Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Christian Chutzpah: Why Christianity is the Worst Religion

Even though Islam is arguably now a much more dangerous religion, the favourite target of Anglo-American so-called New Atheists, inspired by writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, is Christianity. One obvious reason for this is that Christianity is the predominant western religion, especially in the US which is the most religious western nation. Many Christian commentators complain on places like Fox News, Christian Broadcasting Network, talk radio programs, and (in Canada) on Michael Coren’s shows, that Christians are thus persecuted, that secularists have a double standard, professing to be tolerant and respectful of personal liberties, but waging a bitter campaign against Christianity, a religion that’s conspicuously the greatest force for good in the world. The implication, of course, for the Christians who keep one eye on such media and the other on the Bible, is that New Atheists are literally in league with the devil and therefore beneath contempt.

The typical New Atheist response is to produce a hackneyed list of grievances with Christianity, including crass statistics on the numbers of people historically killed in the religion’s name; the religion’s failure to measure up to scientistic standards of evidence; and the religion’s opposition to politically correct liberal views on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and science education. Regardless of the status of those issues, Christianity is indeed supremely worthy of criticism--but for another reason entirely, and so I’ll lay aside the standard New Atheistic arguments. (For a summary of general arguments against theism, see Theism.) A sufficient reason why Christianity is the worst religion is aesthetic in flavour, picking up on Nietzsche’s psychological critique of Christian resentment. Nietzsche wasn’t interested in whether Christian beliefs are true, since for him all truth is subjective, reflecting the will to power. So instead of tediously pointing out biblical contradictions, the absurdity of miracle claims, or the fallacies in arguments for God’s existence, he focused on tracing the character of Christian theology back to its psychological origins in the experience of the earliest Christians. Somewhat in that spirit, I want to highlight an aesthetic reason why nontheists ought to be critical especially of Christianity.

The most unforgivable fault of mainstream and elite Christians--and it’s unforgivable because the fault offends good taste, and the taste of something is visceral and thus highly memorable--is their chutzpah, their sheer audacity, their shameless participation in historical reversals that pile irony on top of irony until today the whole grotesque Christian edifice--what Kierkegaard called Christendom--is a glaring sign of the universe’s absurdity and perhaps the clearest proof of God’s nonexistence. Tertullian is infamous for saying that he believes the Christian message because of the message’s shamefulness, silliness, and impossibility, but Christianity’s absurdity is much deeper than the content of its creeds. Again, I’m not interested here in the epistemic status of Christian theology. I stress instead that when you compare the content of early Christian documents, including the New Testament and extracanonical, Gnostic scriptures, with the thrust of the Church’s historical development, you’re bound to be repulsed by the gall of so-called Christians simply for their association with the oldest, most hypocritical institution which is the Christian Church.

Jesus’ Repudiation of the World

I begin by summarizing Jesus’ ethics as found in the gospels and as highlighted by liberal Bible scholars such as those who formed the Jesus Seminar. If we look at the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ other teachings, we find that, regardless of whether he existed in history, the character of Jesus was an iconoclast. He railed against the Pharisees for their legalistic aloofness and he sided with the suffering poor, with the outsiders and outcasts. Not only did Jesus heal people like prostitutes and lepers, but he prophesied that the poor will inherit the earth, that the kingdom of God will undo the perversions of secular kingdoms in which a minority of privileged elites rule over the starving, impoverished masses. His parables and aphorisms reverse expectations by comparing heaven to a leavening agent in bread (leaven being symbolic of a corrupting influence), and by declaring that the first will be last and the last first: that a rich man will have as easy a time getting into heaven as would a camel of going through the eye of a needle; that earthly standards of ethics are meaningless in God’s eyes, and that therefore instead of following your gut and seeking revenge against someone who’s wronged you, say, by striking your face, you should turn the other cheek; that your earthly family is inconsequential compared to the bonds between everyone as God’s children, and that therefore you should give away all your possessions to the poor and follow God instead of pursuing a comfortable life here and now; that good deeds are of minor importance compared to the intention which must be pure, since God judges even our thoughts and feelings.

In short, Jesus was a radical socialist and ascetic who condemned all expressions of human pride, from power imbalances, to war, to the narrowly-defined human family, to hypocritical shows of piety. All such natural excesses are preposterous given the nearness of God’s kingdom, whether this nearness is understood in temporal or in metaphysical terms. That is, regardless of whether Jesus assumed that God would soon terminate the natural course of things for everyone at once and personally reign after an imminent Judgment Day or that God’s reign is near for each individual who, after all, lives for only several decades before dying and waking to God’s judgment, Jesus’ main point was surely that we’d agree that radical changes are needed in all of our lives if only we could appreciate the spiritual context. Like horses with blinders on their eyes, we see only the present world, with all of its temptations and injustices, but Jesus claimed to be intimate with a spiritual source of nature, with divine creativity that renders the whole of creation comparatively insignificant.

All of this can be gleaned from the apparent influence of Essenian Judaism on Jesus, perhaps through John the Baptist. According to Josephus, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Essenes, who lived from the second century BCE to the first century CE and, as Josephus says, were present in large numbers in every town, were also dedicated to voluntary poverty, baptism, and the ascetic renunciation of worldly pleasures. Moreover, as I said, the radical nature of Jesus’ ethics is evident even in the New Testament which--aside from Paul’s portion--contains the mere exoteric Christian documents from the Church’s earliest period (although forgeries and obfuscating English translations render Paul’s letters orthodox). 

But by a wild improbability, an esoteric Christian library survived over the centuries and was discovered in Egypt in 1945. The Gnostic Christians were persecuted as heretics by the orthodox, literalistic Christians, but some of the Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are as early as the canonical ones, especially since they effectively include Paul’s authentic letters which are the earliest Christian texts. Moreover, the Gnostic texts make sense of clues in the canonical gospels regarding the basis of Jesus’ radicalism. When we put together the cosmologies implicit in the Gnostic gospels with Jesus’ ethical teachings in the canonical gospels, we’re forced to regard early Christianity as a God-intoxicated, and thus anarchical, antisocial, ascetic, utterly unworkable rebellion against the natural world. As Nietzsche put it, Christianity was otherworldly to the point of being antinatural and nihilistic in the sense that the earliest Christians valued only a ghostly world beyond the present one.

The fact that many of the earliest Christians were Gnostics means that Christianity was continuous with the perennial wisdom traditions that gave rise to eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed, as the mystic Manly Hall says in Lectures on Ancient Philosophy, the entirety of the Christian good news is easily interpreted as an allegory of the spiritual enlightenment that each individual ought to experience, of the need to renounce the standards fit for our natural bodies and to identify instead with the divinity within, which is our own conscious self. The good news, for those with esoteric insight, wouldn’t be that one particular man named Jesus rescued us all from the cosmos in which we’re trapped by the evil lord of this world, by being crucified at the start of the first century CE. Instead, according to the insider’s version of Christianity, the mystical, psychological truth is that we each have our own “power of Christ” within us because, as Plato said, we can remember our higher, spiritual home; that is, we have an innate conscience, or sense of the good, which forces everyone eventually to condemn the physical cosmos in favour of our ideals. In Christian terms, we each already have the power of self-transformation, of sacrificing the life of our natural bodies, which are sources of sin and suffering, casting off those shells to free our true “spiritual” or conscious self. Again, according to this view, the crucifixion of Christ isn’t a unique historical event that happened only to one person, but an obligation for each suffering individual, who’s trapped in God’s spoiled creation and forced to sin just by being born into this world with a distracting animalistic body, to realize that this world is a sham compared to our true home with God.

The point is that many early Christians carried Jesus’ radical viewpoint from ethics to metaphysics and cosmology, condemning not just imperial Rome but the whole natural order as monstrously unjust, as a prison for spirit (consciousness). As the scholar of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, points out in The Gnostic Religion, the Gnostic Christian shares the modern existentialist’s feelings of alienation, and I’d add that Lovecraft’s science-centered cosmicism is consistent with this antinatural viewpoint. Indeed, contrary to Nietzsche, Jesus’ hostility to nature is admirable as far as it goes, since it presupposes an appreciation of what I call our grim existential situation, or what Christians call our fallen state. (See Happiness.) Both Jesus and Nietzsche appreciate the horrors of nature, although they disagree on the virtues needed for the best response. But whether Jesus was himself a Gnostic or even whether he lived at all as an historical figure who preached and was crucified, as stated in the canonical gospels, is irrelevant for the purpose of my aesthetic case against Christianity. The unavoidable conclusion, though, is that earliest Christianity was astonishingly radical. We know this now not just from Jesus’ ethical teachings in the New Testament (NT), which for many centuries were available only to Christian elites who spoke Latin, but from the Gnostic gospels, which again were unavailable for many centuries, because most Gnostic texts were burned along with the Gnostics themselves by literalistic Christians.

Jesus versus the Imperial Church
And so we approach the first absurd, stomach-churning turning point, the first indisputable moment of irony in Christian history, which was the Constantinian shift in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, introducing state involvement in the religion and beginning the long process of making Christianity the empire’s official religion. Max Weber called this “caesaropapism,” the “complete subordination of priests to secular power.” No words can adequately characterize the chutzpah of those so-called Christians who went along with that imperial use of what was once indisputably an iconoclastic, anti-imperial, indeed antinatural cult of rebellion. Just try to imagine: you’re an early Christian who claims to follow the teachings of a Jewish radical who was crucified by the imperial powers of Rome in league with Jewish elites who rejected Jesus’ preaching. (We can now surmise that what many Jews rejected in Jesus was the Greco-Roman syncretism with Judaism, which formed a Jewish brand of Gnosticism called Christianity). Now Christianity is embraced by Rome, and you decide to curry favour with the empire by representing your local church in the Ecumenical Councils, to produce a version of Christianity that might be graced by Rome’s stamp of approval. Jesus loathed and was killed by Rome, you claim to follow Jesus, and now you align yourself with Rome in Jesus’ name? The irony is breathtaking!

However, not all Christians went along with Rome. The Gnostics didn’t attend the Rome-sponsored councils that hammered out Christian orthodoxy, remaining true to the otherworldly spirit of Jesus’ message. The Donatist Christians as well went as far as to reject the authority of priests who thrived under Constantine but who had betrayed fellow Christians to save themselves, during the earlier Roman persecution of Christians by the emperor Diocletian. At the Council of Arles in 314 CE, the Donatists were condemned as heretics, while for obvious Christian reasons the Donatists in turn condemned the Roman Empire as evil due, for example, to its wealth which went hand in hand with sin. In 317 Constantine sent troops to kill or banish the Donatists, withdrawing the troops in 321. Donatist opposition to Rome-backed Churches persisted until the seventh century when the Muslim conquests rendered the inter-Christian conflicts moot.  

Why many Christians went along with pro-Christian emperors is easy to understand. Rome had destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE; moreover, according to Christian beliefs, Rome had slain Jesus himself as well as other Christian martyrs. Although Rome was tolerant of and often indifferent to the religious practices of the cultures it ruled, the empire smashed anti-Roman uprisings with an iron fist, which indicates again how radical Jesus would had to have been to be executed. On top of that understandable fear, there’s the passage of centuries between Jesus and Rome’s conversion to Christianity, which means that the memory of Jesus’ intentions would have faded even for the Gnostics, Donatists, and others who best understood what Jesus was up to, let alone for the fair-weather followers who might have come and gone with not even an indirect connection to Jesus himself. Just as pedophiles presently exploit Catholic Church policies, many Jews and gentiles would have joined a movement that synthesized Judaism with Hellenism--but in pursuit of their own agenda, especially once Rome stopped persecuting Christians and favoured the religion.

Still, the effrontery of those later Christians is repellent. There was sufficient evidence of what the religion’s founder would have said and done, in those myriad gospel narratives and other Christian scriptures. Although those texts conflicted with each other, which is why the Ecumenical Councils were needed to unify the Christian Roman Empire, something like the summary I give above must nevertheless have shone through. Indeed, the audacity of those Christians who betrayed what they must have regarded as their founder’s clear message, by accepting state power to establish Christianity as an imperial religion, is matched only by the Romans’ cynicism. Granted, the gospel narratives that were selected for inclusion in the Christian canon whitewashed any Roman involvement in Jesus’ death and scapegoated the Jews. But Jesus’ radical message remains even in those sanitized texts, and that message is at least implicitly opposed to all grand secular endeavours, including political ones. (Presumably, the gospels couldn’t have been entirely rewritten for the purpose of Roman propaganda, because they’d already become popular, thanks to their mystical and thus implicitly anti-Roman message.) For example, Jesus was evidently opposed to war and family, which were bedrocks for Rome. Nevertheless, Constantine and later emperors chose to help unify their failing empire by converting to a religion founded by a Jewish radical anarchist, socialist and antinaturalist, which made Jesus at least implicitly an anti-imperialist. 

Partly, the emperors must have grown comfortable with Christianity because Roman religion already had its own plethora of rising and dying demigods. Also, their familiarity with the Roman versions of the perennial wisdom traditions, such as in the mystery cults, would have made the emperors privy to the esoteric view, according to which the story of any dying and rising god-man is allegorical, and thus the emperors would have realized that Rome didn’t actually kill “the Son of God.” Yet another reason for Rome’s eventual use of Christianity, to which I’ll return in the next section, is that the subtext of the Christian message actually favours secularization, a point which opens the way for a second level of Christian chutzpah. If Rome could assimilate even Jesus’ radicalism, the Empire could stamp out any anti-Imperial sentiment.

As Elaine Pagels points out in The Gnostic Gospels, literalistic Christianity was embraced by Rome as orthodox because it empowered a hierarchy of Church officials (Jesus had to personally confer power to Peter, the first Pope), whereas the Gnostic Christian was more like the Protestant in his or her pursuit of individual salvation without the need of any connection to a religious institution. Gnostic Christianity was thus useless to the emperors in their attempt to revive their empire by unifying its culture. Rome needed a bureaucracy to exercise top-down control of mass religion. Ultimately, the reason for the split between the hierarchical, literalistic Church and the individualistic, Gnostic one is the exoteric-esoteric divide in any mass movement in which the masses have unequal cognitive capacities. Just as gifted children in private schools are given the freedom to pursue their own interests, whereas less intelligent children are forced to follow a technocratic curriculum, the more sophisticated Christians were attracted to the philosophical character of Gnosticism, to the idea that salvation requires secret knowledge of the grim reality of nature, whereas the poorer, illiterate, or less intellectually-curious Christians had to be led, and that demand for leadership was naturally met by a supply of Christian leaders, who became the Catholic priests, bishops and popes.

Catholics will respond that the state involvement in the Church benefited both sides, that the Christian Church obviously flourished thanks to its access to secular power. But this response misses the point: the Church’s flourishing in the evil, fallen world, governed by what Paul called powers and principalities, is a bad thing from Jesus’ radical, antinatural perspective. Authentic Christians want to escape the prison of nature, not build an empire within that prison. The audacity of early Catholics was their pretense to be followers of both Jesus and the Roman emperor. As Jesus said, you can’t serve two masters, God and money.    

The fallout from the decline of Jesus’ ideological influence on the Church is well-known. Just compare Jesus’ anarchic, socialist, pacifistic, otherworldly rhetoric to the language used in the Roman Edict of Thessalonica in 380, given by emperors Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian II, which formally established the Catholic Church as the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire:
We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.
We’re looking here at the difference between day and night. That the one should turn into the other requires a revolution, which is to say that the Church that was established in Jesus’ name betrayed the heart of his message, the spirit of his rebellion. The ironies are many and palpable. And so for centuries, Christians acquired secular power by persecuting other Christians and then non-Christians, leading to the destruction of pagan society; to the imprisonment, torture, or burning of heretics including Gnostics, Jews, pagans, witches, and scientists; to the pogroms and inquisitions against thought crimes; to the crusades against the Muslim Empire; to the European wars between Catholics and Protestants; and to the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Again, my point isn’t to judge Church history from a modern, secular perspective, but to condemn the cognitive dissonance and audacity of at least the educated and non-monastic Christians, which enabled them to call themselves followers of Jesus even while their lifestyle seldom had anything to do with his otherworldly renunciation of natural life. Their chutzpah is appalling.

Sure, Jesus vehemently condemned people to hellfire, but the type that he condemned would have included the exclusivist and hypocritical friends of secular power who came to run the Church. And granted, the Catholic Church also fed and clothed the poor, through its monasteries and missions, and a minority of Christians lived ascetically as monks, nuns, and mystics. Catholic history is mixed from a Christian perspective. But in the first place, the standard of living might not have been so low that there arose such a demand for Church charity, had the Church not destroyed pagan society and stifled intellectual progress, holding medieval Europe in a dark age while the more rational Muslim society prospered. Secondly, the extent to which the Catholic Church cared for the poor and advocated asceticism, thus staying true to its founder, is outweighed by the magnitude of its betrayal of Jesus, especially since, as in today’s Christian charities, the assistance was rendered with secular as well as spiritual intentions: the poor were helped as long as they supported the Christian institution which empowered and enriched the elites in the Church hierarchy. Still, the charge of unbearable chutzpah doesn’t apply to those Christians who actually tried to live like Jesus.

Secular Christianity: a Second Level of Chutzpah

Catholics will reply that the Church isn’t like a constitutional democracy which is tied mainly to its founding documents: the Church ought to evolve wherever the Holy Spirit takes it. This brings me to the deeper level of Christian audacity. The first level is the most obvious one, which I’ve been highlighting: Jesus was an iconoclastic and otherworldly anarchist, socialist, pacifist, and ascetic, whereas the institution that arose to spread his message clearly betrayed his ideals by joining with the secular power of the Roman Empire. As indicated by the Gnostic gospels, Paul’s letters, and the NT gospels, Jesus was opposed to all of Creation in so far as Creation was governed by natural rather than divine powers. Jesus was a dualist who didn’t assume that God works through all natural forces, such as the Roman Empire. On the contrary, as Jesus reportedly said, we should render unto Caesar what’s his and unto God the things that are God’s. From the original Christian perspective, those two allotments differ from each other, because God’s will is opposed by demons that enslave God’s children by distracting us with secular goals of money, power, and pleasure that are inconsequential in the divine scheme. (The NT gospels even depict Jesus resisting the devil's temptations in a face-to-face confrontation with the devil.) That’s why Jesus’ ethics seem to us so radical and impractical: we’ve fallen far short of divine standards because we’ve lost sight of the big picture; we’re so distant from God that we can’t save ourselves and so God needed to leave his heavenly abode and be incarnated in the midst of evil, in the natural world of darkness, and die on the cross as our sacrifice. 

But the Catholic is a monist who shares the Jewish belief that Creation is good, that God isn’t alienated from nature but works within it in the form of the Holy Spirit which guides the Church, animating the “body of Christ.” So the Catholic can say that there was no Christian audacity, because Christians aren’t bound even by the New Testament, but must attend to the ever-developing Christian message as it’s revealed especially to the Catholic hierarchy which was empowered to be God’s chief instrument for our salvation, next to Jesus. Thus, in effect, the Catholic can move the goal posts to justify the secularization of Christianity. After all, the subtext of Jesus’ message, as it’s presented in the NT, is found in the prevailing interpretation of the Pauline gospel, according to which Jesus’ ethical standards are impossible for fallen humans to adopt and so all that should be expected of us is that we claim Jesus’ excellence as our own, by proclaiming him our lord and savior. That is, the orthodox view of Paul’s formulation of the gospel came to dominate Christian thought, but that view effectively undermines Jesus’ antinatural radicalism and excuses bad, secular behaviour on the part of Christians.

Note the order in which the NT texts are presented in the Bible: the gospels come first even though Paul’s letters, which barely mention the historical Jesus, are older. The resulting impression on the reader is that Paul implicitly criticizes Jesus for being unrealistic. The gospels tell of Jesus’ harangues against humanity for being so impure, and then of his being executed for his trouble. The subtext is one of realism: in the fallen world that’s distant from God and at best indirectly controlled by heavenly forces, humans will either fail miserably to live up to God’s standards and save ourselves from the hell which is our lot or else the forces of evil will avenge themselves on those saints who reveal an escape hatch in the form of an ascetic life. Then comes the real good news in spite of the apparent bad news of Jesus’ lofty standards and ignominious death: as Paul seems to say, there’s a short cut, an easy way out for even the greatest sinner, which is that we simply need to confess our sins and call upon Jesus to save us, in which case the credit Jesus earned for himself will be transferred to us without our having to personally live like Jesus and earn our own way. (As indicated in the previous section, that latter point is one where Gnostics and Catholics differ in their reading of Paul. Gnostics believed we each have our own power of Christ to overcome ignorance and liberate our state of mind, whereas Catholics contend that we acquire that power only from external sources of salvation, namely from the concrete event of Jesus’ sacrifice and from the Catholic institution.)  

On this realistic, quasi-Pauline subtext of the NT, then, there are two Christian excuses for sin and thus for a rejection of Jesus’ ethics. First, contrary to Gnostic Christianity, God works throughout the imperfect natural universe and so God’s representatives in the Catholic and Protestant Churches need offer no apology for allying with such secular forces as the Roman, Russian, Spanish, French, British, and American Empires. But compromises are needed because we do live in a fallen world, just as God limits himself by achieving his goals for Creation by mysterious and convoluted means. Second and contrary to Judaism and Gnosticism, God expects very little from us in our fallen state (we’re fallen in that we’re spirits which have lost our unity with God and been imprisoned in matter); we can’t save ourselves and so we’re bound to sin even after we become Christian.

With these two assumptions in mind, the full meaning of Church history comes into view. On a naïve level, discussed in the last section, the Church repulses me with its wholesale treachery against its own scriptural ideals. But when we interpret those scriptures like a jesuitical Christian, we discover that most Christian leaders haven’t shared Jesus’ radical ideals since perhaps the second century. Instead, these leaders embrace the secular world and its natural ideals of wealth, power, and pleasure, viewing them as they think God views them, as instruments that ultimately serve God’s will even if only God knows how. By incarnating on Earth, God conquered and sanctified fallen nature, and so God blesses secular powers as long as we inevitable sinners follow God’s path through the wilderness. By severing the Church from Jesus’ otherworldly radicalism and worshipping God the Holy Spirit as it historically preserves the Church by adapting it to changing circumstances, Catholics effectively deify the natural forces of time and of social evolution, including all of the biological and psychological factors that determine how Christians respond to events and how Catholic officials make pivotal decisions for the Church. In this sense, Christianity brings God down to Earth just as Aristotle reduced Plato’s transcendent Forms to natural processes. The upshot is that Christianity reduces to a kind of pantheism. Far from undermining pagan secularism, the Church merely renames some gods and prunes the over-abundant mythical celebrations of mystical experience by focusing on a Jewish version of the pre-existing myth of the dying and rising god. From the elite Christian perspective, Christianity is just as this-worldly or practically secular as Judaism and Roman religion, which means that Christianity is ultimately just another ideology in the service of secular powers, similar even to the most primitive form of tribal idolatry.

Again, where Christians distinguish themselves is their monumental audacity, their delusion that their religion differs from a garden-variety rationalization of secular injustices and dominance hierarchies. The deeper level of Christian chutzpah, then, is that Christians typically assume a self-righteous posture, paying lip service to Jesus’ ascetic ravings but practicing a religion that effectively justifies any secular activity, no matter how counter-productive or even abominable from a spiritual, antinatural viewpoint. To be sure, this audacity would be impossible without their uniquely radical scripture that speaks of Jesus’ ethics, since that scripture serves as a fig leaf concealing the shame of Christians’ secular preoccupations. The most familiar case of Christianity as a handmaiden of secular powers is the American conservative’s brand of the religion, which very obviously bears not the slightest resemblance to anything that Jesus would have welcomed. From the warmongering to the fetishes for guns, violent sporting events, and Ken and Barbie doll-like nuclear families; and from the greed for money and material goods to the seamless union between religious and Machiavellian schemes in the Republican party, conservative “Christianity” in the US is a farcical charade, a preposterous amalgamation of opposites that brings shame to all its informed participants.

By contrast, Jewish and Islamic scriptures openly sanctify secular forces, including war, as long as the participants compensate by chanting some magic words, eating select foods, and performing other comparatively meaningless rituals. This is why whatever excesses the Israeli military or the mujahedin may be guilty of and however complicated their scriptures may be which allow for moderate and liberal interpretations, their killing for the secular purposes of protecting land, exacting vengeance and so forth are never obviously wrong from a Jewish or Islamic frame of reference, respectively. Sure, Jews have their Ten Commandments, but they also have volume upon volume of rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures, making every manner of legalistic distinction which effectively justifies any conceivable action a person might take. Thus are Jews secular survivors above all else, which is why they're not hypocritical when they reject mystical ideals.

The Worst Religion in the World

With regard to the major extant religions, only Christianity begins with the preaching of so uncompromising a form of antinatural dualism, wearing the record of that preaching like an albatross, and double-crosses that radicalism so quickly and fully while Christians so blithely attempt to have it both ways. No other religion can tempt its practitioners to exhibit such disdain for what the religion itself proclaims is the ultimate truth. That sin against its own stated principles, that forced hypocrisy makes Christianity the ugliest religion, the one that’s most embarrassing to people of good taste.

Christians ought to be the most confused members of a major religion, because their scripture is so utterly opposed to their religion’s history. That conflict isn’t accidental. Jesus’ radicalism was unworkable from the outset, because Jesus condemned all natural works, all natural forces, all our thoughts and inclinations that aren’t God-soaked. Jesus was opposed to this whole world, to this “kingdom” not yet ruled by God. The very notion that a religious institution, such as the Church, should be erected in his name is grotesque. Evidently, Jesus didn’t take matters into his own hands and write an account of what sort of institution he wanted to create. As the Gnostics understood, Jesus wanted to create no institution at all, since he didn’t want to add one more natural burden to distract us from what he regarded as the ultimate, harrowing truth, that we need to abandon this present world entirely by way of loving God alone with all our emotions, intellect, and consciousness.

Naturally, no sooner had the Church gained a sizeable following so that it became useful to the local secular power, than that leviathan, the Roman Empire, swallowed the Church whole. The fact that the Church promptly dropped all pretense of following Jesus’ contempt for natural life and united not with God but with one hotbed of natural vice after another, from one secular empire to the next, earns Christianity the title of Worst Religion in the World, aesthetically speaking. Moreover, the Christian religion is thus the most richly deserving of philosophical and scientific criticisms, if only because those intellectual criticisms prettify the more gut-level but nevertheless warranted response, which is just that of vomiting in the presence of any educated, non-ascetic Christian. For centuries, these lapsed Christians have had the habit of wearing precious metal crosses around their neck, ostensibly to remind themselves of Jesus’ crucifixion. What they should at least subconsciously appreciate, though, is that they themselves symbolically condemn Jesus just by owning those crosses instead of giving them to the poor, not to mention by betraying their so-called Lord in a thousand other ways. Their audacity knows no bounds when they feign to follow Jesus the ascetic, the socialist, the pacifist, and the anarchist, even as they belong to a treacherous Church and live as hedonists, war supporters, and eager members of secular institutions while wearing about their neck a perfect symbol of their own apparent contempt for Jesus.


  1. I find great amusement in your beginning your own brand of critique with...a Syphillitic Philosopher who died insane.

    My favorite Nietzsche quote:

    "Elimination of the weak and defective, the first principle or our philosophy. And we should help them to do it!"

    Nietzsche, The AntiChrist, sec. two.

    Atheism in a nutshell, as it were.

    I love it. Nietzsche as Poster Child for Atheism...I think I will have a few of those posters printed.

    1. Thanks for reading the first bit of the article/rant. If you read on, you’ll find that the article isn’t about Nietzsche, nor does it presuppose anything Nietzsche said or did other than the value of his aesthetic and ethical perspectives on Christianity. The article is about the palpability of Christian hypocrisy.

      You say that “Elimination of the weak” is atheism in a nutshell. Well, I’m a nontheist and I don’t think the weak ought to be eliminated (nor of course, did Nietzsche). You should watch out for making guilt-by-association type arguments. What do you think follows from the fact that Nietzsche died insane? That God exists? Can you see how many hidden assumptions you’d have to make to get from the statement to the next? Read my blog entry on Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism for an explanation of what might have led Nietzsche to go mad. Hint: the truth of where life fits into the natural cosmos might be horrible.

  2. Ben: You ought to know that besides the contradiction Goldstein points to, not all the history you're embracing here is necessarily correct.

    Tertullian believed no such thing. Read Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God, for a rebuttal of that old canard.

    Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels contains quite a bit of junk history. See David Marshall (myself), The Truth About Jesus and the "Lost Gospels," for a rebuttal. Thomas was not early, it borrowed from every layer of the gospel tradition -- nor does it tell us anything new about Jesus. Nor would Gnosticism have proven nearly as liberating socially as Christianity turned out to be. (Though skeptics are usually unaware of the history on which I base that last statement.)

    Jesus did not teach "anti-naturalism." I agree that the Catholic (and then later, other) churches grasped on to power too tightly, and often abused it. But that follows from the nature of social organisms generally: the same thing happened to Confucianism in China, from the Han Dynasty, and to Buddhism at different times in history. And Jesus seemed to warn that it WOULD happen.

    History in general can be ugly, and Christian history, too. But I also see a great deal of beauty in that history. Books like Charles Williams The Descent of the Dove, and G.K. Chesterton's Everlasting Man, describe that history from a partially aesthetic POV, especially the latter: you might find them worth a read.

    1. Thanks for reading the article. I’m going to pass over your objections to the details that don’t matter either way, as far as the article’s thesis is concerned.

      I never said Gnosticism would have proved socially liberating. On the contrary, I said Jesus’ otherworldly antinaturalism was unworkable from the outset. You deny that Jesus taught antinaturalism. Of course, he didn’t have the modern concept of nature, but he did have the Hellenistic (Platonic) idea, shared by Gnostics, that God or the Good transcends the material world. Jesus clearly was a dualist with unshakable ideals, who brooked no compromise. It’s no accident that there were Christian Gnostics and that Paul himself sounds like a Gnostic. When we take into account all of the historical evidence, reading the NT along with the cosmological Gnostic gospels, we get a fuller sense of the radicalism implicit in Jesus’ NT ethics. For the most part, the Christian church has been nowhere near as radical, to say the least, and that should appall informed Christians, let alone non-Christians.

      But look, it’s as simple as the scene in Schindler’s List, when at the end Schindler realizes he could have saved more lives by sacrificing even more, giving away his watch, and so on, and he has a kind of nervous breakdown as a result. The character of Schindler was a true believer in altruism and that made him a radical. But how radical are even true-believing Christians, let alone the moderate or liberal, fully secularized ones? Why don’t they give up all their possessions and live as ascetics, renouncing the material world out of exclusive love of God with ALL their heart, mind, and spirit? Obviously because there are hardly any Jesus-centered Christians. Instead, both Catholics and Protestants are Holy-Spirit-centered, meaning that they embrace the many compromises in Church history more than Jesus’ ethics, and they agree with the official reading of Paul, according to which Jesus’ ethical teachings are superseded by his sacrificial death. In a crucial, but seldom-acknowledged way, the human Jesus and the bulk of the NT mean nothing to most Christians.

      I really don’t see much beauty in the thrust of Christian history, especially in its current nadir in the case of the American conservative variety. On the contrary, my contempt for the hypocrisy’s magnitude is visceral. But I’ll check out the books you recommend. Maybe I’m missing something.

  3. Ben,

    I appreciate the time you've put into this article, but I think some of your premises are unsound.

    Jesus' parables don't jive well with a strict, dualistic anti-naturalism. His anti-establishment polemics were focused more directly on the Jewish religious authorities, which he saw as the more direct oppressors of the Judean peasantry. I think studying the political/religious history of 2nd Temple Judaism is more enlightening to Jesus' teaching than the later Gnostic writings, which are typically dated late 2nd to early 3rd century. Jesus confronted a power system that was using religion to oppress. (BTW, I still think that leaves many conservative voices in American evangelicalism in an ironic state, because Jesus confronted those same bastions of conservatism most fiercely in the Pharisees.)

    Plus, you don't mention anything about the beauty, the existential freedom, that Jesus proclaimed in his ethic of love and forgiveness. For sure in many areas it is not practiced, but there are examples (many I've seen personally) in which this ethic has prevailed and has brought healing.

    I just get the feeling that you're giving a couple of scholar's accounts to much weight in your historical reconstruction of Jesus' message.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I actually don’t think I’m relying heavily on the few scholars I quote. I do, however, assume what I take to be the scholarly consensus on the history and the source materials. For example, you say Jesus focused his criticism on Jewish authorities, not on Rome. As I understand the consensus among historians and NT scholars, though, the NT gospels were written when the gospel authors were trying to ingratiate their communities with Rome (since Rome had recently destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE) and were trying to distance themselves from Jews who had rejected Jesus. Thus, the NT scapegoats Jews and whitewashes the Romans’ (e.g. Pilate’s) involvement in Jesus’ death.

      As for the Gnostics, I agree that the Gnostic Christian texts we’re very lucky to have are mostly more recent than the NT gospels, but that doesn’t mean Christian Gnosticism as a whole is post-orthodox Christianity. On the contrary, the Church destroyed pagan society and the heretical writings, so there may well have been older Gnostic Christian texts. Indeed, Paul’s authentic letters, which are the earliest extant Christian writings, sound very Gnostic, as Pagels says, and the early Christian Gnostic, Valentinus, took Paul to be a great Gnostic. In any case, the fact that we have Gnostic Christian writings from as early as we do indicates that Christians had been even earlier influenced by Gnosticism, since cultural ideas tended to be absorbed and digested in an oral tradition before they were codified or written down. Gnosticism in general certainly predates Christianity (see Plato’s Timaeus), as do the Eleusinian Mysteries and demigod and resurrected deity mythemes. Thus, Jesus’ milieu would have been saturated both with several brands of Judaism and with more eastern, Hellenistic, Zoroastrian, and Gnostic ideas. So there would have been syncretism. As I see it, the radicalism of Jesus’ ethics makes sense if we assume he subscribed to Gnostic, dualistic cosmology.

      As for the beauty of forgiveness, I say in the article that my criticism doesn’t apply to Christians who attempt to live like Jesus. Unfortunately, the Church’s history as a whole is characterized by a replacement of Jesus’ ethics and Gnostic assumptions with secular compromises and rationalizations of sin (e.g. the Catholic just war theory, family values, and American conservative Christians’ support of Republican policies). Hence my charges of hypocrisy and audacity.

  4. Epic rant.

    It gets way worse than metal crosses. I've caught myself staring at infomercials trying to sell people diamond-studded gold crosses and the like, to buy as a gift for loved ones, of course.

    The pure absurdity of it.

    1. "Absurdity" is the right sort of word to describe the state of Christianity in wealthy countries, but it's hard to recognize the absurdity of any ideology when you're a subscriber. Just about any culture or ideology looks absurd when viewed objectively from an external vantage point. But Christianity is egregious.

      Thanks for reading, Tyciol. And thanks for being my first "follower"!

  5. I have just found this blog a couple of days ago. Been reading some of your past posts including this one. I am very impressed with your writing and language.

    This was an interesting post, of course the hypocrisy of Christianity as an institution and of many of it's followers is pretty easy spot but I haven't read it put so clearly, and the angle you focus on here is different from what is usually mentioned, for example that Christ message is fundamentally anti-capitalist, etc. The focus here on Christ's & Paul's gnostic message and the early christian Gnostics was interesting.

    But I think there are multiple facets to Christianity that make it egregious. For example the concept if original sin and the praising/celebration of vicarious redemption.

    1. Thanks very much. I'm glad you enjoy my writing. I've got a long list of topics for new blog entries and I keep adding to it just about every day, because so very many things annoy a curmudgeon like me. ;) So if you'd like to read more, keep an eye out for updates, and feel free to spread the word.

      I try to be original in what I write. As you can tell from my rant called "Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?" I'm familiar with the more common criticisms of monotheism. Indeed, an upcoming rant on this blog will focus on what I call the mini absurdities of Christian doctrine, about prayer, substitutionary sacrifice, and so on. But I don't want merely to repeat what a reader can easily find elsewhere. Also, I'm not much of a follower when it comes to New Atheism, secular humanism, liberalism, or other idols for hyper-rationalists.

  6. "In short, Jesus was a radical socialist and ascetic who condemned all expressions of human pride, from power imbalances, to war, to the narrowly-defined human family, to hypocritical shows of piety."

    Yet, He did preach against sin. Many of the sins He spoke against are now causes that liberals champion. However, Jesus never failed to be compassionate and loving. I try my best to do the same. Denounce what I believe is sin, but embrace the sinner for I too am a sinner, a forgiver sinner, but a sinner nonetheless.

  7. Don't conservatives also champion some sins that Jesus railed against, like warfare, hatred of enemies, and greed? I think conservative Christians are influenced more by the Jesus of Revelations than by the Gospels' Jesus. They like the idea of divine love and forgiveness being temporary and conditional, ending with Judgment and everlasting punishment for sin. Liberal sins of sexuality seem identified more by Paul than by Jesus.

    I've always found the Christian's distinction between condemning the sin and loving the sinner to be a curious one. Don't our deeds shape our characters, so that we become what we tend to do? To suppose otherwise is to assume that we each have an immaterial spirit, homunculus, or Cartesian ego, which controls our body the way a person pilots an aircraft. Only a dualist can make sense out of the idea of condemning everything concrete about a person, including the person's choices and deeds, while still loving the person herself. It's hard to see what there's left to love after you condemn someone's values, beliefs, choices, and actions. And even were there something left over, loving that immaterial remainder would seem as bland and vacuous as that remainder itself.

    In any case, it's hard to argue against real compassion, but see my Feb 2012 blog entry on love as the so-called meaning of life. 

  8. Some Christians do, I am sure. So do some Muslims, some Jews, some atheists. Generalizations are very dangerous and, quite honestly, abscond an arguement's teeth. I find that many of the points you make are generalizations.

    I don't find the distinction you speak of curious at all. I live it, as do most of the Christians we know. As you noted, Jesus is compassionate. I strive to be as well. Not because I believe I a superior to anyone. I've shown compassion; therefore, I do my best to pay it forward.

    Finally, I love not because I am a dualist. I love because I was first loved.

  9. S.T. Summers,

    Some Christians do what? Sin? I'm not sure which generalization of mine you're talking about. Ironically, your statement that generalizations are dangerous is itself a generalization, and a preposterous one at that. All concepts generalization, and without concepts there's no thinking. When we think, we categorize, and categories are like boxes into which we put instances of a type. It's possible to overgeneralize, as in cases of racism, for example, but I don't think I overgeneralized in my response to your comment. For some reason you singled out liberals as champions of sin, and I simply pointed out that conservative Christians are at least as hypocritical.

    Anyway, the world needs more compassion.

  10. Where and how did I single out liberals? All are sinners. I am chief among them.

    You over generalize Christians when you say all are hypocritical. It's as foolish as saying all Muslims are terrorists.



    PS Wonderful blog. I have enjoyed many of your posts.

  11. ST Summers,

    You said earlier "Yet, He did preach against sin. Many of the sins He spoke against are now causes that liberals champion." Thus, maybe you didn't mean to, but you singled out liberals for some reason.

    Anyway, I'm glad you like my blog. I would point you to the last paragraph of the section "Jesus vs the Imperial Church," in "Christian Chutzpah," where I explicitly say that not all Christians are guilty of the chutzpah I'm talking about. That is, I say "the charge of unbearable chutzpah doesn’t apply to those Christians who actually tried to live like Jesus."

    I add other stipulations too. For example, I say above that I'm talking about informed, educated Christians in modern societies. So I tried not to overgeneralize. However, some of my posts are satirical, and broad generalizations tend to be funnier than more carefully worded specifications. 

  12. Benjamin Cain,
    I had trouble posting this comment on the ipad earlier.

    Anyway, this blog entry - an excellent one that easily surpasses the superficial and largely irrelevant criticisms from the New Atheists - reminded me of the classic chapter from the Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor.

    Basically it argues that the Church through the figure of the Grand Inquisitor has withheld the truth from people, because they cannot handle it. Jesus Christ in his confrontation with the Devil in the desert actually failed people because he was too perfect in his choices and hardly anyone could follow in his footsteps. Therefore, the Inquisition took over the Devil's role and gave what people actually wanted: bread, miracles, power over the world.

    1. Thanks very much, Awet. I agree on both counts. My criticism of the church here is one that authentic Christian should agree with, but these are the Christians who don't mold their religion into whatever they need it to be to rationalize their compromises with their secular interests. And the Grand Inquisitor parable is a powerful satire which seems to me unanswerable. Dostoevsky certainly understood the essence of Christianity. Another example of this criticism is The Last Temptation of Christ. I haven't read the book, but in the movie Paul seems to replace the Inquisitor. (Mind you, I wrote an article on the author's worldview, in The Saviors of God.) And I think the Dune series of novels makes the same criticism too.

      But this is a well-known pattern in the major religions. The religion starts off with a charismatic leader who inspires everyone, but when he dies the followers lose their way, become corrupt and use the founder's name to justify their misdeeds. Are the founder's insights unworkable so that secular compromises are inevitable? Or are most people just lazy, fearful, and easily distracted by demagogues?

  13. If God doesn't exist then Jesus was just another nut, like the schizophrenics riding the subway all night. Similarly, if God doesn't exist the we human beings are just another kind of beast, trying to get sex, power and money the best way we can. Catholic priests have figured out a way to win the game. Using a profoundly ascetic, otherworldly religion as a way to get big gold chains and blowjobs from twelve year old boys is one of the all time great cons. I can see why you call it ugly, but I can also see how some people might call it beautiful.

    1. I agree with just about everything you've said--except you're assuming Jesus existed and said everything that's attributed to him in the NT. Both of those assumptions are doubtful. But if he existed, he needn't have been crazy even if he did teach supernaturalism, because he might have been speaking in metaphors. There's even a part in the NT where he explains how his allegories work (exoteric vs esoteric), where he says that those with ears to hear will hear the hidden meanings. In short, Jesus could have been thinking like a Hindu, using theistic metaphors to teach at an exoteric level and reserving the philosophical, Gnostic teachings for the esoteric. Christianity then split into two or three sects, after Jesus's death: the Jewish, Pauline, and Gnostic versions of his teaching. Jesus probably would have combined all three somehow, but the Pauline won out and then the gospels literalized and added teachings Jesus was expected to have made, such as crazy prophecies about the end of the world. Jesus's real teachings would have been more mystical, as in the Gospel of Thomas.

      Anyway, I say Christianity is hideous as a religion. As a con, it might indeed be pretty sweet for the exploiters (priests, televangelists, cult leaders, monarchs and politicians). You may also be assuming we don't need any religion. I think the evidence suggests otherwise, although there's a semantic issue about what counts as a religion. See my article "Are Atheists Religious?"


  14. Soooooo......

    What do you think about the Christians that try to take the teachings of the NT seriously? Shane Claiborne comes to mind.

    1. I wasn't aware of that person or of the New Monasticism movement, so thanks for informing me. I'll have to look into this, especially since there might be an interesting connection with Morris Berman's Twilight of American Culture thesis. Berman predicts that we're heading for a new dark age, so those who care about high culture should seek to preserve it by forming neo-monastic enclaves.

      Anyway, Christians who take their religion seriously pass the existential authenticity test, so they have my respect. I'd guess that maybe 10% of so-called Christians in post-industrial societies understand the essence of their religion and take it seriously, so that means the majority of them are beneath my contempt. As for Christians in poor societies, I take it their religion is superfluous since they're already living like Jesus.

      I myself reject Christianity on naturalistic grounds. I think Christian beliefs are irrational, for the sorts of reasons I summarize in "Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?" That debate bores me, however, which is why I don't consider myself a New Atheist. I'm more of a Nietzschean about these things.

      Now, authentic Christians might well agree that their theism is irrational, because they agree with Kierkegaard that any worldview is based on a leap of faith. In that case, I'd be more interested in aesthetic than rational standards, as I explain in "Christian Crudities."

      One thing I do take from Christianity, though, is the Gnostic sense that something's very wrong with the natural world and that we're anomalies within it. Hans Jonas links that Gnosticism with existentialism in "The Gnostic Religion."