Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bertrand Russell Redux, or Why I am not a Christian

So... The interminable conversation with the misguided Christian is (at the time of this writing) still ongoing. I have now used that conversation as the basis for two complete posts, each describing an argument that would-be evangelists really ought to avoid. One of the problems with both of these arguments is that they deal with nonbelievers not on the basis of their actual beliefs and experiences, but on the basis of what the would-be evangelist believes those beliefs and experiences must be, which is generally based on a reading of the scriptures.

So, since I've just spent several pages insisting that would-be evangelists would get better results if they'd talk with real unbelievers about why they don't agree (rather than arguing as if we were the embodiment of the Straw Men they've been taught to expect), it occurs to me that this might be a good time to explain why I'm not a Christian. Also, it may make for a handy reference if I find myself in this sort of conversation again.

Naturally, if you're one of my Christian friends, you're welcome to skip over this. In fact, I'd prefer if you did. I don't have anything against Christianity per se, and I'll do my best not to condescend or insult, but still... reading a detailed description of why I don't share your beliefs could be kind of awkward. So if you do decide to read on, just bear in mind that this is not meant as a blanket condemnation of religious belief, and you weren't the intended audience anyway.

I was going to talk about my religious background, but to be honest that's just a distraction. So we'll skip that, and move on to why I'm not currently a Christian. My reasons can be divided into two basic categories: intellectual and spiritual.

Intellectual Reasons:
On a fundamental level, Christianity doesn't make sense to me. This isn't any one element, unfortunately, but a whole combination of things. As a result, I'm not really sure where to start, so I guess I'll just pick an example and go...

The Doctrine of the Trinity was one of the first things that I tripped over when I first started putting things together: the belief that God the Father, Jesus (the Son), and the Holy Spirit are simultaneously three separate entities, and different manifestations of a single entity. While an all-powerful deity should be able to do things that would be impossible for lesser entities, this seems to me to pass beyond miraculous and into the realm of absurdity - something akin to creating a square circle. Also, there are several sections of the Bible ("My God, why have you forsaken me?") that only seems to make sense if Jesus is not part of God. However, accepting this doctrine isn't strictly necessary in order to be a Christian, so let's move on to more fundamental things.

Original Sin is another concept that I don't really accept. I've tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to lay out my objections to the idea, but let's focus on my two main problems. First, if you read this literally, it means that all of humanity is being punished for a mistake made by a very distant ancestor. Second, the notion that we are subject to Earthly death, a sinful nature, and eternity in Hell as a "natural consequence" of sin seems completely incompatible with the idea of an all-powerful God. While it has a certain poetic appeal, the concept of original sin does not (in my opinion) provide a particularly accurate description of the human condition.

Penal Substitutionary Theory is the idea that Jesus' death on the cross paid the price for our sins. I learned the name decades after I came to reject the doctrine; my objection was that I could not - and cannot - see how the death of one man, two thousand years ago, could possibly make any difference to my sins. (This was something that confounded Dr. Pulliam also; a very great deal of his blog was devoted to examining various views of the issue.) This question is further complicated if you accept the Doctrine of the Trinity; at that point, you have God sacrificing Himself to Himself in order to satisfy His need for justice, which is just bizarre.

There's an additional problem which only occurred to me much later. The price of sin is an eternity of torment in Hell, right? But Jesus was somehow able to pay this - for everybody - in a couple of days of Earthly suffering? How does that work, again?

And, of course, my inability to accept the idea of Original Sin means that I don't really see any need for this sort of sacrifice to redeem people. That's not to say that we don't need forgiveness, just that we ourselves can repent, apologize, and try to make amends to the best of our ability. To me, that sort of personal attempt is a lot more meaningful.

There are some other issues floating around - for example, the Bible looks to me far more like a record of mankind attempting to communicate with the divine than the other way around - but that ought to be sufficient to illustrate what I mean when I say that Christianity as whole simply doesn't make much sense to me. Those aren't minor doctrinal quibbles that could be fixed with better discernment of the Scriptures; Original Sin and Penal Substitution are the core of Christian belief.

Spiritual (Revelatory / Emotional) Reasons:
I have felt the touch of the Divine. It came to me as a sense of transcendant calm, and peace, and renewal. It was also a sense of Presence, of something unseen but powerfully alive. It didn't seem to want anything from me, or have any particular message; it was just this unexpected and unasked-for gift of grace.

Considered in retrospect[1], I have no particular reason to believe that this was something done to/for me by an outside entity. Intense and unexpected as it was, it might have been nothing more than an aesthetic, emotional reaction. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it really was the touch of the Divine. I have no particular reason to believe that it wasn't.

I've experienced this twice. In both cases, I was fairly isolated: once alone, once with one other person. In both cases I was out in the woods of eastern Tennessee - the Cumberland Plateau area, which is overflowing with natural beauty. Both experiences came from being close to nature, without anything in the way of civilization to offer distractions. And both were... "meaningless" isn't quite the right world, but if there was some deeper meaning or higher purpose or life-altering message that I was supposed to take away from the experience, I missed it.[2]

I've never felt anything like it in a church. Oh, the great cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame stirred a somewhat atavistic sense of awe, with their strange combination of deep forest and cavernous stone; but it was nothing like that sense of presence and peace that came to me in real solitude, with real trees around me.

I've never felt anything like it while reading the Bible - or any other book, holy or otherwise, for that matter. Not even close.

I've never felt anything like it among any group of people, no matter how kind or friendly or moral they were. Nothing.

So, putting it all together:
I'm not a Christian because Christianity doesn't work for me. It doesn't provide me with a particularly accurate or even useful way to examine the human condition; it doesn't offer any unique insights into the nature of the physical world. And insofar as I have any experience of divine or spiritual matters, it doesn't accurately describe those, either.

Again, if Christianity accomplishes any or all of that for you, that's fine. I'm not trying to argue that it's worthless for everyone. But please accept that what I've said here is... well, that these are my reasons. They aren't just excuses to cover my rebellion against God; if God exists, I genuinely don't perceive Him. (And even if He does, I don't see any reason to assume that Christianity accurately describes His nature.) Believe it or not, I really don't have a "Jesus-shaped hole" in my heart - or if I do, I can't find it, which amounts to the same thing.

So when I say that I can't be a Christian, this - all of this - is what I mean.

[1] I didn't give it much actual thought at the time. There didn't seem to be any need, and I was enjoying the experience too much to interrupt it.

[2] No, not rejected it. Missed it.


  1. Excellent post Michael. I especially found the 'touch of the divine experience in the woods of Tennessee to be interesting. I too have felt the occasional 'unearthly presence' in my past life as a Christian. When I was a songwriter, I often referred to it as 'the muse' because I couldn't connect anything Christian to the work that I was doing at the time - I mean writing a C and W tune about a wrecked marriage doesn't seem connected to anything Jesus. But yes - I did have those experiences and it is hard to reconcile them with non-belief. Still as you say - they were 'meaningless' as in they didn't make me a better person or help somebody in need. They were just feelings.

  2. Really glad you liked it - and thanks again for linking to it.

  3. Very good post. I too have had my own "divine experiences" in my former life. I however can feel a similar experience now when I'm in the middle of nature or feel very at one with something. As Rechelle says they are just feelings.

    I'm kind of going through a difficult time right now with my family now knowing I no longer believe. They are having a hard time figuring out what that makes me now and they are sure that I do have a "Jesus shaped hole in my heart".

    Like the new layout too.

  4. I came here via Rechelle's recommendation on her blog.

    Excellent post. While I have not had to explain my non-belief to anyone as of yet, your thoughts articulate very clearly a lot of what I feel in my heart. Thank you Michael! Thank you, Rechelle!


  5. Thanks for this post. I think it puts into perspective for a lot of people who are struggling with faith and religion and have rejected it as ultimate truth and standard. I know it's exactly how I feel.

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    @ TheAgnosticsWife - Yeah, that can be rough. I don't really have a good "coming out" story for much the same reason that I don't have a good deconversion story, and I'm fortunate to live and work in a diverse, urban area. I do have some experience with areas where being Christian isn't just the default assumption, it's the benchmark for "normal" (so non-Christian = abnormal) - and that can be really unpleasant.

    @ Black Cat Ranch and TheDon - Thanks. None of this is really new, it's just the first time I've sat down and tried to really distill it.

  7. Really... very well-said, and thanks for the honest evaluation of your epiphany. I have used a similar explanation with my evangelical friends to try and get them to, you know... get it. They don't. They always fall back into the gentle fables and mtyhs that The Bible gives them to rationalize their confusion. I just found your blog and will be a regular. Thanks!

  8. i'm struck by the thought that perhaps you should be a lapsed Pagan, as opposed to a lapsed Christian.
    finding the divine in nature is what *so many* Pagans are doing [trying to do?]
    so i'm just going to be amused.

    while i've been attacked by many a Christian, and had *numerous* other Christians try to "save" me from my "Satanic" beliefs [and i don't even believe in Satan!] the day in, day out battle i have is with my dad - having to justify, on a regular basis, why i believe in ANYTHING. he's the "strictest" atheist i've ever met - while PF says "if God showed up tomorrow, of COURSE i'd admit the proof i'm seeing, even if i then reject God because God is actually the dick Christians portray him as"

    my dad? nope. he'd believe that we're seeing some highly advanced alien. he's just made to not believe [and there's nothing wrong with that! but it makes for some REALLY... uncomfortable family dinners, because his wife is Christian, even if she doesn't DO anything except occasionally visit a UU, one sister and i are Pagan, and my other sister has converted to Catholocism to make her husband's family happy - so dinner is usually my sister trying to convert my dad to Catholic while my dad tries to convert me to atheism and my other sister supporting my right to [and i quote my did] believe in the "Divine Vagina".]

    sorry, i'm just rambling :)

    but, returning to my first sentence, there - i wonder if you aren't doing what so many others do, when they lose their faith - developing your own, one that suits YOU. i think that's what EVERYONE should do, of course, but i'd never have brought it up without this post :)

  9. Well, the tendency is certainly there - when I'm feeling flippant, I've been known to define myself as an "animist, pantheist, moon-worshipper". But I'm ill-suited to most sorts of paganism (well, neo-paganism, at least) for a lot of the same reasons that I can't be a Christian. But, again, that depends a lot on how you're defining "religion", too.

    Your dad seems more troublesome in his insistence that you should see things his way than in his actual disbelief.

  10. well, how *I* define religion is NOT how most RELIGIONS define religion.
    to whit: God is everywhere and everything; religion is merely the lens thru which one sees God.

    whatever make you happy, that's my motto [well, so long as you aren't HURTING anyone. and as long as your "mad scientist" stays fiction, i think you're good there lol]

    as for my dad - i'm *HIS* daughter. not just "i have his DNA" - but "i act like he does, think like he does, i look more like him, etc" i'm his favorite. [and he thinks i'm "smarter" than he his]
    so it REALLY bugs him that i'm "blinding myself with wishful fantasy". i know WHY he cares, so it doesn't bother me like it could if he were just being a dick to be a dick, ya know?

  11. as a Christian, I have rather severe issues with penal substitution myself--in fact, I outright reject it. but I don't view it as something inherent to the religion, but as a wrong-turn initiated by Anselm.

    interestingly, the early church held with something called ransom theory; my catholic brother informs me that the catholics only accept penal substitution as one idea among many, and the orthodox to the best of my knowledge reject it.

    er, um, not to sound like i'm trying to reconvert you or anything. i totally agree that the idea is nonsensical, but i did feel obliged to point out that it is not a necessary fixture of christianity.

  12. I hate to say, "Yes, but..." because actually I do think you're right. To be really precise, I should have said that those beliefs are the core of mainstream American Protestant Christianity. I'm not at all surprised to learn that some branches of Christianity reject it; heck, there was a church that was advertising online a while back... ah, here it is, The New Church. They claim that Jesus' death has nothing whatsoever to do with the promise of salvation; that He accomplished that simply by becoming human and showing us the way.

    The reason I want to say, "Yes, but..." is that as far as I know, the sacrifice at Calgary is considered a central event (rather than just an unfortunate but theologically meaningless end) of Jesus' life by almost everyone except The New Church. I could be wrong about that - I really don't know anything about Orthodox beliefs, for example - but if that's the case then there's a whole category of Christianity that I've essentially never encountered. As long as the death on the cross is considered... I guess "theologically significant" is the best phrase I'm going to come up with... then I'm still stuck with some questions to which I've never found (personally-) satisfactory answers: Why is it significant? What did it accomplish? How?

    "er, um, not to sound like i'm trying to reconvert you or anything."

    Not at all. Reminding me that the history and current practice of a particular point of theology is, well, More Complicated Than That doesn't even hint at an attempt at reconversion. At least not to me.

  13. Omg, love this post! And you want to hear something even more absurd than penal substitution? I don't believe any of the stuff you wrote about either (well, I guess you could count the Trinity if you include all of creation in with it- I think we are all connected by the Divine) and yet I consider myself a Christian.

    However, and this is the sticking point, most of Christianity doesn't consider me Christian.

    I am Christian because that was the faith expression where I was born and raised and came to experience Divine Love. Maybe it's all just a manifestation of my brain, but maybe it's from outside of me. Who can say? I choose to believe it is from outside of me, and to call this Divine Love by the name of Jesus, because I was born and raised in a Christian family.

    If I had been born and raised in a Muslim country, I would probably know Divine Love by the name of Allah. If Hindu, who knows? Shiva? Kali?

    Unlike the esteemed (I mean that seriously) M. Mock, I do a utility to these moments of transcendent calm and peace. Even it proves to be no more than a release of endorphines that lower blood pressure and make life more enjoyable, so be it. I love it, and I plan to seek more of it everyday.

    Peace and good will, SS

  14. I appreciate a genuine reply from an atheist to a Christian. Unfortunately, most atheists I meet just seem too arrogant to admit that anything is out of their control or understanding. This could be because of the 'angry phase' that you talked about. I usually just get snide remarks.

    I first want to direct you to [](, which is a q and a site for Christianity. Even atheists are welcome to post and they do.

    In the following I am not being preachy but I think you have neglected the possibility that what you were taught, raised in, or believe about Christianity is wrong and that there are other interpretations to these 'fundamental' doctrines.

    I should point out that, in my opinion, only penal substitution and Trinitarianism is vital to Christian faith.

    On original sin I think your definition (which seems Catholic mostly) has you confused. I say 'original sin' is more like saying you will sin; you cannot be perfect; you just can't do it on your own. God defines perfect quite highly. Even bad thoughts are as bad as the action. Lust is likened to adultery; hate to murder; covetousness to theft. From my studies, only Catholics really believe that a baby should go to Hell if it wasn't baptized because of original sin, although some deny this that is the implication.

    Then there is your view of hell. When taken from my standpoint, makes penal substitution more sensible. There are quite a few Christians that argue that Hell is not a place where demons stick red hot pokers up your ass for all eternity. Dead is dead and when you die it is like sleeping: you know nothing and are not conscious. You are dead. There is no immortal soul because only God is immortal. Eventually, all will be raised to life again, but some only to be destroyed. That is the second death. That is Hell.

    When viewing Hell and original sin like this penal substitution makes much more sense. A few days of suffering for Christ apparently equals x number of lives not taken in Hell. Now by the power and grace of God the redeemed are given eternal life. So God's power is now not in question. Plus it just seems a little more equitable that the wicked are only dead instead of suffering unthinkable torment.

    This leaves Trinitarianism. I really don't have an answer why it is important other than it is described in the Bible as the nature of God. Take it or leave it if you want, but since it is the tie that bundles quite a few other things, like Jesus' divinity, it seems necessary, although it is impossible to understand. But should it be rejected simply because it cannot be understood? By this logic there is a lot we should reject, in religion and otherwise.

    Now on your Spiritual Reasons: First, just because it was nature that might have motivated you does not make it Pagan (which some view as in opposition to Christianity, but it's not in my opinion). Since when to Pagans have the monopoly on nature, anyway? That's a little irrelevant, though, because such an experience like you describe does not have to be anywhere particular. Instead what you highlight is the solitude and calm surroundings. That is the key. The Bible urges all people to connect to God through prayer and meditation. Both just work better with lots of calm and solitude. Maybe your encounter was God, maybe not. Does it matter? You ask because it didn't change you. I ask: Does it have to? Who said God only intervenes to make changes? Maybe He just wants to be close to you. That is the Christian God.

  15. "In the following I am not being preachy but I think you have neglected the possibility that what you were taught, raised in, or believe about Christianity is wrong and that there are other interpretations to these 'fundamental' doctrines."

    Oh, absolutely. Only, I don't think I'm neglecting the possibility; I'm well aware that there is an enormous variety of views and doctrines within Christianity. The particular ones I'm describing are what I consider "mainstream" Christianity, but I'm well aware that having grown up with those views probably skews my perception of just how "typical" they are. And it's arguably worth noting that the two elements you consider essential - Penal Substitution and Trinitarianism - are considered inessential or rejected outright by some brands of Christianity. Any - any - discussion of "Christian Doctrine" is necessarily going to include a degree of over-generalization.

    More importantly, though: even if your particular take on Christianity hangs together better than the one I grew up with, I still don't have any fundamental/radical reason to accept the entire structure. So while I don't mind (and sometimes rather enjoy) discussing the details, as a practical matter they don't make any difference to me, because I don't believe in the first place.

    "Who said God only intervenes to make changes? Maybe He just wants to be close to you. That is the Christian God."

    That kind of misses my point, though. Sure, Christianity is... let's say "not incompatible" ...with my experiences; but it doesn't do anything to illuminate them, either. Conversely, there's nothing in my experience that particularly... validates... Christianity over any other view of mystical experiences.


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!