Why I Left Christianity
It is not rare that whenever someone tries to convince me about the apparent truth of Christian claim, he or she begins with a plethora of apologies: apologies for things from the Inquisition to sex abuse to Galileo’s torture to Pat Robertson. And after this long line of apologies for things I haven’t even had time to bring up, he or she then tells me that I should really direct my attention not to what humans do “in the name of religion” but only to what the true essence of the faith really is.
Of course, there’s nothing that excites me more about discussing what the true essence of Christianity really is.
As a prelude, I want to address those people — I call them pseudo-Christians — who say they are Christian but don’t actually believe there is any history in the Bible. They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that he even existed. I’ve met only a couple of these people in my life, and they say that Jesus, whether he existed or not, was a good person and a exemplary role model, that his message was to love one another and to treat each other well.
Of course, even I take issue with this because Jesus was certainly not the revolutionary who somehow discovered human kindness. Confucius, for example, taught the Golden Rule centuries before Jesus. The values of tolerance, generosity, selflessness are all found, arguably in stronger forms, in many Eastern philosophies. Personally, I think that morality comes not from prophets and tablets, but from a continuing dialectic, a conversation and debate between social creatures that, thanks to evolution, are innately inclined to show empathy and love. Of course, that’s another topic.
What I think is the true essence of Christianity is the composed of the following ideas:
1) We are born sick and imperfect, and commanded to be perfect.
The human condition, according to Christians, is a result of Genesis account of the Fall of Man. Why are we all “really really bad people” as many Christians claim? Because our very distant ancestors (dating back to a couple thousand years ago, as Young Earth Creationists say) decided to sin against God and to disobey him by taking fruit from, of all things, the Tree of Knowledge. As descendants, we all share in the guilt and responsibility for this condition resulting from this egregious rebellion. We are born sinful and imperfect, but in the light of God, we must strive to be perfect.
This is a cruel and unusual set of circumstances to be born into. First of all, children are never responsible for actions of their parents. Also, if it is the case that a person is born a certain way, then he or she is not responsible for that condition. If you are born imperfect, you are not responsible to be a perfect person, although you can and should be expected to be a decent person, which is very different, and much more realistic.
I often hear Christians assert that God can rightfully demand that we be perfect because God himself is perfect, but I think this is a morally bankrupt argument. Having a quality does not enable you to rightfully demand that others have it: I may be able to communicate better than people with autism or walk better than people born without legs, but I have no right to command or even expect people who are born a certain way to be like me.
2) You can suffer an eternity in Hell, depending on what you think.
In the Christian worldview, why is God’s command for us to be perfect so important? Because if you are imperfect, God cannot accept you into Heaven. For your few decades of imperfectness on Earth, you are headed by default to a very very bad place for eternity.
What really shocks me is how Christians rationalize this concept. In a Q&A session called Stump the Chump at UChicago, the speaker said that Hell was an eternal place for those who deliberately say “no” to God; God then merely grants you your wish and leaves you alone, forever.
I personally have never met an atheist (or a person of another religion) who has said “I want to go to Hell and leave you. Grant me this wish.” There is all the difference in the world between saying “no” to someone and not believing in the existence of that someone. The atheist (and non-Christian theist) simply does not believe in the existence of Yahweh or the divinity of Jesus or Hell, similar to how Christians don’t believe in Thor or reincarnation.
But to Christians, this difference doesn’t matter. Children are still going to be taught that they will end up in a place of eternal suffering with no way out if they don’t believe as Christians do.
3) God can wipe you clean, but only after a human sacrifice.
Yes you should know by now that, for the few billion seconds that you have left to live, your private thoughts and opinions about religion matter, and they matter a whole lot. According to Christians, you can only escape this cruel and unusual circumstance by somehow changing your thoughts to a less sinful one: by believing and accepting that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you. In short, the story is that God sent himself in human form to Earth, and then allowed himself to be tortured to death by other human beings. Only then are we washed clean, and this shows God’s forgiveness of our sins across the boundary of time.
This very story shows: how sins can be retroactively and vicariously dissolved, how forgiveness is only possible by punishment (or self-punishment), and how people can only partake in this deal if they are part of the Christian circle, that is, if they don’t have a different opinion about religion.
Most striking is the conditionality. Forgiveness and the cleansing of sin can only come through physical torture, and this torture and pain is not in any proportion to the crime. It does not matter if you are a vegetarian Buddhist or a homicidal Stalinist; either way the correct and just punishment for your very nature is extremely severe — far more severe, interestingly, than what Jesus himself supposedly experienced for a limited time on Earth.
Which brings us to the method. The method for which you may release the responsibility to God for being sinful is by putting the blame on someone else, who is himself God. Christians automatically assume that this process is morally sound and possible, although one can’t deny that this is what Christopher Hitchens calls “scape-goating,” the piling of sins on another object. The other issue with this is the questionable scale of the punishment. If it is true that we are bound for torture in Hell forever, how is it that a temporary period of torture of Jesus can relieve us of this debt? It must be bluntly noted that what Jesus went through was, for example, nothing compared to what victims of the Holocaust or Unit 731 experienced. Christians may argue that a divine being like Jesus deserves less torture, but why then does God need to torture (himself) at all to forgive humans for being imperfect?
Last is the exclusivity. For Christians, it is not enough to say that what is done is done: that Jesus saves all of humanity, and that’s it. Instead, we have a religion that compels you take that leap of faith and believe, on pain of eternal damnation. So exclusive is this arrangement that about 70% of the people on Earth right now are not Christian. Whenever I ask by how much Hell overpopulates Heaven, I never get a serious answer.
Perhaps this is why Christians disagree on what happens to people who never had the opportunity to hear about Christianity (e.g., very young children, people in isolated tribes, etc). The default position in the Bible is that these people will not be saved. Of course, there are countless Christians who protest and insist that this can’t be the case, saying that they trust God that there is actually more fairness in the system (ignoring the fact that the system is stacked against you in the first place). What we have here is the classic case of Christians unable to reconcile what is written down on paper with their common sense and reason. The existence of so much cognitive dissonance amongst Christians, I believe, is not evidence for the soundness of their ideas, but of their problematic nature.
4) Human Beings Can Know the Supernatural
By no means does Christianity have a monopoly on this idea, but it is certainly at the center of Christian thought.
It is always to me a profane and repulsive idea that human beings can claim to know amazingly accurate details about the nature and commands of God. Religious people in general, whenever they run out of arguments, go into “assert” mode, asserting that God wills this and that, that the nature of the after-life is a certain way, that God says this is wrong and that is okay.
I’m being too general, of course. What really happens is that people read their books and find out that God intervenes in this world in all kinds of ways: in the real estate market by promising land to certain groups of homo sapiens, in marriage and relationships by defining sexual boundaries and marriage rights, in dietary habits by making some animals sacred. This of course leads not to greater wisdom or knowledge, but greater conflict and ignorance. So much is at stake in the world that we cannot afford to quibble about theology while ignoring reality.
In conclusion, the true essence of Christianity is compared to the world of science, secular humanism, and reason.
Christians say that, even when lacking reasons to believe, the act of knowing things by faith is a great virtue. In direct contrast to this, Socrates argued that true wisdom is acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. In other words, what atheists do admit that Christians cannot is that we do not know. We do not claim to know anything about God, including facts about his existence, because no human being can know so much. The moment that human beings claim to know what they don’t actually know is the moment they have religious disagreements.
The true essence of Christianity has at its basis a fanatical obsession with the fantasy of purity and perfection. It holds people responsible for the way they are born, and proposes that a just punishment for this condition is eternal torture in the afterlife. It claims that you can wipe your debt clean and join God in Heaven, but only if you believe and accept the torture of Jesus, who was also God himself. Lastly, it demands that you spread this good news and grow in Christ, that you go out and proclaim proudly to the world that Christianity is real and knowable.
I ask you kindly to think about the alternatives: Humility in the face of uncertainty. A demand for sound reasons and evidence over faith. A real commitment to true fairness, justice, and responsibility instead of the moral outrages in the Bible. That, my friends, is the true essence of secular humanism.