What Good Is Christianity?

Who needs it, really?
Since humans began to walk upright, thousands of religions have come and gone. Many hundreds of gods have fallen out of favor: even many Christians themselves can’t stand the nasty god who stalks the Old Testament, although—hint, hint—it’s the same god in the New Testament. Christianity is now so splintered—the faithful have quarreled endlessly about it—even its most devout followers can’t agree on what True Christianity is. Millions of the faithful are holed up in their own defensive denominations, clinging to fragments of the faith they hold dear.

So what’s the point? Dan Barker has mentioned the elephant in the room: “I did not want to lose my faith, but I became painfully aware that Christianity has no case. I discovered there is no evidence for Christianity. And I also found out, to my astonishment, that there is no need for it.” (Losing Faith in Faith)

We certainly don’t need Christianity to keep us moral. Every day we see the headlines about church scandals, which can’t be chalked up to a few bad apples, but are evidence of systemic institutional corruption. Gee, a quote from Jesus comes to mind: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)

What is the church good for? A case can be made that it’s good for the construction business. Priestly egos are at stake—‘my church has to be bigger than your church’—and, of course the ‘glory of God’ is seen as the justification for each new church constructed. There are more than 3,000 Catholic cathedrals in the world: we sure hope God savors all that glory! And the church universal must employ millions of pastors and administrators. All those jobs!

But what a price to pay for maintaining ancient superstitions, and it doesn’t matter if spooky old beliefs (think ‘holy ghost’) masquerade as benevolent piety. Here, above all, we must ask, “Who needs it?” And these days, above all, we need to encourage reality-based thinking. Step inside a church—any church—and that standard is abandoned. Useless dogma is worse than useless; it’s dangerous, obstructing understanding of how the world works.

One good example is highlighted by an essay in John Loftus’ 2016 anthology (Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion) titled “Saying Sayonara to Sin,” by Robert M. Price and Edwin A. Suominen (who, I am happy to say, guided my book to publication at Tellectual Press), hereafter referred to as P&S. The essay is based on material in their 2013 book, Evolving Out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution.

In the Beginning Was…the Folklore

While Genesis has played a key role preserving superstition, we can’t fault it for that; the authors worked with what they had, in terms of knowledge. One of the wisecracks leveled at the Bible is that it was written by people who didn’t know where the sun went at night. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t curious; people tried to figure things out. P&S point out that the Genesis creation story is an ethnological myth, but it also qualifies as an etiological myth. Its authors were making a stab at explaining origins of people and behavior.

It was the most natural thing in the world to give god(s) credit for creating the world, nor was there trouble in imagining that the gods paid attention to human affairs; the horrendous Noah story is based on confidence that gods didn’t approve of what they saw. So what could have been the origin of human wickedness and depravity?

Hence the Eden story, in which rebellion takes the form of willful disobedience, known in Christian theology as Original Sin. The first man came from the mixture of soil and divine breath (Genesis 2:7; that first ingredient perhaps didn’t bode well). Then the subordinate creature, fashioned from a rib (more magic) did the evil deed. But disobedience—such a natural, na├»ve, conclusion—is a fundamental error.

The Demotion of Adam

Adam and his complex brain were not formed from dirt, nor was there even an Adam, as many non-fundy Christians admit today. P&S begin their essay with a brief survey of what we know about human origins, and how far back we can trace our ancestry:

Homo heidelbergensis was making sophisticated stone hand axes and wooden spears hundreds of thousands of years before the first humans did. And there were probably human-controlled fires burning in hearths by 500,000 years ago.” (p. 170)

Just as we know the earth isn’t flat and that spontaneous generation of disease is nonsense, we know too that the enormous complexity of the brain didn’t arise in an instant from dirt; the complex circuitry inside our heads is the product of aeons of evolution.

P&S quote Daniel J. Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA. The human brain

“…is an evolutionary patchwork quilt—stitching together a complex and varied system of structures and functions, some of which date back almost to the beginnings of life itself. Our brains have evolved with a host of extremely powerful emotions, capable of harnessing our thought and attention, often without our awareness.” (p. 184)

That is why we behave as we do, not because of an original act of disobedience. For survival, traits got wired into our brains, e.g., territoriality, aggression, and capacity for anger.

Which brings us back to What good is Christianity, who needs it? P&S break the news to us:

“Traditional theology has told us that the Fall put the taint of sin and corruption into man from Adam and Eve’s screw-up. An understanding of evolutionary human origins dispenses with such nonsense on two grounds.

“First…there was no such event; it is an ancient myth with evident pagan parallels. Second, those actions that have been labeled as ‘sin’ do not arise from any subsequent corruption of our nature, but from our very nature itself, as the descendants of reproductive survivors in a harsh and brutal world.

“All of those ‘sinful’ traits that Christian clergy have condemned from their pulpits ever since Clement of Alexandria’s joyless asceticism have evolutionary explanations that make a whole lot more sense than the story that Christian theologians dreamed up.” (p. 182)

The New Testament Builds on the Error

Note carefully: “…the story that Christian theologians dreamed up.” Christians didn’t write the Adam and Eve story, so just what did the theologians dream up? Oh dear, we now find ourselves dealing once again with that champion of mediocre thinking and bad theology, the apostle Paul. He knew for sure there had to be a foolproof remedy for Adam’s Fall. P&S direct our attention to a long text in Romans 5:12-19, which includes:

“For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”

“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”

Very cool, of course, if Paul’s premise had been correct, that ‘in Adam’s fall sinned we all.’ Which it wasn’t—as serious thinkers know—and unfortunately Paul hallucinated an utterly bizarre solution for the cleansing of sins, i.e., believing that crucified Jesus was resurrected. Non-Christian theists are as stumped by this theological derailment as much as atheists are; it is at the very heart of New Testament thought, and is a derailment: “…the death of Jesus cannot be understood as a solution unless there is a prior problem to solve. And evolution replaces the whole Adam ‘problem’ with a scientific explanation.” (P&S, p. 181)

They also quote Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, who grasps the trauma: “The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel.” (p. 173)

What good is Christianity, who needs it?

P&S land knockout punches:

• “Isn’t the whole notion of a dying and rising savior appeasing a judgmental deity just as obsolete as the idea of a first human progenitor suddenly popping into existence—complete with endogenous retroviruses, fossil genes, vestigial traits, and a belly button?” (p. 175)

• “Forget all the ancient nonsense about being saddled with some inherent ‘sin-corrupt’ nature, about blaming everything on some mythical Adam. You are here because you had ancestors who did what it took to survive and reproduce in a very harsh world.

• “It’s as simple as that! What you inherited from your furrier forebears is not some taint of sin but the very traits that allowed them to produce you. The whole idea of sin, original or otherwise, is a shriveled vestige left over from cultural evolution, one that we can happily excise from our thinking in a world of secular morality and self-awareness.” (p. 186)

Protecting Their Territory

But sin is big business, when religious bureaucrats own the formulas for escaping the consequences, whether it’s a matter of setting a high bar for ‘right beliefs,’ or providing a mechanism like ‘going to confession.’ One meme making the rounds on social media: “I prayed for a bicycle, but then realized that’s not how it works. So I stole a bike, then asked for forgiveness.” Maybe that’s too cynical, but apologists know very well that they have to legitimize the Christ-formula for forgiveness; otherwise, people will sense that Christianity is indeed good for nothing.

P&S offer a few examples of Christian gymnasts trying their best, including liberal Protestants who emerged in the 1800s and placed their “hopes not on evangelism but on education and social reform. Having rejected the atonement as ‘butcher shop religion,’ they preferred a social, collective approach creating a new, environmental conception of sin and its remedy via the Social Gospel.” (p. 177)

In other words, we can do without Jesus’ promised Kingdom of God that never arrived, and Paul’s magical thinking about believing in precisely the right stuff. The Social Gospel—essentially, through hard work, bringing improvement to the human condition—depends not in the least on piles of dogma about how to crawl out from under the weight of Adam’s sin.

On a Lighter Note

It’s a little hard to believe that, once upon a time, believers of the highest stature (supposedly) imagined Eden as a literal paradise. P&S quote Martin Luther:

“…it is amazing that there could be a physical life without death and without all the incidentals of death, such as diseases, smallpox, stinking accumulations of fluids in the body, etc. In the state of innocence no part of the body was filthy. There was no stench in excrement, nor were there other execrable things. Everything was most beautiful, without any offense to organs of sense…” (p. 182)

So, shit didn’t stink until after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? Who knew. On the other hand, Luther, who was famous for his foul flatulence, and saw the value of the stink: “But I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

Update, now, 2019: We’re dealing with the real world, and trying to get people to adopt reality-based thinking; chasing away sacred superstitions is vital. No, we don’t need one more cathedral or megachurch. Neil deGrasse Tyson smacks down deity-based delusions: “Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes. The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms.”

The ancient creeds that folks still recite by rote on Sunday mornings are insurance forms conjured so long ago—insurance again death and God’s wrath. The pew sitters today could probably figure out the scam if all references in the creeds to God, Jesus, and Christ were replaced with the word Neptune.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.