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Essay donated by James B. Gray, a visitor to this site

Why I am not a Christian

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G. K. Chesterton [1874 – 1936] is famous for having stated in his 1910 What’s Wrong with the World (Chapter V of Part One): "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." And (Chapter VI of Part One): "Men have not got tired of Christianity; they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of."

I will forgive Chesterton for using "men" rather than "people," given that political correctness was not in vogue in 1910. However, his criticism of Christianity proceeded from an incorrect assumption—that Christianity developed from Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the canonical gospels. What apparently threw Chesterton "off the track" in his thinking here was his assumption that just because Christianity adopted certain gospels as part of its canon, that it therefore based its religion on those gospels primarily.

Although it would be foolish to deny that Christianity has no dependence on the four gospels included in its "New Testament," it is clear that Christianity:

  1. has more dependence on certain portions of those gospels than other portions (i.e., those that do not refer to Jesus' ministry),

  2. draws much more from Paul’s letters than, e.g., the book of James, and

  3. was strongly influenced in its development (theology in particular) by the pagan Mysteries of the time.

Indeed, one could argue that had it not done the latter, it would not have been very attractive to "Gentiles" and therefore would not have survived beyond, say, the third century CE. (Although we should not forget that Christianity’s success perhaps owes even more to Constantine’s efforts, and the fact that Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. It appears that by 250 CE only about 2% of those in the Roman Empire were members of Jesus groups, with only some of them being Christians—so that if people in the Empire had not been forced to adopt the religion, numbers would have remained small.)

A fact which may have eluded Chesterton is that contrary to what Christians are typically taught, a number of "Jesus groups" developed after Jesus' death, not just one. It’s not that Christianity has denied this fact; but what it has always contended is that Christianity was the "true" such group, with all other ones being "false"—"heretical," in fact. That is, Christianity has eschewed objectivity—honesty!—on this matter in favor of a (distorted) version of the truth that supports its own claim to a genetic relationship to . . . . . To what? Interestingly, the claim is not so much to a genetic relationship to Jesus' ministry but, rather, to apostolic leadership. That is, Christianity has argued that Jesus assigned reins of authority to Peter, and that this thread of leadership authority has been passed down through the centuries to today (currently residing in the Roman Catholic pope).

The problem with this line of reasoning is not only that, as the book of Acts and letters of Paul (books in their canon!) make clear, after Jesus' death his brother James became leader of the Jesus group in Jerusalem; in addition, it is known from other sources that leadership of that group continued in Jesus' family for several decades. The second problem with this line of reasoning is that it asserts that Jesus appointed someone (Peter) to assume leadership after his death, and instructed that person to follow suit before he died.—assertions that simply lack empirical support, whether in the New Testament or elsewhere.

Our knowledge about early Jesus groups is limited—and, ironically, has been obtained primarily from the works of early heresiologists!—the works of the "heretics" themselves having, for the most part, been destroyed by Christians. And, unfortunately, discussions of these groups and their leaders have tended to "play it safe" by taking a thematic approach (e.g., Bart Ehrman’s recent book "Lost Christianities" 1), rather than an historical one. Still, it is clear that a diversity of Jesus groups existed in the early years after Jesus' death—none of them thinking of themselves as heretical! Indeed, were a competent history written of the Jesus groups in the first century CE (certainly none exists yet!), it might even point out that Christianity does not even have a genetic relationship with Jesus' ministry—or even the work of one of Jesus' disciples! (Of course, it’s even conceivable that it might argue that the story of 12 disciples is a fiction lacking in hard empirical support.)

We can, though, state unequivocally that of the various Jesus groups that developed after Jesus' death, the only one that became "successful" was Christianity. I suppose that one could argue that this represents "survival of the fittest"—the phrase introduced by Herbert Spencer, and adopted by Charles Darwin in the fifth edition of his Origin of Species. But such a conclusion would not be complimentary to Christianity—quite the contrary, in fact! For the Jesus group that became (morphed into, Burton Mack has argued) Christianity developed into a religion about Jesus, fooling many—including Chesterton, evidently—that it was the religion of Jesus.

Because "religion of Jesus" and "religion about Jesus" both contain the words "Jesus" and "religion," we are easily led to believe that the one has virtually the same meaning as the other. But how untrue!! Whereas a religion of Jesus, by definition, strives to continue the religion of Jesus (e.g., by asking "If Christ Came to Chicago," 2 and then using the answer as its basis), a religion about Jesus makes a mockery of Jesus' religion by basically ignoring it. But doing so in a subtle way, so as to give the impression that it is actually the religion of Jesus.

Put another way, a religion that strives to be a religion of Jesus will be one whose orientation is to orthopraxy, and one which perceives Jesus in the context of his Judaism and its scriptures. A religion that is about Jesus, however, will have an orientation to orthodoxy. And given the context within which Christianity developed (i.e., a society within which many were associated with pagan Mysteries), it is not in the least surprising that much of Christian theology bears a strong resemblance to the myths of those older religions.

As to the question of why Christianity succeeded (and other Jesus groups died), the most important reason might very well be that such a religion could be useful to the State (the reason Christianity promoted the religion). And that as the nature of the elite has changed over time, Christianity could easily adapt to the then-current elite’s needs—so that now it functions to serve the interests of a capitalist elite. Certainly those current Christian leaders who preach a "prosperity" gospel are functioning in this way: on the one hand, they pose no threat to the current system; on the other, the gospel they preach is the virtual opposite of that taught by Jesus—yet they claim to be "preachers of the gospel"! How audacious! And how blasphemous! Evidently they have not read Matthew 25—so that they are not aware of the fate that Jesus promised to people of their ilk.

No generic term exists for a religion of Jesus, but let me suggest here "Jesuanism." And the first point I would make about Jesuanism is that one should not think of it as unitary: the canonical gospels do not paint a consistent picture of Jesus' ministry—and the non-canonical gospels muddy the waters even further. All that can be said regarding Jesuanism is that it strives to continue the religion of Jesus, as interpreted variously. The NeWFism advocated in my article on this site ("Worship: An exercise in revisioning") offers one version of Jesuanism, but does not pretend to be the only version.

I can—and do!—align myself with NeWFism—with Jesuanism in general—not only because I believe it to be Biblical, but believe it to be right: my instincts tell me that this is the proper basis for a religion—that it is, in fact, a religion rooted in human nature. Christianity, on the other hand, has little claim to be a Biblical religion, being, rather, an ideology that performs a certain societal function. Given its attachment to the social order—and that order’s current drift—it is, in fact, dangerous to be a Christian. Not in that it is likely to land one in jail but, rather, that Christians, via their unseemly "contribution" to global warming, may become primarily responsible for humankind’s demise as a species, should that occur

Bertrand Russell had his reasons for declaring himself a non-Christian. I have my own—and would that others would share that viewpoint. After all, I have children and grandchildren, and would like some assurance that they will have a future! At present, it is rather difficult to be optimistic on that score.

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Reference used:

  1. Bart D. Ehrman, "Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew," Oxford University Press, (2005). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. This is a reference to William T. Stead's book ""If Christ Came to Chicago: ! A plea for the union of all who love in the service of all who suffer," (1894)

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First posting: 2008-FEB-05
Latest update: 2008-FEB-07
Author: James B. Gray

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