Robert Richert: First Letter to a Christian Friend

By | August 8, 2010

How many times have you heard that you shouldn’t discuss sex, religion, or politics in mixed company? I like talking about religion, but sometimes it is difficult to maintain civil discourse in a ‘one on one’ or small group setting. People become emotional and tempers tend to flair. Thus, I thought I should express my views about religion in the form of a letter. Please understand that my viewpoint is complex and to explain it thoroughly might require the length of a book. However, in this letter I’ll try to confine my remarks to a few pages. I invite you to respond or ask questions.

I am a second-generation atheist (Atheist – one who does not believe in the existence of God – a supernatural being). Both of my parents lost interest in religion at an early age. I was raised without religion, but was not raised to be hostile toward it. I’ve studied philosophy and am familiar with most of the arguments for and against the existence of God. I have read many scholarly articles and books on how the Bible came to be, and about the various religions and cultures that contributed to the development of Christianity. In contrast, most of my Christian friends are quite unfamiliar with the counter arguments to the existence of God and the history and development of the religion in which they believe. When the subject comes up and I share my knowledge, I often make my friends feel uncomfortable. I don’t apologize; they should feel uncomfortable!

I think that most people are religious believers primarily because:
1. They are raised in a particular faith and don’t question it in depth.
2. They are persuaded by the first cause (God caused the universe to exist) and design arguments (God is responsible for the complex ‘design’ of the universe, including life). I won’t go into these here (See Prometheus Books).
3. They ‘believe’ (in a benevolent God and life after death, for example) because it makes them feel good. I call this “Religious Hedonism”.

When religious beliefs become firmly rooted by emotional fervor, those beliefs become rendered immune from rational analysis. It is analogous to being in love; nobody wants to hear criticism of someone they care about deeply. This is one reason why once people become emotionally attached to their religious beliefs; you can’t pry them away from them with a crow bar.

It upsets me when religious believers claim that their beliefs are true because they have strong, passionate feelings about them. I do not accept that religious faith is a pathway to knowledge. One’s strength of conviction and religious zeal is not in any way a barometer as to the truth of a belief. After all, Muslim fundamentalists are as committed to and passionate about the truth of their ‘faith’ as are Evangelical Christians. Both can’t be right. I think the evidence is clear that religious faith is subjective in nature. I wrote a three-page article called, “A Critique of Religious Faith”, that explains this in more detail.

It may surprise you, but I am not unilaterally opposed to religion. Most religions incorporate supernatural beliefs, but they are more than that. One can reject the supernatural elements of religion, but admire other aspects of it – the sense of community, some of the ceremonies, some of the ethics, the art, etc. Many of my Christian friends do volunteer work and help the community through their church. They express their ethics by setting a good example. This is what I believe churches ought to be doing. These friends are not trying to undermine science education in our public schools, prevent stem cell research, ban abortion and birth control, trash homosexuals, and spread divisiveness and hate! I can live peacefully with the former, but in my opinion, the latter are causing great harm in society.

At one time, religion was at the center of western culture. Before the invention of the printing press, only priests were allowed to be literate. The church was the primary source of ‘education’. Holy Scriptures, interpreted by an authoritarian priesthood, were not only the sole source of ethics, but knowledge about the cosmos and almost everything else. Medicine men or priests were the healers. Kings were believed to be more than mere mortals; they were part of a divine succession. Whatever government ruled was always in varying degrees, subservient to the authority of the church. Today in western cultures, secular institutions have replaced almost all of these things. Religion is no longer necessary for people to be moral, prosper, lead a fulfilling life, or understand our place in the cosmos.

I believe that the natural universe (or multi-verse) is all that exists. I don’t see any credible evidence for anything supernatural – be it gods, devils and demons, angels, ghosts, souls, or anything else that is supposed to exist in that nebulous other world. Consider that in centuries past, supernatural agents seemed to be present everywhere. For example, it was widely believed that angry gods caused earthquakes, floods, etc., and that demons caused disease. In Matthew 8:28, Jesus cures two demon possessed men by casting the demons out of their heads and into a group of pigs! Today, we know that a complex mixture of natural forces determines weather; shifting tectonic plates cause earthquakes; and germs, genes, and chemical imbalances cause disease and mental illness. Unfortunately, it is still widely believed today that only a powerful God could design life with all its complexity. However, Darwin, and mountains of subsequent evidence accumulated since his day, has shown that a purely natural, purposeless, yet powerful mechanism – evolution by natural selection – is the primary force in ‘designing’ life (see Richard Dawkins book, “The Blind Watchmaker”). Today, we have exotic cosmological theories (Inflation, String, ‘M’, etc.) that explain how our universe came to be, and some hint that we might be part of a larger multi-verse that is eternal. In summary, over the last 500 years, as science has expanded our knowledge about the universe and our place in it, supernaturalism has been in steady retreat. How many supernatural gods have to fall before one concludes that the natural universe is all that exists and our current version of God is unnecessary as a causal agent or active participant in nature? I think that time is now.

Modern brain research challenges dualism – the concept that mind is something separate from the brain. With increasing success, researchers are connecting specific properties of our mind – memory, visualization, personality, etc. – to specific areas of the brain. If part of the brain is altered or damaged, there is a corresponding dysfunction to the mind. For example, as the physical brain deteriorates with Alzheimer’s disease, the mind loses function and dissolves away until there is almost nothing like a ‘person’ left. Most brain researchers today have discarded dualism as a working hypothesis; some don’t even use the word mind at all! There is only the brain and one of its functions is what we perceive as ‘mind’. Mind, as something separate from the brain, is a relic of our pre-scientific past. In my opinion, the concept of the soul and life after death is outmoded because they are based upon this false assumption; that some kind of conscious awareness can exist separately from the physical brain. Brain research also challenges the concept of God because God is, in a sense, a bodiless, non-physical mind.

I don’t believe that moral standards are derived from God. All of our ethical systems, whether they are ‘enshrined’ within religious dogma or not, are the result of the human struggle to cope with the hardships of life and survival. Humans evolved as social animals. Like our ape cousins, our survival and prosperity is dependent upon cooperating as a group, not acting individually. This is the core foundation for all ethics, yours and mine. Over time, ethical systems have, and continue to evolve, and some basic objective moral standards have emerged (honesty is good, murder is bad, the golden rule, etc.) Your ethics and mine are a mixed bag of our heritage, the environment in which we live, and societal factors. Our ethics are probably not far apart, despite our religious differences, because we were raised in the same culture. However, our ethics and religious beliefs would be far different if we were raised in a Taliban tribe! Obviously, one does not need religion to be a good person, and conversely, being religious does not necessarily make one a moral person.

My secular humanism (see Kurtz, Prometheus Books) means that I have confidence in human potential. I believe that we humans are capable of making ‘heaven’ here on earth! My ethics tell me that since there is no ‘savior’ to come and bail us out of our troubles, we must act to be our own saviors. Conversely, Christianity is predicated upon human failure. According to Christian theology, at some future date humans will muck things up so badly that Jesus will return and make things right. This doesn’t show much confidence in human potential! Also, I think a wise God could think of a better way of saving humanity than by allowing the killing of his own son. I could never subscribe to such a ridiculous theology, for these and other reasons.

I do not believe that the Bible is a reliable source of morality, nor inspired by a god. It is purely human in origin. While some passages and stories contain good moral messages, much of it is barbaric by today’s standards. For example, the Bible mandates that the method of punishment for infractions of its laws is stoning to death. I saw a video of some people in an Islamic country being stoned to death – it was one of the ugliest, most brutal things I’ve seen – and I’ve been in combat!

The Bible demands, just to name a few examples, that children who curse their parents – men who lay with men – girls found not to be virgins on their wedding night – adulterers – being a stubborn son – those who worship other gods – must be stoned to death. This is patently absurd! I doubt that you or any other sane person would act to enforce laws based upon most of these ancient Biblical edicts, much less demand an extreme, barbaric form of punishment for such trivial ‘sins’.

The Old Testament is quite bloody and the Old Testament God is harsh and cruel by today’s standards. For example, in many passages, a petty, jealous, angry, or vengeful God orders his followers to kill entire villages of men, women, children, and infants (Numbers 21:25, 21:34, 25:4; Exodus 32:27; Joshua 6, 10:36, 10:40; I Samuel 15:3, etc., etc.) I’ve heard apologists say that these acts are justified because all of these people were ‘sinners’. Children and infants? Give me a break! Also, what kind of just God would torture his subjects for eternity for merely not believing – or for any crime for that matter? Most of the former Christians turned non-believers that I meet say that punishment in hell was a very real and frightening emotional burden, and a significant impediment to their gradual movement away from this religion. Of course, I don’t believe that heaven and hell exist, other than as human invented concepts. In my opinion, compelling religious allegiance by creating guilt, fear and anxiety with the threat of eternal punishment in hell is immoral and contemptible! All of this is inconsistent with our modern concepts of compassion and justice, and the concept of a compassionate and just God.

The New Testament is an improvement over the Old, but still leaves much to be desired. For example, where is the loud and clear condemnation of slavery? The Bible condones slavery. The Biblical Jesus was no ‘saint’, in my opinion. Never mentioned in church sermons are his harsh, cruel, and outright ludicrous sayings. For example in Luke 14:25, Jesus is quoted as saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple“. Sorry my friend, but should you hope that I will someday convert; hating my family and myself is out of the question! The Bible is chock-full of absurdities like this. Those who claim to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and still try to function as moral citizens in our society are forced to cherry-pick the text for guidance: They ignore or gloss over the absurdities or ‘reinterpret’ ambiguous or harsh passages in such a way as to conform to modern morality.

For the past 150 years, Biblical scholars, archeologists, linguists, and other professionals have turned their talents toward understanding how the Bible came to be. Just to name a few examples, most scholars at major universities and seminaries generally agree that:
1. The creation stories in Genesis are variations adapted from earlier stories. For example, Genesis 1 is largely derived from the Babylonian writing called, “Enuma Elish” and Noah and the flood from the Babylonian, “Epic of Gilgamesh”. The Genesis stories are primitive myths that conform to the ‘flat earth’ thinking of the times and cultures in which they were written, but not to our modern scientific view of the cosmos.
2. Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. The authors of Matthew and Luke placed Jesus’ birth there in conformance with their interpretations of Old Testament prophecy. Some scholars believe that Jesus’ birth stories were added to these texts well into the second century after Jesus failed to return within their lifetimes as promised in Matthew 10:5, 10:21, 16:28 – Mark 13:30.
3. The birth, passion, and miracle stories about Jesus are replete with common pagan, and other ancient mythical themes or are variations on Old Testament stories (virgin birth, celestial object heralding birth, born near the winter solstice, three wise ‘Magi” visiting the birth, raising of the dead (Lazarus), resurrection after three days, etc. (see below)
4. Mark was the first Gospel written, about 68-70 AD; Matthew and Luke followed at least ten years later. Both borrowed from Mark. John, the last Gospel, was written near the end of the first century.
5. The Apostles did not write the Gospels – they were written by anonymous sources long after Jesus death. It’s unlikely that any of the Gospel writers knew or met Jesus; none claimed to know him.
6. The Gospel authors had access to a yet undiscovered document that scholars call “Q” (German ‘Quelle’, meaning source). This document contained a list of sayings attributed to Jesus.
7. Many, if not most of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are derived from earlier sayings and sources, or added by the authors.
8. The authors of the Gospels were Evangelicals and they wrote from an emerging theological perspective. They were not objective historians.

Gerald LaRue, professor emeritus of Biblical Studies at USC is a world-class scholar and personal acquaintance. He said, “Analyzing the New Testament Jesus story is like peeling an onion. As one non-historical, fictional layer after another is removed, one ends up with the tiny core. Is this the true onion; is this the true Jesus? There is not enough left to grasp a personality” (The Humanist, May/June 1991). Van Harvey, former chairman of Stanford’s religious studies department said, “So far as the Biblical historian is concerned, there is scarcely a popularly held traditional belief about Jesus that is not regarded with considerable skepticism” (Los Angeles Times, May 1985).

Long before Jesus, the birth and/or death of all Persian Kings were heralded by the appearance of a celestial object such as a comet or star in the sky. Savior gods allegedly born of a virgin were quite common; so was being resurrected after three days. Mithraism predates Christianity by centuries. This religion became one of Christianity’s chief rivals before the time of Constantine. Mithras was a creator god who returned to earth as a savior. The “Acts of Thomas”, “Oracles of Hystaspes”, and “Chronicle of Zugnin” tell the story of Mithras. They tell of a star that fell from the sky at his birth, that shepherds witnessed the birth, and how Zoroastrian priests called Magi followed the star to worship him. These priests had prophesied the coming of a savior and brought golden crowns to the newborn, “King of Kings”. His birth was celebrated on December 24th. Does this all sound familiar? Incidentally, many other (mostly sun) god births were also celebrated around the winter solstice, which by today’s calendars is December 21st – all long before Jesus was born.

For me it is obvious that not just the advancement of science, but the accumulation of knowledge acquired by modern Biblical scholarship undermines the conservative, traditional view of Christianity. I don’t think it is possible to be scientifically informed nor objective about the Bible and its history and development and also subscribe to a conservative Christian belief system!

The world suffers from overpopulation, diminishing resources, religious and cultural divisions, weapons of mass destruction, and environmental decline. I have confidence that we humans can overcome or mediate most of these problems. However, to do so, we must move beyond looking backward to ancient religious dogmas for answers. Those who cling to conservative religious and authoritarian belief systems – and attempt to shape the modern world by them – are exacerbating the problem. This is not to say that religion has no place in the modern world. Those that have ‘evolved’ to become more centered in the ‘here and now’; those that have ‘evolved’ to become humanistic, tolerant, inclusive, and not at war with science, can offer emotional and psychological support, and rally people to help overcome our problems. However, I think that our world leaders must strive to marginalize religious extremism within their midst, and minimalize religious and cultural barriers between themselves and their neighbors. Our leaders must turn toward humanistic thinking – the application of science, reason, and human cooperation and compassion – to make the world a better place.

Yes, I am an optimistic secular humanist atheist. I believe we humans can make heaven here on earth – all by ourselves!

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