Either he thinks they are that good, or he doesn’t realize how tenacious and thorough I have been with studying this stuff.  Yes… I know it’s taken me a long time to finally put two and two together and realize that not only is the emperor not wearing clothes, but that there is no emperor at all, but at least I did figure it out.  Now to convince my former pastor that I’m done.

I still do intend on reading at least The Case for Christ, but I had already ordered Loftus’ The Christian Delusion.  If you have not read this book, you need to.  It puts all of it together in a way that makes it easy to comprehend, and is written by such a high level of authors that there is really no arguing against it in a meaningful way.

Why I Am Not a Christian (anymore)

*If you’re reading this and don’t agree with the assessments that are presented, that’s fine.  I’m not trying to convince anyone.  However, a simple Google search will take you to countless references to all of the concepts that I have presented in this post.  I will post some links at the bottom for those of you who would like to do further research, since I don’t present a complete case for any of this.  There are references to informative books throughout the post as well.  My intent with this post is not to present a case for anything, but to detail my own experiences.

 

One of my favorite memories of my time in the United Pentecostal Church is when I didn’t shave for about two weeks.  I let my beard grow a little and went to church that way, knowing that was against their “holiness standards”.

I had already done my homework.  The pastor, had distributed copies of some Bible software that allowed us to search the Bible for specific search terms.  This was before smartphones and Bible websites.  His intent was to allow us to study the Bible more easily and efficiently.  Little did he know that it would lead to some in his flock finding the actual truth.  I had been having misgivings about the holiness standards for a while, so I started searching the Bible for what it said about beards.  I found the story about one of the kings being anointed with oil so that it ran off of his beard and the section of the law that said not to round the corners of your beard.  I figured that you would have to have a beard not to round the corners…  So I stopped worrying about their made-up rule and let mine grow.  The second Sunday I came to church like that, one of the assistant pastors called me into one of the empty rooms and told me that Pastor Sheppard had asked him to speak to me about the standards and my facial hair.  He reminded me that “if you are in a leadership position, you are expected to follow the standards.”  At the time, I was “in charge” of the sound booth and media team.  Anyway, he then tells me, “We both know there isn’t a scripture in the Bible that forbids men to have a beard, but the Pastor was put in position by god, and he doesn’t want leaders in the church to wear beards.”  The scripture they used to justify this was “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft”, so logically, if the pastor makes up a random rule, you have to follow it or you’re going to hell.

That’s the reason this is my favorite memory.  The pastor’s favorite minion admitted (in so many words) that this beard rule was made up.  Sure, it’s pretty much universal to all of the UPC, but it was still made up.  What really cracks me up, looking back on it now, is that he didn’t have the balls to come to me himself.  He sent his lackey to do the dirty work.

So this got me to really thinking about the other holiness standards and all the other doctrinal teachings specific to the UPC and Oneness Pentecostalism.  If the beard thing was a sham, who’s to say the rest weren’t?  So I really began to search the Bible and commentaries in earnest.  What I discovered is that every issue that sets the UPC apart from main-line Pentecostalism is a sham.  The dresses, the make-up, the “oneness of god”, three-step salvation plan, the way they use scripture to justify these doctrines… all a sham.  Even a casual reading of the scriptures they use to support these doctrines shows that they are using them out of context to keep people in line, and thus in fear of going to hell no matter how well they follow the rules.

At this point in this journey I ordered the book Christianity Without the Cross by Thomas Fudge.  Dr. Fudge does an exemplary job of explaining the origins of the Pentecostal movement, and in doing so, he shows their weaknesses.  After much research, even at the UPC archives, he discovered that of the group of men who started this movement (Pentecostalism in general, not just the UPC), only one had any college education.  He didn’t  finish college.  Most hadn’t even finished high school.  If I remember correctly, two or three had graduated high school.  Here’s the significance: if they didn’t have an education, specifically training in areas that are relevant to understanding ancient texts for their intended meaning, how could they understand the ancient languages,  historical context, grammatical context, exegetical analysis, and other important skills necessary to properly understand what the Bible was saying?  I propose that they couldn’t have.  But they sure made up a religion based on their misunderstandings of the texts…  and I was in it.

It was around this time that I quit the UPC.  We searched for a church and started going to one of our local Assemblies of God churches.  At first, I was relieved to be able to come to church and not be stressed out by all the drama.  I enjoyed the services.  I started feeling refreshed.  But after a short time, I started hearing things from the preachers that still didn’t seem quite right.  I apparently still had unanswered questions.  And so my research and studying continued.

One day out of the blue, I ended up at a book store and started rummaging through the religion section.  I came across Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.  This book blew me away.  He shows how the Bible has been changed throughout the centuries.  He gives examples from the ancient manuscripts that survive and shows how there are actually more differences in these manuscripts than there are words in the Bible.

It took me a while to fully grasp this and its importance, but I finally accepted that the Bible is a work of men (not god, as I had previously been told) and it contains mistakes.  In many cases, we do not know what the authors really said, although modern analysts are still working on it, trying to figure out what were likely the original words.

In a subsequent book, Forged, Dr. Ehrman shows that many of the books in the new testament were not written by who we commonly attribute them to.  For example, we do not know who wrote the four gospels, and thus the book of Acts, since it was written by the same person who wrote Luke.  All of the gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus, so they cannot be accurate, as they were written from memory.  More importantly, they were written in Greek, which makes it unlikely that they were written by eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus, since all of his followers were uneducated, Aramaic-speaking Jews who did not have the capacity to learn to write with such an educated style as is represented in the gospels.  So the significance of this is that we do not have any eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and the accounts that we do have, decades removed from the actual events, contain contradictions of not only the original manuscripts, but also the thoughts and intent of the various authors.

After reading Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted, I sent an email to Dr. Ehrman asking if he could recommend books that dealt with the old testament similar to how he wrote about the new testament.  One of the books he recommended was Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman.  This book shows how the Pentateuch came to us, and how flawed it is.  Although we usually consider Moses to be the author, it turns out that it is a compilation of at least three earlier works (that contradict each other) that were then combined and edited by a fourth author.  All of this gives us a mishmash of the oral histories, traditions, and myths of these three combined works, which when taken together seem to lose their deeper meaning and significance to the people who they originally came from.  The writings from the northern kingdom of Israel lose their context and significance when combined with the writings of the kingdom of Judah.  The priestly writings show the struggle for political power that was taking place between the different groups of priests after the kingdoms were combined.  Then the edits made by the redactor seems to wash out every other point of view but that of the priests in power at the time of Ezra, who won out to all the other groups seeking to control the kingdom.  It is the redactor’s story that stands, while the stories of the other groups are lost among the chop suey of what is left.

I find it interesting that most run-of-the-mill Christians say that the Bible is perfect and without error, since it was divinely inspired, yet the four accounts of the birth of Jesus have very different details from each other.  The four accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus have different, contradicting details.  The two accounts of the creation have different, contradicting details, and the two accounts of Noah’s ark have different, contradicting details.  The two versions of the ten commandments are even different.  But when most run-of-the-mill Christians are faced with these facts, they either argue that they are not contradictions because “the Bible contains no errors, so those aren’t errors (which is circular reasoning), or they just don’t know what to make of it; “I’ve noticed stuff in the Bible like that before, but it doesn’t shake my faith.”  But that seems to be the Christian way; the verse says, “lean not on your own understanding”, so hey, let’s not use our reasoning to think about this verse that directly contradicts this other verse, and follow the logic that ends up that there is an error in the “holy” scriptures.  We wouldn’t want to do that now, would we?  But it seems that with so many authors throughout the centuries, what we have left is a collection of works that were written by many individuals, and in many cases added to and revised, that are from many points of view, and as expected of any such collection, it contains contradictions, different points of view, and errors.

After reading Friedman’s book, I came across The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein, which gives an overview of the modern archaeological studies of the Levant that are relevant to the history of the Jewish people, and thus the Bible itself. As it turns out, modern archaeology cannot find any evidence from many of the great biblical stories that are supposed to be historical events, according to Christianity.  The great flood, the exodus from Egypt, King David, and King Solomon are just a few of these biblical events and persons that archeologists have found no evidence for, and in fact they have found disconfirming evidence that shows these events, as portrayed in the Bible, could not have happened.  Evidence shows that Jerusalem was a small village for much of its biblical era history, so Kings David and Solomon would not have been as powerful as depicted in the Bible stories, and whether they even existed or not is still up for debate.  Further, archaeological evidence from other lands such as Egypt and Babylon, many times, also show that the Biblical stories could not have happened as depicted in the Bible.

From reading these books and learning the valuable, mind changing information within their pages, I started looking at other versions of Christianity than the Pentecostal church.  After all, the pentecostal church was created just over 100 years ago by some guys who had a dream.  I figured that a church with more historical ties to ancient Christianity might be closer to “truth” than what I presently had.  Although my faith was wavering, it was around this time that I started calling myself an agnostic Christian.  I still had faith, but it was definitely not the same as it had been before all of this new information had come to me.  I was pretty sure we couldn’t prove or disprove the existence of god, but I still believed.

I read books about the Episcopal church and the Orthodox church, among others, along with uncountable articles and reference pages about them.  What I eventually came to conclude is that Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and subsequent power positioning of the clergy fucked up Christianity for all time.  The practices from the Orthodox church seem to come to us from the time when Constantine put the clergy in favored position.  Looking at the writings of church fathers from this time you can see the arguments that were occurring among them about what “true” Christianity was.  Earlier, even the author of James (which probably wasn’t James, the brother of Jesus) disagrees with Paul over doctrine, and this carries over to the time of Constantine, when the clergy had the power to decide which version of Christianity became official, and which numerous other versions would be quashed and their propagators killed, exiled, or imprisoned.  It is most certain that the doctrines held “untouchable” by most of the church originated from this time when the original creeds were formulated and codified in order to express what constituted orthodoxy, and what was blasphemy.  It seems the winners always get to write the history books, and the church fathers who won these argument got to write the church’s history and forced a different version of Christianity on the world than had originally existed, if there even was such a thing as “original” Christianity.

So it seems Christianity was on it’s last leg for me.  But there had to be something that Christianity could hold on to that would make it still believable.  I knew there had to be something.  Even in this new liberal version of the Christian faith that I had come to adopt, there had to be some evidence that something about the Christian faith was worthy of holding on to it.  For a while, I couldn’t figure out what it was.  Then it occurred to me that the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel pretty much cement the deal.  Or did they.  I needed to bone up on my old testament prophets.

As it turns out, Daniel was written far after the time most Christians claim it was written, and the prophecies about Jesus  being the messiah were actually written in reference to Antiochus Epiphanes.  King A.E. was the “abomination of desolation” that Daniel wrote about.  Isaiah does prophesy a messiah, but it’s not Jesus.  It’s someone who would be born in the time frame of the events written about in Isaiah.  When he prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive”, etc., he was speaking to King Ahaz about the messiah that would save Jerusalem from the attack of King Rezin and Pekah.  In addition, there are problems with the translation of the original Hebrew word that has been translated as “virgin”.  In addition, Isaiah is generally accepted by scholars to have been written by at least three different people during three different time periods.  A lot of Christians get upset and say that you have to read the scriptures in context.  But it seems that they are leaving out the historical context, the grammatical context, and the context of the work being read and it’s origins and provenance.

There are many, many more examples of discrepancies that I have found in Daniel and Isaiah, which altogether show that they could not have been prophesying about Jesus.  It seems that those who wrote the new testament works scoured the old testament for anything that could be remotely linked to Jesus, then made the old testament verses fit.  Some of the new testament authors apparently didn’t understand what they were reading from the old testament, but made it fit anyway.  Take for example Matthew’s two donkeys that Jesus rode into Jerusalem simultaneously, among many others.  Most telling, I think is the reasons Jews give for not accepting Jesus as the messiah.  He doesn’t fulfill all of the requirements as laid out by the old testament… and who should know better than the Jews?

So where did that leave me?  I belonged to a religion whose ancient supporting text had no provenance, was full of errors, discrepancies, and contradictions.  Archaeological evidence didn’t support its claims, and even its own ancient supporting text didn’t support its claims.

Moreover, I had been questioning a lot of other things about the religion.  Prayer, for instance.  The Bible has several verses that outright say that if you pray for something, it will happen.  Jesus himself said, “ask anything in my name, and I will do it.”  This has never been the case in my life.  Whenever I pray for something, it nearly never happens.  The few times that something does happen, it’s not the way I asked for it, and it usually appears to be more coincidence than divine intervention.  The author over at Why Won’t God Heal Amputees covers this topic in more detail than I care to.  Needless to say, I took this point of view into consideration.

I found several other websites with thought provoking information.  Some of the most useful were Truth Saves, God is Imaginary, The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, Danizier, Errancy.org, and the article on Why Jesus could not have been the messiah at Debunking Skeptics.  After much reading and studying and comparing these and other authors’ arguments to the Bible and what Christian apologists have to say, I was pretty sure that Christianity is about as dead a religion as Mithraism, Roman mythology, voodoo, and all the others.  It seems that those offering the argument against Christianity make sense and base their arguments on logic and fact, whereas the Christian defenders base their arguments on the Bible (which is, as we have seen, not reliable), and circular logic: “The Bible says it, so it’s true…”

At this point in my journey, I wasn’t comfortable with the term atheist.  I’m still not sure I am.  But I had stopped going to church.  Just as it was when I left the UPC church years ago, not a single person has inquired as to why I’ve left.  Only one single person has sent me a text message asking how I’m doing, but other than that, out of sight, out of mind.  Personally, I think this is because Christians, deep down, know there is something wrong with the church they go to, as well as other Christians.  So when someone leaves, it’s OK because everyone is in denial that there is anything wrong, and no one wants to upset the status quo: “Jesus still loves them anyway”, or “This church is full of good people, so I’ll stay despite the faults”.  Very few actually want to look into the real reason behind why so few stay satisfied with a church very long.

A short time ago, I wound up in another book store on a Sunday morning, and started browsing through the religion section again.  I came across the book The Outsider Test for Faith by John W. Loftus.  Some of Loftus’ writings are also presented on his blog, Debunking Christianity.  Loftus presents what he calls the outsider test to determine if your religion is “the one true religion”, or even worthy of following.  The premise behind the test is for followers of a religion to take a step back and view their own religion as if they didn’t believe in it; a stretch by no small means.  But now that I didn’t believe, I was able to see Christianity as it looks from the outside.  Amazingly, I realized how silly it all seems: talking bushes, talking snakes, a virgin birth, a god-man who comes back from the dead after spending a few nights in the realm of the damned.  As an outsider, these ideas seem as improbable as the many armed gods of India, Thor’s hammer, the sun chariot of ancient Greece, and the flying horse of Islam.

Loftus also makes a good point about the cultural basis of religion.  We generally accept the religion of our parents and never investigate to see whether it makes sense or not… not really.  If we do examine it, it’s from an insider perspective, which always makes our own religion make sense.  But why do we reject every other religion?  Because they don’t make sense.  And from my point of view, Christianity doesn’t make sense.

So there you have it.  The short version of why I am not a Christian.  The evidence for christianity not only doesn’t stack up, but the evidence is in piles against it.  There’s one more thing Loftus said that sticks with me.  He said that most Christians will not consider their religion improbable until they realize it is impossible.  That’s the way I went.  I searched for every last shred of hope that Christianity was possible.  It wasn’t until I had exhausted every possibility that Christianity was not a lie that I could admit to myself that I didn’t believe in it anymore.  I held out hope to the end, but the evidence just doesn’t do anything to make Christianity believable.  I can’t do it anymore.

Does this mean I’m an atheist?  No.  I’m still holding out hope for a god… or maybe this is just nostalgia.  I think I like the term agnostic.  I can’t prove god’s existence either way, so until he/she/it gives me reasonable evidence to believe in  him/her/it, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: using my brain and logic to figure out life as it comes along.

 

Cul-De-Sac Memories

When I was four, my family moved from Arkansas to California.  For a few months we stayed at my grandparents’ house.  I don’t recall much from that time except that I had a little green bicycle that I think someone pulled out of the dump and spray painted so that I would have a bike.  I remember years later, my mom said that while we were living there, I took a pair of scissors and clipped all of the folds in my grandmother’s drapes.  I was only four at the time, so I don’t remember it, but it sounds like something I would do.  I’m pretty sure it embarrassed my mom, and may be one of the reasons she didn’t especially connect with my dad’s parents.  I don’t know… Speculation on my part.  But looking at others I know who have stayed with people in a transition situation, things that the kids do makes parents crazy and strains relationships, especially among the women.

My dad eventually found a little house on a cul-de-sac a couple of miles from my grandparents’ house.  The house couldn’t have been more than 1000 square feet.  It was probably more like 800 or 900.  There was a small eat-in kitchen in the front, a small living room that had a door directly into the master bedroom, and a short hallway off the back of the living room that led to the two smaller bedrooms.  My brother and I shared the bedroom directly behind the kitchen, and the girls got the one in the middle of the house. The bathroom was between these two bedrooms.  We stayed in that house from the time I was in kindergarten to about the time I was in fourth or fifth grade.

In the winter, the house was really cold.  In fact, I remember getting up for school some mornings and it being so cold in the house that my mom had all of the burners on the stove going to help heat the place.  I would go in the bathroom and rum my hands under the hot water to warm them up.  The heater was an old gold-colored gas thing.  It was in the wall between the living room and the hallway in front of my sisters’ bedroom, so it was pretty much central in the house, but it didn’t heat very well.  But on those cold mornings, it was the best heat we could get, so we would run to the kitchen, get a bowl of cereal, and then argue over who got to sit with our feet directly under the heater- one in the hall, and one in the living room.

One of my favorite memories from the house was the day we got the carpet changed.  When we moved in, the carpet was really old and nasty.  Apparently it was that green 70s shag, but it had a lot of dog stains.  When my parents saved enough, they went and got new carpet.  It was a brown high/low, with the little lines running through it.  I remember all of the furniture being out on the lawn.  That was strange to me as a kid.    I also remember the incredibly large amount of dirt on the floor after they pulled the carpet up.  They installed the carpet, and I was fascinated by the process.

Behind the house was an unattached garage.  When we moved in, the siding was some kind of wooden slats.  Somewhere along the way, my dad decided to replace the siding on the garage.  To remove the old siding, which was dry rotted, my dad, mom, and one of my uncles were using a sledge hammer to bust it up, then a claw hammer to pull out the nails.  I got to bust some of the siding off, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.  They replaced the siding with plywood, which they painted yellow.  Strange choice, but… Hey, if you knew my family, you’d understand.

In the back corner of the yard was an apricot tree that we spent many hours climbing.  Somewhere along the way, my parents put up a tire swing, and we wore a hole in the ground underneath it.  It wasn’t just a tire hung from the tree, it was an actual swing made from an old tire.  If you cut around the bead, then across the tread, so that you remove about 75% of the sidewall and tread, but leave the rings of bead on both sides, you can turn it inside out, tie a rope from the bead to the tree, then you have a swing.  When you spin it up as much as you can, you spin for what seems like forever.  You spin one way, then back, then back again.  When you get off, you can’t walk straight, and sometimes you even throw up a little.  Best feeling ever!

There were some train tracks about a block from our house.  Sometimes we would go over there against our parents’ permission and do things like put coins on the tracks and let the trains squish them.  Once there was a train carrying some sort of ore; I guess that’s what it was.  It was a silvery, grey, shiny rock.  Some of it fell off the train and we got pieces of it.  I still have mine somewhere.  I thought that was the coolest thing ever.  I guess that’s why I held on to it.

There were two kids who lived next door to us.  Their dad owned a small car lot and and detailing shop, so he always had cool cars.  The oldest one was a couple of years older than my older sister.  The younger one was either the same age or a year older than her.  We hung out with them quite a bit.  For a while, I think when I was in second grade, there were two girls that lived across the street.  I tried to impress them one day with my fishing pole.  I tied a weight to the end of the line and tried casting toward them.  Their dad got upset with me.  They also had chickens.  We got in their chicken cage one day and tried to catch one of them.  I don’t remember if we were successful, but it was interesting.

There were some kids down the street at the house on the corner.  They were a rough bunch.  The one that was close to our age was named J.D., I think.  They were always dirty, and they cussed.  There was a tree house in their yard.  One day the younger kid from next door and me and one of the dirty kids climbed up in their tree house and looked at a playboy or some other girlie magazine.  I was only in second or third grade, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  I vaguely remember a naked woman with paint all over her body.

My neighbor also introduced me to the word “stoned”.  We were riding our bikes and we skidded on some dirt, which cause a minor dust cloud.  He said something to the effect of, “we could do that over and over, then get in the middle of the ‘smoke’ so we can get stoned.”  Near the same time, we were playing one day and somehow ended up in my front yard.  As best I can remember, we were paying like we were going through a typical day… or something.  Anyway, we “came home” to my front yard.  That’s where the “house” was in whatever it was that we were playing.  And he said, “OK, now we have to hump.”  He lies on the grass, face down, and begins doing semi pushups with his pelvis.  I followed suit.  I had no idea what we were doing, but looking back on it as an adult, I can imagine that he had been exposed to something on TV… or whatever that he had an inking of an idea what “humping” was.

It was while we were living at that house that we discovered what an eclipse was.  One day the kids next door asked our mom if we could come over and watch the eclipse that night.  She asked what channel it was on.  That’s still one of my funniest memories.  It says a lot about my upbringing in one sense as well.  That night, both of our families stood in the back yards and watched the moon slowly black out, then slowly reappear.

Some time later, one night my dad got all of us out of bed and took us to the back yard so we could watch the space shuttle fly over.  I remember that it was cold, and we were staring at the sky, then finally, a fairly bright- what looked like a star- somewhat quickly made its way across the sky.  I’ve done the same thing to my kids; stay up late so we could watch some astronomical event.  Kids hate it, but one day, they’ll look back with fond memories.

There are lots of other memories I have of that house.  I’ll have to post them later.  We had a garden, there were olive trees, and this one summer rain storm I’ll never forget.  But those are for another time.