Why I am an Atheist: Christianity’s Dubious History

Like most children brought up in the Christian religion, I was taught that the Bible, at least certain portions of the Bible, was historically accurate in every detail. The first chapter of Genesis might be open to poetic interpretation, but everything from Adam and Eve on was to be taken at historical face-value. The battles, miracles, and exiles of the Old Testament, totally historical. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were historical biographical sketches of Jesus from four different points of view. My upbringing was not one that demanded literal belief of every word, but we came pretty close to that ideal pretty much of the time. To me as a teenager, even if I saw no other confirmation that Christian belief was true, I was certain that the Bible was a solid foundation that would bolster my belief even though the stormiest trials of faith.

Then I learned a bit about the history of the Christian church, including that of the Bible. After about two decades of Sunday School instruction, what I learned was deeply unsetting.The most disturbing thing I found out was that there were many different sects of Christianity from the beginning, and the differences between them made the most volatile disagreement between modern denominations look piddly. In fact, for a couple of centuries after Jesus was said to have lived and died, they could not even agree on who he was. Let me say that again…for about the first two centuries, different sects of Christianity could not agree on who Jesus was exactly or what his true nature was. Seriously. (Most of these differences are now called heresies, and I found the way they were determined to be heresies and how the “heretics” were dealt with to be just as troubling as their disagreements.)

Some believed that Jesus was born in the normal way, was adopted with God’s spirit at baptism, and then was abandoned by God’s spirit before he died (since God cannot die, of course). Some thought he was a special prophet of God, but totally separate from God in being. Others thought he was totally a spiritual being and not really human at all! Didn’t Jesus clearly reveal what his nature was when he was on earth? How could there be such discord on this very important point among the early Christians so very soon after they had met him in the flesh (don’t forget some didn’t even think he HAD flesh)? And if there was so much confusion back then, how are we supposed know what to believe today?

Actually, a unified Christian view of the nature of Jesus was not nailed down (no pun intended) until about 325 CE, with the Nicene Council. By this time, some of the Christians had gained some clout with the Roman government. It was declared church dogma that Jesus was “one substance” with “God the Father” and was therefore 100% God and 100% man at the same time. All who taught otherwise were persecuted or killed as heretics, and their books were burned. In other words, the winning view did not win because it had evidence on its side, but because it had the power to censor and destroy opposing ideas on its side. With the full approval of God’s Holy Spirit of course, if you take the council leaders at their word. How someone would go about confirming this with the Holy Spirit is not exactly clear. Also suspect to me was the idea that it was of utmost importance that everyone believe exactly the same way…where was the idea of religious tolerance in those days?

Consider the time frames here as well. Assuming Jesus lived from about year 0 to 30 CE (give or take a few years) and the orthodox view of Jesus was officially decided in 325 CE, that means the church didn’t come up with a unified belief about the nature of Jesus until 300 years later! Is this not like a group of people who claim authority in historical matters getting together to decide on some nuance about the American Revolution, and then declaring that if anyone henceforth questions their pronouncement, that person shall be declared a heretic and their research burned?

There is a lot more to the the dubious nature of Christian history, but this early disagreement over the nature of Jesus is the one I found the most worrying when I learned about it. If Jesus so clearly revealed himself to his disciples, who then immediately passed his teachings on to the rest of the world, how could there be such confusion and disagreement over who he even was or whether or not he even had a physical body? And what about Paul, from whom the modern church gets the bulk of its theology? He never even met Jesus, but claims (and we have the collaboration of his servants to back him up) to have had a vision. Consider this is in light of the his severe disagreements with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, who had supposedly had personal ties with Jesus himself. There are also known forgeries and serious inconsistencies in the biblical manuscripts themselves, and the inconvenient fact that we have no idea who wrote any of the Gospels (they were written anonymously, decades after the events they claim to describe). It goes on and on.

Small caveat: I am not a historian myself, and no kind of authority on historical matters. I have only taken a couple of classes in Christian history and read a few books. If my blog post has piqued your curiosity and made you want to read more, then my goal has been accomplished. If you would like to read it from people who have actually done the research, I recommend the sources below.

Anything by Bart Ehrman, especially Misquoting Jesus regarding forgery in the New Testament, Lost Christianities regarding early Christian sects that are little known today, and Jesus, Interrupted. Click on his name for more information on the author and his books.

Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier. An earlier version of this work can also be found for free online at The Secular Web. See Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?

For a pretty quick read of the arguments that Jesus never existed as a historical character at all, see Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All by David Fitzgerald.

To clarify the point on Christian persecution of so-called heretics, is this passage from the Wikipedia article on Christian Heresy. According to this, the Christians who deemed themselves “orthodox” were not able to really persecute the heretics immediately after the Nicene Council, but they did so when they gained the power.

The first known usage of the term ‘heresy’ in a civil legal context was in 380 AD by the “Edict of Thessalonica” of Theodosius I. Prior to the issuance of this edict, the Church had no state sponsored support for any particular legal mechanism to counter what it perceived as ‘heresy’. By this edict, in some senses, the line between the Catholic Church’s spiritual authority and the Roman State’s jurisdiction was blurred. One of the outcomes of this blurring of Church and State was a sharing of State powers of legal enforcement between Church and State authorities. At its most extreme reach, this new legal backing of the Church gave its leaders the power to, in effect, pronounce the death sentence upon those whom they might perceive to be ‘heretics’.

Within 5 years of the official ‘criminalization’ of heresy by the emperor, the first Christian heretic, Priscillian was executed in 385 by Roman officials. For some years after the Protestant Reformation, Protestant denominations were also known to execute those whom they considered as heretics. The last known heretic executed by sentence of the Roman Catholic Church was Cayetano Ripoll in 1826. The number of people executed as heretics under the authority of the various ‘church authorities’ is not known, however it most certainly numbers into the several thousands.

What does “non-traditional” Christian mean?

From such conversations and from my observations of church signs and such, it appears that the big trend in Christianity is to disavow old stuffy traditions and be cool and current and trendy. It’s nothing new to me–in fact, it was going on all though my teen years (the 1990′s). Apparently, from what I hear, church used to be boring and haughty and judgmental. The new radical Christianity is just all about loving people and accepting them the way they are. But what is particularly Christian about that? You get the same thing with other religions too, and in secular humanism! Human kindness is a human attribute, not some other-worldly spiritual attribute. Continue reading

Faith and Evidence in Avatar

I saw Avatar a few days ago, and thought it was a wonderful movie and a thrilling fantasy story. Just after watching, I described it as a kind of mash-up of The Matrix (in the sense of being able to plug into a machine and enter a different reality), a book by Issac Asimov called Nemesis, and Fern Gully.

I liked the objective, evidence-based view of the scientists, especially that of the main scientist Dr. Grace Augustine. I also noticed the way that she came to believe in the mystical environmentalist religion of the Na’vi. And I’d have to say that if I observed the things that she observed that I would have believed too. Continue reading

First Agnostic I Ever Met

This is a story from back when I was going to school at Trevecca Nazarene University. I have to strain my memory a bit, back to a time when I will still a very sheltered Christian girl going to a Christian University. This is a story about the first agnostic I (knowingly) ever met. Continue reading

Meaningful rather than Spiritual

I’ve been reading a book called “The Atheist’s Way: Living Well without Gods” by Eric Maisel. I recommend this book to anyone who has considered him or herself to be a ‘spiritual atheist,’ because I have found a concept in this book that has changed my mind about how atheists should address ideas of ‘spirituality. Continue reading

Yoga and Skepticism

I’ve said in a previous post that there is some tension present in being an atheist and a yogi. I think it’s more to the point to say there is tension between being a skeptic and a yogi. While in general the teachers whose classes I frequent usually stick with pretty non-controversial claims about the benefits of yoga, every now and then I hear things that make me smirk and squirm a little inside. Stuff like this (not exact quotes):

  • We’re going to have a relaxed class today because it’s near the new moon. Our energy levels are lowest during the new moon.
  • Anything about chakras.
  • Anything about Kundalini.
  • Anything about Ayurveda.
  • Claims that any of the above must be real and good because it’s been practiced for 1000′s of years.

I’ve tolerated this stuff for the most part, and have even gone along with it for the sake of experimentation. I have found that, in general, these things have not been core to the classes. The chakra talk I can deal with as being symbolic for different areas and characteristics of the body. No problem. Same with Kundalini. The alternative medicine stuff does set me a bit on edge though. Especially when I read about things like this: http://whatstheharm.net/ayurvedicmedicine.html. Maybe I’ll ask my teacher about that. Were all these people just doing it wrong?

I’m into the holistic aspect of yoga, and this is why it’s been the only exercise program I’ve stuck with regularly going on two years now. I’m not in it “just for the workout,” it’s also about the mental and emotional benefit as well. I’m all for the non-rational–I don’t have to reason everything out and understand how everything works in order to accept it. What I can’t accept is the irrational.  What if some of these things being practiced as part of yoga can actually be harmful?

Let Freedom Ring!

It’s July 4th weekend! And this, along with my reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, has gotten my thinking just how wonderful the freedoms we have in America really are. It’s shocking to see how the morality police in Iran, the Revolutionary Guard, protect their society by making sure the woman do not wear nail polish or show a strand of hair.

“Can you imagine the kind of man who’d get sexually provoked just by looking at a strand of my hair?” said Nassrin. “Someone who goes crazy at the sight of a woman’s toe…wow!” she continued, “My toe as a lethal weapon!” (from pg 70)

I can’t imagine…It’s made me incredibly thankful for the freedoms I enjoy here in the U.S. I even bought a pair of red shoes yesterday. If I lived under such rules as described in “Reading Lolita” such a thing would be unthinkable. I shudder to think what could have happen if so many of the Founding Fathers had not been sons of the Enlightenment–if groups like the Puritans would have seized power over the United States.

There are groups even here in the United States who desire to enforce their religious rules and “morality” on society. First thing coming to my mind is those who would try to restrict women’s access to and education about birth control. Those who would prevent gay couples from marrying. Or trying to censor ideas by banning books from the library. I don’t care if it’s done in the name of Allah or Jesus. It’s all the same to me.

But at least here in America I still can show my individuality and femininity without being tormented by “morality police.”

And I can read whatever I want! I can meet in a book group without fear of being raided by  some form of the Revolutionary Guard. Reading was my form of rebellion, after all.

Thank goodness for freedom of religion and freedom from religion! Let’s not take it for granted.

New Chapters in Life

Normally I’ve been writing a new post every weekend. However, last week I was on my honeymoon so I skipped the blog. Yep, I’m a married woman now, to a wonderful atheist man :)

I remember a previous huge step in my life was in University, where I learned things I’d never dreamt of before, and found my view on life to be entirely different than when I went in. The most striking thing I found to be changed in this period of time were my views on religion. I had a discussion not long ago with a Christian family member about the influence of professors on my views. I think it is just par for the course for professors to challange their students to see the world from a perspective they have never considered before. Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned about Atheism

There is a Barns and Noble bookstore within a couple minutes drive of my office, so from time to time I hang out there during my lunch break. Last Wednesday I went in and sat by the section in Philosophy with the books of atheism and reflected on some of the things I have learned about atheism in my 7 years of considering myself an atheist. Things I didn’t realize when I started out of this path. Continue reading