Why I am Not a Christian

Bertrand Russell wrote his famous essay, Why I am not a Christian, back in 1927 as part of a talk give to the National Secular Society in Great Britain. It was subsequently published as a pamphlet. I read it in 1980 when I was a Vista Volunteer in North Carolina, where most of my work involved a lot of interaction with local southern churches. I have not reread the essay prior to writing this post – although I’m supplying a link to the essay here – as I wanted to provide my own answer to why I am not a Christian, and not be mimicking Russell’s answer.[1]

The Character of God

As described in the Holy Bible, the character of God is, well, not good. His distinguishing feature – I’ll be using the traditional male pronoun here, as it is used in the various English language Bibles – is jealousy. Followed by inconsistency or unpredictability. And God is murderous. He kills often and indiscriminately.

One commentator has counted up and estimated that God has killed 2,476,633 people (or almost 2.5 million) in the Bible. Another commentator counted the number as 2,270,365. Another commentator counts 399,933 killed by God directly, 2,017,956 Killed by God’s followers, for a total of 2,417,889. [2] That same website that Satan is only reported to have killed Job’s children, and only after God gave him permission. But whether it’s 250,000, 2.5 million or 25 million, it’s clear that God kills a lot of people in the Bible. Beginning with everyone on Earth, aside from those who made it into Noah’s Ark, at the time of the great flood.[3]

Now, let’s overlook for a moment that Noah’s Ark is a derivative story, derived from earlier creation myths. What did all the people of the Earth do to deserve to be exterminated? I mean, this is a genocide of Biblical (pun intended) proportions. Apparently humans were consorting with the “Nephilim,” who were “giants” and, depending on your interpretation of the Bible, either the offspring of God, or fallen angles, or the cumulative legacy of Cain and Seth.[4] In any case, nowhere is there to be found any Biblical warning that consorting with the Nephilim, whoever they were, would result in a death sentence for essentially all of humanity. This, from a just and loving God.

Or let’s take another example. In the story of Moses and the release of the Israelites from bondage, God continually “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart so that God may release more plagues on the Egyptians, resulting of course in the massacre of all their first born sons. Pharaoh, it appears, was ready to release the Israelites after the first three or so plagues. But that wasn’t good enough for God. He had to keep on rolling until he had amassed ten.

Or let’s take several smaller examples: at Kadesh, God had instructed Moses to “speak” to the stone to bring forth water instead of striking it, and Moses failed to follow God’s instruction and – like he had done to draw water from the rock at Rephidim – struck it instead. For this seemingly trivial mistake – and even though he had led God’s people out of Egypt – God punishes Moses by refusing to allow him to join the people of Israel in the promised land. Seriously, God?

Or, as God is raining down fire and brimstone (think volcanic ash) on Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife can’t quite resist the all-too-human temptation to turn around and look at the spectacular destruction that is going on behind her, and God turns her into a pillar of salt. Seriously, God?

There are also other bizarre and inexplicable inconsistencies in the descriptions of God, such as when God “wrestles” with Jacob until dawn, apparently – although omnipotent – unable to defeat him. God subsequently renames Jacob “Israel” (even he had already previously renamed Jacob “Israel”) and gave him the land of Israel, even though God had previously given him the very same land. Seriously, God?

Women, especially in the Old Testament, are also repeatedly raped without consequence. The “great men” of the Bible also repeatedly introduce their wives as their “sister” so other men can, well, rape them or take advantage of them.

Of course, the Bible has no prohibition on slavery, which is viewed as completely commonplace. Even Jesus does not condemn slavery in any way, but essentially instructs slaves to behave their masters. Three examples of what Jesus had to say about slavery:

  • Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)
  • Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
  • The servant [slave] will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given. (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)

And all of this is, of course, approved by God.

The Holy Trinity

The early Christian Church spent a great deal of time debating the concept of the trinity, which was the source of a great deal of theological disputes. These disputes took place in the 4th Century AD, and included the “Arian controversy,” which was essentially about the relationship between God and Jesus, and whether the father and the son were essentially equal parts of the “Godhead.”[5] The resulting conclusion that they were equal parts is really just plain silly.

How can Jesus be equal to God? God is all powerful according to the Bible. Jesus can’t even keep himself from getting crucified. God can “create” a new son whenever he wants. It’s a patently silly notion, that Jesus is equal to God.

But it gets much sillier from there, because not only do we have Jesus as a co-equal part of the Godhead, but we have the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) as well. First of all, the question arises, what is the Holy Ghost? And the answer seems to be truly tautological. So, for example,

  • Wikipedia explains that the Holy Ghost “is the third person (hypostasis) of the Trinity: the Triune God manifested as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each person itself being God.”
  • Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that the Holy Spirit, “also called Paraclete, or Holy Ghost, is in Christian belief, the third person of the Trinity.”
  • And finally, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia explains that although “distinct, as a Person, from the Father and the Son, He is consubstantial with Them; being God like Them, He possesses with Them one and the same Divine Essence or Nature.” The Holy Ghost “proceeds, not by way of generation, but by way of spiration, from the Father and the Son together, as from a single principle.”

So basically the explanation is that the Holy Ghost is the third part of the Godhead. Which does not help at all in explicating what the Holy Ghost is supposed to be. Why does the Godhead need a third part? Nobody knows. And in reality, the explanation probably has much more to do with the belief in spirits that ancient people had than any kind of theological necessity.

But what we have, in effect, is a three-headed God[6], where the necessity for the three heads is entirely unconvincing, and where the big advantage of monotheism is supposed to be that you only need to have one God. The three heads essentially countermand or derogate from this alleged big leap forward.[7]

The Historical Church

When we think of “the church” historically, we think of what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church. But Christianity has three great branches – the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the various Protestant Congregations – with many smaller branches and, ultimately, some metaphorical twigs (I’m looking at you, Cooneyites!). The Eastern Orthodox Church broke off from the Catholic Church during the Great Schism of 1054, and the Protestant Reformation of 1517. The discussion below refers to issues related to the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the same or similar criticisms can be made of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whereas there is a mostly different set of criticisms that pertains to the Protestant Churches.[8]

– The Corruption of the Catholic Church

It was, of course, the corruption of the Catholic Church that led to the Protestant Reformation. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the sale of indulgences, but that was only after centuries of corruption on the part of the Catholic church. The Protestant Reformation led to a series of religious wars that culminated in the Thirty Years’ War, an entirely unproductive conflict that resulted in the massacre of as much as one-third of the population of greater Germany. The Catholic Church was, and remains, unimaginably wealthy, which contributes substantially to its historic corruption. So, for example, rich families could historically buy high positions for their sons in the Catholic Church, assuring that they would go to heaven and attain salvation. A peasant, on the other hand, had to pay for a child to be christened. And had to be done as a first step to getting to heaven; in addition, peasants had to pay to get married and had to pay to bury family members in holy ground. In any case, it is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the ways in which the Catholic Church has been corrupt throughout history, but as with so many things, Wikipedia has already done the work for me: some group of authors has already compiled a lengthy list which the reader can, of course, peruse at their leisure.

– The Crusades

A while back, I read Thomas Asbridge’s massive (784 pages) history of the Crusades, and eventually it made my head spin. There is just too much history there to casually comprehend. In essence, the Crusades were the attempt of Christians to “recapture” the Holy Lands – and especially Jerusalem – from the Muslim “hordes” that resided in the Middle East shortly after the spread of Islam in the early Middle Ages. The First Crusade was called for by Pope Urban II in 1095, and the ninth and final Crusade took place between 1271 and 1272.[9] In between there were seven others, all of which led to varying degrees of success. More often than not, the Muslims succeeded in holding back or thwarting the Christian armies. On the occasions where the Christians did succeed in recapturing Jerusalem or portions of the Holy Land, they were not able to hold onto them for a long time. The reason for this is simple: the Christian armies were way out of their natural European territory when occupying the Holy Land, whereas the Muslims of the Middle East were essentially at home. In the end the Christians were not able to protect their supply lines or receive enough reinforcements to maintain sovereignty, and not enough Christians were interested in relocating to the Holy Lands and starting a new life there to make the operation successful. The Crusades involved lots of colorful characters that most of us have heard of – like “Richard the Lionheart,” for example – but the question remains, what was the point? And here the answer is elusive. The immediate goal of the First Crusade was to guarantee pilgrims access to the holy sites in the Holy Land under Muslim control; the longer range goal may have been to reunite the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christendom, which had separated in 1054, with the Pope as the head of the united Church. The reasons for the subsequent Crusades are similarly political (as opposed to theological), and the full history is far too complicated to replicate here.

Unfortunately, for present day Muslims, especially those of a fundamentalist or radical persuasion, the Crusades are the model for war between Islam and Christianity, and a model, by the way, where Islam prevailed far more often than Christianity did.

– The Inquisition

The Inquisition is the historic and long-lasting persecution of “heretics” by the Roman Catholic Church through its internal “judicial” agencies. The inquisition began sometime in 12th-century France to combat religious sectarianism and in particular a belief system known as “Catharism.”[10] In the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the concept and scope of the Inquisition was significantly expanded in response to the Protestant Reformation. Its geographic scope was expanded to other European countries, resulting in the Spanish Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition, whose two kingdoms in turn operated additional inquisitorial courts throughout their respective empires in the Americas, Asia, and parts of Africa. In general, the two “major” inquisitions would be classified as the “Medieval” Inquisition and the “Spanish” Inquisition.

The “institutions” that prosecuted the Inquisition were not abolished until in the early 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and after the Spanish American wars of independence in the Americas. The institution survived as part of the Roman Curia, and was given the new name of “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office” in 1904. It was renamed again as the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” in 1965.

There aren’t any good or reliable statistics of the number of people executed as a consequence of being tried by one of the courts of the Inquisition, but rough estimates are that maybe 150,000 people were tried and about 6000 people executed in both the Medieval and Spanish inquisitions. That results in the relatively modest execution rate of about 4%, although, of course, many other punishments were also inflicted. Those punishments regularly involved what we would now describe as torture, although torture could and obviously was used during the “investigatory” phase as well, in order to extract confessions. The Inquisition was also the period of time where large numbers of people, especially women, were accused of and prosecuted for being witches, frequently being blamed for things like crop failures and harsh winters.

– The Sexual Abuse of Children by Priests

The Crusades and the Inquisition are relative ancient history; not so the sexual abuse of children by priests. This is an issue that I am particularly familiar with – not out of personal experience, thank God (pun intended) – but rather because the issue really first became public right here in my hometown of Boston Massachusetts. How it was investigated and become public is detailed beautifully in the 2015 film “Spotlight,” which follows the efforts of the “Spotlight Team” at the Boston Globe to uncover this massive scandal. In some ways, the abuse of children by priests shouldn’t come as that big a surprise to anyone given the Catholic Church’s completely unreasonable requirement of a vow of celibacy for its priestly class. It might be a nice fiction that priests should be “married” to the church, but real life doesn’t work that way.[11] And especially as the world has gotten more modern and more explicitly sexualized, to expect the priests and nuns of the church to refrain from all sexual activity is so divorced from the actual psychological and physical needs of human beings, as to be absurd. And then to expect that this class of sexually repressed men could give advice on marriage – as the Catholic Church expects of its priests – just compounds the absurdity.

Although it is not demonstrably provable, the Catholic Church seems to have attracted a large number of gays and lesbians into its ministries and nunneries. And, as a separate and unrelated phenomenon, it also seems to have attracted a large number of pedophiles. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a recent study, has estimated that about 4% of priests have sexually molested underage parishioners. According to the Bishop Accountability website, there are about 15,000 identified child victims of priestly sexual abuse worldwide. Regardless of how many victims there actually are, what is perfectly clear is that large portions of the Catholic hierarchy were well aware of the problem for decades, and did all they could to sweep the problem under the rug.

An ideal example for this is the case of Father John Geoghan, the Catholic priest who was essentially the “smoking gun” for the Boston Globe Spotlight team report. In a 31 year career, Geoghan was moved through six separate parishes, including the Blessed Sacrament Parish in Saugus, St. Bernard’s Parish in Concord, St. Paul’s Parish in Hingham, St. Andrew’s Parish in Jamaica Plain, St. Brendan’s Parish in Dorchester, St. Julia’s Parish in Weston, all of them in Massachusetts. He was also sent to four separate treatment programs, including the Seton Institute in Baltimore, Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Southdown Institute in Ontario, Canada. He was eventually sent to the Regina Cleri residence for retired priests after being pensioned, and finally defrocked after criminal charges were brought against him.[12] In substance, what the Globe Spotlight uncovered – and was able to prove through Church documents that were eventually unsealed – is that the church knew that this guy was a pedophile a couple of years after his 1962 entry into the priesthood.[13]

The Perversion of Christ’s Message

Let’s begin by acknowledging that I’m no Biblical scholar, and I haven’t read much of the New Testament, which doesn’t distinguish me from most Christians, by the way.[14] But unlike most Christians, I have read a lot of books by people who actually are Biblical scholars.[15] From these various scholars I have learned that Christ really preached about two primary things more than all others: first, how to get into the kingdom of Heaven; and second, to take care of the poor and dispossessed.[16] Two things Christ did not preach about are abortion and gay rights. Or “family values.” In fact, the Bible says nothing at all, not in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, about abortion. (The only thing it says about gay rights is in the same Old Testament passage that also condemns lying with one’s sister, or the sister of one’s wife, or eating shellfish.) In fact, the Old Testament includes 613 laws, and not a single one of them is about abortion. And Jesus said nary a word on the topic. And yet, if you listened to conservative evangelicals, you would think this was one of the central tenets of Jesus’ message. Have any of these zealots actually read the Bible? It doesn’t seem so.

The Holocaust

If there is one event that should have proved beyond doubt that there is no loving God, it would be the Holocaust. The Holocaust involves one group of believers – people who professed to be Christians – who sought to completely annihilate another group of believers – people identified as Jews – even though the second group believed in exactly the same God as the first group.[17] The God of Abraham. The God of both the Old and New Testament.

Now, to be sure, Nazism was not primarily a religious movement. It was primarily a racist movement, and its primary ideology was a racist ideology. But Nazis did believe themselves to be Christian. Adolf Hitler labeled himself a Christian, although the sincerity of these views is debatable.[18] At the time that Hitler came to power, Germany was roughly 2/3rds Protestant, 1/3rd Catholic, and about 1% Jewish. Hitler, through his policy of “Gleichschaltung” wanted to “normalize” even the churches to be consistent with Nazi ideology. Accordingly, Hitler created the National Reich Church, ( die “Deutsche Evangelische Kirche”) as a unified state church that espoused a single doctrine compatible with National Socialism. Regardless of the minutiae, most of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust believed themselves to be “good” Christians obeying the will of God.

The Jews have historically endured the unfortunate moniker of God’s “chosen people.” If so, then during the Holocaust God “chose” them to be the victims of incomprehensible crimes and mass extermination. What kind of God does that?

[1] I may reread his essay after publishing this post, to see how the two sets of essays compare. Not that I’m claiming to be a thinker or writer anywhere in the same league with Bertrand Russell.

[2] One commentator identifies 158 separate incidents in which God kills people in the Old and New Testament.

[3] Another tally of people personally killed by God comes from Rationalwiki.

[4] If the Nephilim were the offspring of God, then it becomes clear how easily God can have offspring, thereby rendering the sacrifice of his “only son” meaningless.

[5] These disagreements divided the Church into two opposing theological factions for over 55 years, from the time before the Council of Nicaea in 325 until after the Council of Constantinople in 381.

[6] The Bible itself never mentions the word “Trinity” and never claims anywhere that God is tripartite. The closest it come are verses which mention God, Jesus, and the Spirit: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” See Matthew 28:19.

[7] The advantage of monotheism are also never explained in Christian doctrine, as there is no obvious moral or even practical advantage to having only one God instead of many.

[8] Because there are so many different flavors of Protestantism, it’s difficult to lump together one set of criticisms. Anabaptists and Congregationalists don’t have much in common, after all. But the concerns laid out in this article that don’t apply to the section on the “historical” church generally apply to Christianity as a whole.

[9] The First Crusade also included, as a kind of sideshow, the “Rhineland Massacres,” which involved the destruction of Jewish communities in parts of greater Germany, and which acted as a kind of presage to the Holocaust.

[10] Catharism was a “Christian dualist” movement that thrived in some areas of Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. The belief system was rooted in the idea of two Gods or principles, one being “good” and the other “evil.” The good God was the God of the New Testament and the creator of the spiritual realm, whereas the bad God was the God of the Old Testament – the creator of the physical (as opposed to spiritual) world – whom many Cathars identified as Satan.

[11] In some Christian churches, a vow of chastity is made by members of religious orders or monastic communities, along with vows of poverty and obedience, in order to imitate the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, part of the absurdity is that there is nothing to prove that Jesus was celibate throughout his life, and there are even indications that Jesus might have been married.

[12] After being convicted of pedophilia, Geoghan was himself murdered in prison at the Souza-Baranowski maximum security facility.

[13] In one instance, Geoghan was alleged to have abused seven boys from the same family.

[14] As Bill Maher famously said, “To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click ‘I agree.’”

[15] These include Karen Armstrong, Dominic Crossen, Reza Aslan, Philip Schaff, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Huston Smith, Jonathan Kirsh, Mark Roncace, Phillip Yancey, and Dan Barker. I even read Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus,” although I did find that book kind of unreadable, not because it was hard to read, but because it was essentially devoid of scholarship.

[16] At least on the surface, the character of Jesus seems to be much better than the character of God, discussed above.

[17] As in the contemporary United States, many German Jews in the 1940s were “secular” Jews, which is to say that they didn’t necessarily believe in the God of Abraham, but that they identified culturally as Jews.

[18] The Führer himself was educated at a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria, where he had been a church chorister. Hitler’s favorite bed-time reading was Martin Luther, who, among other things, urged action against the Jews, including concentrating them in certain areas, drowning Jewish individuals and even wholesale murder.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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