Christianity Is Not What You Think It Is
My mother once told me that everything in life must be regulated by moderation. I have yet to see this nugget of wisdom fail, and it applies to faith as it does all things. Psychology, together with history, tells us humans will look to the mystical to grapple with tumult, but an excess of faith leaves little to no room for self-improvement. Faith convinces you something grander than yourself will calm your crisis and nurse your wounds and absolve your sins, and in turn you (either consciously or unconsciously) forgo responsibility for all of it. Progress requires more of you than concerted idleness. And this is the Achilles heel of religion.
This is not to say religion (in the broadest sense of the term) is not useful or will be solely responsible for humanity’s downfall. There is utility, but what I see is not that. What I see is metaphorical waterboarding: the Holy Roly Mentality — an implement used to knock people over the head. It is rarely used for the collective benefit of others. In actuality, it is a security blanket. Beyond the heartwarming platitudes and excessively saccharine verbiage used to describe God’s love lies the dark reality Christianity has kept relatively obscure.
The Genesis of Misunderstanding
To understand how an idea grows, we must first look at its roots. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of Christians do not know the origins of the traditions they so dutifully guard. Take Christmas. What is more Christian than Christmas? Turns out, plenty of things.
In 306–337 CE, when Rome was under the rule of Emperor Constantine I, Christianity began to usurp Roman myth, largely as a result of Constantine’s political agenda. He thought Christianity would be the most widely accepted belief system by which he could manipulate the masses. He was inarguably correct. As Seneca the Younger keenly observed in the years prior, rulers have always seen religion as useful.
Before this conversion occurred, Romans were polytheistic and celebrated Saturnalia in honor of the agricultural god, Saturn. It was an incredibly hedonistic and chaotic time, with widespread inebriation and indulgence. Even a “Lord of Misrule” was crowned. They simultaneously celebrated the birth of the infant god Mithra. Her birthday? December 25. Circa 350 CE, Pope Julius I declared December 25 as Christmas Day. There are multiple theories for why this particular day was chosen, but regardless, the motive is evident: overzealous Christians strong-armed pagans into conforming to their mode of belief. After the holiday’s declaration, any introduction of pagan elements into the celebration was promptly dismissed.
The Bible makes no claim as to when Jesus was born. All evidence, however scarce, indicates a spring birthday. (Sheep do not graze in the dead of winter.) The earliest Christian celebration is the Lord’s Day, or Sunday, in the first century, followed by Easter in the second. So what is seen as among the most sacred Christian holidays today is the result of a hijacked secular celebration. And that is not the only instance. Samhain evolved in much the same way. Beginning as an ancient Celtic tradition, in the eighth century Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as a day to honor all saints. Christians quickly came to steal elements of Samhain. The night before November 1 was known as All Hallows Eve. Halloween. Interestingly enough, this is the same pope who banned horse meat for its pagan associations. Delightfully ironic, isn’t it?
Belief systems, which of course function by faith, rely on populist ideas most convenient for those who create them — not on a natural spring of ethical rectitude. Otherwise, all humans would agree on every case in which right and wrong were called into question. Faith is idiosyncratic. In other words, faith differs between people. Religion, created by one or more persons, seeks to consolidate faith into a broadly applicable formula for determining right and wrong. This triggers all ye faithful to come forth. But it is never effective and never will be. Why? Because as similar as humans are, we are that much different. This is why religion has proven so divisive.
It is indisputable that the Bible has seemingly endless interpretations based on denomination or hermeneutical approach. Christians cannot agree on what condemns you to the fiery pit or whether you should fast on Friday. These deviations occur because of our own cognitive biases — essentially when exegesis becomes eisegesis. Murder was commanded by God, and his ever deferent henchmen, the Israelites, took no prisoners. Spousal abuse is given license in Ephesians 5. Does the Bible champion these terrors, or is it designed to be read symbolically? That notable vagueness is the problem. A book of ethical didactics should know how to hold steady as it charts its course.
Delusions of moral superiority are most often rooted in granting people the opportunity to view themselves as such — while, again, removing any sense of accountability for Saturday night as long as they find themselves saints on Sunday morning. In Freudian terms, the ego remains protected and hypocrisy creeps in once they are unable, and unwilling, to ascertain their own morality. They have God in their hearts, and that’s what matters. One could argue it is only in cases of extremism that this behavior can be noted, but I have witnessed it indirectly an innumerable amount of times via the sly usage of “I’ll pray for you.”
Some time ago, I found myself in a late-night delirium with a coworker after an unreasonably long shift. She, a fully-realized Christian, defended her beliefs, and I, the obstreperous agnostic, reminded her I would not be convinced by matters of faith. In typical fashion, she responded, “I’ll pray for you,” as if I were terminally ill or positively deranged. Why would she be praying for me? Because she thought it prudent to assert that she, coming from a place of piety, could bestow a bit of it unto me. I chuckled as we continued with the conversation.
With my every counterpoint left clipped by her own flailing red herring fallacies, my coworker was unbudging. She refused not only to understand but to actively listen. Humans perpetually fail at active listening. And it is no wonder, when every so often theologians — in essence — sit around a table and discuss how to modernize the Bible to fit society’s consensus on what is morally acceptable. There is little reason to revise a belief if the source of it consistently moves to become more palatable, and if established sins can be reinterpreted based on societal whims, or one’s own flagrant ignorance, how can religious reasoning be trusted? The very groundwork of this belief is rotten; what is to say of its supplicants and their deep-seated desire to be viewed as upstanding?
He That Touches Pitch
Look no further than Scripture itself to find evidence of profligacy. The “Good Book” is chock-full of explicit demonstrations that confirm what we already know: religion serves humanity — not the other way around, as most theists would have it. If the source of supposed goodness is corrupt, it can be expected that behavior mirroring this doctrine will be equally tainted.
This story is a personal favorite, as it illustrates so perfectly the confused reality painted within the Bible’s pages. One day, God brags on Job’s righteousness, so Satan wagers: make Job’s life a living hell and he will turn away from you. God sees Satan’s bet and raises him Job’s wife, children, and livelihood. Expectedly, Job renounces God in the form of doubts and questions.
The arrows of the Almighty are in me,
my spirit drinks in their poison;
God’s terrors are marshaled against me.
I imagine Christians typically find the end of this story comforting: Job eventually welcomes back God’s grace, and so he is granted twice over what he previously possessed. But what of his first set of children? The wife? The livestock? All taken from Job by an entity who proclaims his all-forgiving nature and capacity for unconditional love. So go with God, and blessings shall come in tow! The wicked sense of humor is more or less gravy.
In Genesis, we encounter the generational curse placed on women, on account of Eve’s poor judgment.
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
Quite a memorable way to start the most epic story of all time. It is memorable for more than one reason, the most obvious being God’s condemnation of all womankind (which did not yet exist) for the actions of one primitive woman. Perhaps his own rules of forgiveness slipped his mind. But there is also something fundamental to note here: God created humankind in his image. He placed the first generation in Eden, in the presence of a Forbidden Fruit. But why was it forbidden, and why lie about the nature of its toxicity? More pointedly, why did God feel the need to tempt his creation? If he suspected there was a defect in the prototype, why not return to the drawing board? Instead, he set up a series of events that led to a hypothesized conclusion. God ran an experiment. Humans were his lab rats.
One of God’s many prophets, Elisha traveled toward Bethel. On his way, he encountered a group of rowdy youngsters (those exist in all times) who teased him about his baldness. Summoning the power of God, two bears came out from the nearby woods and mauled the group. Elisha carried on.
2 KINGS 2:23–25
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
Where were those bears when I was in elementary school?
For the sake of brevity, there are many other stories I will not include. One of the most indelible parts of the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion, is the embodiment of the insidious behavior I find deeply troubling. For a moment, let us be practical. Would you sacrifice your only child — allow him to be nailed to a gibbet — for any cause, no matter how worthwhile? Probably not. If so, well, to each their own.
There is a common defense used in gun lobby parlance I find interesting: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” To an entirely reductive end, this is true. People surely kill people, except guns facilitate murder. The same is applicable to religion. Humans are generally corrosive creatures, though we may often have the best intentions. We taint everything we touch, and so nothing is inherently evil until we claim it as our own. Thousands of years of human history have proven religion systematizes the tendency to organize ourselves into hierarchies and encourages the inclination to condemn, ridicule, and divide those in moral opposition to us — as well as aims to justify the actions of its supplicants.
Diversity has become America’s nexus, and through this, we become subject to culture and perspective to which we would not otherwise be exposed. I believe the “melting pot” primarily bears the responsibility for a shift toward progressivism; nevertheless, it simultaneously sows categorization, the labeling game we have all come to play so well. It is beneficial, then, that religiosity continues to decline significantly. One less designation rendered upon our identities is a victory in the war for equity.