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Oct 02 2013

I don’t believe in Christianity any more

After many years now of being an atheist, I think I’ve finally reached the point where I no longer believe in Christianity. I don’t mean I’ve just stopped believing that Christianity is true–I did that 13 years ago. I mean I’ve reached the point where I do not believe it even exists.

Granted, there are plenty of people who consider themselves Christians, and they all surely believe in something. The problem is, it’s not always the same thing, and in fact it’s not uncommon for the same people to hold multiple incompatible beliefs that they regard as being equally Christian. Not only is there the absence of a common Christianity between believers, but a consistent, well-defined Christianity is missing even within the individual believer!

What we have instead is a cloud of individual beliefs drawn from vast pools of superstition, ignorance, mythology, peer pressure, paranoia, and pride. At various times people will point to isolated belieflets within that cloud and declare them to be part of their Christian faith. Then they’ll point to other belieflets farther along in the cloud, and declare, “That’s not real Christianity, and anyone who believes that is no true Christian.”

Or they’ll try and defend or apply some particular belieflet, only to find that it doesn’t really work. Their argument ends up making Christianity look bad, or their attempt to walk by faith leads to some undesirable end. Then that belieflet blows away like any other wisp of fog, and “Christianity,” in their estimation, turns out to be some other part of the cloud. The twin swords of reason and reality cut through it with ease, but draw no blood and leave no scars. There is no actual Christianity there for them to attack.

I know it’s tempting to attack Christianity, and often times it poses an easy target. But poking holes in Christian beliefs is (to switch metaphors for a moment) aiming the extinguisher at the smoke instead of at the base of the flames. What we need to address are the underlying conditions that make people susceptible to the pools of superstition, ignorance, mythology, and so on. Starve the cloud at its source. That’s not necessarily an easier task, but it’s one where I think we can achieve more durable results.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    arno

    Christianity is not a belief system, but a (mythological) franchise. There certainly seems to be a shared collection of stories, motifs, symbols etc; which are then used and invoked in all sorts of variations. In fact, I’ve met quite a few Christians who talk about Christianity in more or less the same terms I’d talk about Star Trek.

  2. 2
    Leo Buzalsky

    This is largely why, I think, Matt Dillahunty and other hosts at The Atheist Experience ask people what they believe and why. Don’t know if you’ve ever tuned into their show with all the time you say you spend listening to (so-called) Christian radio. :)

  3. 3
    busterggi

    But do you disbelieve in real Christians?

    1. 3.1
      kokopelli

      Given the context of this post, your question is hilarious (not to mention meaningless). If you’re serious, please define the term “real Christians”. Thanks!

  4. 4
    kft

    I expect you could say the same for any other religion – you can probably always find two people of the “same” religion who nevertheless hold opposing viewpoints on theological matters.

    But I do very much like the phrase “I don’t believe in Christianity.”

  5. 5
    jeffreynordstrom

    I love this post. I heartily agree.

    Christians have apologists to defend doctrine, but that doctrine is built on thousands of unspoken variables. These variables ultimately force any faith to fall. The number of assumptions we have to make about the universe to get to a point of “Christian doctrine” are far greater than the sum of the doctrine itself. Can you imagine how many ridiculous tenets you need to accept to get to the point of “redemption by faith?” Most people don’t realize the amount of crap they implicitly accept with this stuff.

    You say, “Granted, there are plenty of people who consider themselves Christians, and they all surely believe in something. The problem is, it’s not always the same thing.” This was the main thing that made my faith fall apart. I came to realize that I had no way to know if anybody else actually worshiped the same god I did; I had no way to tell if I, myself, even believed anything. What evidence could I have to show that I believed properly? There’s no way to prove belief, so you’re always walking on self-distributed eggshells.

    Thank you for your incisive post.

  6. 6
    grumpyoldfart

    I don’t know any of the church hierarchy, but I do know many of the mugs in the pews and most of them have no idea what is being taught by the Christian religion. Most of them just assume that everything they regard as good and sensible is reinforced with a bible text and everything with which they disagree is condemned by some other bible text.

    I have often argued with them about god’s existence and they will usually start off defending god as a kindly old man who watches over them and steers them along the path to glory, but as soon as that idea is demolished they change their god into a ‘universal spirit’ who controls the Universe with methods unknowable to mere mortals. When that idea is demolished they downgrade their god to ‘Nature’ itself: “Look at the sunset and you can see god,” or, “You can see god in a baby’s smile.”

    But next time I speak to them they are back with god as the kindly old man who is carefully noticing everything they do!

    They don’t care what the preacher says; what the bible says; what other religious people say. They don’t care about any of that because they are convinced that their god agrees with them on every detail about everything. And when they change their minds about any particular subject, they convince themselves that god has changed his mind also, and they are instantly back in complete agreement with each other. (It’s an ego thing.)

    1. 6.1
      panouteast

      I wouldn’t get to comfortable there. While you think they are responding to the ‘demolition’ of their ideas, it’s at least possible that instead they’re trying to retreat to a place where you can begin to understand what they’re saying – that as far as they are concerned, they’re ‘dumbing down religiosity’ if you like. They’re looking for the place where you can begin to understand, much as we might look for such a low-level ‘geddit’ point in explaining evolution to a creationist… ‘

  7. 7
    mikespeir

    Maybe I’ve said this before, but I liken beliefs to little candy kisses. We wrap them in the colorful foil of emotion. Then we hold these little packages in our hands and proclaim, “These are my beliefs.” However, the candy in some of them has disappeared. In others, there has never been anything at all. But each wrapper–our attachment to the proposition supposedly within–is intact, so we insist the belief is there. What is the substance of these wrappers? It’s just our emotional need to fit into a particular community, a community glommed around the nucleus of the stated beliefs. As long as the need is there we’ll provide the wrappers; and whether they are empty of full, we see the wrappings and view them as beliefs. In fact, I suspect most Christians no longer believe much of what they genuinely believe they believe.

  8. 8
    pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile

    Well, you kind of crystallized my feelings on it too. I’ve told people for years that whatever my thoughts and beliefs were on the existence of god or in jesus as the son of god, etc, that was an entirely separate matter from my opinions of christianity as an institution and, therefore, of those people who follow it.

    Christians I speak to don’t seem to understand that THEY are the reason I started having doubts, THEY are the reason I started asking questions (that they were reluctant to answer), THEY are the reason I searched for alternate means of not only trying to figure out what was out there, but to try to make myself into a better human by NOT mirroring their attitudes.

    They can’t even agree amongst other christians as to what is or isn’t the right way! why should I waste my time with it?

  9. 9
    benfea

    Regarding that last paragraph, good luck with that. A lot of recent neuroscience research suggests that we’re all incredibly sloppy thinkers who make decisions based on emotion and instinct even when we think we’re being cold, rational, and logical. Frankly, it’s practically a miracle that any of us make good decisions at all.

  10. 10
    Kellyn Goeken

    I definitely agree that so many Christians out there have a wide variety of definitions on why they call themselves a Christian, and too many of them claim that others around them can’t possibly be a true Christian based on a certain behavior or belief.

    But in my mind, and it’s unfortunate that more people don’t understand this, being a Christian means believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and defeated death three days later. That’s it. That is the only thing a person needs to believe in to be a Christian. It doesn’t matter if you go to church every week or if you stay home and do crystal meth.

    And it’s definitely unfortunate that so many Christians, who believe in a faith that’s supposed to be rooted in love and acceptance, are some of the most judgmental, hateful people out there. As a Christian, I hope that you and your readers will, at some point, give it a chance. So many people out there who are supposed to represent Christianity with dignity and respect have given Christianity a bad name. But they, just like all of us, are imperfect, and are just doing the best that they know how with what they know.

    Just so you know, we’re not all like that.

    (And please know that I write this post with the utmost respect for your opinions, I just wanted to share my own.)

    1. 10.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Hi Kellyn, thanks for stopping by. I was a born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christian from my teens through my early forties, graduated from a conservative Christian college, active student of the Bible (including a first-year course in New Testament Greek), helped out with missionary work during my study abroad program, amateur apologist, Sunday school teacher, duly-elected deacon in a conservative Christian denomination, and occasional lay preacher. My adult life was founded and directed by my faith in Jesus as the divine Son of God and Savior, which guided my choice of career, spouse, church, and budget. I daresay that at some point, I have indeed given Christianity a chance.

      The problem is not that there aren’t nice people who believe in Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is a story, and actually even something less than a story. Even the most minimalistic, non-denominational definition will mean different things to different people. Notice, for example, that a number of “heretical” Christian sects believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and defeated death three days later, as do some extremely liberal believers for whom “Son (or Daughter) of God” encompasses pretty much everyone, and whose defeat of death is more of a moral victory than any literal resurrection. “The Gospel” is a story with no meaning of its own, into which people pour whatever personal significance seems right in their own eyes.

      Christianity is something that exists within the minds and imaginations of people, and is as varied and mercurial as thought itself. And personally, I’m fine with that to a certain extent. My tastes in fantasy run more towards the Tolkeinesque, but if other people would rather watch Ben Hur that’s ok too. Unfortunately, it does not stop there. Fantasy as fantasy would be harmless, but when it begins to corrupt people’s ability to distinguish between fantasy, and when it leads people to try and force others to live out a fantasy they do not share, it becomes evil and needs to be opposed by people of good conscience. Centuries of anti-gay persecution are just one manifestation of this problem, and attempts to corrupt and pervert legitimate science are another.

      I hope that you will take a good long look at the accumulated fruits of Christian belief, and then maybe give atheism a chance. I’ve tried both, and life without Christianity is a lot more meaningful and fulfilling.

    2. 10.2
      Nick Gotts

      being a Christian means believing that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and defeated death three days later

      But as soon as you start asking questions about that, it falls to pieces.
      1) What does it mean to say that Jesus was the “Son” (why the upper-case “S”, by the way?) of God? God is supposedly immaterial; he doesn’t have testes (or ovaries) and hence doesn’t produce sperm (or eggs). So he can’t have a son in the sense that a human being can. Also, according to doctrinally orthodox Christianity, Jesus is God himself – so he’s his own son! It’s blithering nonsense.
      2) What does it mean to say Jesus “died for our sins”? I hadn’t committed any sins when Jesus died, as I hadn’t yet come into existence. But even for those who had, how did Jesus dying make any difference to their sins? Supposedly, this was to placate God (i.e., Jesus himself), allowing him to forgive us. But if he wanted to forgive us, he could just forgive us. Why have himself (I mean his son – who is himself) tortured and killed first? It’s blithering nonsense, and furthermore, the whole idea of vicarious atonement by blood sacrifice is morally disgusting.
      3) If he “defeated death three days later” then he wasn’t really dead. Dead people can’t defeat anything, because they can’t do anything. It’s blithering nonsense.

      1. kacyray

        To your list, I would add:

        4) If Jesus’s death was necessary to pay a moral debt, then Jesus retracted the payment when he came back to life. If he’s alive, then he isn’t dead, in which case those sins aren’t atoned for anymore.

        Christians like to have their cake and eat it too. They claim that Jesus sacrificed his life, yet he still possesses it. Not much of a sacrifice to give up something and then take it back.

        To get around this, they claim he “defeated” death. What exactly does that mean? Every being that has ever lived still dies. In what sense has death been defeated?

        If I pay your mortgage and then three days later I break into the mortgage bank and take all my money back… does that really make me some kind of hero? Have I really sacrificed anything?

        It’s blithering nonsense! :D

  11. 11
    Kellyn Goeken

    Thank you for your comments. All I can say is that I have the opposite story as you. I started out not believing in anything, I was an atheist for the first 18 years of my life. If you knew me then, you would knew how strongly I disbelieved in God and Christ and how I looked down on those who believed. I was the epitome of “atheist”.

    And there is a lot of truth in what you said. Because of what is in the bible, people take that and use it to harm and manipulate others to cover the anger and hatred that’s really in their hearts. But that’s not what the bible is supposed to be used for. Our job is not to tell others of the wrong they do, but rather to tell all sinners that they could have everlasting life. What they do with the information presented to them once they believe is up to them.

    I don’t mean to presume anything about you, this is an actual question meant to get an honest response: can you say honestly that you truly and wholeheartedly believed in Him in the first place? I mean, it sounds like you devoted much of your life to this “story”. I mean is it even barely possible that you always had some doubts about it and you were just going through the motions to please those around you? Like I say, I don’t mean to offend, I truly want to know. What was it that made you denounce your faith?

    And, forgive me, but I believe your atheistic fantasy is much more harmful than my Christian “fantasy”. And I mean that Christianity at its core, the theology behind it, is less harmful than the theology of atheism. I don’t mean to change minds here, as I don’t believe it is really possible online in a setting like this. I just want to make sure that I defend my position to the best of my ability so as to get both sides of the spectrum to those who visit this page.

    1. 11.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Let me answer your question by asking you one: when you were an atheist, did you really and truly believe in the existence of the planet earth? Is it even barely possible that you had some doubts about it, and were just pretending to believe there was a planet underneath you in order to please those around you? If you answer “yes” to the first part, and “not at all” to the second, then I think you can appreciate it when I give the same answers to the same sorts of questions about God. For me it was not a question of belief, it was a matter of established fact, or so I assumed at the time.

      What eventually ended my faith in the traditions of men was my desire to believe only what was genuinely true. Truth has a wonderful quality of self-consistency that the conceits and deceits of human imagination cannot equal. I did, of course, indulge in quite a bit of rationalization to cover up the odd discrepancies and self-contradictions that I kept bumping into as I sought to work past the biased and fallible interpretations of men (including myself). The trouble was, if we imagine what the world would be like with a God who was only a myth, and then imagine what it would be like in which there really was a Christian God, and then we compare those two worlds to the real one, over and over we find the first is the one that matches real-world conditions most accurately, with the fewest rationalizations.

      God exists only in human thoughts and feelings, and everything that relates to God happens subjectively, not out in the real world. That’s why people take the Bible and use it in ways that seem wrong to us, just as we take it and use it in ways that seem wrong to them. There’s no real God to play the tie-breaker, or better yet to show up and teach and lead His children the way a real, loving father would do. The problems the church has are exactly the problems that inevitably result from the mythical nature of God. Sure, we can rationalize anything, and if we try hard enough we can think up some kind of circumstances beyond God’s control that force Him to allow situations He doesn’t really like. But those are all reactions God’s failure to behave as though He Himself believed what the Gospel says about Him. Our godless world is a natural and even unavoidable consequence if God is a myth, but requires an endless stream of speculations and additional assumptions to try and reconcile with the premise that God exists outside of human thoughts and feelings.

      As for which is more harmful, we have agreed that a great deal of harm is done by Christians–those who believe Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and overcame death–based on their understanding of the Bible. Because of God’s non-existence, there is no “core” to Christianity, there is only whatever seems right in our own eyes, and different people have different ideas about what the “core” ought to be. Sometimes we’ll find different definitions of “core” Christianity from the same person, depending on the circumstances under which we ask them. If God were real, there would be no need for a “core,” because God Himself would be all that and more, just by behaving as though He believed His own Gospel. But He can’t. Men have to believe it for Him, and then do good works in His name, and then convince themselves that He inspired them to do it and should therefore be given credit. That’s self-deception, and worse, an unwillingness to make an unbiased inquiry into the true nature of God.

      The alternative is to develop an appreciation for the one true infallible authority: reality itself. Atheism has no theology, of course, but in the absence of theology there is the opportunity to learn to base our belief on that which actually exists in the real world, independently of our thoughts and feelings. This is a helpful, positive, and healthy thing to do. Deceiving ourselves, learning how to twist the facts, rehearsing how to discount and ignore objective reality in order to perpetuate beliefs inconsistent with the truth–these things are unhealthy and without merit. God exists only in our own minds, and cannot help but tell us whatever things seem right in our own eyes, limited by our own ignorance and fallibility. But by humbling ourselves, and admitting that our beliefs are not holy, and are subject to real-world verification, we open ourselves up to learning a truth greater than our own mind and experience. Again, this is a good thing and a positive thing, and it’s part of the reason why we now have science and computers and the Internet so that we can have this conversation. Atheism by itself has neither theology nor philosophy, but turning away from superstition can at least remove some of the impediments that prevent us from doing better.

      As for changing minds, even over the Internet, I’ve seen it happen. Of course, if God were real, there would be no burden on you to change my mind. He would do a far better job Himself (and I have an open invitation for Him to do so). A God who is willing and able to become a man, and reveal Himself to men, and die on their behalf so that they might be with Him forever, would be a God who would reveal Himself to us today and be with us today, in person, as in ancient times, because that’s what He wants. “Forever” started a long time ago! But He is a creature of human thoughts and feelings, and so that is the only place He is able to exist. We can imagine any God we like, but real-world conditions are going to match the world in which God is a myth, just as it always has. And the sooner we learn to accept that, the sooner we can make realistic plans to improve the world.

    2. 11.2
      kacyray

      I started out not believing in anything, I was an atheist for the first 18 years of my life.

      Respectfully, if you started out not believing anything, that’s probably why you wound up as a Christian.

      It is a critical error to assume that atheists do not believe in anything. As for myself, I believe that our 5 senses are our only means of acquiring data from the outside world, that our mind is the only means of assimilating that reason that data into useful information, and that reason is only process that can translate that information into reliable knowledge.

      If you didn’t believe that for the first 18 years of your life, and still don’t believe it now, then I could justifiably call you a non-believer.

      So you were a non-believer then, and you’re a non-believer now.

      If that sounds silly to you, now you know how silly it sounds to me when you claim that atheists don’t believe anything. I believe everything that makes it through the filter of my reasoning mind

      This isn’t just semantics. I believe that when an atheist such as you (once were) has no defined belief system whatsoever, they are exactly the type who will cling on to the first one that sounds pretty and offers great rewards in the afterlife – exactly as you have done.

      But an atheist who is an atheists because reason demands it has no need to search for alternate belief systems. Such a person finds all the answers they need with their mind, supplemented by great ideas passed on from other intelligent people.

      Assuming that an atheist has no belief system just because you didn’t is a critical error Assuming that atheists “believe in nothing” is a critical error.

      I have known many former atheists who have become religious, but I have never met a single rational skeptic who has done so. Therefore I would submit that your story is not the reverse of DD’s at all. You went from a non-reason-based non-belief system based on nothing to a belief system based on faith. That’s hardly the reverse of going from faith to reason.

      I don’t mean to presume anything about you, this is an actual question meant to get an honest response: can you say honestly that you truly and wholeheartedly believed in Him in the first place?

      I have to echo DD’s sentiments… when I was a Christian, God’s existence was not even something I would have to thought to question. I had no concept of critical thought during my Christian years. I left the fold at age 18 when I began to discover the world of critical thought and I could no longer justify believing anything on faith.

      With that said, I have to remark that I find the question rather odd. You seem to be suggesting two very interesting things… 1) That doubt is a bad thing and 2) That you yourself have none.

      If these statements are true, then you’re basically admitting you’ve never critically examined your beliefs. In other words, you’ve never actually questioned whether your beliefs are true or not (and if you did, you probably should not have because to do so is wrong).

      Is that a fair assessment?

  12. 12
    Pierce R. Butler

    Nice coinage, that “belieflet”.

    Did you come up with that just for this post? A web search turned up no other instances, just lots of items from beliefnet.com.

  13. 13
    Rob

    Would you give some examples of these variables? Undoubtedly there are some awful sects which have fallen from sound doctrine to please the world. There are whole seminaries which propagate this, but even the Bible says many false Christianities will rise up

    1. 13.1
      Deacon Duncan

      I can give you some examples. Take “Bible-based faith” for instance. Which Bible, the original Pentateuch, the Tanach, the Catholic Bible, or the Protestant Bible? Once you’ve chosen which Bible, you have to interpret it. Do you use the easy parts of the Bible to interpret the more difficult passages? That’s a huge variable right there, because different people have different ideas about which parts are “easy” and which parts are “difficult.” For example, speaking specifically about salvation, James 2 says “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Ephesians 2, on the other hand, has a couple verses that say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The Greek word for “that” does not agree with the gender of either the word “grace” or the word “faith,” so there’s some linguistic debate over what Paul might have been referring to. Yet many Christians will call James 2 the “difficult” passage, despite its simple, straightforward language, and will interpret it according to their understanding of the more complicated and ambiguous language in Ephesians 2, which they call the “easy” passage. Other Christians do the opposite.

      The problem is that “easy” is in the eye of the beholder. Legalists will find the legalistic passages “easy” and will use those passages to “explain” the more tolerant passages, and vice versa for more tolerant believers. Judgmental folks will find the harsh parts of the Bible very easy to understand, and will use them to explain away the passages about mercy, and again vice versa for more merciful believers. “Easy” just means “fits readily into what the believer already thinks,” and so each believer approaches the Bible and finds some passages that seem to echo and reinforce what they already believe, and those passages are the “easy” ones. Then the believer uses those passages as the basis for building up their own personal, individual understanding of what the rest of the Bible means. Depending on their personality, education, experience, cultural biases, prejudices, fears, desires, ambitions, and a host of other variables, different believers will come up with a whole spectrum of different Bible-based faiths, each one built on their own personal reading of the Bible, using the “easy” parts of the Bible as the key to understanding the “difficult” passages in a way that they’re comfortable with. The result is an interpretation that is basically an extension and reinforcement of their own personal opinions and values, enhanced by an aura of “divine revelation.”

      Another variable will be the church they attend, which will also influence what sort of Christianity they develop over the years. Of course nowadays people shop around until they find the “right” church for themselves. Which church is “right”? The one that has the kind of worship and community and teachings that they’re most comfortable with. Once again, this is going to be the product of a number of variables, including inter-personal variables. As with the Bible, the “easy” and “comfortable” aspects are going to depend on the person’s background, character, ambitions, and so on, but now you’ve got the additional variables that come from socialization and peer pressure. How many people are happy with the worship and teachings at a particular church, but end up leaving because they just can’t stand so-and-so? How many join because of a personal attraction to someone else? I’ve seen it happen more than once, and it probably happens even more than we think, since people don’t always publicize their real reason for changing churches. How many people believe things or reject them just because of how they feel about the person who said it? Peer pressure can be a huge influence on what the believer believes, and how strongly they believe it, independently of whether their belief is true or not.

      The real kicker is that, out of all these different variables and all these different Christianities, there’s no objective basis for deciding that one of them is the correct version, and the others are all incorrect. Each believer decides that his or her own interpretation is the correct one based on whatever seems right in his or her own eyes. That’s why the number of Bible-based denominations has exploded relative to the number of divisions that existed in Christianity prior to the rise of sola Scriptura. The infallibility of the Pope has been replaced by the virtual papacy of the individual believer. The believer is presumed to be practically infallible when speaking ex Scriptura, and has no reticence about telling everyone else what God allegedly commands and thinks and wants, even when other Christians disagree. But really, all they’re doing is telling us whatever seems right in their own eyes. The process of studying the Bible, and building up a personal interpretation that interprets the hard parts in light of the easy parts, is just a handy trick for ascribing divine authority to their own subjective opinions and values.

  14. 14
    Mary McReynolds

    I think many people are (finally) assessing what they assumed were true facts about their churches. I have been through so many permutations and am now at the point of re-reading the Tanakh (OT) and seeing how very local that belief system was and remains to a local group of people. How can this reflect a Creator or Designer of the vast universe? No clue. But I am questioning and not merely agreeing. Those days are gone. It is a little lonely but remember this, there is no total consensus on who or what God is, much less the evolution of ritual and sacrifice.
    The middle east was full of this kind of deity appeasement. Are we still there? Yet I wonder what will replace the former assumptions.

    I care about others. I love. I will die. That’s all I know for sure.

    Blessings!

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