Why I Am Not a Christian
In March of 1927, Bertrand Russell delivered a speech to the National Secular Society entitled Why I Am Not a Christian. To this day, it is revered as one of the hallmarks of freethought literature. Having devoted years of study to religion and philosophy, I considered how I might speak on the topic if provided the same public forum. The following is an encapsulation of my views in the same vein as Bertrand Russell’s original lecture.
First, from a very young age, I already had a firm grasp on what historians call the principle of analogy, which states that we should judge matters of history based on the standard of modern day experience. If we don’t witness large-scale, miraculous events such as parting seas and rising corpses now, what reason is there to think that it actually happened then? It all sounds analogous not to present day experience, but to mythological tendencies in antiquity. There’s no good reason to credit the biblical narratives any more than we do those of the Iliad or Odyssey.
The Bible is demonstrably a product of its place and time, cut from the same cloth as contemporary myths and legends. Archaeology reveals that the Israelites never conquered Canaan; rather, they were an indigenous tribe of Canaanites, who continued to worship the High God of their ancestors, El Elyon–supreme ruler over the pantheon of Canaanite gods known as Elohim. We even get a glimpse of El presiding over the divine assembly in Psalm 82. He’s vividly depicted in combat with the Canaanite sea dragon Lotan, for which we have the Hebrew cognate Leviathan, in Job 41 and Psalm 74.
Yahweh, originally one of the sons of El (Deut. 32:8; Ps. 89:6), was merged with El to become one and the same god (Ex. 6:3). In fact, in English versions of the Old Testament, the title “LORD God” is translated from the Hebrew “Yahweh Elohim,” an amalgam denoting the Hebrews’ attempt to streamline the pantheon for the sake of monotheism.
The creation account in Genesis is a monotheistic rendition of earlier, polytheistic creation narratives from ancient Mesopotamia–the Sumerian Eridu Genesis and Babylonian Enuma Elish. The story of Noah’s Flood is descended from earlier Deluge (flood) myths, such as the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Akkadian Epic of Atrahasis. The apocalyptic visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel are inspired by Zoroastrian eschatology (end times belief), a result of Jewish exposure to Persian religiosity after King Cyrus freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon. The term “Pharisee” actually has etymological roots denoting “Persian,” and Cyrus himself is exalted to messianic status in Isaiah 44-45.
The divine paternity of Jesus runs parallel to that of such historic figures as Alexander the Great, Plato, and Pythagoras, as well as mythic figures like Perseus and Dionysus. Jesus’ miraculous feats are merely echoes of the sort found in tales of Asclepius and Empedocles. His ascension in the gospel of Luke reflects that of Hercules and Romulus. That Christ’s resurrection secures eternal life for his devotees is akin to Greco-Roman mystery cults, which featured dying and rising gods like Attis and Osiris. It is special pleading to insist that all of this is true in the case of Jesus, but myth where it concerns the others.
Second, there is the issue of scriptural contradictions and inconsistencies. There are so many, I can only take time to mention a few. Were animals created before man, or was man created prior to animals (Gen. 1 vs. Gen. 2)? Did Jesus ascend on Easter evening, or did he stick around for 40 days (Lk. 24 vs. Acts 1:3)? Is the resurrection body fleshly, or not (Lk. 24:39 vs. 1 Cor. 15:50)? Is Jesus equal to, or lesser than, the Father (Jn. 10:30 vs. Jn. 14:28)? Can God be seen, or not (Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:11 vs. Jn. 1:18; Ex. 33:20)? Is God merciful, or not (Ps. 145:9 vs. Jer. 13:14)? Do works have any saving value, or not (Jm. 2:14-17 vs. Eph. 2:8-9)? Are we still bound by The Law, or not (Mt. 5:17-18 vs. Rom. 6:14)? The list could go on and on.
Third, there are the atrocities committed in the Old Testament, both genocide and infanticide (Josh. 6:21-27, 10:39-41; Deut. 20:16-18; 1 Sam. 15:2-3; Isa. 13:15-18), many of which are expressly condoned by God. Slaying even women, the elderly, and children for the sake of conquest is tantamount to mass murder and cannot be justified by any sensible person. Christian apologists attempt to do so, but how can such a thing be justified when an all-powerful and loving God is at the helm? Are we really to believe, given his supposed omnipotence and omnibenevolence, that he was unable to provide any solution other than complete extermination? Not that I grant the historicity of these tales to begin with, but the attempt to justify such savagery is absurd.
The New Testament’s doctrine of eternal damnation for non-Christians exceeds even the wickedness of the Old Testament. Most of us are a product of our cultural environment, and our beliefs tend to be molded as such. How could God possibly fault someone in Iran for being Muslim, or someone in India for being Hindu? For that matter, how could God even fault the nonbeliever in a predominantly Christian nation, given the myriad of issues raised here? To consign someone to eternal torment based merely on what they believe or disbelieve? What kind of brutish, cosmic dictator would implement so severe a penalty for thoughtcrime? And, given that homo sapiens have existed for roughly 200,000 years, what about the vast majority (99%) of people who lived prior to Christ? Confronted with this problem, we get the apologetic plea for retroactive salvation, which is so contrived as to not even necessitate a rebuttal.
Fourth, there is the issue of the New Testament’s utterly fallacious appeal to Old Testament prophecy. Once again, there is more territory to be covered here than one essay will permit. One can narrow the scope simply by addressing the incongruity of a dying and rising god with the Old Testament’s prophetic view of the Messiah. The Jewish Messiah is prophesied in the Old Testament to be a revolutionary king, who will, among other things, bring about peace and sovereignty for the nation of Israel (Isa. 2:4, 9:6, 11:6-9, 65:19; Zech. 9:10; Mic. 4:3; Ho. 2:18, etc.).
What the Old Testament certainly does not say is that the Messiah (or God Incarnate) will have to suffer, die, and rise again for the salvation of mankind. Christianity developed this belief partially via the influence of the mystery cults, which accounts for the New Testament’s emphasis on eternal life–something with which the Old Testament is hardly concerned. (In fact, several passages in the Old Testament convey outright mortality: Ps. 90; Eccl. 9:5-10, etc.) It seems that, following Jesus’ death, selections from the Old Testament were lifted out of context in order to reconcile the tragedy with an atonement doctrine–a tradition, by the way, stemming from the barbaric practice of scapegoating, in which the sins of the tribe were cast upon an innocent goat, who was driven into the desert to starve (Lev. 16) or hurled off a rugged cliff to its bone-crushing demise.
The most brazen example of misapplied prophecy is Isaiah 53‘s suffering servant, written in the 6th century BC in order to express the hardship of the quintessential Israelite captive to Babylon, as well as his eventual vindication at the hands of Persian intercessors. The suffering is even presented in the past tense–not what we’d expect of a prophecy of things to come. The Babylonian Exile is in view in such passages as Psalm 22 and Zechariah 12, which are also fallaciously claimed messianic and prophetic. When one carefully examines these issues, the reasons for Christianity’s split from its parent religion, Judaism, become exceedingly clear.
In terms of prophecy, there is also the fact that much of what is foretold in the Bible fails to come to fruition. The earliest Christians undoubtedly expected Christ’s return during their very generation. In Mark 9:1, Jesus proclaims, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power” (Parallel verse in Mt. 24:34). Paul seems to expect it within his generation as well, according to 1 Thess. 4:15-17. C.S. Lewis himself stated that Matthew 24:34 “is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” given that Jesus foretells the end of times during “this generation.” Christianity, like so many other doomsday movements, survived and flourished despite these prophetic gaffes.
Fifth, there are no contemporaneous sources on Jesus, i.e., nothing written about him during the time he is said to have lived. Some take this to mean that a historical Jesus never existed, though such a conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. There are many, prominent historical figures whose lives go unattested until many years later, and we do not question their existence. What does strike me as discrepant is that Jesus is said to have worked fantastic miracles–halted tempests, healed the blind, cast out demons, raised the dead, and, most importantly, conquered death himself… yet there’s no contemporaneous evidence for this man? Granted not all historic figures are contemporaneously attested, there are indeed some–Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Socrates, Plato, etc. How could someone have done the things that Jesus is said to have done without making an indelible mark very early on? It just doesn’t add up. However, if we consider that Jesus was merely a martyred messianic hopeful, later deified to mythic proportions as the years ensued, the evidence as we have it makes perfect sense.
Then again, there is the possibility that no singular, historical Jesus did exist–that he is simply a literary amalgam of both mythic and historical figures: would-be messiahs, Jewish martyrs and prophets, dying and rising gods, Gnostic redeemers, Hellenistic heroes, etc.
Sixth, there is the issue of scientific inaccuracy, with which the Bible is condemnably rife. Again, an entire shelf of books could be written on this topic, but I shall suffice to zero in on the apologetics of famed evangelical scholar William Lane Craig. Craig attempts to prove the existence of God by appealing to Big Bang cosmology, i.e., The Kalam Cosmological Argument. What it really boils down to is this: We don’t know what caused the Big Bang. We have no fully fleshed, scientific explanation for the Universe seemingly bursting forth from nothing, so it must have been the conscious choice of a supernatural agent of cosmic proportions, namely God.
This line of thinking represents a recurring pattern throughout human history. Wherever there is a current gap in knowledge, simply insert a god into the equation and, presto, the phenomenon is sufficiently explained. Or not. In actuality, this is the old god of the gaps fallacy. By arbitrarily selecting your favored deity as the explanation for something, you’ve prematurely bypassed an as-yet undiscovered, naturalistic explanation, and thus you’ve settled for explaining nothing. It is no different from some primitive ascribing storms to Baal or Dumuzi. Now that we understand the naturalistic processes behind weather–now that we’ve filled that gap in knowledge–a deity is an unnecessary and even laughable hypothesis. And so it is with the Big Bang. A naturalistic explanation likely awaits us, and the field of quantum physics seems promising in that regard.
It’s great to see, however, that evangelicals like William Lane Craig accept the scientific validity of such models as the Big Bang. One must assume, if he’s consistent with his application of astronomy, that he also accepts the scientific model for our solar system’s beginnings–that a massive, nebular accretion disc first formed the sun at its center, subsequently forming planets as a solar by-product in the outlying portions of cumulating mass. Thus, the formation of the sun had to occur prior to the formation of the earth. Yet, according to Genesis, God created the earth on Day 1 and the sun on Day 4. To the Christian apologist, I ask: Which is it going to be? Science or Genesis? The two don’t mesh.
Lastly, there is the problem of tragic human suffering, which pervades the world like a plague. The believer attempts to brush this aside by recourse to “Free Will,” insisting that we are the makers of our own misery. There is some truth to this. But, it’s not a fully sufficient explanation. There are many atrocities of which we are not the cause–tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. These are the so-called “acts of God,” not that I actually posit a deity for whom to blame. I need only think of a story told to me about the deadly tornado that struck my hometown, Evansville, Indiana, in November 2005. In the aftermath, a baby lie on the street with its head twisted 180 degrees. The mother clung to the child, devastated. Now, you cannot tell me that there’s a loving God, one capable of divine intervention, in compatibility with that reality.
The theist will no doubt answer such challenges with daft replies like, “Some things we’re not meant to understand,” or, “God works in mysterious ways.” Such pat answers are mere cop-outs, evangelical smokescreens designed for the purpose of cognitive dissonance reduction. Granted we cannot explain everything, some explanations are far more rational than others, even if not desirable. As Carl Sagan said, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Besides, I find it quite telling that God’s “mysterious ways” are completely indistinguishable from his nonexistence. Occam’s Razor bids us accept the simpler explanation.
So, I am an atheist in that I disbelieve the proposition of a personal God. Such a thing is clearly the product of man self-projecting, imposing his own image onto the heavens for the sake of comfort in an unpredictable and oftentimes tumultuous world. But, I am struck with a sense of awe and humility when lying beneath the stars, something for which a deity is entirely unnecessary. The immensity and grandeur of the cosmos is indeed something to behold. The magnificence of nature is such that there’s no need for dubious appeals to the supernatural. And, as a secular humanist, I believe firmly in the notion that we are all here for each other. Regardless of what the heavens may have to offer, the greatest beauty can be found right here on earth, amongst one another.
NIV, KJV & Archaeological Study Bibles
The Jewish Study Bible
Why I Am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell
A History of God, by Karen Armstrong
God: A Brief History, by John Bowker
A History of Religious Ideas: Volumes 1 & 2, by Mircea Eliade
The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
Yahweh, online by Dr. Ilil Arbel
The Reason Driven Life, by Dr. Robert M. Price
Deconstructing Jesus, by Dr. Robert M. Price
Jesus is Dead, by Dr. Robert M. Price
The Case Against the Case for Christ, by Dr. Robert M. Price
The Pharisaic/Zoroastrian Link, online by Deacon Duncan
Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? online by Dr. Richard Carrier
The Jesus Puzzle, online by Earl Doherty
Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope, online by Lloyd Geering
The God Who Wasn’t There, directed by Brian Flemming
Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, by E.A. Wallis Budge
Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths, Frontline Apologetics online
The Pre-Christian Belief in the Resurrection of the Body, by Alfred Bertholet
The Saviour God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation, by S.G.F. Brandon
The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, by Marvin W. Meyer
Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, by M. David Litwa
The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, by Hyam Maccoby
A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, by Rabbi Samuel Sandmel
The Resurrection: History & Myth, by Geza Vermes
The Case Against Faith, online by Paul Doland
The Skeptics Annotated Bible (online)
God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
Messiah Truth Project (online)
The Christian Delusion, edited by John W. Loftus
The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus
The Kalam Cosmological Argument, by Dr. William Lane Craig
The God of the Gaps, online YouTube Lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan