How I changed sides on the abortion rights issue

First, before I get into any of what is going to be a very long story: we have a podcast on the topic of abortion, later on today, in which I’ll be participating (and probably telling a much briefer version of this story). If you’re free then, please watch the livestream and ask questions! For those who don’t get to watch it live, the recording will remain up at that link.

On to the post.

I’ve mentioned before that, in my late teens, I was strongly pro-life – as in, anti-abortion – for about a year and a half, eventually changing my mind and becoming pro-choice. That’s a story I’ve been meaning for a long time to tell, and so I’m going to tell it now.

Some thoughts first:

This is a really long post, but after thought I decided to leave it as a single post rather than splitting it up. Thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to read it all.

A quick note on terminology: I will mostly be using the term ‘pro-life’ for the anti-abortion position. I’m extremely well aware that there are many anti-abortionists for whom this term is hideously inappropriate, but there are also a lot of anti-abortionists who genuinely hold that position because they care about fetal life, and I was one of them. Also, although there are good reasons to use the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’, I’m writing about my views back in the ’80s when awareness of transgender issues was vastly behind where it is now; as such, I use the term ‘pregnant women’ throughout because it represents the language I used at the time when thinking about the issue. Finally, since I’ll be talking about my former pro-life views I will sometimes be using the phrase ‘unborn babies’ because, again, that was how I thought at the time.

Finally, you guys are good at keeping it civil and respectful in comments. Keep that up! As always, I will enforce if needed. Feel free to ask anything you want about my beliefs then or my beliefs now; but keep it polite. Thank you.


How I became pro-life

“Sarah, I HOPE,” my classmate declared, appearing in front of me, “that when you’re a doctor you’re not going to be one of the ones that KILLS POOR LITTLE UNBORN BABIES.”

“Er…” I said, or something equally articulate. It was first thing on a schoolday morning and I’d just walked into the Upper Sixth common room, thinking about homework or Venture Scouts or whatever I thought about in the mornings; whatever it was, it probably hadn’t been the upcoming school debate on abortion. But two of my classmates (both Catholic, although that wouldn’t occur to me until much later) had taken the opportunity to go for full-on pro-life campaigning, so next thing I knew I was sitting down and reading through a stack of leaflets.

It was early 1988, two decades after abortion was broadly but not universally legalised in the UK by the 1967 Abortion Act, and I was seventeen. Like many people, I hadn’t previously had a definite opinion one way or the other on abortion beyond “it’s complicated”. I could see that unwanted pregnancies could make life really difficult for women, and didn’t know how best to balance that against vague ideas that ‘killing unborn babies’ was not a great thing. This was the first time I’d read all-out arguments for one side.

I read the fetal development screeds, with their heavy emphasis on the cuteness and fingers and toes. I read the arguments as to why each human life started at conception and was thereafter a continuum with no logical place after conception where a line could be drawn. I read the scare lists of horrible risks and side-effects. I read the claims about how easy, how obvious a solution, it was for women with unwanted pregnancies just to put their babies up for adoption by a couple from the queue of couples desperately longing to be parents. I read the whole kit and caboodle of arguments aimed at simultaneously appealing to and bypassing my sense of logic. Naive and unfamiliar with the tricks of propaganda, I was a pushover.

Despite my classmate’s best efforts at passing the same leaflets round the debate audience, the pro-life side lost resoundingly (51 – 13, according to the diary I kept sporadically at the time), but she’d made at least one convert; I was utterly convinced.

What happened next

Well, next I pretty much forgot about it for a while.

I had plenty of other stuff on my mind; my A-levels coming up that summer, the ongoing worry over whether I should convert to Christianity/Judaism/neither, the ongoing stress of being an insecure social misfit despite my best efforts. Then, on one of my regular bookshop browses, I came across a book called ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, which, as you can possibly deduce from the subtle clue in the title, was a virulently anti-abortion book. It all came flooding back. The unborn babies being killed! In horrible ways! With alarming-sounding risks to the pregnant woman! When clearly it would be easy and straightforward to instead have those babies adopted! The logical arguments in favour of life starting at conception! I think the phrase we’re looking for here is ‘hook, line, and sinker’. I was a committed, hardcore, no-exceptions-except-for-life-of-the-mother pro-lifer.

Fortunately, I never got round to doing anything practical about this; it never occurred to me to join a pro-life group or do any campaigning. Instead, my new interest manifested itself in hate-reading anything I could find on the pro-choice side so that I could think smugly about how wrong they were; I diligently checked every feminist book I found (quite a lot) to see what each one had to say about abortion. Unfortunately, every author I read took their readership’s pro-choice beliefs so much for granted that it didn’t occur to any of them to debunk any of the claims from the anti-abortion movement. My smug Sense Of Rightness was fueled further; clearly they didn’t know what they were talking about, and I was entirely correct to continue as a pro-lifer.

However, over the course of the next however-long-it-was between me reading ‘Two Million Vocal Attempts At Blatant Propaganda Silent Killings’ and the summer of 1989, various things happened that… didn’t alter my view, but certainly rocked it somewhat. I can’t remember in what order they happened, so I’m just going to list them, and the order might or might not be correct. None of them changed my mind at the time, but, looking back, all of them contributed.

The multiple choice book

One of our neighbours was a GP who, enthusiastic about my plans to go to medical school, gave me some of her old textbooks, including a book of practice multiple choice questions for medical students. It was in a different format from the O-level and A-level multiple choice papers I’d done before; instead of a choice of five answers, the book presented a series of statements that had to be marked as true or false. The other side of each page listed the answers, with a brief explanation of each.

I flipped it open for a look. Most of the questions made no sense whatsoever to me at this pre-medical-school stage, when even the parts that weren’t literally Greek to me were very much metaphorically so. However, one caught my eye, because it was about abortion. The statement that had to be marked ‘true’ or ‘false’ was that early abortion carried lower maternal risk than a full-term pregnancy.

OK, that had my attention; I turned over the page to check out the answer. ‘True’, the book stated. The explanatory line informed me that the risks of a full-term pregnancy were always higher than the risks of early abortion.

I had, of course, read all the scary things the pro-life books had to say on the risks associated with abortion. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that they hadn’t had anything to say about how these compared to the risks of not having an abortion. And now I realised that they hadn’t directly lied (well, actually, knowing everything I’ve learned since then about the level of dishonesty in anti-abortion propaganda they probably had, but I didn’t know that then)… but they had deliberately left out an important part that significantly changed the interpretation of this particular information.

It was, I think, my first encounter with the way that propaganda can mislead you. While it didn’t change my mind, it did make me realise that things weren’t quite as clearcut as I’d thought. And it made me realise that I hadn’t been told the whole truth.

Time limits

One thing that had been stressed in the pro-life arguments I read was the folly of declaring abortion all right up to a certain point and then illegal after that. How could viability be a logical reason for drawing a line? Or birth? Or any other stage of fetal development? The only logical place to draw a line, they assured me, was conception. If we drew a line at any place not backed up by solid reasoning, then what was to stop a series of slippery slopes moving it further and further out until it was five minutes before birth, then five minutes after birth, then a free-for-all on infanticide and probably wholesale murder of any other groups society found inconvenient as well? The logic was unassailable; it convinced me completely.

Until one day, apropos of nothing much, I thought “So… when is this supposed to be happening, then?”

I realised that abortion had, by that point, been legal in the UK for over twenty years. That seemed like more than ample time for the slippery slope effect to kick in. By now, surely the limit ought to have edged out at least to the infamous Five Minutes Before Birth point, with campaigning mobs all ready to push it that last step of the way into infanticide. What was actually happening, however, was that we still had exactly the same time limit as we’d had back in 1967, with a distinct lack of anyone marching up the local streets demanding that it be changed.

I was quite confused by this; after all, the pro-life argument as to why this extension of time limits would happen seemed utterly watertight. But I couldn’t really dispute the fact that it clearly wasn’t happening. The hypothetical future I’d been taught to fear came smack up against reality, and that’s an encounter in which reality holds the trump card.

Early pregnancy

If you’ve read many pro-life arguments, you get familiar with detailed descriptions of embryonic/fetal development that put a lot of emphasis on the cuteness aspect. They would always take care to mention just when the fingers and toes would develop, and how early this was. I didn’t think to ask what the hell fingers and toes had to do with the right to life. But I wasn’t meant to, was I? I was meant to absorb the whole description in a general haze of adoration for the cuteness/lifeworthiness of the fetus, and I did that just fine.

Until I started thinking about what it would be like to be in the very early weeks of an unwanted pregnancy, and my mental spool of all those compelling developmental features faltered. While there’s plenty of developmental stuff going on in the earliest weeks after conception, it isn’t the kind of stuff that bypasses logic to grab straight onto emotions in the same way that the fingers-and-toes screeds do. (Let’s face it: ‘formation of the neural tube and branchial arches’ just doesn’t seize the heartstrings in the same way.) Thinking about a creature that didn’t yet have such basics as a properly-formed face or brain… well, it was harder to find justification for the idea that a woman at that stage of pregnancy shouldn’t have an abortion at any cost.

I still believed it, mind you. After all, I reasoned (or the anti-abortion arguments in my brain reasoned for me), if you don’t draw the line at conception, where do you draw it? There are no other clear and logical lines in development. I thought of it as the Sherlock Holmes argument; however improbable it was that an embryo should be treated as a human with rights from the one-cell stage onwards, it was impossible to find any other clear lines to draw. It just didn’t feel as obvious as it once had.


Benefits‘ is a feminist novel by Zoe Fairbairns, written back in… goodness, 1979. I recall it as being a pretty good novel, but what’s relevant here is one specific line; I can’t remember the exact wording, but when the protagonist is thinking about her reasons for not wanting an abortion if she finds she’s pregnant, there is a passing mention that she’s read all the anti-abortion propaganda with the pictures of dead fetuses and it leaves her cold.

That startled me. Up until that point, I’d assumed that the reason people were pro-choice was because of general ignorance on the subject of fetal development. Surely they just hadn’t read the arguments against abortion and would change their minds if they did? But here was an author describing someone who hadn’t reacted that way at all (yes, this was a fictional character, but the author clearly thought this viewpoint was realistic). That must mean that there were people out there who’d read pro-life arguments and didn’t find them convincing. While I still didn’t fall into that category or understand people who did, it did seem to indicate that the arguments weren’t quite as unassailable as I’d thought.

The kidney analogy

Which is, of course, now something of a cliché, but was a new thought to me when it first occurred to me. I was thinking about the issue and realised that a pretty close analogy to abortion was being required to donate an organ in order to keep someone else alive; hard on the heels of that, I realised that that analogy didn’t really come out on the side I’d wanted it to. We don’t expect people to donate organs to keep other people alive, because we accept that the right of people to make important decisions about what does and does get done to their own body is so fundamental that it even outweighs the obligation to keep others alive. I’m sure my mental phrasing at the time was less eloquent, but I definitely recognised, in that moment, that kidney donation wasn’t compulsory and that there was a rather worrying contradiction between that and my views on abortion.

Maybe I’m projecting back… but I do have a clear memory of pausing and thinking “Now what do I do with this one?” Because it was comfortable, having at least one issue in a confusing life on which my mind was made up and I knew which side I was on. I’d thought about it! I’d read about it! The arguments were clear! And I didn’t quite know how to cope with the idea of changing my mind or accepting I’d been wrong about something of which I felt so comfortably sure. So, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance, I shelved it and moved on.

Operation Rescue

How the hell did I find out about Operation Rescue? I have a clear memory of reading collated photocopies of articles about them, stapled together into makeshift booklets; I just don’t remember where I got the articles from. Maybe I’m lumping two memories together and the booklets came from later on, after I’d changed sides and joined a pro-choice group; yes, that’s more plausible, now that I think about it. But how did I find out about Operation Rescue back in my pro-life days? Oh, well, my parents have always subscribed to the Guardian (moderately left-wing UK broadsheet), the paper probably ran an article on the subject which caught my eye.

Anyway, however it happened, I remember that at some point during my pro-life days I learned about Operation Rescue, the US anti-abortion group that got, um… proactive about their beliefs. Actually, looking back, what I learned was a strongly edited version. I’m not sure whether the rose-coloured glasses came from whatever my source was or from me, but somehow or other I came away with the message that, apart from the occasional shooting or firebombing which I successfully rationalised to myself as being the work of a few nonrepresentative extremists, their regular activities consisted of stopping women outside abortion clinics for polite discussions about why abortion was wrong.

Which… seemed like it should be a good thing, surely? Giving women the information to help them make decisions? Explaining to them what abortion was really all about before they made the decision to have one? Why did the thought make me feel so uneasy?

I realised that, however good I felt about my reasons for being against abortion when the whole subject was comfortably theoretical, it felt distinctly different to think about taking the argument to actual women who would be struggling with actual problems as a result of being pregnant. And this time the issue wasn’t something I could just push aside, because of my future career plans.

Those future career plans

Under British law, abortion is only legal if two doctors agree that the woman fits at least one of a list of criteria. Since the criteria in question are broad enough that in practice they cover everything short of the mythical third-trimester-abortion-for-convenience that never actually happens outside the minds and propaganda of pro-lifers, it’s easy, in practice, for a sympathetic doctor to authorise an abortion whatever the details behind the request; on the other hand, it has also been rather too easy for a doctor opposed to abortion to stall a request. These days, the NHS avoids that problem by commissioning services from clinics run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who will allow people to self-refer; as far as I know (though I’m open to correction), this applies across the UK, meaning that no-one has to go via their own GP at all. However, this wasn’t the case back in the ’80s. Unless a woman could afford to go to a clinic privately, she would have to get referred by her GP to a gynaecologist who would also have to agree, and so an anti-abortion doctor had quite a lot of scope for making things difficult.

And I’d applied for medical school. I was planning to become a doctor, and I anticipated (correctly, as it happened) that there was a fair chance I would want to be either a gynaecologist or a GP. I was going to be in a position of deciding whether requests for abortion should or shouldn’t be granted.

So, once Operation Rescue had got me thinking about the morality of trying to talk women out of abortions, I found myself thinking about how this particular aspect of my chosen career was going to work in practice. I would be in the position of deciding for a woman that she had to stay pregnant, while both she and I knew damn well that I wouldn’t have to take any further responsibility for her problems the moment she walked out of the door, that she was the one who’d be lumbered with all the consequences of that pregnancy. I believed, logically, that stopping abortions was what I should be doing, the right thing to do… so why did this prospect feel so wrong?

And this was where I was up to by the summer of 1989.

The turning point

Just after I turned 19, I holidayed in the US, and the reading material on the plane was some sort of news magazine. Topic: abortion.

If anyone has any idea what magazine this could have been, by the way, I’d love to know; I checked out the covers of Time magazine back issues and it doesn’t seem to be any of them. It would have been in July or August of 1989, and the cover showed a pro-lifer at a march, holding up a sign that said “Unborn women have rights too: Baby had no choice!” I remember that cover, all right, because it summed up everything I felt about being pro-life. I felt my shaken beliefs rise up and rally one last time. Yes! Of course unborn babies had a right to life that trumped everything else! Of course abortion was wrong! How could I doubt it?

Then I opened the magazine and read one of the stories in it.

It was a first-person story by a woman who’d had an abortion in a clinic picketed by Operation Rescue. She’d become pregnant when she and her boyfriend were both students and in no position to be able to take care of a baby, and, although she’d have liked to give birth and give the baby up for adoption, there was a further problem; she was taking lithium, which has a high chance of causing cardiac abnormalities in a developing fetus. She knew that babies with disabilities, unlike healthy babies, were unlikely to be adopted. This was the first time I could remember seeing anyone address the ‘why don’t women just have their babies adopted?’ argument, and, because I hadn’t at the time been able to work out for myself why giving away a baby after nine months of pregnancy might feel impossible or why even going through pregnancy and birth might in many cases be too much of a burden, this argument had always been one of the trump cards that had kept me believing. But here was the story of someone who’d thought about that route and couldn’t do it.

I read how she felt when she found out about the protestors picketing the clinic; not only was she going to have to have an abortion when in better circumstances she’d have wanted to proceed with the pregnancy, but she was going to have to run a gauntlet of people screaming and ranting at her while she did it. I read how upsetting it was for her to hear a protester shouting “Why don’t you just have your baby adopted?” when she would have loved to do just that, had it been a feasible option for her. I read what she said about the other clinic patients; about the irony of protestors screaming “Don’t punish a child for the sins of its parents!” when one of the patients was a twelve-year-old whose pregnancy might have been the result of rape by her own father, about another patient muttering “Are they going to take care of this baby for me so that I can go to college, then?”

I don’t remember the rest of the story. I just remember recognising that that was it; I could no longer support the idea of trying to stop women from getting abortions. The wobbling needle finally swung round the full one hundred and eighty degrees. I was pro-choice.


All of this had a couple of lasting effects on me besides, of course, the fact that I was henceforward pro-choice with the passion of a convert (a convert who tended to get pretty passionate about things even without the ‘convert’ factor).

Firstly, I’d learned the extremely valuable lesson that, even when a group’s arguments sound superficially convincing, it’s still worth hearing the other side before you make your mind up. (This was one of the things that would, later, save me from falling for creationist propaganda.)

And secondly, I’d learned that it’s possible for people to hold a completely opposing position for entirely well-meant, even if utterly misguided, reasons. And this plays a large part in my lifelong commitment to keeping discussion civil (well, all right, sometimes snarky, but my aim is to avoid stooping to insults or ridicule) and to explaining why arguments are bad or inaccurate instead of just trying to be the person who yells the loudest. I fully accept that in most situations this just isn’t going to work and that there need to be a lot of people out there who do keep yelling loudly, or equivalent. And I’ve learned that, in individual situations, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away and not engage. But I think there’s an important place for people who say “This is why I disagree with what you say” and take the time to explain why.

I hope this post has gone some way towards doing that with this particular issue, and I’m happy to keep doing the same in the comments. If you made it this far, then thank you for reading.

My nonconversion story, follow-up: Resurrection addendum

I hadn’t initially planned this post as part of the series, but OverlappingMagisteria had a question in comments that I thought deserved a full post to answer. On top of that, I also wanted to thank you all, because I was delighted by all the interest, the questions, and the positive comments. I spent months planning this series (not to mention years prior to that of having it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to write), but I didn’t know whether anyone would actually want to read it; I’d braced myself for everyone either being bored or telling me the whole thing was stupid. So, I’m thrilled that people liked reading it, and thank you for all the feedback.

By the way, I was also extremely amused that the site (which seems, as far as I can see, to be some sort of bot-run Christian site) picked up the last part of my series and posted the entire thing on their site. It’s very bad form that they’ve made it look like work from their site rather than crediting it properly, and in any other situation I’d be highly annoyed by that; but the fact that their bot has managed to post something explicitly anti-apologetic is so delightful that I’m just going to leave it be. I hope someone sees it and finds it useful.

Anyway, on to the question I’m answering here:

Did you ever have any resolution to your question of why the disciples would say that Jesus was resurrected? Or did that just fall away along with the rest of Christianity with what you described in this post?

Yes! Yes to both, in fact; once I’d finally established that the answer clearly wasn’t ‘Because he actually was resurrected AND, HEY, THE BIT ABOUT HELL IS TRUE AS WELL’, I stopped worrying about it. But the topic still interested me, so I was thrilled when, years later, I started finding potential answers on the Internet. Back in Part 3, where I first mentioned this, I did link in passing to the two articles on the subject that I’d found most helpful; but it’s probably worth writing a bit more about it, since it was important to me and is probably important to at least some of the people out there. So here we are.

First, however, a pre-emptive point. There are now a number of apologists trying to counteract these arguments, and the counter-arguments most often used boil down to ‘That can’t be the explanation because it doesn’t explain X, Y, and Z about the story’. What that doesn’t take into account, however, is that the early development of Christianity was – like most turning points in history – almost certainly multifactorial. It’s perfectly reasonable to look for a combination of plausible events that could explain it, rather than holding out for The One Uberexplanation To Explain Them All.

Hence… yes, I do know these explanations aren’t sufficent in themselves to account for why the gospels report multiple group appearances/a physical Jesus who could share the disciples’ dinner and show off his wounds. But that’s a total non-issue to me, because that has never been the part I had trouble explaining; even reading those stories as a teenager, I could see how exaggeration as the story got passed along, or people flat-out making things up to make it sound better to potential converts, could account for those parts. Similarly, ever since I read Maccoby’s The Mythmaker I’ve known that Paul’s influence is the most likely explanation for how Christianity developed such anti-Jewish ideas as traditional Christian salvation theology and a Messiah who was divine. (While Maccoby’s theories are highly speculative and it’s entirely plausible that he had the details wrong, we do have good evidence that Paul was highly influential in the church’s development, was going with what he believed theologically even where this conflicted with what the Jerusalem group were teaching, and had a much more Hellenised educational background than the disciples seem to have had, so we have a recipe for things going off in a new and unexpected direction.)

So, I was already OK as far as explanations for those parts were concerned. The part of the puzzle I was looking to fill in was, specifically, how the disciples could have originally come to believe that Jesus worked miracles and was resurrected. (And, as per apologist teaching, why the early church’s opponents wouldn’t just go and retrieve Jesus’s dead body as evidence if he was really still dead; however, I now recognise the obvious answer to that one because I’m no longer a teenager with an utter lack of understanding of how other human beings work. Just in case there’s anyone out there who’s still wondering who isn’t me or an apologist, the short answer is that, however much people might want to prove a point, they do not normally resort to grave-robbing in order to do so. You’re welcome.)

So; explanations. Let us now flash back to the turn of the century, when I found the website and first read historian Richard Carrier’s detailed multipart essay Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story.

It was very much a ‘Where has this been all my life?’ moment (rhetorical question to which the answer was ‘Nonexistent, for the most part’; Carrier only wrote it a few years before I found it online). It was exactly the kind of detailed breakdown and debunking that I’d longed for. By the way, it also indirectly became how I found FreeThoughtBlogs in the first place. I randomly wondered one evening many years later what that guy who wrote the resurrection debunking was writing these days, and it turned out that at the time the answer was ‘a blog on a blogging platform that seems to have quite a few interesting posts on; should hang around and check this out’. And the rest is history. (Including the part where Carrier left the site three months later under a major cloud and then tried to sue us, so that was an unforeseen twist in the whole story. But I digress.)

Anyway, Carrier did exactly what I’d always wanted to see someone do; he went through various possible explanations in detail. He thought the most likely explanation to be that the disciples had had some sort of grief hallucinations that they took for appearances of a resurrected Jesus, and that the story spread from there; however, he also weighed up the chances of other explanations, concluding that even the vanishingly unlikely ones couldn’t be ruled out completely. Finally, I had some plausible suggestions for possible explanations as to what could have ignited the resurrection belief.

Carrier also, separately, wrote about how common it was at the time for people to claim and/or believe miracle stories. Apologists often talk as though the disciples would have been hardcore naturalistic skeptics, or at least would have had to convince hardcore naturalist skeptics in order to get anywhere; but those assumptions don’t really hold up. I began to see that the question here could more accurately be framed as “In a culture where belief in divine miracles was widespread, how could a group of people who desperately wanted to believe that their admired leader/their Messianic hopes were still alive have possibly come to believe such a thing?”, and to realise that perhaps that wasn’t, in fact, the kind of inexplicable mystery that required nothing short of a genuine bona fide resurrection to explain.

The other particularly helpful article was one I found several years later. I had by then discovered the blog of postgraduate history student Matthew Ferguson, who has produced some delightfully interesting posts debunking apologetic claims (such as his superbly comprehensive takedown of the oft-made claim that we have more evidence for Jesus’s life than for Caesar’s). This particular post, however, was a guest post; Kris Komarnitsky’s The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?

Komarnitsky’s hypothesis builds on a feature of human psychology that’s been increasingly well explored in recent years; our responses to what is formally known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. In simple terms, cognitive dissonance refers to the sensation of holding contradictory beliefs or values, and the study of cognitive dissonance looks at the effects this has and the various ways in which we deal with it.

In most cases, we’re talking about simple ordinary day-to-day issues (for example, if you’ve ever wanted to have that bar of chocolate but also wanted to lose weight, that’s cognitive dissonance), but it’s also known that people who desperately want to hang onto a belief in the face of the evidence can sometimes come up with extreme rationalisations. Such as, for example, people who are faced with evidence that should logically shatter a powerfully-held religious belief. Some people deal with this by reluctantly accepting that their religious belief was incorrect, some deal with it by ignoring evidence to the contrary… and sometimes people, unable to do the latter or to face the former, manage to find a new explanation that will let them hang onto the previous one in the face of evidence to the contrary, even if the explanation seems to fly in the face of evidence or logical sense. Komarnitsky presents several case histories of religious or cult groups in whom this behaviour has been observed, of which all are interesting but the most notable, in this context, is the last one; the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Schneerson was a rabbi widely believed by Hasidic Jews to be the long-awaited Messiah… a belief barely dented by his death from old age in June 1994. That’s right; just a few years after I struggled with apologists’ insistence that nothing short of an actual resurrection could have led Jews to believe that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive, a group of Jews started insisting that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive. Almost thirty years later, his followers still insist he’s the Messiah, and there have been several reported sightings of him since his death.

I haven’t seen much about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in apologetics, in case you were wondering, but I did find this essay by Michael Brown insisting that the differences between this story and the Jesus story are enough to prove that the claims of Jesus’s resurrection can’t possibly be due to cognitive dissonance but must be the real thing. It’s reminiscent of those God of the gaps arguments in which the gaps keep shrinking; a ‘resurrection of the gaps’ argument. Make of it what you will, but the fact remains that we do now have conclusive proof that it’s possible for people to become convinced that their dead would-be Messiah is still alive even in the absence of an actual resurrection. I think it’s pushing it to require a documented example of a naturally-caused situation that turned out exactly the same way as the Jesus stories before believing that those stories might have been caused by something other than a genuine resurrection.

But, finally… what I’ve learned is that it’s OK not to know exactly what happened, and that that doesn’t mean we have to default to believing in the resurrection. When my daughter was little and would wake up scared in the night, she would sob to me that she’d heard a funny noise and thought it was a ghost coming to get her. And, when I didn’t know what had caused whatever she’d heard, she would say “But how do you know it’s not a ghost?” So there I was, in the middle of the night and half asleep, trying to explain to a three-year-old that the probability of our house being the one place ghosts would ever show up after ghost-hunters had utterly failed to find convincing evidence of them anywhere else was actually negligibly low, unlike, say, the probability of the funny noise having been air in the pipes or some other natural explanation. And, no, I don’t think I explained it as well as that at the time, though I think I eventually got the message across. But I also got the message myself.

Setting aside, for a moment, anything you do or don’t believe about the existence of gods or miracles or resurrections (or, if you prefer, assuming for the sake of this argument that all of them might exist)… Christian theology would require me to believe that Yahweh raised Jesus from the dead in order for him to show himself to what can be calculated on even the most optimistic estimates to be an infinitesmally small fraction of all humanity, in order to get across a message that was supposedly vital for the salvation of all of said humanity despite conflicting with what Yahweh explicitly told his people in the past. And, yes, yes, gods are gods and they get to do whatever they want even if it seems incomprehensible to mortals and all that, but the problem is that Christian theology also requires me to believe that Yahweh considers this message of vital importance for every human soul to hear… and that is extremely at odds with a method of delivery that would miss so many (not to mention that it would be deliberately ignored by so many others on the grounds of contradicting what were supposedly Yahweh’s express words). It’s not just that Christianity asks me to believe incredibly improbable things, it’s that it asks me to believe impossibly inconsistent things.

So, when Christianity is claiming that all of the above is the explanation for a sequence of events for which we do, in fact, now know of plausible natural explanations, then, no, I’m not going to believe that that is the case. Yes, I’ve loved getting actual alternative explanations after all the years of wondering. But, even without knowing exactly what caused the funny noises that my daughter heard in the middle of the night, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t a ghost; and even without knowing the exact sequence of events that led the disciples and then Paul to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t Jesus actually rising from the dead.

My nonconversion story. Part 8: In accordance with the prophecies…

This is the eighth and final part of my story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’d already seen that Christianity was big on the claim that the Jewish scriptures had miraculously prophecied Jesus’s life/death/resurrection. I’d read Christian claims about many of these, and found they didn’t stand up to being checked out. I’d read Jewish explanations about flaws in the Christian interpretations, and found that those did stand up to being checked out. But something kept niggling at me; other than the isolated passages that Christians picked out, I’d never read what the prophets had to say for myself. And by this stage in my life I was well aware of how people could cherry-pick facts to support the side of a debate that they wanted to support. How did I know that this wasn’t happening here?

With hindsight, I realise that people don’t usually cherry-pick poor arguments, so the very fact that Christians weren’t coming up with better scriptural prophecies to prove their arguments was an excellent indication that such prophecies didn’t exist. At the time, however, I could only see one fair way of making sure; I’d have to read the biblical prophets for myself.

I put this off for quite a while, because it was a pretty big project, but in the end I made up my mind to do it. I would read them through from Isaiah to Malachi inclusive. I’d write down anything that genuinely seemed to have been at least intended as a prophecy about someone being sent by God. And then I would read through all the ones I’d written down and see whether they really did – as Christians claimed – come up with an astonishingly close description of Jesus’s life. If they did… well, as awful as the prospect was, I supposed I’d have to become Christian. If they didn’t, on the other hand, then that would be reassuring information.

And so I did just that. This time, the parental Bible I appropriated was the RSV. I don’t remember why – probably because it was smaller and lighter than the others and I was packing it to take back to university – but I now know that it’s considered one of the better translations, so that was an unintentionally good choice. I spent hours reading through it and carefully copying any noteworthy passages into an old exercise book I had left over from middle school maths lessons. (I kept the exercise book afterwards, as a souvenir. Years later, when my husband and I were busy packing for a house move, he found it in a pile and asked me what it was. “Oh,” I said absently, preoccupied with the box I was packing, “that’s just prophecies.” The look on his face when I glanced up made me realise that some comments in life really do need context.)

I also reread quite a lot of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. I don’t actually remember how that became part of the project; either I’d done this at an earlier stage and I’m conflating the two in my mind (plausible, as I know I’d read them several times before, including a reread only a few years before the time I’m thinking about), or it was something I did as a minor change of pace from ploughing through the prophets (also plausible, as I got really bogged down reading through Jeremiah, the depressing so-and-so). However it happened, I know I did it at some stage, because the information from that was one of the things I took into account when I weighed up what I’d learned.

And, as so often happens with questions related to Christianity, sitting down and properly reading large parts of the Bible really clarified things. Here – after much tedious slogging through the writings of ancient people ranting on about stuff, and meticulous note-taking – is what I learned.

1. The Jews were right.

Well, I still had no idea whether they were right about details such as the existence of God or whether this God might be responsible for the scriptures supposedly inspired by him; I was still firmly agnostic. They were, however – not surprisingly – right about what the scriptures had to say about Messianic prophecies.

I’d found several passages that fit my original criterion of ‘intended as a prophecy of someone sent by God’. The main ones were:

Isaiah 11

Jeremiah 23: 2 – 8

Jeremiah 30: 8 – 10 and 18 – 22

Jeremiah 33: 14 – 26

Ezekiel 34: 22 – 31

Ezekiel 37: 21 – 28

Reading through all of those, there was a very clear pattern: a king of David’s line would be ruling over Israel in a time of peace and plenty when the Jews were living in their own land, their enemies had been defeated, and life was good all round. Jesus, of course, clearly hadn’t done that.

Of course, there was no logical reason why a divine being couldn’t send two different people to do different jobs, so these passages didn’t exclude the hypothesis that there might exist a god who would both send someone to fulfil this prophecy and, separately, send someone whose job it was to get killed as a sin sacrifice. However, Jesus, as a Jew among Jews, would have known what his followers meant when they excitedly labelled him the Messiah; he would have known that the term referred to the prophecied king who would rule over a liberated Israel. Yet he seemed quite all right with going along with the term; while he did sometimes tell his disciples not to shout it out for everyone to hear, there’s no record of him declaring that he’s not the Messiah but is here for a different purpose entirely. And it didn’t make sense that a messenger sent by God to give humanity a new and crucial message of salvation would be so willing to muddy the waters by going along with the idea that he was someone completely different. So that excuse didn’t really hold up.

There was, of course, also the traditional Christian explanation; that Jesus just hadn’t done the ‘rule over a land of peace and plenty’ part yet, but would return to do it in the future. While that was logically possible, it was also logically unfalsifiable. If we were going to claim that Jesus was the Messiah just because he was going to fulfil the prophecies in the future, then we could just as well claim that about any would-be Messiah in Jewish history, since we were equally unable to prove or disprove that any of them might miraculously return to do those things despite not having done them the first time around. For that matter, since nothing in the prophecies specified that this person had to say they were the Messiah prior to doing all these things, we could use that basis for claiming that any random Jewish man, present or past, was the Messiah. So that particular loophole didn’t stand up to logic.

2. The sacrificial system wasn’t actually that important anyway.

In the course of my reading, I’d found some passages that weren’t what I was originally looking for – they weren’t about people sent by God – but that were, nonetheless, relevant enough to the whole discussion that I copied them out too.

Hosea 6:6

Hosea 14:2 – 4

Micah 6:6 – 8

And most of Ezekiel 18, especially verses 21 and 22.

This message, too, was clear and consistent: Sacrifices aren’t really the main thing God’s after. The important thing is that you live a good life and repent for any misdeeds. No addendum about how you also had to provide a sacrifice as a final necessary step before being forgiven; God was very clearly quoted as saying that if you lived a good life, that was good enough. It was a flat-out contradiction of what Christianity taught.

3. However, the sacrificial system was still meant to be permanent.

I found that little gem of information buried in one of the propechies listed above, in Jeremiah 33:18. The verse, supposedly a direct quote from God, is a promise that he’ll keep the Levitical sacrificial system going forever.

That, of course, also presents problems with the validity of any of this, given that the Levitical sacrificial system was destroyed with the temple almost two millennia ago and never restored, but I was focusing on checking the claims of Christianity rather than Judaism and so that escaped me at the time. The important takeaway for me was that this verse flat-out contradicted the entire claim that God went on to abolish the Levitical sacrificial system in favour of a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice. In other words, it contradicted the key claim of Christianity.

4. And so was the entire system of Jewish law.

This was where the Deuteronomy reading came in.

The overarching theme that gets pushed throughout Deuteronomy is the importance of keeping this law (with considerable description of all the rewards the Jewish people would get from keeping it/the punishments they’d call forth if they didn’t), and, sprinkled through this, were several places where it was specifically stated that this requirement was for ever. Another verse specified that it was to be ‘to a thousand generations’, which technically wasn’t forever (although it was fairly clearly meant symbolically to indicate this) but certainly wasn’t a timeframe that allowed for discarding the law in 33 CE. By the way, the verses I’ve linked to weren’t just isolated comments, but were in the context of lengthy harangues about the rewards the Jews could expect if they followed these laws and the punishments they could expect if they didn’t. Overall, the message was extensively hammered in and absolutely clear.

Deuteronomy even specified that there weren’t any loopholes for following miracle-workers. If someone tried to persuade Jews to turn away from the Jewish law then their message was to be rejected absolutely regardless of what ‘signs and wonders’ they showed you to try to persuade you they were the real deal. No ‘but if he heals the sick, raises the dead, and rises from the dead himself then it’s OK’ exceptions there.

There was simply nothing there to support the idea that the whole shebang was meant to be cancelled a mere couple of millennia later; quite the reverse. Deuteronomy was very, very clear that the Jews were meant to keep to the Jewish law permanently.

In summary…

To answer my original question, the Jewish scriptures clearly didn’t prophecy Jesus’s life. On top of that, I’d learned that they did clearly specify that the Jewish law was a permanent obligation on Jews; that the Jewish sacrificial system was also permanent; and that divine forgiveness was available to anyone who lived a good life and repented of their sins. All of which was, of course, in absolute contradiction to Christianity’s teachings that the Jewish law and sacrificial system are now obsolete and that divine forgiveness is only available via believing in Jesus’s sacrifice.

In short, the Jewish scriptures could not have done a better job of warning Jews off Christian theology if… well, if a divine being had deliberately written them that way.

So, where did that leave me?

With a logic puzzle unexpectedly reminiscent of Raymond Smullyan.

If the Jewish scriptures actually were the instructions of a divine being to His people, then Christianity could not possibly be true.

Of course, as an agnostic I was fully aware of the possibility that they might actually be the works of mere humans trying to convince themselves there was someone out there watching over them. However, the belief that these scriptures were the instructions of a divine being to His people was fundamental to Christianity as well as Judaism. Therefore, if the Jewish scriptures weren’t the instructions of a divine being to his people, then Christianity could not possibly be true.

This was not looking good for Christianity’s validity.

I was still determined to approach this logically, and, as such, I realised there was a theoretically possible third option: The Jewish scriptures might be the instructions of a really evil divine being who wanted to absolutely screw humanity over by giving them a set of instructions that would lead to their damnation. It did not take too much thought to realise that a) this was logically unfalsifiable, b) it seemed fairly unlikely, and c) it was entirely unhelpful. The key premise of salvation religion is that God is at least trying to offer us a route to salvation and will keep up his end of the deal if we follow instructions. If we’re actually dealing with a god who’s out to trick us and mess with us, then there is nothing we can do about that situation; following orders isn’t going to help if the Being giving the orders is a psychopath who doesn’t even care about trying to save us. If that’s the case, we might just as well ignore the whole problem anyway and at least focus on making the world a better place. So, from the practical point of view, it seemed entirely reasonable to ignore this possibility. In any case, it was still hardly helpful for propping up the truth of Christianity, since another of their teachings was that God was ultimate goodness.

In summary… the clash between Christianity’s teachings and the Jewish teachings on which it depended was irreconcilable. Whether Judaism was true or false, the result was still that Christianity was false. The very Bible Christianity cited to prove its veracity did the exact opposite. And, in probably the only time I will ever use this sentence on this blog, you can’t really get more authoritative on this subject than what the Bible has to say.

And that was it. After all those years, I finally had a conclusive answer and could stop worrying. I got on with my life. I finished medical school, worked as a doctor, enjoyed life to the full, eventually got a blog on an atheist blogging platform, and maintained my interest in religion and counter-apologetics to this day. And I never worried about hellfire again.

My nonconversion story. Part 7: Word of God?

This is the seventh part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I still spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could before concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

One of the key beliefs of Christian apologists is that God will make himself known to anyone who asks him with an open heart. As I mentioned in Part 4, I did plenty of asking during those years, and did my best to keep an open heart despite the difficulties of having a truly open heart towards a being that is supposedly that cavalier about abandoning millions to eternal torture. In response, I got… various stray thoughts that didn’t feel particularly distinguishable from my imagination, and a sense of being vaguely disapproved at for insufficiency, which also might or might not have been my imagination. But there were two occasions when I got something more specific, something I really felt might have been an actual response. So those are the topic of this post.

At this point, it’s worth taking a minute to answer the oft-asked question ‘So what would it take to get you to believe in God?’ At the time I didn’t have a specific answer, and that was entirely deliberate; I didn’t want to lay down narrow conditions for God to fulfil. After all, if – let’s say – I declared I wanted to see a miraculously burning bush before I’d believe in God and instead He decided to materialise in my bedroom to make himself known, what was I going to do; tell him it was the wrong miracle and I wasn’t interested? As far as I was concerned, if I got any sort of sign that couldn’t be plausibly explained as coincidence, natural causes, or imagination then that would be good enough.

I never did. Both of the two occasions I just mentioned were plausibly within the realm of coincidence. But they were the times when I came closest to feeling that I’d had an answer from Someone Out There directing my path. So, for any Christians who are thinking that I should have just prayed and I would have got an answer… here’s what happened, and make of it what you will.

The first one (Or it might have been the second one, for all I know; I remember it clearly, but don’t remember when it happened in relation to anything else.)

I’d read some stories of faithful Christians who sought guidance/answers in times of uncertainty by opening the Bible at random and finding a verse that exactly answered their question. While the stories didn’t quite fit the “can’t be plausibly explained as coincidence” criterion, they did include some pretty cool examples, and I decided it was worth trying.

My brain circling as always with the ‘Is it all true? Do non-Christians really burn in hell? Would you really do that to my father and everyone else like him?’ questions, I asked God if he could try that method of communication with me. I’d make it easier for him by reading the whole of the double page at which it fell open, thus giving him more of a chance to present me with a meaningful verse. (This would also, of course, give coincidence more chance to work, but I figured that if God was actually listening then He would just have to sort that problem out Himself.)

So I opened the Bible, which, this time, was my parents’ copy of the New English Bible with Apocrypha. It opened in the middle of Jeremiah, and at the bottom of the right-hand page was Jeremiah 22:15, which, in this translation, reads thus:

Think of your father; he ate and drank,

dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.

He dispensed justice to the lowly and poor;

did not this show he knew me? says the LORD.

And so there you have it. Desperately seeking an answer to my worries about nonbelievers being destined for hellfire, I found a verse that took the specific example of the nonbeliever I knew and loved best and assured me that his fair and just way of living his life was good enough to prove he was all right with God. In other words, I didn’t have to worry that good non-Christians would be condemned just for not being Christian.

I was aware it might be a coincidence, but it was a bloody good one. If there actually was a divine being answering our questions about him by means of flipping a Bible open at the correct page, seemed like He’d done about as clear a job as was possible with this method of communication. I didn’t feel I could quite rely on this to dismiss Christianity, since, logically, it was still possible that God had simply ignored my request and I’d coincidentally got lucky with the quote but in fact Christianity was still true. But this was definitely comforting.

The second one. (Or possibly the first. You get the idea.)

Just for once, I’ve been able to track down exactly when this one was, for reasons which will shortly become clear; April 21st, 1990, when I was almost 21 and in my second year at medical school. But let me backtrack a minute.

At the beginning of that university year, I moved into a house where a pre-existing group of three people already lived, and discovered they were Fundamentalist Christians. You might well be wondering how that houseshare worked out, and the answer is that it was great fun and I had a very good couple of years there. As far as the religious side of it went… well, we got into a lengthy discussion about the topic at an early stage. I can’t remember how, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to convert me, and also pretty sure that I wasn’t trying to convert them, since that’s always been against my principles. I think it just came up in conversation. Unfortunately, I also can’t really remember much about the conversation, except for them telling me uncertainly that they were sure there must be an explanation for the point/question/contradiction I’d just raised but they unfortunately weren’t sure what it could be. I do remember that line because we seemed to get back to it rather often.

(In addition to all the other reading I’d been doing about the topic, I’d just got back from a stay on a kibbutz, in which my room had a copy of the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures; basically, the Old Testament with the books in a slightly different order from the one Christianity uses, but for obvious reasons not called the Old Testament within Judaism) and in which there wasn’t actually a whole lot else to do once work was finished for the day, so I spent hours reading the earlier books of the Tanakh for want of anything better to do, and hence noticing a whole bunch of contradictions and queries that had escaped either my notice or my memory on previous reads. So, when it came to a conversation with Christians about Christianity and the Bible… yeah, I was on form.)

Anyway, the whole discussion stayed very civil and we ended up on an agree-to-disagree note, but they did noticeably avoid bringing the subject up around me again after that.

However, to get back to the point of this story, on that day I did end up going to church with them. I forget how, but I assume some sort of ‘want to try it just to see?’ invitation must have been involved. (I do remember one time when one of them stammered out “Justwantedtoletyouknowthatthere’sasermonatchurchthisSundayfornonChristianswhowanttocomealongandofcourseifyoudon’twanttoit’s finebutIjustthoughtI’daskyousorry”; poor chap, it was obvious even to someone as clueless as me that he’d been put through some sort of ‘are you not giving your friends the opportunity to participate in eternal life and be Saved?’ guilt trip. But I think that was a different time.)

Anyway, however it happened, there I was at a fundagelical church sermon… with the pastor going full throttle about how unbelievers were doomed to burn in hell. And it was terrifying. I mean, one part of my mind understood perfectly well that it probably wasn’t true and that, of course, he was supposed to say all this stuff and make it convincing… but it really did bring all my ‘What if it’s all true?’ fears to the fore. So, when we got home that evening, I was in a bit of a state over it all.

I was in the living room, still fretting and worrying over it, and somebody had ‘Spitting Image’ on. And it was the episode that ends with God singing this song.

I dearly wish I’d been able to find a video of it online, but apparently ITV blocked it for copyright reasons, which I suppose is fair enough. But you can get the general idea from the lyrics at that link, and actually watching it was even better. I cracked up. I laughed the laugh of someone who’s been desperately stressed over an issue only to be suddenly presented with a genuinely funny twist on it. I felt vastly better. And I concluded that, if God was trying to give me a message, it was clearly “Don’t take it too seriously.”


So, where did this leave me?

Not particularly any further forward, since, after all, it was quite possible that both these events had been complete coincidences. But it was at least comforting to know that a) I’d done my best to ask God open-heartedly for an answer the way I was supposed to and b) if any god out there was trying to give me an answer on the subject, it seemed pretty clearly to be that I didn’t need to be too worried about all this Christianity stuff.

Next up: I finally reach a conclusion.

My nonconversion story. Part 6: University.

This is the sixth part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

By this point, I’d finished my A-levels, narrowly missed the grades I needed for medical school (turns out that spending large chunks of what’s supposed to be your study time on obsessing over religious questions isn’t a great strategy for getting good grades; who’da thought it), done resits, and started medical school, which comes directly after school in the UK rather than being a postgrad degree. All the rest of the story takes place in my first few years at medical school, which puts me in the ’19 – early 20s’ age range at this point.

I’d also, by this point, concluded that – despite all the hype – no-one seemed to have any convincing evidence either way on the question of whether God existed, and so I’d reached the point of considering mysef an agnostic. (I’d eventually move on to atheism, but that wouldn’t be until years later.) However, I was still as torn as ever on the question of Christianity. (On the one hand: horrible theology and a lot of reasons to doubt the accuracy of the gospels. On the other: lack of a good answer to how Christianity could have got started if it wasn’t true.) So, I kept right on browsing the ‘religion’ section in the library shelves and bookshops, looking for any new thoughts on the matter.

(One benefit of moving to university was that I now got to do this in the stunningly gorgeous Picton Reading Room at Liverpool Central Library, a vast round room with bookshelves three stories high edged by galleried landings reached by wrought-iron spiral staircases, all topped off with a giant arched dome across which every little noise softly echoed back and forth; to this day, when I think of the Picton Reading Room, I can hear those soft triple echoes. It’s the most breathtaking public library I’ve ever been in. If you’re ever in Liverpool, do go and check it out.)

By this point I’d spent enough time looking at pro and con arguments that most of the stuff I found was just a repeat of things I’d read already. Even so, however, there were several times when I did come across something new on the matter. I’ve already written about one such – C.S. Lewis’s infamous Moral Argument – but here are some others that were more specifically Christianity-relevant. (I’ve bundled them all together into one post, so it’s a long one.)

Definition of a delusion

This one was actually from lectures, not from my reading; first-year psychology, if I recall correctly. (If not, then I suppose it would have been final-year psychiatry and hence outside the time frame I’m covering here, but it’s relevant anyway so I’ll put it in.)

What we learned was that a delusion is a fixed unshakeable belief, derived by abnormal means, that can’t be explained in terms of the person’s cultural background. The bit that’s relevant here is the last part of that definition. Our lecturer explained to us that we have to be careful when assessing people from different cultures who are expressing strange beliefs, because something that seems delusional to us could actually be a normal belief within their culture and would therefore not be delusional. He gave us an example, which my memory has probably garbled beyond recognition in the intervening three decades but which was, to the best of my recall, a story of an isolated society where the men claimed to be red macaws and were thus initially thought to be mad by the explorers who first made contact until it emerged that this was actually part of a normal belief for that culture. (If anyone has a clue what anthropological story I’m semi-remembering there, I’d love to have the details clarified.)

So for me, of course… boom. Jesus and his claims to be the son of God/the Messiah! One of the ploys I’d seen in apologetics books was the quoting of an anonymous psychologist/psychiatrist assuring the readers that the only way Jesus could have made those claims was if he was either mad or correct; not to mention, of course, C.S. Lewis’s famous statement that Jesus must either be a devil, as mad as all those well-known lunatics who think they’re poached eggs (now there was a man who didn’t have much knowledge of mental illness), or genuinely the Son of God. But, in fact, we actually had to consider Jesus’s claims in the light of what they would have meant in his culture; and, while it was hardly an everyday occurence in first-century Judaism for men to go around claiming to be the Messiah or son of God, it also wasn’t a sign of insanity. The people of that time and culture firmly believed that someone – some apparently normal human being – was going to be chosen by God as the Messiah. As for ‘son of God’, that could be used metaphorically to describe men thought to have a special relationship with God. Jesus’s claims were normal within his culture. Thus, according to actual psychiatric definitions, they weren’t signs of insanity, and so the infamous ‘trilemma’ wasn’t actually a trilemma at all.

God for Nothing

God for Nothing: Is Religion Bad For You? was a book by a vicar (Richard MacKenna) discussing, as I recall, his thoughts on the role of Christianity and how to interpret the gospels in our society. I don’t remember much of the specifics, although I recall finding it a readable and thoughtful book overall; however, one particular point stayed with me.

MacKenna, writing about the ways in which the gospels are interpreted in our time, used the analogy of a contemporary newspaper article which described Thatcher as being ‘left in rags’ until another polititian ‘brought her her glass slipper’ and pointed out how easily this could be misunderstood by historians finding this isolated scrap in two thousand years in the absence of any surviving Cinderella stories. Similarly, he argued, we have no way of knowing which passages the gospel writers might have meant as symbolic at the time in the knowledge that the people for whom they were writing would get their cultural references, but which are getting misinterpreted by us two thousand years later. It was a really helpful reframing of the usual apologetics approach of ‘were they wrong or lying or did this all happen this way? CLEARLY THE LATTER’. And, yes, it does sound obvious now; but it was the first time I can remember seeing it framed that way, and it made quite an impression on me.

The Mythmaker

I found Hyam Maccoby’s The Mythmaker in one of those atmospheric browsing sessions on the Picton Room’s galleries. Maccoby was a Jewish Talmudic scholar who did exactly what I’d been longing to see a Jewish scholar do; he interpreted the New Testament in light of what we know about rabbinical teachings and Jewish culture of the time, and wrote about this in a straightforwardly readable way. And, while he didn’t address my ever-present question about how the disciples could have come to believe Jesus had been resurrected if this wasn’t the case, he did come up with intriguing theories about how early Christianity could have progressed from there.

To cut a long story short, Maccoby analysed the information we get from Paul’s letters and from Acts and what we can piece together about Paul’s teachings and his uneasy relationship with the early church, and argued that Jesus and his original sect were practicing Jews with a typical Jewish concept of the Messiah as being the one who’d lead the longed-for rebellion against Rome, and that the change to a new religion with a new (and very un-Jewish) concept of salvation theology came about with Paul, the eponymous mythmaker, who resolved the conflicts in his own life by mentally fusing Jewish, Gnostic, and pagan beliefs in an entirely new way.

Maccoby’s argument left me simultaneously bowled over and unsure what to make of it; I’d already learned, by that stage in my life, how easy it was for an argument to sound completely convincing until you found someone who knew enough to give you the other side. I decided that I’d better, on general principles, assume he was wrong about at least some of what he said; not because I could spot any obvious errors in reasoning, but because it seemed unlikely that he could have been that accurate in figuring out what took place two thousand years ago in a different culture. Looking back thirty years later, I think that was a sensible approach. While Maccoby made several well-argued and evidence-based claims, he did also have an unfortunate tendency to jump from those to assumptions.

But, for all that, I now had a plausible theory about how Christianity could have transmuted from Judaism and then taken off, that would never have previously occurred to me but which now made complete sense. And that meant, logically, that explanations in that category could exist. If Maccoby’s explanation was the wrong one… well, it was still perfectly plausible that the right one was something other than ‘because Jesus really was sent by God as a sin sacrifice and Christianity’s whole awful theology is true’.

Operation Judaism

You might have heard of Jews for Jesus, an evangelical Christian organisation specifically targeting Jews for attempted conversion. Operation Judaism was a group set up in the early ’80s to counter this. (This particular group no longer seems to be running; Jews for Judaism now does the same thing with a broader reach, countering other proselytising religions as well as Christianity, so I assume Operation Judaism was either subsumed or renamed at some point.)

While I was at medical school, the university’s Jewish Society invited Operation Judaism to come and speak. So, to my delight, I got to hear a talk from a group whose entire raison d’être was explaining inaccuracies in Christian theology from a Jewish viewpoint.

Picture of a handout

Which was so interesting to me that I’ve kept their handout to this day.

The speaker covered multiple useful points, including Jewish concepts of the Messiah (about which, of course, I already knew something) and key differences between Jewish and Christian theology (Christianity’s basic concept of being hopelessly lost to sin/doomed to hell for the least mistake is alien to Judaism, which is strong on personal redemption via genuine effort and repentance). But the most helpful part was their discussion of ‘proof texts’, the passages from the Jewish scriptures that Christians claim to be prophecies of Jesus’s coming. I wrote a couple of posts ago about the examples I’d spotted for myself from reading the gospels, but the Operation Judaism speaker took the time to explain a couple of major ones for which the flaws are less easy to spot without a good background knowledge of Jewish scripture; Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9:24 – 27.

Thinking back, I honestly can’t remember coming across Isaiah 53 before that talk. If not, don’t ask me how I’d managed to miss it with the amount I’d read, as it’s a biggie in Christian apologetics. It describes a ‘Suffering Servant’ who was ‘wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities’, who is, of course, believed by Christians to be Jesus dying for the sins of the world. However, I now learned that ‘servant’ was a term often used metaphorically of the Jewish people and which seemed in context to be meant exactly that way here, and that the passage included a line that translated as ‘he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days’, which fitted metaphorically with the ‘Jewish people’ interpretation’ but didn’t fit well with the interpretation that this was a prophecy of Jesus. Nor did the lines about him having ‘no form or majesty that we should look at him’ or being ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’. It’s easy to read salvation theology into this passage retrospectively, but, read in context, it doesn’t really introduce the idea.

I had heard about the Daniel 9 prophecy; I remember one of the books I read, written by a Jewish man who’d converted to Christianity, assured me that the time given in in the prophecy for the coming of the Messiah worked out exactly to the year Jesus started preaching, how could this be a coincidence, etc. What I learned now, however, was, firstly, that the passage just used the word ‘messiah’ in its more general sense of ‘anointed one’ (a term that Jews of the time used for any king, or for that matter just in its literal sense for anything that was anointed; Daniel also uses it to refer to the Holy of Holies in the Temple), and, secondly, that the time period didn’t come out at Jesus’s time unless you lump two time periods from the passage together in a way not supported by the wording. Interestingly, one thing I’ve since learned that they didn’t point out is that even if you do that the timing still doesn’t work out as coinciding with anything significant in Jesus’s life, and Christians have to play around with the calendar to make it come out at an appropriate time. I have no idea why Operation Judaism didn’t add that. Even without that, however, I now had enough information to spot the flaws in the apologetics about this passage.

In short; yet again, claims made by Christian apologists did not hold up when examined. Which, by this time, was not even a surprise.

So, where did that leave me?

At this point, if you’re still reading at all, you’re probably wondering why I was even still hung up on this. I’d found plenty of reasons to doubt the truth of Christianity’s claims, and it wasn’t as though I was tied to the religion by teachings or fears implanted in childhood, the way some people are.

But, nevertheless, I was still scared by the horrifying prospect of a universe in charge of a sociopath willing to allow millions of people to burn in eternal hellfire due to simple mischance of which time and place they were born to. And I still didn’t have good answers for the claim that the disciples would never have started preaching Jesus’s resurrection unless they had convincing evidence it was true. What if I was getting it all wrong, and God really was that awful? The prospect niggled at my mind and I couldn’t shake it. And so, I kept on looking.

Next up: what happened when I tried asking God directly for help with this.

My nonconversion story. Part 5: He’s not the Messiah…

This is the fifth part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

At this point in the story, I was still in sixth form (the last two years of school).

The Messiah

One thing that did strike me as notable about Christianity was that it hadn’t, in general, convinced the Jews. Specifically, the Jewish people had rejected the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Which struck me as an important point; I knew that Judaism regarded the Messiah as vitally important and believing Jews were really looking forward to him turning up, so it sounded as though they’d have been thrilled had they actually thought he’d done so. Which meant that they must have had good reason to believe that Jesus wasn’t the one they were waiting for. I concluded it would be worth finding out what that reason was.

Of course, the traditional Christian explanation of this was that the Jews had failed to recognise their Messiah when they saw him as he didn’t fit their incorrect expectations of what the Messiah would be. Yup; Christianity’s explanation for this awkward point was that the Jews were wrong about a key part of their own religion. This was still more than two decades before the coining of words like ‘mansplaining’ and ‘whitesplaining’, so I did not think of this as ‘Gentilesplaining’ when mentally shaking my head at it; but I got the concept even if I didn’t have a term for it. So, no, I wanted to hear what Judaism had to say about the Messiah and why they thought Jesus didn’t fit the bill.

Since this was also several years before the Internet, this was not particularly easy. I spent a lot more time looking through the religious sections of all available libraries, and eventually found a book with the information I needed. I’m afraid I can’t at this stage remember either what the book was or precisely what information on the subject I got from that book as opposed to what I’ve learned from numerous sources since, so some of this I might not have picked up until later; therefore, on this key point I’m going to have to be a bit vague. However, the gist is that ‘messiah’ (which is an Anglicised version of ‘mashiach’, the Hebrew word for ‘anointed’) is on one level a term that Judaism used for any king or priest, but that the Messiah was a title used for a particular king and descendant of King David, who was supposed to rule over Israel in a time when Israel’s enemies had been miraculously and permanently defeated and Israel herself was living in a time of peace and plenty.

That seemed pretty conclusive. Since Jesus clearly didn’t fit the definition of the Messiah, it seemed entirely logical that the Jews had concluded that he was not, in fact, the Messiah. Sadly, I don’t think I thought of the Monty Python quote at that point, so that was a good cue missed; but the message was still clear enough.

So where did this leave me?

Thinking about it now, I’m really not sure why this wasn’t the end of the argument for me. Christianity claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. He clearly wasn’t the Messiah. That’s a pretty basic point on which to be wrong. I genuinely can’t remember how I excused this to myself; I guess I was so determined to give Christianity a fair hearing that I gave them a free pass on this blatant inaccuracy.

Next up: More of the same sort of thing, but this time during my medical school years.

My nonconversion story. Part 4: Reading the gospels.

This is the fourth part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could and eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and will have links to all published parts.

At this point in the story, I was still in sixth form, which refers collectively to the last two years of school, aged 16 – 18. If you know the US system, that’s the equivalent of the junior and senior years of high school (age-wise, I mean; the schooling system is completely different and quite a bit more specialised at this point).

The Gospels and Jesus

As per the last post, I was well aware of the flaws in gospel accuracy. However, they were still the best information we had available on the origins of Christianity, so reading them seemed to be another obvious step. However, despite repeated attempts – starting sometimes with gMatthew because it was the first in the layout and sometimes with gMark because it had been the first written – I got bogged down each time and gave up. I read a lot of separate sections of the gospels, and since then I have read all of gMark, but at the time I never made it through any of them. The main reason for this was, simply enough, that Jesus sounded horrible.

Everything I’d previously read or heard had led me to believe that, when I read Jesus’s story, I’d find an amazingly sympathetic friend/overwhelmingly wise teacher like no other. Instead, he seemed predominantly to spend his time ranting about how awful everyone else was, including the people who supposedly had been his friends. Following Jesus seemed to be about having it rammed into you how badly you were screwing up, with a coating of patronising magnanimity to the effect that he was prepared to love and put up with you anyway. I didn’t, at the time, have the know-how to either fully articulate this or recognise it as a classic dysfunctional/abusive relationship pattern, and hence fretted that my instinctive reactions against it might be just the sinfulness that apologists assured me was an innate part of all of us. But that conflict between what I was supposed to be finding in the stories and what I actually was seeing there was uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t go on reading them.

While I didn’t have the words or understanding to explain properly why that part of the gospels bothered me so much, there were also some specific incidents described that I knew were wrong. There was the time Jesus got in a snit just because a tree wasn’t producing fruit when he wanted it to (the intended symbolism escaped me at the time, so this one just came across as Jesus throwing a bratty tantrum). There was the time he was fine with having costly ointment poured over him after having told other people they were supposed to sell everything and give all their money to the poor (I was firmly on Judas’s side on this one, and, yes, I did notice how the gospel author wanted to discredit him by imagining a corrupt motivation for him when he was clearly the one in the right). And, above all, there was the time when a mother came to him desperate for help for her dying child and he called her and her child dogs and wouldn’t help her until she begged him. Even allowing for the theory that it might just be my sinful soul putting me off listening to Jesus’s words of truth, I really didn’t think he was making too good a showing here.

But surely at least Jesus’s teachings were dazzlingly wise beyond anything the world had previously seen? Well… these didn’t seem to live up to the hype either.

For one thing, Jesus outright banned divorce (with a possible exception for female adultery, depending on whether you believed Matthew or Mark; however, both of those sources were very clear that no other exceptions were allowed). I was (and am) all for the importance of marriage and the desirability of being committed to keeping relationships going where possible, but I did recognise – even as a naive and starry-eyed teenager – that sometimes it wasn’t possible. If a relationship had broken down past fixing, how could it possibly be a good idea to keep the two people concerned trapped in it rather than give them each the chance of someday finding happiness with a different partner? And that, of course, was even before you got to the really difficult cases where the consequences of keeping a marriage going could be downright dangerous. Your partner could be beating you, sexually abusing your children, and gambling or drinking away the household finances, and according to the law Jesus laid down you’d still be stuck with them for a lifetime, even where that meant keeping children stuck there as well.  This law sounded like a terrible idea to me.

Jesus also, supposedly, taught that even thinking about doing something wrong was just as bad as doing it. To be fair, it wasn’t actually clear to me that Jesus had in fact meant that; I don’t just mean in the sense that none of us are really sure what Jesus said and what was added into the story later, but in the sense that the actual words he’s claimed to have spoken might not mean that. Jesus said, according to the translations we have of Matthew, that thinking about doing something wrong meant doing it ‘in your heart’; but he never said that that was as bad as actually doing it. In the spirit of fairness with which I was approaching all this, I thought it reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. However, I certainly saw it interpreted that way by some of the Christian teachings I read; and, if that was really how it was meant to be interpreted, then that was a terrible law. How could we help the thoughts that crossed our mind? Why should someone be blamed just because a thought of something evil happened to pass across their mind? (1) Of course that wasn’t as bad as actually doing the thing!

(It did strike me as a strange contradiction that while Christianity claimed Jesus had tossed out all those nasty restrictive laws that the Jews had previously been stuck with – in fact, outright hyped this as one of its selling points – it actually managed to come up with laws far more burdensome than anything I was seeing in Judaism.)

Of course, there were better aphorisms among the things Jesus was quoted as saying. However, I was reading enough about Judaism to know that ideas such as ‘Love your enemy’ were developments of contemporary Jewish thought rather than forays into completely new, hitherto unknown realms of ethics. Our modern-day society gave Jesus all the credit for these, but they had in fact evolved from the context of a considerable amount of rabbinical thought and wisdom developed over the years.


These were the other thing of note about the gospels, and, of course, starting at the beginning of gMatthew means coming up against a lot of them straight away, because the author loves telling us that such-and-such happened in accordance with such-and-such a prophecy. The Bible I was reading (2) footnoted each of these with the OT verse or passage that was supposedly being referenced, so I started checking them. It immediately became apparent that Matthew was… well, very, very creative in what he was willing to count as a Messianic prophecy.

A virgin shall conceive? Nope; that line actually came from a completely different prophecy involving a threatened war centuries earlier. Also, from the general reading on the subject I was doing, I learned the original line didn’t even specify a virgin but used a more general word for a young woman.

Out of Egypt I called my son? Again, this line made perfect sense in context as a description of an OT story; there was nothing to suggest it was actually meant as a Messianic prophecy.

He shall be called a Nazarene? That line didn’t even occur in the OT; Matthew seemed to have invented it completely to fit his case.

Same thing at the other end of the stories, with the prophecy references in the Crucifixion scene. ‘They have pierced my hands and my feet’ was a) a mistranslation, and b) in the middle of what seemed to be a poetic piece of writing describing a number of different possible deaths at the hands of others; there was nothing miraculously prophetic about finding that one of those lines was very vaguely similar to something that had happened in somebody else’s death. ‘They shall look on Me whom they have pierced’ was supposedly a line God had said himself that referred, in context, to emotional wounding.

These supposed prophecies weren’t a miraculously specific foretelling of Jesus’s life; they were a bunch of lines taken out of context and sometimes mistranslated to boot.

I did find a few cases where the ‘prophecy’ that the gospel authors referred to did in fact seem, in context, to have been intended as an actual Messianic prophecy. However, the two main ones were the descent from David and the birth in Bethlehem, and, for both of those, the two gospel accounts we had completely contradicted each other (not to mention the problems with a mass slaughter of infants that was nowhere else mentioned or a census that supposedly expected people to go back to the birthplace of their distant ancestors to register). And, since Matthew and Luke wanted to believe Jesus was the Messiah and to get other people to believe the same thing, that gave them a pretty clear motive for inventing those stories.  Even I wasn’t too naive to add two and two on that one. There was also the prophecy about the king riding to his people on a donkey, but since Jesus apparently believed he was the Messiah and also would likely have known of that prophecy, it didn’t seem particularly remarkable to me that he could have arranged the colt ride in the genuine belief that this was what he was supposed to do next; nothing supernatural required on that point.

So, where did this leave me?

Unfortunately, in pretty much the same place as before. What I was reading in the gospels didn’t give me any reason at all to feel I should fall on my knees and worship the person acting this way. However, the reason I was doing this in the first place was because I recognised that ‘The teachings of this religion are horrible’ isn’t a logically good reason for reaching conclusions about the truth of it. Meanwhile, I still felt stuck with awkward questions like ‘Why were all his friends claiming to have seen him do miracles, if he hadn’t?’ and ‘Why did they think he’d risen from the dead if they hadn’t seen it themselves?’ I had even more reasons for not wanting Christianity to be true, but I didn’t feel any further forward in determining whether it was true.

Next up: was Jesus the Messiah? (Spoiler: no.)



(1) To be fair, I do think that most churches would in fact interpret this verse much more sensibly, and I think it perfectly reasonable to interpret it as being an admonition about dwelling on these sorts of thoughts. In other words, feeling angry with someone is normal, but nursing a grudge and building up your bitterness instead of looking for ways to resolve things and see their side is not OK. Likewise, you’re sometimes going to notice people other than your spouse are objectively attractive, but spending your time fantasising about them isn’t good for a monogamous marriage. So, if that teaching was the only objection I’d ever had to Christianity, I’d be a Christian today. However, it does sometimes get set up as a very unrealistic standard of perfection in which everyone gets labelled sinners just for having normal reactions, regardless of how they handle them and how they behave over them.

(2) We had a few different editions at home, but the one I was reading at this point was the Good News Bible, because the edition we had was the one with the nice bright yellow cover and colourful picture of Noah and the rainbow, which I always liked. It wasn’t until years later that I found out it wasn’t considered one of the better translations, but there you are; I was judging a book by its cover.

My nonconversion story, Part 3: About scriptural (un)reliability.

This is the third part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

By the way, the last piece seems to have been linked on an athletics news site despite having nothing whatsoever to do with athletics (rather ironically, since it was about me at sixteen and I was probably about as anti-athletic as it is literally possible to be), so I assume this was a case of the ‘Motivation’ title being encountered by an undiscriminating bot. So, just in case anyone’s come over to check that out and got caught up in the story; welcome! Hope you enjoy, even if it wasn’t what you expected.

Anyway, so far I’ve written about how I grew up without any religion and about how my horror of Christianity led me to decide to give it a fair hearing, so on to start talking about what I covered in my reading.

I wish I could give you some kind of organised X-point plan of what I covered and what sources I used, but my passion and commitment unfortunately weren’t matched by anything even vaguely resembling organisational skills. Basically, I spent the next several years gravitating to the ‘religion’ section in every library and bookshop I visited (which was a lot of libraries and bookshops, BTW) and seeing what I could find, as well as trying to read the gospels (more of that in the next post) and praying rather incoherently to the potentially-existing God to ask that I might possibly be shown some sort of conclusive sign, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble (while meanwhile trying to suppress my horror at the prospect of the answer potentially being ‘Yes, I exist and I really do want all non-Christians to burn in hell, so deal with it’). So I would not say I had A Starting Point in all this, as such. However, I think the obvious starting point for this account is the question of how reliable/accurate the New Testament is; after all, that’s the source of all our information about Christianity’s origins. So that’s what I’m going to write about here.

I’d have loved to have access to something like Bart Ehrman’s writings on the topic, but I was decades too early for them, and everything I could find seemed to be either a simplistic pronouncement or an overly specialist work that was too hard to follow. (Looking back, I’m really quite surprised by how many of the latter seem to have be available in our local library; I mean, this was Wimbledon Public Library, not an obscure university archive.) So I struggled with dry discussions of obscure technical points about manuscripts and translations and writing style, giving up on making sense of many of the finer details and being left with no clear idea of why experts reached what conclusions they’d managed to reach on the subject. However, two clear points did emerge:

  1. Everyone apart from the more hardcore of Christians agreed that nobody really knew for sure who had written the gospels or what sources they used for their information. There were traditions about who the authors were, but there was widespread agreement that these weren’t based on very strong evidence.
  2. Everyone, even fervent Christians, agreed that the gospels weren’t written until several years after the events they described. In fact, with the exception of one source (no, I don’t remember what it was) giving ten years post-events as a possible lower boundary for when Mark might have been written, there seemed to be a general consensus that they weren’t written till decades after events.

Even though I couldn’t at the time make sense of how these conclusions had been reached, there was enough of a general consensus on them that it seemed fair to accept them both. That meant that what we had were accounts written many years after events, by unknown people whose sources were also unknown. And I knew enough to recognise that that was the sort of situation that allowed for quite a bit of inaccuracy and exaggeration to creep in over time.

And this was more than just a theoretical concern; when I compared the way different stories or issues were treated in different gospels, I could see signs of the stories getting more detailed with time. The resurrection stories progressed from an anonymous man in the original gMark ending telling the women that Jesus had risen, through to increasingly detailed/physical appearances in later stories, with the pointed Doubting Thomas story thrown in by the time we got to John’s account decades later (I was pretty naive in those days, but not so much that I missed the obvious motive that an early church would have had for including the claim of blessedness upon people who believed unquestioningly). Jesus’s alleged claims to divinity all seemed to occur only in John, the latest gospel; not only that, but in the earlier gospels he was explicitly describing himself as the son of God or the son of man, both expressions that I learned would have been considered in that culture to describe a human rather than a god. And Jesus’s most impressive miracle – the raising of a man dead for four days – was somehow only mentioned in the fourth gospel, and I really didn’t think that was because none of the other authors thought something that dazzling wasn’t worth a mention.

So, being as fair and even-handed as I could, and fully accepting that this didn’t mean I could assume everything in the gospels was false… I did conclude that there was satisfactory evidence that the gospel stories had been embroidered along the way, and that, while we didn’t know to what extent this had happened, it had clearly gone beyond trivial detail into some theologically significant matters.

The pro-Christian books I read had various attempts at counter-arguments to this:

Yes, the apostles Matthew and John really were the authors of the gospels attributed to them.

…which would have been a lot more convincing if scholars other than hard-core Christians had agreed. Since no-one else – including, as I recall, at least some of the Christian authors I read – seemed to agree that the evidence for this claim stood up, it really didn’t seem to me that the evidence could be that convincing.

We had more evidence for Jesus’s life than for Caesar’s.

(I should point out that I’ve learned since then that these types of argument aren’t even factually correct. However, I didn’t have that information at the time, so this is my response when I read it as a teenager.)

This argument struck me as just plain weird. Maybe there are people out there who feel the story of the Caesars is of such vital emotional importance to them that they cannot deal with any apparent flaws in the evidence or counter-arguments, but, if so, I’m not one of them. I didn’t know how much evidence we had for Caesar’s life and I didn’t care. If we genuinely didn’t have enough evidence to support widely-held beliefs about Caesar, then I really wasn’t going to respond by clutching my pearls and gasping ‘No, no! We must keep believing in Caesar! This cannot be!’ So this wasn’t something I was going to use as a benchmark for Reasonable Amounts Of Evidence To Believe Something.

An expert had done research into the matter and found that it took two generations for myths to arise when stories were being passed on, so, even though the gospel stories were written years after events, they were still early enough for the information to be accurate.

(Also not true, but also something I only found out later to be flawed.)

I didn’t know what to make of this one. I had a great respect for experts and it seemed quite absurd for me to question the word of one… but that didn’t mean I could just blindly accept something that was clearly not correct just because someone told me an expert said it was. If I’d read that an expert claimed that objects fall upwards or that the sky was green, I wouldn’t consider that a good enough reason to believe those things. Likewise, I knew perfectly well that there was no mysterious two-generation requirement for inaccuracies and exaggerations to creep in when stories were passed on; although that effect got worse with time, it could happen from the very start. So, expert or not, this one was so clearly flat-out wrong that I couldn’t accept it. I was baffled by it as I couldn’t understand how an expert could be so wrong, but there we were.

The part about the resurrection definitely had to be true; there was no way everyone would have acted in the way they did after Jesus’s death if he hadn’t really been resurrected.

And this was the argument that always sounded too convincing to keep me from dismissing the whole thing even in the face of all the other flaws I found.

I was still determined to give the whole thing as fair a hearing as possible, which meant not dismissing all of it just because the story had been embroidered on the way. And apologetics books insisted that only the actual sight of an actual resurrected Jesus could have convinced the disciples to spread the word in the way they did and that the only possible explanation for the Romans not displaying Jesus’s dead body to prove his continued death to everyone was that it was missing as a result of having come back to life and walked away from the tomb. To which I couldn’t, at the time, think of any solid counter-arguments.

I wasn’t ever completely convinced by those arguments, reasoning that we surely couldn’t be that certain what people would or wouldn’t have done in response to one particular set of circumstances two thousand years ago. But, at the same time, I sure as hell couldn’t think of another explanation. I could easily see how the story could have grown, but not how it could have got started.

I couldn’t find any counter-arguments in anything I was reading, either. This was a gaping hole in what anti-apologetics information I could find. I didn’t know, at the time, how easily people could come to believe in miracles. And this was still years before Richard Carrier’s Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story, or Kris Komarnitsky’s writings on cognitive dissonance reduction and how that might have influenced the disciples in the immediate aftermath of the crisis of Jesus’s execution, or even the nights when I’d try to explain to my small daughter that, no, just because I didn’t know the cause of the noise she’d heard that still didn’t mean it was a ghost or a monster, and ruefully reflect on how sometimes you really don’t even need a watertight alternative explanation to dismiss a massively improbable one.

So, at the time and for years afterwards, this argument stumped me.

So, where did this leave me?

Confident that at least some of what was in the gospels had been invented for dramatic effect, but still left without a way of refuting the basic dogma of ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’, or, more worryingly, ‘Jesus was sent to die for everyone’s sins and all non-believers will BUUURRRRN IN HELL’.

Next up: what I made of the content of the gospels.

My nonconversion story, part 2: Motivation.

This is the second part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

I was sixteen, and in what was then called the Lower Sixth (these days it’s Year 12; for those in the US system it would be junior year of high school), when my longstanding general interest in religion and its practices sharpened into a deliberate attempt to find out as much as I could about Christianity to try to figure out whether or not its teachings were the truth. I don’t recall any specific moment when this happened – it was a gradual drift – but there were definitely reasons why it happened at that point in my life. So here’s a bit more backstory.

Some personal information about me: Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed, it’s been fairly obvious for a long time that I’m on the autistic spectrum. Looking back, this had a big influence on how I approached this; I typically have a very analytical, logical approach to problems, and I also have the typical autistic trait of hyperfocusing on particular areas of interest, which in this case manifested as years of focusing on this question far past the point where most people would have dropped it. However, even before this, it majorly affected where I was emotionally in my life at that point.

Because of my lack of any innate skill in talking to people or making social connections, I’d arrived at the age of sixteen as a major social misfit. This hadn’t particularly bothered me up until then (the bullying and the social expectations did, but not the social misfittery itself), and over the next several years I’d figure out coping strategies. But this point in my life was when I really started wanting to belong to a group but without yet having the faintest idea how to go about it.

It’s an absolute cliché to say that this is when I really became interested in religion, but that’s what happened; this is the point in my life when I started looking seriously into converting to Judaism.

That is, of course, somewhat tangential to the story of how I didn’t become Christian. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because of a claim I often see from Christian apologists trying to come up for explanations as to why people don’t want to convert to Christianity; the claim that atheists just don’t want a god laying down rules for them. By the way, this always makes me wonder what rules they think I want to break; do they imagine I just want to indulge my urges to go on a theft and murder spree? All right, all right, I know the actual apologetic answer is probably ‘SEX! You just wanted to have SEX!’, but, since I’m heterosexual, becoming a Christian wouldn’t have stopped me from having sex; at most, the stricter branches would have expected me to postpone it till marriage, which was a laughingly moot point for me at this particular teenage-misfit stage in my life. Believe me, ‘imminent prospective sex’ was not among the available options at that stage regardless of what religious decisions I made. In any case, while it was something I was curious about, it was a very minor attraction compared to the idea of feeling like part of a group.

Anyway… Judaism. I was, as you’ve seen, fascinated by the traditions and ceremony and structure, and I also loved the centuries-worth of collected wisdom, and the idea of being marked out as separate and special in a way that would simultaneously bind me as part of an in-group. So, overall, I loved the idea of being Jewish. I hovered nervously but enthusiastically on the periphery, going to weekly services at our local (Reform) synagogue and reading everything about Judaism that I could get hold of. I kept the fast days and gave up seafood (I didn’t eat meat at the time for unrelated reasons). I tried building a sukkah in my back garden on Sukkot, although my main takeaway from that was that, wherever my religious future lay, my professional future didn’t lie in engineering.

So, if you happen to be a Christian apologist who was toying with the ‘she obviously just didn’t want God telling her what to do!’ theory, I hope that lays it to rest. Believe me, I would have been thrilled if a god had paid enough attention to me to tell me what to do. (Especially if it involved converting to Judaism.)

Sadly, despite my best hopes, this didn’t happen. No divine announcements, no inner conviction that any god actually was calling me to sign up to a lifetime of this. And I was honest enough with myself to recognise that desperately wanting to be part of a group isn’t actually a good reason to join a religion you don’t believe in.

So that’s how I didn’t convert to Judaism. Back to the story of how I didn’t convert to Christianity.

You might at this point be making the entirely natural assumption that this was also how I became interested in Christianity. It’s fair to say that I was occasionally tempted; while Christianity never held the same kind of innate attraction to me as the rich, vibrant traditions of Judaism, it would certainly have solved the ‘part of a group’ problem and done so rather more easily. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I avoided it; on one level I did recognise that joining a religion wouldn’t solve my various insecurities and that it wasn’t really fair of me to do so for that reason however badly I wanted to, and I think that’s at least part of why I avoided the option that had most chance of working. But there was something much bigger and more direct putting me off, and that was the horror that lay at the heart of Christian theology.

According to conventional Christian teaching, the afterlife is divided into two extreme binary options – eternal bliss or eternal torture – and the choice between them is made not on your actions but on whether or not you accept faith in Jesus. Non-Christians, regardless of how much good they did in their lifetimes or what their reasons are for not being Christian, are thus destined for eternal hellfire. Of course, the majority of people throughout human history haven’t been Christian – most often for very solid reasons such as not having heard of Christianity, genuinely not believing the theology, or having been brought up in a different religion that teaches them that Christianity is apostasy and God doesn’t want them to have anything to do with it – and those people aren’t generally any worse on average than the people who have been Christian.

So, if Christianity actually was true, then that would mean that millions of good and decent people – including, if you remember, my father – were destined for eternal torture. It would mean that some truly awful people were getting away without punishment due to being Christian, even where this was due to the sheer chance of being born into one family rather than another. And it would mean that the Being in charge of the universe was quite happy to let this state of affairs go on rather than plan an even vaguely fair system for the afterlife.

However badly I wanted to be part of a group, I could never, ever feel comfortable with the idea of signing up for a religion based on that belief.

There was, however, a bigger problem here than what I did or didn’t believe; what if it was true? After all, all sorts of terrible things were true despite me/other people not wanting them to be; there seemed no logical reason why this one had to be an exception. Millions of people were convinced of Christianity’s veracity. I couldn’t just assume they were wrong. What if the universe actually was in charge of a god that awful, with that horrific a system for the afterlife? My mind and heart quailed away from the thought.

Since I’ve raised the general topic of The Awfulness Of The Hypothetical Christian God, there are a couple of other points I should probably touch on here. Firstly, you might well be quite legitimately thinking here ‘Yes, and that’s on top of all the other terrible stuff this god is supposed to have done!’ The Christian God is, after all, supposed to be the same god who either sent or commanded various massacres in the earlier part of the Bible before being retconned into a divinely loving being. It doesn’t reflect that well on Younger Me to say that I can’t recall this bothering me that much, but, to be fair, I did already know that at least some of what was in the Bible wasn’t true; I think I managed not to think that much about whether those parts were true or how they would fit with Christianity. I don’t know how justifiable it is in hindsight that that wasn’t an issue for me, but, rightly or wrongly, it wasn’t.

And secondly, there’s what is generally known in theological arguments as The Problem Of Evil; the sheer amount of awfulness that exists in the world not of any god’s making but which, theoretically, an all-powerful god ought to at least be able to stop. I seem to be about the only atheist who’s never been bothered by this. The reason for that was fairly simple if philosophically shaky; I just assumed that, if God did in fact exist, he was bound by some kind of non-interference rule and couldn’t do more than provide emotional support, and all the claims about omnipotence were just something that people made up to make them feel better. I think I might well have got this idea from the mention of the Emperor-Over-Sea in the Narnian books whose mysterious rules constrained Aslan; I’m not sure whether that counts as ironic or not. Either way, this way of looking at things meant that The Problem Of Evil wasn’t one of the things that particularly bothered me during my theological questing.

The Problem Of Hell, however, was another matter. If the Christian God did exist, then the afterlife pretty clearly was his remit. If Christians were right, then millions were doomed and the universe was in the charge of a monster.

So, where did that leave me?

With a major conundrum.

On the one hand, I very much wanted not to have to believe anything so appalling. I was horrified at the idea of the universe being in charge of someone who would blithely let millions of people go off to eternal hellfire. I desperately wanted to believe that that wasn’t true.

On the other hand, I already knew I didn’t want to be the sort of person who based their beliefs on what they wanted to be true, rather than being honest with themselves about what the evidence showed. And I recognised that there was a real danger of me doing that here. If I rejected Christianity flat-out, it wouldn’t be because I had good reason to believe it false; it would be because I had good reason to want to believe it false, and that wasn’t the same thing. More subtly, I could see how I might let my feelings bias how I weighed up the evidence; even if I made a show of looking at Christianity, it would be all too easy to reject evidence I didn’t want to see or accept evidence against it that was unconvincing. I didn’t want to become someone who would do that; intellectual honesty was already something I valued highly.

And so I chose the only fair way that I could see through this conundrum; to look into Christianity properly, rather than accepting it blindly through fear or rejecting it out of hand for the same reason. I determined to look at the evidence for both sides and weigh it up as fairly as possible, focusing on assessing it on its own strengths or weaknesses rather than on whether it pointed where I wanted it to. If I genuinely felt, on doing that, that a particular piece of evidence pointed against Christianity, then fair enough; but it had to be for that reason, rather than because I wanted it to point that way. If I felt evidence pointed towards the truth of Christianity, towards the truth of a god so callous that he would abandon all non-Christians to eternal hellfire… well, that was a prospect so horrific I could barely contemplate it, but I still recognised that, if I really felt the evidence pointed that way, then the honest thing for me to do would be to accept that. Whatever conclusion I reached, I wanted to come by it honestly.

All this makes it sound as though I had some big determined moment of sitting down and vowing myself to this quest. As far as I remember, it was actually a decision I drifted into gradually. However, this was why I applied myself to learning about Christianity in the way I did; because I was so strongly motivated not to believe in it that this made me even more determined to weigh it up fairly.

My nonconversion story, Part 1: Background

This is the first part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them. In this part, I write about the background; how and why I was raised without religion.

I got a certain degree of Christian-slanted religious education just from growing up in the UK, because state schools here are legally required to provide religious education and ‘a daily act of collective worship’. (The latter meant, in practice, that our school assemblies would include a prayer addressed to ‘Dear Lord’ and a Christian hymn, and sometimes the day’s story-with-a-moral would be from the Bible. Eventually I ended up at a posh secondary school where we were expected to provide our own hymn books, and figured out that I could cut the cover off mine and use it to smuggle paperback novels into assembly, so that was the end of me paying much attention to anything we were taught there, but I’d already absorbed quite a bit of this Christianity-lite by then.) The religious education was supposedly multifaith, but we did get a very overtly Christian teacher for a couple of years when I was in middle school; fortunately, she aspired to the Jesus-as-Good-Shepherd-and-inspiration model rather than the fire-and-brimstone model, so it wasn’t a significant problem overall. I filed the more religious parts of her lessons away in the ‘might or might not be true’ mental category.

So, as far as background culture was concerned, I did absorb a watered-down version of generic C. of E. Christianity from school. Not enough that I ever came close to considering myself a Christian even culturally, but enough that I was aware of what Christianity was about and that it did shape some of my assumptions; when I thought about whether God existed, I rarely thought to wonder whether more than one god existed, and the god about whose existence I was wondering was typically a version of the traditional Abrahamic god rather than any of the others humanity has pictured over the millennia.

As for my home life, however, my parents neither practiced nor criticised religion. We kept Christmas and Easter as secular festivals, and we did have quite a few Bibles around the place simply because it was the wonderful sort of house that was full of books of every variety, and religious topics did sometimes come up for dinner-table discussion in the same way that all sorts of other topics did (I don’t have any specific memories of these, but my mother recently reminisced about them, remembering the time my father and sister were arguing agnosticism versus atheism). But there was nothing more formal. On the flip side, they were never anti-religious in the slightest; there were no criticisms of or rants about religion, and I never had any feeling that it was something of which they disapproved.

There are moments in life that you realise only with hindsight to have been the planting of a seed, and one of those was the time that I asked my father why we weren’t being brought up as any religion. His answer was simple enough; he explained that because he was Jewish and my mother was Christian, they thought it was fairer not to bring me or my sister up as either religion. This struck me as a perfectly reasonable answer, but it also started me wondering; what did it mean to be Jewish or Christian? Or, for that matter, any of the other religious groups to which I was vaguely aware people could belong?

It’s worth mentioning here that, in the case of both my parents, the respective terms meant ‘came from an undogmatic version of that particular religious background’. As you’ve probably gathered, they certainly weren’t practicing members of those religions, or even believers, by the time I was growing up. But just the idea that people could be categorised in this way was interesting to me. I started looking out for books about different religious lifestyles and ceremonies and what they mean for the people concerned.

For years, that part – the cultural side of religion – was what really interested me. Questions over the truth of it interested me as well, but in a more distant way. ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Which (if any) religion is actually true?’ held, as far as I can remember, about the same level of interest for me as ‘What job will I do?’ or ‘What kind of life will I have as an adult?’; yes, they were important and interesting in an abstract sort of way and I’d certainly have liked definite answers had such been available at that point, but they weren’t anything I felt any sort of immediate pressure to have answered.


So, where did all this leave me?

With a kind of vague default belief in a filtered and toned-down version of the traditional Abrahamic god, heavily footnoted with ‘but we don’t really know if it’s true’ disclaimers, and coupled with a keen awareness that this belief didn’t default to being Christian.

This would, in the long run, affect my search for answers about Christianity in multiple ways:

  • I started from about as impartial a background as anyone growing up in this society realistically gets. (I do realise that’s not the same as genuinely being fully impartial, but we all absorb something from society, so I don’t think ‘fully impartial’ is an option short of being raised under a rock somewhere.) I wasn’t burdened with any expectations of following or shunning religion, and that made things a lot easier for me.
  • Because the god I learned about at school was presented very much in a ‘suitable for the children’ way – all the love and wisdom, none of the fire and brimstone – I grew up with the general impression that God’s existence would be a good thing overall. One of the things I sometimes see Christians say about atheism is that it’s just a sort of wishful thinking from people who don’t want to believe in God (I’m not sure how that’s meant to fit with the idea that atheists are also all just looking to fill a ‘God-shaped hole’, but whatever). For the record, that wasn’t the case for me; I’d have preferred it if I’d been able to reach an honest conclusion that someone wise, loving and powerful was in ultimate charge of the universe. I just didn’t want to use this as a reason to kid myself into believing it was true when it wasn’t.
  • I also grew up understanding that it wasn’t a binary choice between Christianity and atheism. Not that I ended up in any of the other options in the end, so I suppose it’s a moot point, but I’m still glad to have always recognised that the decision’s a lot more complicated than an either-or.
  • On which note, I was always fascinated by Judaism. I’ll write more about this in my next post, but this interest did mean I learned quite a lot about it, and some of that would be really useful background in understanding Christianity.
  • And finally, a key point: I grew up with personal awareness of the fact that good and wonderful non-Christians exist. When I heard the Christian belief that people who weren’t ‘saved’ by Christianity would end up in eternal hellfire, it had a very personal meaning for me, since any such claims included my father. (And, it seemed reasonable to extrapolate, many other similarly good people who also didn’t deserve eternal torture.)

And that’s about it for the general background. In the next post, I’ll write about how I got into looking into Christianity in particular.