By RT ~
Whoa! Hold on! Before you press the "Delete" button, keep in mind that I have been working on the enclosed analysis of religion (I am a retired psychoanalyst) for over fifty years. Hence, maybe, this analysis, consisting of about ten double-spaced typewritten pages, is, at least, worth a quick read. I have no delusions of grandeur about it, but, in my humble opinion, it does summarize the major issues very concisely.
Moreover, I do not expect many to agree with my analysis. In all honesty, when it comes to religion, there is very little agreement about much of anything. Just look at all of the different religions and Christian denominations to prove that conclusion. Furthermore, I am way past the age of needing people to agree with me or worrying much about people agreeing with me. Instead, send me your honest replies. If you disagree with something, tactfully tell me and, hopefully, I will learn something. I am not too old to still learn stuff.
Furthermore, I am not so stupid nor inconsiderate not to realize that any analysis of religion can be offensive to some. My hope, though, is not to be offensive nor to change minds. but to try to figure stuff out the best I can because this subject is incredibly important.
During the autumn of 1961, Hurricane Carla devastated the Gulf Coast of Texas where I lived. In the midst of the hurricane, I worked my way through my entire plane geometry textbook using the light from a lantern at my grandmother's house since we had all lost electricity during the storm. This textbook really, really hooked my interest because it showed how, starting with just a few obvious observations, one could prove, really prove, progressively more sophisticated stuff. I was fifteen years old at the time.
Using plane geometry as an example, I then set out to do the same thing with religion, namely start with a few obvious observations and then build and prove a system of conclusions. This project, as you have probably already guessed, was not as easy as my adolescent mind had imagined it to be. I have now spent over five decades on this project and it still remains an incomplete work in progress which I am constantly modifying as I learn more. I started "The Project," which I eventually named "The Project" after one of Freud's works, by reading the entire Bible. This, however, did not turn out, at all, the way I had expected it to turn out. I had expected the Bible to be the clear, inerrant perfect "Word of God" because, among other things, I had been taught, in church, that The Old Testament contains the "mighty, loving acts of God." What I found, instead, were books that are often not written very clearly and that describe an angry, jealous God who killed humans (like in the story of Noah and the Ark) and ordered the killing, and even the genocide of the very humans, like the Amalekites, He/She had created. With all of this divine killing, how could this possibly be the "Word of God"?
Turning to The New Testament, the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, seemed, to me, to be much closer to the "Word of God" than The Old Testament, but the Gospels also seemed problematic as I quickly noticed that the two genealogies of Jesus given inThe New Testament are quite different. This was a real turning point for me. How could this be? I know. I know. One is supposed to be the genealogy of Joseph and the other the genealogy of Mary, but, if so, why doesn't the Bible just say that? Moreover, how were there genealogical records long before there was writing? I guess one could argue that God gave the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke the information about ancient genealogies, but these authors do not make this claim and, surely, it would have been a claim worth mentioning.
Then, there was the last book in the Bible, Revelation, which, like The Old Testament, describes not a loving God, but an angry God intent on killing the very humans He/She had created. If God gets so upset with humans, why doesn't He/She just make them better? I know. I know, There is "free will," but He/She is God, so why doesn't God just make humans better and give them "free will" at the same time?
So, this first complete reading of the Bible left me with a lot of figuring out to do. Hence, I kept reading and rereading the entire Bible hoping that some day it would make sense to me just like it seemed to make sense to most everyone else I knew. I have to admit this has been a lonely journey since almost everyone else I knew was dogmatically certain that the Bible is, indeed, the "Word of God." Surely, I had to be the one that was wrong and I needed to get it straight. I also got very tired of not fitting in and being excluded because I just was not "willing" to accept the "truth" and have the "correct beliefs." More on that later.
In college, at the very secular University of Texas, which provides a markedly different and much broader educational experience than attending a religious university, I was a pre-med, zoology major and spent most of my time studying subjects like Darwin's theory of evolution and dissecting pigs and cats. During college, I also studied New Testament Koine Greek reading the four Gospels in Greek. What I mostly learned from this Greek experience is that the translation of The New Testament is not an exact science by any means and different scholars translate stuff differently as evidenced by the many different translations of the Bible.
Also during college, I read three books which markedly affected my views concerning religion: The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, and Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Paine's book was mostly written from his memory while he was imprisoned in France due to his revolutionary activity. He wrote about the divine killing and the divine-ordered killing in The Old Testament and the numerous contradictions in both testaments of the Bible. In the end, Paine, a deist, concluded that the awesome universe, itself, rather than the Bible, was the real "Word of God." Paine would probably be a practicing Unitarian in today's world.
Schweitzer's book got me to thinking about the very important question of what is historical versus what is legendary in the Gospels. Schweitzer's conclusion was that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that an apocalypse would come during the lifetime of His disciples. This prediction, of course, was obviously wrong.
Tillich's book discusses "faith" as being one's "ultimate concern," namely that which matters to one the most, rather than being belief with a "low degree of evidence." It was very important to me to try to see "faith" as being something more than just having the good fortune of being born in a place where one was lucky enough to acquire the "correct beliefs." Tillich's book defined "faith" in a much deeper way.
The biggest influence in my religious thinking since college has been the work of Bart Ehrman. His numerous books on early Christianity are written clearly and, taken together, cover every possible topic that I have considered to be important in my search. I cannot say enough about the quantity, quality, and clarity of his writing. His textbook on The New Testament, for example, is a real classic both in content and creative format. In plain language, I love his books, Youtube debates, "Christianity in Antiquity" website, and Great Courses Teaching Company lectures. Finally, there was someone who gets, really gets, my struggle with the Bible. His work has meant the world to me. The only thing Ehrman has not done is put it all together concisely in one book. I will refer to Ehrman's books quite a bit in the rest of this paper.
I have also been greatly influenced by the books of John Shelby Spong.
So, where does all of this lead us? Well, I will summarize it in two sections: "How about God?" and "How About Jesus and Christianity?" My goal in this paper is to concisely summarize these two questions. I, like Thomas Paine, write this summary from memory. Hopefully, this will lead to writing, like Paine, in a conversational style.
First, I will review eight arguments for the existence of God. Then, I will turn to the question of "How About Jesus and Christianity?" Since The New Testament is really our only first century source about Jesus, an analysis of the historical Jesus depends upon an analysis of The New Testament. Hence, I will briefly discuss textual Biblical criticism, historical (higher) Biblical criticism, and Christian theological criticism. I will then make some brief statements about Christian moral criticism concerning the religious right in America. Finally, I will make ten summary conclusions. All of this all will be much shorter than you might expect.
I need to add that none, absolutely none, of this material is original with me. All of what follows has been known for well over 200 years starting with the emphasis on reason over revelation during "The Enlightenment." Why, despite this long history, this material is not taught, reviewed, criticized, and discussed in churches baffles and disappoints me. Moreover, the basic subject matter is not really that difficult to grasp, certainly no more difficult than learning high school algebra, chemistry, or American history. So this subject matter being "too difficult," as I am often told, is not really an excuse. If I add anything to the subject, it is by outlining it all in a very condensed form.
How About God?
It is hard to imagine that something, the universe, could just come from nothing. Hence, according to the "cosmological (first cause) argument," the universe came from God. In other words, everything that has a beginning has to have a cause and, since the universe had a beginning with the "big bang," it had to have a cause, namely God. The problem with this "cosmological argument" is that it does not explain from where God came. Did God also have a beginning? If so, what caused God? The answer that is usually given is that God has always existed and, hence, God did not have a beginning.
A second closely related argument for the existence of God is the "teleological (design) argument" concerning the complex design of the universe or multiverse (given that there are probably multiple universes). If, as described by eighteenth-century theologian William Paley, who, by the way, strongly influenced Charles Darwin, one found a watch in the desert, one would assume that such a watch just did not appear, but that there had to be a "Watchmaker" or a "Designer." Now, since the multiverse is much more complicated than a watch, there has to be a multiverse maker, namely God. The obvious problem with this "teleological argument" is that God is much more complicated than the multiverse so God also needs a "maker." Where is the "God maker"? Moreover, much of complex design can be explained by Darwin's theory of evolution.
A third argument for the existence of God is the "ontological argument." This argument goes like this:
1. God is that which nothing is greater than;
2. To exist is greater than not to exist;
3. Therefore, God must exist in order to be greater than that which exists.
I have to say that I have never found this "ontological argument" to be very convincing. It seems, at least to me, as I understand it, to be nothing more than a word game.
A fourth argument for the existence of God is the "personal experience" of God argument. This argument is given credence by the large number of people who claim to have had such personal experiences of God. The problem with the argument is that no one can truly validate or invalidate the personal experience of another.
A fifth argument for the existence of God is the "moral argument." According to this argument, there are universal moral laws. Hence, there must be a source for these laws and that source must be God. The problem with this argument is that humans, rather than God, could be the source of these moral laws.
A sixth argument for the existence of God is that the existence of God is proven by "faith." The problem, of course, is that "faith" can be, and has been, used as proof of all sorts of things. So, faith really is not evidence, Another problem is which faith? Christianity? Islam? Mormonism? How does one decide which faith?
A seventh argument for the existence of God is the "scriptural argument." The obvious problem with this argument is which scripture? The Bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon? How does one decide? Moreover, there are numerous textual and historical problems with the Bible which I will soon discuss.
An eighth argument for the existence of God is that we sometimes see God in the kindness of the acts of others. Maybe, on the other hand, such kindness is not really a sign of the existence of God, but people just being kind because they want to do so.
How About Jesus and Christianity? Textual Biblical Criticism
We have no original copies of any Bible book. Hence, textual criticism tries to figure out what was "the" original Bible? It is a daunting task.
As Ehrman describes in Lost Scriptures, there are over 40 ancient Gospels, Epistles, Acts, and Apocalypses which were not selected for inclusion in The New Testament. Moreover, some of these "lost scriptures," like The Gospel of Thomas, paint a picture of Jesus that is different than what is portrayed in The New Testament. Furthermore, even now, Catholics and Protestants have placed different books in the Biblical canon. So, who selected which books to include in the Bible and what factors were involved in this selection? Actually, the answers to these questions are surprisingly unclear. How can people be so convinced that the Bible is the 'Word of God" if they don't even know how the books of the Bible were selected for inclusion in the Bible? We certainly have no clear reported incident where God announced which books are the ones to be included in the Bible. The best that I can tell, our current canon of The New Testament was first proposed toward the end of the fourth century by Athanasius, a character with a very controversial life history to say the least. So, the question of which books are "God's" books is a big problem.
Then, we have the problem of the oral transmission of information about Jesus before the writing of the Gospels. Ehrman has written an upcoming book, Jesus Before the Gospels, on this subject. As Ehrman describes (I have read an early draft of the book three times), the Apostle Paul never quotes the Gospels. Hence, the Gospels were probably written after Paul's death which occurred some three decades after the death of Jesus. Otherwise, Paul would surely have known about the Gospels and quoted from them. This means that information about Jesus was transmitted orally for over three decades before the Gospels were actually written. Surely, stories about Jesus got changed, embellished, and elaborated during these decades of oral transmission before the writing of the Gospels. How could it be otherwise? I guess one could argue that God told the Gospel authors what to write, but the Gospel authors never mention such a claim and, surely, this would be a claim worth mentioning.
In addition, as Ehrman explained in one of his Great Courses Teaching Company lectures, the writers of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses (nor colleagues of eyewitnesses) of the events they describe. Ehrman describes eight reasons for this as follows:
1. The authors of the Gospels do not claim to be eyewitnesses or colleagues of eyewitnesses. Surely, if they were eyewitnesses or colleagues of eyewitnesses, they would have stated this in order to add credibility to their accounts.
2. The Gospels are written in third rather than first person. Surely, an eyewitness would have written in first person.
3. There are many contradictions, hundreds of them. in the Gospels, and it is unlikely that eyewitnesses would disagree on so many details. One can go to the "Apologetics Press" website and quickly find over 100 such Gospel contradictions. The writers of this "Apologetics Press" website explain such contradictions as being eyewitness accounts from different viewpoints or accounts that provide "additional" details, but I think there are just way too many contradictions to harmonize them all away. What happened to the divine editor? I think a more likely explanation for these contradictions is that stories about Jesus changed during the period of oral transmission and then different Gospel authors wrote different details using these different oral traditions. Often the gists of these oral stories contained kernels of truth, but the incidental details got markedly changed during the oral transmission. Can you imagine, for example, trying to write the Sermon on the Mount three or more decades after the sermon was given when there were no written notes of the sermon? I guess one could claim that God gave the author of The Gospel According to Matthew the text of the Sermon on the Mount, but the Gospel author does not make this claim and, surely, it would have been a claim worth mentioning.
4. In Acts, James and Peter are described as being illiterate. Indeed, almost everyone living in first century Galilee was illiterate and mostly spoke Aramaic not New Testament Koine Greek. Hence, it is very unlikely that there were any eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus who could write New Testament Koine Greek.
5. As I have described previously, since Paul did not quote the Gospels, they were probably written after his death and, hence, after the deaths of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.
6. All of the Gospels are titled with "According to ..." which sounds like a title given not by an eyewitness, but by a later scribe or editor.
7. The author of The Gospel According to Matthew, when writing about Matthew, the tax collector, gives no clue that he is writing about himself. Likewise, the author of The Gospel According to John, when writing about the Apostle John, gives no clue that he is writing about himself.
8. An early reference to the Gospels is when they are quoted by Justin Martyr during the middle of the second century, but he does not refer to the Gospels by name. It is not until the end of the second century that an author, namely Irenaeus, refers to the Gospels by the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Hence, the Gospels were probably written by unknown authors who wrote Koine Greek and the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were then ascribed to them about a century after they were written.
Moving on, another problem is that we have no original copy of any Bible book. Instead, with regard to The New Testament, we have thousands of ancient Greek New Testaments as well as ancient New Testaments written in languages, like Coptic and Latin, other than Greek, and all of these texts are different. Most of these differences consist of minor hand-copying errors, but sometimes the differences are far more important, such as the ending of The Gospel According to Mark, which appears in some texts and not others, recommending the handling of snakes and the drinking of poison. People have actually died as a result of their trying to obey this scripture.
So, there is really no "the" New Testament, but, instead, as discussed by Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus, there are thousands of different texts all of which differ from each other in hundreds of thousands of different ways. The oldest complete copy of The New Testament,Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the fourth century over 300 years after the birth of Jesus which is a lot of time for the ancient miscopying of texts before we even find one..
Translation is another major problem. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The New Testament, however, was written in Koine Greek and, now. we are reading a variety of English translations which differ from each other in many ways. Again, there is no "the" Bible.
Another issue is the disputed authorship of certain New Testament books. For example, as Ehrman describes in Forged, there is considerable controversy concerning the authorship of six epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Second Thessalonians, First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus) usually attributed to the Apostle Paul because these disputed epistles differ in vocabulary, grammar, and literary style from the other seven epistles usually attributed to Paul. Since these six disputed Pauline epistles were probably placed in the Bible because they were thought to have been written by Paul, this disputed authorship means that these six epistles probably should not have even been included in the Bible.
Finally, ancient literature contains stories, like the Gilgamesh Epic, which are similar to and were written before the similar Biblical stories. Hence, the texts of some of these Bible stories were probably strongly influenced by this ancient literature.
How About Jesus and Christianity? Historical (Higher) Biblical Criticism
Over 200 years ago, during the "Age of Enlightenment," scholars started applying to the Bible the same historical methods used to study other books. Here are some of the issues:
1. There is a lot of divine killing and divine-ordered killing, even genocide, in The Old Testament. Does this really provide an adequate, reliable description of God?
2. The Bible is often hard to understand. Why would the "Word of God" not be clearly written?
3. Sometimes, in the Gospels, Jesus says and does things that are not very kind such as His ignoring pleas to help a sick child or His saying that He came not to bring peace, but a sword. How do we understand such things?
4. There is a lot of illogical material in the Bible such as a talking snake, that apparently walked on legs before being cursed, a talking donkey, and a star being high in the sky, but yet over a specific manger. How can this be?
5. There is legendary material in the Bible including the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Whale, and a "worldwide" census with people traveling to the land of their ancestors, assuming they could figure out where that happened to be. How can all of these stories be the "Word of God"?
6. There are many contradictions in the Bible, as described by Ehrman in Jesus Interrupted, including two very different versions of The Ten Commandments, two different genealogies of Jesus, two different accounts of the birth of Jesus, four different versions of the empty tomb events, and so on and so forth. Just read these accounts and make a list of the differences as you read. You will readily see these differences. With regard to the empty tomb events, which women came to the tomb? Was it dark or light when the women came? When the women arrived, was the tomb closed or open? Were angels or men at the tomb? One or two? Was a gardener there? Did the women tell or not tell others what they had seen? Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem or go to Galilee to see the Resurrected Jesus? And so and so forth. This is the most important event in human history, but, yet, the Gospel authors can't get it straight. How come? Because stories got changed during decades of oral transmission of information about Jesus prior to the writing of the Gospels.
7. As described by Thomas Paine, there are also significant omissions in the Gospels. For example, The Gospel According to Matthew,describes dead people rising from graves following the death of Jesus, but, incredibly, this event is not described in any of the other Gospels. Why would any Gospel author leave out the description of such an extraordinary event?
8. The Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah described in The Gospel According to Matthew are quite vague and seem to be pulled out of context. I once spent considerable time studying all of these prophecies and noticed that the word "Messiah" never appears in The Old Testament. Moreover, all of these prophecies, again as described by Thomas Paine, seem to be about matters, such as the nation of Israel, rather than about the Messiah. Hence, I am not convinced that any of these prophecies apply to Jesus. Moreover, first century Jews seemed to be anticipating the coming of a political king not a crucified Messiah.
How About Jesus and Christianity? Theological Criticisms
Much of theology (a virgin birth, saints, transubstantiation, the Immaculate Conception, the Ascension of Mary) makes no sense to me. I will focus on five such issues as follows:
1. As described by Ehrman, in God's Problem, the theodicy problem deals with the question of why a loving God would allow so much human suffering such as occurs in earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. "Free will" is often used to explain this suffering in that God allows people the "free will" to make poor choices and then suffer the consequences of those poor choices. Such "free will" does not, however, explain the suffering that occurs with natural disasters.
2. Then, there is the problem of the atonement. Why can't God just forgive people and pronounce them saved? Why was it necessary for God to allow the torture of Himself/Herself or His/Her son, depending on your theology, to save people. Allowing the torture of Himself/Herself would be masochistic and allowing the torture of the Son would be sadistic. Does this really make sense? Of course not. Moreover, the idea that Jesus never sinned makes no sense if Jesus were, indeed, fully human. To be human means having all sorts of evil feelings and actions. That's just the way it is. Otherwise, one is not fully human. I rest my case.
3. Why, if God's Biblical message is so clear, are there so many different religions and different Christian denominations? Moreover, one's religion is determined mostly by the accident of where one was born. If one is born in Saudi Arabia, for example, then one is probably going to be a Muslim. Why would a loving God send people to Hell because of the accident of where they were born?
4. That brings us to the concept of Hell. Why would a loving God create flawed people and then send them to Hell forever because they are flawed? Why not just make them better people? And why does God put so much emphasis on having the "correct beliefs" when such correct beliefs are primarily an accident of where one was born?
5. Finally, after decades of thinking about the Trinity, with three being one, it still just does not make sense to me. A human being "God" also does not make sense to me. Sorry about that. The concept of the divinity of Jesus seems, as described by Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God, to have been an outgrowth of similar beliefs in ancient times about Roman emperors and Egyptian pharoahs being "god." Clearly, early Christians argued, and even killed each other, over the question of whether Jesus was divine or human or both fully human and fully divine or half human and half divine or two beings one being the divine Christ and the other being the human Jesus and so and so forth. I am sorry, but the whole discussion of this Trinity issue is a complete mess and it gets messier the more you study it. I wish it were otherwise, but it is not.
How About Jesus and Christianity? Christian Moral Criticism ("By their fruit, you will recognize them.")
I have gotten so discouraged by the dogmatic certainty and unkind positions of the religious right on gay marriage, gun control, immigration reform, the role of women in churches, etc. that it makes me wonder about the "fruit" of Christianity. I guess I could say more about this matter, but that pretty well sums it up. I realize, of course, that the religious right is not all of Christianity, but right now it is the most obvious part of it. The fruit is rotten.
1. Although the cosmological (first cause) and teleological (design) arguments are not definitive, I agree with Thomas Paine that these arguments do suggest the existence of a Creator God. Taken together, these two arguments make more sense than the argument that the universe came from nothing.
2. I do not know whether or not or how much this Creator God is personally involved in the life of humans, but the sheer number of people reporting such personal experiences gives some credence to the idea that this God is personally involved with humans. Moreover, a God capable of creating the universe is certainly capable of having personal relationships with humans. On the other hand, the theodicy problem of why people suffer so much makes one doubt that this God is very involved in human lives.
3. Since what we know about Jesus depends on the Bible and since there are many textual and historical problems with the Bible, it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the historical Jesus. I wish it were otherwise, but it is not. The historical Jesus probably was born, was baptized by John the Baptist, had disciples, taught stuff, was an apocalyptic prophet, and was crucified. Other than that, He comes to us, now, as then, a mystery by the sea. In essence, this leaves us with The Jefferson Bible of Thomas Jefferson consisting of the teachings of Jesus without the miracles.
4. There is the good, the bad, and the ugly with Christianity. Most importantly, the "good." Christianity has provided and continues to provide much comfort and a sense of community to many. It also makes many people more compassionate than they would be without it. With regard to the "bad," Christianity often promotes dogmatic certainty, opposition to science and evolution, opposition to the critical analysis of crucial questions, opposition to birth control, and unfair treatment of women and gays. With regard to the "ugly," Christianity has been involved in much violence including the violence of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, the Spanish Conquistadors, and the Salem witch trials. Obviously, Christianity is not the only religion with a history of violence, but it has been a violent course and curse.
5. There is no "the" Bible," but, instead, there are many different texts and translations so it is impossible to interpret "the" Bible literally even if one wants to do so. Moreover, as seen in the unfair treatment of women and gays, the literal interpretation of the Bible can do much harm.
6. As described by Ehrman, in Lost Christianities, early Christians were quite diverse and included Ebionites, Marcionites, proto-Orthodox Christians and several types of Gnostics. These groups differed with regard to their beliefs about whether or not Christians need to be Jewish and obey Jewish laws. They also differed about their beliefs concerning whether Jesus was human or divine or both. Finally, they differed regarding what books they considered to be scriptural. During the fourth century, under the influence of Constantine, much of this diversity was ironed out.
7. There continues to be substantial religious diversity and most people, by and large, follow the religion of their childhood emotional experience.
8. Using confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance reduction, most people tend to interpret evidence in ways that confirm their already established religious views.
9. I don't know if Jesus arose from the dead, but I do know that this is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence. Moreover, I also know that it's hard to know, for sure, what happened yesterday much less what happened 2,000 years ago. I honestly don't think the evidence from the Bible is sufficient to make this Resurrection claim.
10. I don't know if there is a heaven, but if a God is capable of creating this universe, then that God is probably capable of creating a heaven.
In closing, I consider myself to be a 25th chapter of Matthew Christian because of the emphasis in that chapter, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, on taking care of the sick, etc. I am, after all, a physician. I welcome any respectful, thoughtful comments about these matters. I am sure that people from all sides (Christian Fundamentalist to Atheist) will find something with which to disagree. This is par for the course, but, even so, I hope that most will, at least, concur that these issues are very important to me, important enough for me to critically examine crucial questions. Hopefully, my organization of these issues will be of some help to some of you in organizing your views.
Finally, I am afraid that unless churches start to address these issues that I have discussed, especially with regard to the literal interpretation of the Bible, church attendance is going to continue to go downhill.which would be tragic because it would mean losing the "good" that is in Christianity.
P.S. I have distributed "blind" copies so that none of you will be bothered by "Reply to All" email responses. Thanks and good luck with your own "Project."