How Do Religious Bureaucrats Get Away With It?

The Zero-Curiosity Factor

Ironically enough, most Christians don’t seem to be all that curious about the Bible. It’s supposed to be the Word of God, after all, so why not spend as much time studying the Bible as watching sports and movies? You know: really get in tune with God. But plowing through scripture isn’t all that rewarding; there is too much tedium, there are too many bog-down points. As John Loftus has wondered: Couldn’t God have done a better job of communicating?

Guy P. Harrison has done the research:

“In 2013 a Protestant preacher told me that he estimates no more than 15 to 20 percent of his parishioners read the Bible on a regular basis. Many Christians do read the Bible, of course. Some read it on a regular basis, even daily, but how are they reading it? Are they working their way through it, page by page and line by line? Or are they merely leapfrogging from familiar sentences to comforting stories?

“One can spend a lifetime bouncing back and forth between popular passages without ever reading the more challenging and disturbing parts of the Bible. I have consistently found this to be the case during discussions and interviews with Christians all around the world. As most religious skeptics know, it’s common for Christians to react with surprise or to express outright denial when asked about some of the more awkward, bizarre, and disturbing passages found in the Bible.” (50 Simple Questions to Ask Christians)

Hence church bureaucrats are probably relieved that the Bible doesn’t get much traffic. In fact, their survival depends on the Zero-Curiosity Factor: “Keeping them in the dark” is a part of the strategy. They don’t welcome laypeople poking about where they don’t belong, i.e., exploring some of the major vulnerabilities of the faith. The Bible, a major accumulation of horrors, is just one of the hazmat zones. There are actually three categories of dangerous knowledge that terrify priests and preachers (well, there are more, but three is enough for today).

Category One: What’s Happening in Jesus Studies?

My suspicion is that, easily 99 percent of Christian laypeople don’t have a clue that the field of Jesus studies has been in turmoil for decades. Are they even aware that there is a field of Jesus studies, that thousands of Christian scholars are devoted to intense analysis of the gospels? If the veil were lifted on this colossal enterprise, laypeople might say, “Well, isn’t that special!”

But the awful truth is the turmoil.

No consensus has been achieved on who Jesus was or what he said, because the gospels don’t meet even minimal standards as historical documents. There has been endless guesswork and speculation about which gospel texts are reliable, hence devout scholars have come up with many different Jesus profiles. When secular scholars—those with no commitment to Christian belief—have analyzed the gospels, there is little confidence that much history can be found. Richard Carrier has reported:

“A conference sponsored by the Center for Inquiry’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion in Amherst, New York, in December of 2008 gathered numerous reputable historians to begin debating how much we could even claim to know about the historical Jesus—and most agreed the answer was very little, or even nothing. In fact a growing number of mainstream experts are expressing doubt that much of anything can be reliably known about the historical Jesus…” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 11)

That’s scandal enough, but the turmoil is the failure of Christian scholars, no matter how hard they try, to agree on a reliable biography of Jesus: what we know for certain about Jesus; it simply cannot be done. Because of the nature of the gospels, Jesus is obscured by their theological agendas; he is actually unknowable.

How many of the folks in the pews know this? How many priests and preachers know this? And if there are a few spiritual leaders who are aware, do they bother to inform the folks in the pews? No, because that’s not their job. They are paid to help people keep the faith. What’s happening in Jesus studies is a category of dangerous knowledge.

There is, however, one simmering issue in Jesus studies that laypeople may have become aware of: a minority of scholars has argued that Jesus never existed. Cries of alarm have been raised by official apologists who claim—quite rightly—that there is broad consensus among scholars that Jesus did exist. This is hardly a surprise since most Jesus scholars are Christians, many of them ordained.

But the Zero-Curiosity Factor is at work here as well. Why not check it out? Exactly why do some scholars argue that Jesus never existed? The believers who brush off this notion—“How silly can you get!”—usually cannot name even two or three of the factors that cast doubt on the existence of Jesus; not the least of which is what’s missing in the New Testament. This is especially dangerous territory.

A new episode, Number 6, in my series of Flash Podcasts, Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said, is now available.

Category Two: Church History…at The Beginning

A number of years ago I asked a devout Catholic woman where she got her beliefs. From her mother, was the reply, and she holds to her faith with determination because she wants to see mother again in heaven. Naturally too, she could trace the family devotion back to her grandmother. Case closed. What more did I need as validation?

The Zero-Curiosity Factor is in full play here. When she attends Mass, she obviously doesn’t believe that her grandmother invented this pretentious splash of piety. Where did all the beliefs, dogmas, rituals come from? They didn’t emerge one afternoon long ago when Jesus gave parting instructions to his disciples. Here’s a book title that might raise eyebrows:

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years, by Philip Jenkins.

So Jesus had very little to do with it. Theologians invented Christianity, and it wasn’t easy or pretty. Yes, it was a war, as Jenkins has pointed out:

• “In any theological struggle, the first thousand years are always the bitterest.” (p. 234)
• “By 500 or so, the churches were in absolute doctrinal disarray, a state of chaos that might seem routine to a modern American denomination, but which in the context of the time seemed like satanic anarchy.” (p. 242)
• “…the Christian world was by 600 divided into several great transnational churches, each with its own claims to absolute truth. This was an ugly reality for those who idealized the church as the seamless, united body of Christ.” (p. 231)
• “Try as they might to develop institutions or structures to determine truth, by trusting historical authority or by seeking consensus, churches have never found a path that avoids the powerful pressures of individual ambitions and political interest.” (p. 269)

It’s been the same-old, same-old sorry story for centuries, as Guy Harrison reminds us:

“The breakups that have been a standard component of Christianity since shortly after its conception are most often due to doctrinal disputes, disagreements over interpretations of the Bible, cultural drift, and plain old human power struggles. The end result is that Christianity today is splintered beyond belief. There are, at the moment, an estimated 41,000 different denominations.” (50 Simple Questions to Ask Christians)

Priests and preachers benefit from the Zero-Curiosity Factor, because they know that those who fill their pews—all those mothers and grandmothers—won’t try to get to the bottom of all this mess: Why haven’t the theologians and church bureaucrats ever been able to agree? In fact, those in charge encourage rote memorization and repetition to stifle curiosity: “Here are the creeds and prayers that we want you say out loud, and in unison, every Sunday. Get them embedded in your brain. Someone else has decided what it true. Just take our word for it.” The grim reality of church history—all the bitter disagreements—is a dangerous category of knowledge.

Category Three: Where Does Religion Come From?

At the end of his 656-page book, Did Man Create God? Is Your Spiritual Brain at Peace with Your Thinking Brain?, Dr. David E. Comings offers this summary:

“All of the evidence presented in this book suggests the rational brain created God and the Theory of God to explain the unknown, to assuage man’s fear of death and to satisfy the urges of the spiritual brain to belong to a transcendent spirituality larger than itself.” (p. 654-55)

He opens Chapter 30, “The Spiritual Brain,” with his question:

“Is there also a spiritual brain, a neural location for feelings of spirituality, feelings of being connected to something larger than ourselves, feelings of immortality, feelings that we are special, and feelings that God is talking just to us? The answer is yes. This chapter reviews the evidence suggesting that the temporal lobes represent the neural location of spirituality.” (p. 345, emphasis added)

When I was a kid and came up with goofy ideas, my dad would say, “It’s all in your head!” So, yes, there is a lot going on in our heads, including our feelings. And the feelings may not correspond at all to reality. Especially when it come to religion:

“So far we see no proof that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads.” (Victor Stenger, in Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails, ed. John Loftus)

Indeed, God is firmly entrenched in billions of human brains, and that may be the only place he resides. At the conclusion of his Chapter 30, Dr. Comings notes:

“For the cover of this book, I used Michelangelo’s depiction of the Creation of Man from the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo spent considerable time dissecting the human body to learn the secrets of anatomy, including removing and examining the brain. It is of interest that in his fresco, God is resting on the outline of a human brain, right in the area of the temporal lobe. Whether as a part of his insightful genius or happy accident, it appears he got it right.” (p. 398)

Do our feelings about God, which reside in our mammalian brains, provide reliable, verifiable data about the cosmos? What’s really happening in our heads is a dangerous category of knowledge, and the Zero-Curiosity Factor enables priests and preachers to get away with stoking emotions through rituals and indoctrination.

“Since people do not have a real interest in evaluating their innermost beliefs, those who have been conditioned to believe in a book with a talking donkey will never seek out someone to challenge this position. Human beings are surprisingly gullible creatures. The ability to think skeptically is not innate; it requires practice.” (Jason Long, see reference below).

“…do not have a real interest in evaluating their innermost beliefs… will never seek out someone to challenge this position… are surprisingly gullible” = the Zero-Curiosity Factor.

Our brains specialize in tricking us, which is why discoveries about how the world works are based on keen observation and the collection of hard data.

There is plenty of information available to counter the enterprise that church bureaucrats have been getting away with forever:

• Dr. Comings’ massive book is a good place to start, especially Chapter 30 mentioned above, which includes his discussion of Near Death Experiences and TLE:

“Temporal lobe epilepsy and its spiritual manifestations may have played a major role in the religious conversions of many historical figures and in the origin of several religions.” (p. 366)

• John C. Wathey’s The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing.

• Jason Long’s essay, “The Malleability of the Human Mind,” in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John Loftus.

• David Eller’s essay, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing: How Evolved Cognitive Biases Lead to Religion (and Other Mental Errors),” in Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, edited by John Lotus.

For all you footnote junkies out there, these four sources alone point to countless resources for further study.

Not so long ago I posted a meme with a John Loftus quote:

“Christian theism has no more credibility than Scientology, Mormonism, Haitian Voodoo, or the southwest Pacific Ocean cargo cults, because they are all based on faith.”

To which a Christian protested: “This is absurd. We have testimonies.” But so do hundreds of other religions that you don’t believe in. The Zero-Curiosity Factor prevails: how do we know that “testimonies” provide reliable, verifiable data about gods? Wouldn’t you want to find that out? Most believers don’t want to venture into this category of dangerous knowledge.

The church bureaucrats don’t have to worry. Take a look at this list, The Top 100 Best-Selling Christian Devotional Books, which includes these titles:

Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence

Pray Your Way Through the Scriptures

The 7 Most Powerful Prayers That Will Change Your Life Forever

Jesus Speaks: 365 Days of Guidance and Encouragement, Straight from the Words of Christ

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

Jesus: 90 Days with the One and Only

There is a huge market for these titles; they outsell atheist books by many orders of magnitudes. The die-hard Christians, who read piles of books that shamelessly exploit confirmation bias, will never, ever venture into dangerous categories of knowledge. But there is so much to learn when folks yield to curiosity, when they become suspicious of all those “testimonies.”

Their guiding spirit could well be the apostle Paul: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2); we might as well shorten it to… “I resolved to know nothing…” But that’s no longer a good example to follow. Author Michael A. Sherlock recently called it correctly on Twitter: “In this age of information if you're not an atheist, I sincerely hope you're either illiterate or seven years old.”

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.