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.

Prophecies

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.)

 

Footnotes

(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 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.

My nonconversion story: How I Didn’t Become Christian. Introduction.

In Christian apologetics, there’s a very popular type of story that could be described as ‘The Scoffer Is Convinced’. (It isn’t, as far as I know; I just invented that name. But it could be.) The three most famous examples are Lee ‘The Case For…’ Strobel, Josh ‘Evidence That Demands A Verdict’ McDowell, and, of course, our old friend J. Warner ‘Cold Case…’ Wallace. The basic format is thus:

The person in question was once not just a nonbeliever but an utter stereotype of skeptics (although the ‘stereotype’ part isn’t pointed out). They felt nothing but derision for Christianity, laughing at the utter foolishness of it all. Then they actually started looking properly at the evidence for Christianity… and were astonished to find how solid that evidence actually is. Convinced by the overwhelming evidence, they eventually convert to Christianity, henceforth to lead a happily transformed life and possibly write a multibook series about it all.

I’ve never either derided or converted to Christianity, but my story does have one significant thing in common with the stories above: I’m also a nonbeliever who made the decision to look properly into the evidence for and against Christianity and weigh it up as fairly as possible. I spent years of my teens and twenties doing this. And – as you can probably deduce from the fact that I’m here on an atheist blogging platform – I reached the opposite conclusion from Strobel, McDowell, Wallace and their ilk. As a result of all my reading and thinking, I reached the firm conclusion that Christianity is not true.

This seems, by the way, to be an unusual way of doing things; not the ‘deciding Christianity isn’t true’ bit, which is reasonably common, but putting that amount of time and effort into the decision only to stay on roughly the same end of the theological spectrum. I’ve read accounts from people who made the Convinced Scoffer’s journey in the other direction, starting out as Christian and losing their faith as a result of putting thought and research into it. I’ve read about people who convert from Christianity to a different religion. And, of course, I’ve read about people who start out as nonbelievers and stay that way without feeling the need to put much in the way of research into checking out other options. I just can’t remember any other accounts I’ve heard of nonbelievers who put this much time and effort into deciding that, yes, they’re still nonbelievers. There must be others out there, I suppose; I guess we’re just few and far between.

Anyway, I’ve told part of this story already; how I looked at the arguments for believing in (the Abrahamic) God and couldn’t find any convincing ones, leading to me eventually becoming agnostic and then atheist. However, during this time I was also looking specifically at the arguments for or against believing in the Christian faith. (And, no, this was not the same question. On the one hand it would have been logically possible for a god to exist yet for Christianity to be wrong, as per the many other forms of religious belief in the world; on the other hand, the fact that I couldn’t find convincing evidence for a deity’s existence anywhere else didn’t mean that I wouldn’t find it in Christianity, which did after all specifically claim to have such evidence.) That’s a story I haven’t yet written; effectively, the anti-Strobel-et-al story, in which a skeptic genuinely and thoughtfully looks at the evidence and ultimately reaches the opposite conclusion.

So this, for what little it’s worth, is my story; what one teenage skeptic made of Christianity on giving it an honest examination, and why I reached the conclusions I did about it. Not a conversion story or a deconversion story, but a nonconversion story.

While I do not anticipate any multibook deals out of this one, it has certainly run into a multipost story, and a long one. I didn’t want to take my usual route of spending months or years dribbling the posts out one at a time, so I’ve actually drafted them all already, and plan to post them on probably a daily schedule, linking each one back here as I post. (This might well be the only time I ever use the phrase ‘daily schedule’ regarding this blog, so allow me to take a moment to relish it.) Tomorrow’s post will be about the background; how I grew up nonreligious but not anti-religious.

Part 1: Background

Part 2: Motivation

Part 3: About scriptural (un)reliability

Part 4: Reading the gospels

Part 5: He’s not the Messiah…

Part 6: University

Part 7: Word of God?

Part 8: In accordance with the prophecies…

 

The Santa Dilemma

Over on From The Ashes Of Faith, Megan has just raised a subject that was a huge dilemma for me in the early years of parenting:

How do you feel about the whole Santa charade? Did you do it with kids in your family? Did you believe in Santa when you were little? How did you feel when you found out he wasn’t real?

To answer the last two questions first: I don’t remember believing in Father Christmas (the term we tend to use more in the UK, although they’re fairly interchangeable for us) at any time during my childhood. Maybe I believed in him at one point, but, if so, I was too young at the time to remember, and I don’t remember any point of ‘but he’s not real!’ revelation. So, if that did happen, I suppose I can’t have been too traumatised by it.

When it came to bringing up my own children, however, I had no idea what the right course of action was. (Which I suppose at least made a change from the more usual parenting experience of smugly knowing exactly what the right course of action was up until the point where I went through that part of parenting and realised that in actual fact things were vastly less simple than the pre-parenting version of me had assumed.) If I brought my children up to believe in Father Christmas, then I was deliberately perpetrating a lie and a fraud. If I didn’t bring them up to believe in Father Christmas, I was depriving them of a delightful and important part of childhood magic, basically becoming Scrooge and the Grinch rolled into one. What was I to do?

The compromise I opted for: I wouldn’t straight-out tell my children Father Christmas wasn’t real, and I wouldn’t say anything revelatory when we saw Father Christmases at children’s parties or in the local garden centre prior to Christmas. But I also wouldn’t do anything specific to perpetrate the myth – no footprints on the fireplace or mince pies set out on Christmas Eve and removed overnight in our household – and, when either of my children did ask straight out about Father Christmas, I’d tell them the truth.

As to the details of what I’d tell them… well, this takes us to Megan’s other main question, which was whether I think it’s fair to compare Santa to Jesus. As regular readers of my blog will know, I believe that Jesus was originally a real person (a Jewish rabbi who was crucified) but that, for reasons too long to go into here, an entire enormous mythology was then woven around him that had very little to do with the actual person. If you want to debate that issue, please go pick one of my many threads on the subject in which to do so; I bring it up here because, in answer to Megan’s question, I think it’s completely fair to compare Santa to Jesus, in that both of them started as ordinary humans before a whole mythology was woven around them.

So, I decided that, when the time came, I’d tell my children that the bits about flying reindeer and visiting all the children in the world with presents were made up, but the story was based on a real person who was kind and good and gave people things and inspired parents to do the same with their children, and people then made the other stuff up to make it more fun. This is probably somewhat stretching the details of how the legend developed, but was reasonably true and felt a lot better than the prospect of effectively telling my children that the grown-ups had lied to them.

Looking back, I would say that – unlike almost everything else I’ve ever planned in parenting – this actually worked well.

I can’t remember how old Jamie was when he asked me whether Father Christmas was real, though I remember it was while I was getting the children ready for bed one night; I told him to come into the bathroom so I could tell him (getting some teeth-brushing done was probably also on my agenda there, but I wanted to get him out of earshot of Katie, as she hadn’t yet asked) and gave him the above spiel, as well as asking him not to tell children who didn’t yet know as it might upset them. Jamie nodded in acceptance and that was that.

I do remember when Katie asked, due to some other stuff going on at the time that enables me to pinpoint it around (probably shortly after) her eight birthday. I was driving her home from school and she was chattering away, mentioning a girl in her class who was scared of Father Christmas. As my heart sank, the way it always did when I was faced with the uneasy business of not knowing whether to speak up or not, she mused “You know, I don’t even know if Father Christmas is real. Maybe he’s just some guy named Jake.” I have no idea to this day where she got ‘Jake’ from, but I still remember mentally cheering that, within minutes, I would be done with the whole Father Christmas dilemma.

I got us both home so that I could tell her face-to-face just in case she did get upset, and asked her whether she wanted to know the answer to her question. This involved reminding her of the subject, since she’d moved onto somewhere completely different in her thoughts in the ten minutes it took us to drive home, but she decided that, yes, she did want to know.

“Well, then,” I started, “the answer is that the bit about someone flying around in a sleigh with reindeer is a myth, but…”

“I knew it! I knew it!” Katie crowed.

“…but the stories are based on…”

“He’s not real! Throw him out the window!” Katie, apparently delighted by this news, swung an arm in an expansive casting-forth gesture.

“…based on a man who was…”

Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Throw him out the window, one-two-three!” Katie had reached the point of putting together a mini song-and-dance act on the theme. “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Da-da, da-da-da-da!”

I gave up. At least she wasn’t traumatised by the news. I settled for explaining to her that she couldn’t tell other children who didn’t know yet (actually, I can’t even remember if I did remember to tell her that; I hope she didn’t ruin any other family’s Christmas magic in her enthusiasm) and, no, she was definitely not allowed to throw Father Christmas out the window and could she please be slightly less disturbing about it.

So, that’s how the whole thing went down in our household. I look forward to seeing what experiences Megan’s commenters had, though they probably at least did not involve impromptu chants about Santa defenestration.

Two For Joy

This post was initially inspired by a question asked in an open chat comment thread (on the Ask A Manager blog, but it’s in the weekend open thread and hence nothing to do with the blog topic). Briefly: the poster has two children aged 5 and 2, she’s struggling with the decision of whether to have a third child, and she asked working parents on the site for their experiences with the same decision. As it happens, this is a situation that I also experienced many years back, and so I Have Thoughts on the subject. I started writing a comment, but it was getting so long and rambly that I decided I might as well make it a blog post instead.

(Warning: I’m discussing the issue of decisions about childbearing from the very privileged position of having been able to have the children I wanted and not have ones I didn’t want, and I know that there are very many people out there for whom either or both of those isn’t the case. I’ve been extremely lucky, and I know it, and don’t mean to make it sound as though I’m oblivious to my privilege here.)

When I thought about having children, I always planned that I would stop at two. Well, unless I ended up having a child as a single parent, in which case I planned to stop at one, as I wanted to avoid a children-outnumber-parents situation, but the ideal for me was always to get married and have two children. Besides, I grew up in a two-child family, so that felt normal and and right to me (1). When I met my husband-to-be he wanted three, but I decided that I’d be OK with considering a third if he wanted that, and he decided he’d be OK with stopping at two if I wanted that, and we agreed that if we made it as far as the married-with-two stage we’d revisit the issue at that point and see where we were then.

In fact, by the time we made it to the married-with-one-and-a-second-on-the-way stage it was very clear to both of us that we were going to stop at two. My husband had taken a voluntary redundancy option at work some years earlier and stayed off work to be a stay-at-home parent while the children were small, and his window of opportunity for getting back into his field was starting to narrow; he could feasibly stay at home through the upcoming infancy/toddlerhood, but that was going to be his limit (and neither of us was keen on having to find day care for a baby). Plus, stay-at-home parenthood had been harder than he’d anticipated, and he was now quite clear that two was enough for him. As for me, thrilled about my pregnancy but also constantly nauseated and facing the looming prospect of going back to night feeds, I was thoroughly on board with the idea that I was going through all this precisely one more time and then never again. And my opinion remained quite clear on that point once my daughter was born. We were now a two-child family, and that was great.

So I was a bit stymied when, a few years down the line, broodiness crept up on me and walloped me over the head.

Now, if my circumstances had been different, I might very well have decided to indulge that wish and have a third child, and I expect that, had I gone that route, I’d have gained much happiness from it and this post would be about how it all worked out for me. However, one significant difference between the OP’s situation and mine is that I knew perfectly well that this option was not on the table. I knew my husband was not going to be OK with having a third child, and that was that. I didn’t even raise the issue; the mere suggestion would have sent him into a tailspin, and it didn’t seem worth it when I knew perfectly well what the answer would be. So for me, all along, this attack of broodiness was something I just had to deal with and get over.

And that was doable. Because, as much as I might have enjoyed indulging myself on this one, there were a few things I knew all along:

I would be OK without a third child.

I knew that, in the long term, I would be all right with not having a third child in a way that I wouldn’t have been all right without getting to have the first two. Of course, if I’d faced the situation so many people face of not being able to have even those two children then I’d have had to get on with my life even so, but it would always have been a loss. Having a third child felt optional to me.

This is probably a weird metaphor, but I always thought of it in terms of a table. Deciding to go from one child to two had, for me, been like deciding whether to put the last leg on the table you’re putting together; it wasn’t really even a decision, but a no-brainer. Of course you put all the legs on a table. If you don’t, something is missing in a way that fundamentally damages the integrity of the table. (2) Deciding whether to go from two children to three was like deciding whether to put a vase on top of the table after it had been constructed. It would add something extra, something you might love, but equally well you might decide that it worked better not to put a vase on top of this particular table. Either decision would be OK. Either way, I’d have the table I wanted.

It wasn’t really about having three children rather than two; it was about the prospect of having to move on.

I realised that most of what I was feeling was about dealing with the thought of that part of my life – pregnancy, childbirth, babies – being over for good. Since this life stage was not only something that had been fairly all-encompassing over much of the past few years but also something I’d eagerly looked forward to for as long as I could remember, the realisation that it was all finally a dwindling glimpse in the rearview mirror was quite a major one to come to terms with. And to some extent, it was also about the inevitable retrospective wish to have done some things differently with my existing two.

You don’t really want a new baby, I thought to myself. You want the babies you had back again for a do-over. That wasn’t all of it, but there was a lot of truth to it.

Following on from that understanding, of course, was the realisation that…

…having another baby wouldn’t solve the broodiness problem. Well, temporarily it would, but a problem postponed isn’t really a problem solved. Since so much of this was about saying goodbye to the pregnant/new motherhood part of my life, I found it (and still find it) a pretty reasonable assumption that having another baby would just leave me feeling the same way a few years down the line. However many children I had, eventually I’d still have to move on and accept that that part of my life was over.

 

None of this self-knowledge, of course, made the reproduction cravings magically vanish; I just had to keep reminding myself of all of the above and ride it out like a vastly higher-stakes version of chocolate cravings. The good news is, however, that that actually worked. Eventually, gradually, they faded.

Ten years later, I can happily say that I wouldn’t want another baby now if you paid me, and I’m glad, now, that I didn’t have one at the time. Life with the children I do have has been a lot more difficult and exhausting than I’d originally bargained for, due in large part to the clashes between their needs (they’re both autistic with features of ADHD) and a sometimes problematic school system. It was absolutely worth it, but I’m still glad I didn’t add a third child into the mix.

I did realise, a few years ago, that I like the idea of providing a permanent foster home for an older child. For practical reasons this will unfortunately probably never be possible, but, if it is, then I’ll be a mother of three without ever having to deal with babies again, which will be a lovely outcome. If not… I’ll still be happy with two.

So, at the end of all this, do I have any advice for people in the situation of that commenter? Think about what you actually want. Be realistic about your reasons for considering another. Think about what your partner actually wants. And good luck with whatever you do.

 

Footnotes

(1) As an interesting side note, my sister had the opposite response to the same family background; she’s written that ‘growing up in a quiet, bookish two-child family’ left her with a firm preference for ‘the slightly anarchic dynamic of three’. I love the fact that we reacted in opposite ways to the same background. People are cool. And by the way, in case you’re wondering, she did get her wish.

(2) The other thing that works for me about that metaphor is the fact that different tables have different numbers of legs anyway. A three-legged table works fine as a table; it isn’t at all the same as a four-legged table with a missing leg. In the same sort of way, my personal feelings about the size of family I wanted had no bearing whatsoever on what size family someone else should have; there are people who do only want one child, or none, or three or four, and those are the ‘tables’ that work for them.