How Religion Gets Away With It

A few Bible examples

I once asked a super devout Christian woman—she was really into it—where her beliefs came from. Without hesitation, she credited her mother with instilling the faith—who had inherited it, in turn, from her mother. That settled it, as far as she was concerned: the truth of her beliefs was securely anchored. But I had asked the question to find out how much the woman knew about Christian origins. How much did she know about the era and culture in which Christianity had been born?

Shouldn’t it be obvious that you have to look much further back than grandma? For example, who was the very first person to announce to the world that God had a son—and how did he or she come up with that idea? Isn’t it a good idea to be curious about the origins of beliefs?

“Am I believing something that deserves my intense emotional investment?”

When we cast a curious eye at the first century milieu in which Christianity arose, we see the high component of superstition that prevailed. One of the best titles to come along recently is Robert Conner’s Apparitions: The Resurrection as Ghost Story, which is a brilliant study of context, and here on this blog last June, Conner wrote:

“In the era in which Christianity appeared, a clear majority accepted visions and the appearance of ghosts as real events, and lived in the expectation of omens, prophetic dreams, and other close encounters of the supernatural kind. Like many people of the present, they were primed for self-delusion…”

My brief video commentary on this quote is here.

Self-delusion comes very easily—it’s almost inevitable—when people fail to grasp the importance of due diligence. And, of course, taking someone’s word for it is not due diligence. We find a good example of “taking someone’s word” in a famous story in the 8th chapter of the Book of Acts, i.e., in vv. 26-40. Philip—one of the original disciples—encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who is returning home, “on a wilderness road,” after worshipping in Jerusalem. The eunuch is in his chariot, and just happens to be reading a scroll of the Book Isaiah. In Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s translation, “The Spirit said to Philip, ‘Run and catch up with that carriage.’” (p. 413, The Acts of the Apostles)

This in another series of my articles on each chapter of the Book of Acts. The Introductory article is here. The one on Chapter 7 is here.

Not only is the eunuch reading an Isaiah scroll, he has it opened to chapter 53, the Suffering Servant text. Philip asked him:

“Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”

“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”

And right there, on the spot—when they came to water by the road—the eunuch asked to be baptized. “He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”

“…primed for self-delusion.” This is how religion gets away with it. Why in the world would the Ethiopian, traveling on a wilderness road, take at face value what a stranger who caught up with his chariot told him? Of course, readers of the Book of Acts were supposed to be impressed by

(1) Philip’s certainty that Isaiah 53 refers to Jesus
(2) the Ethiopian believing Philip instantly…exactly as missionaries always hope people will do
(3) the instant baptism of the eunuch who believed Philip

Anyone outside the Christian camp could not be faulted for cynicism, “Well, he fell for it.” Do we have much sympathy for people suckered in by Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness fanatics?

Alert readers today who appreciate due diligence will be inclined to assign the story to the fantasy literature genre. At least three markers come to mind:

• At the beginning of the episode, an angel is given a speaking role: “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go at noon to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’”
• Then it is The Spirit—in another speaking role—who instructs Philip to catch up with the chariot.

Historians don’t give speaking roles to angels and spirits. This is what Conner was referring to, “close encounters of the spiritual kind.”

• But then at the end of the story, we find perhaps the best fantasy-genre touch: “…the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…the eunuch saw him no more.”

This reminds us of the ability of advanced wizards in the Harry Potter stories to disapparate—just disappear, to reappear instantly somewhere else. In Philip’s case, he was deposited some thirty miles away. Fitzmyer grasps at straws in suggesting that “…Luke probably makes use here of information that he derived from some Palestinian source.” (p. 410, Acts of the Apostles) It’s far more likely Luke created this scene “on the wilderness road” to advance his agenda.

Earlier in chapter 8 we find an episode that reveals dueling spiritualties, i.e., Christians were up against others who could do their kind of magic, vv. 9-11:

“Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.”

“…primed for self-delusion.” This is how religion gets away with it. People commonly don’t have sharp critical thinking skills and will follow the guy who does the best tricks:

“But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.”

Is there any authentic history to be found in Acts 8? The opening six verses look promising. We’re told that, on the day that Stephen was martyred

“…a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

“Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to a city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip…”

But then we go off the rails again: more close encounters of the supernatural kind:

“The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured.”

“…primed for self-delusion.” This is how religion gets away with it. Even today, folks who stand in awe of a text like this don’t seem to notice—or even care—that these are unevidenced claims. They are taking someone else’s word for it—in this case the word of the author of Acts. Which brings us back to a fundamental issue:

Where did the author of Acts get his information? To avoid being taken in—for example, by enthusiasts who urge us to believe that the Bible is God’s Word—readers should ask, “What were the author’s sources?” and “Was anyone there taking notes?” Scholarly dating of the Book of Acts ranges from 50 to 70 years after the events depicted. We have slim basis for taking the author’s word for this report:

“…Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

There is nothing implausible about this; in fact, in Galatians 1:13 we find Paul’s confession that he “violently persecuted” the church. But there is no way to verify these details, i.e., that he dragged Christians off to prison from their houses. Fitzmyer admits that “…the details are Lucan. Under what pretext Saul could cart Christians off to prison is not said.” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 397) We should be suspicious. In Acts 9 we will find that the author got another part of the Saul/Paul story wrong—totally; Paul contradicts it in Galatians 1. It’s not implausible at all that the story came out of the author’s imagination.

And we come to more close encounters of the supernatural kind, which would look at home in stories of the occult—séances, the summoning of spirits, and ouija boards (vv.14-17):

“Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

“…primed for self-delusion.” This is how religion gets away with it. We are in the world of magic, which had tremendous appeal: the conjuring of spirits by the laying on of hands.

Earlier, as we’ve seen in vv. 9 -13, there’s the story of Simon doing his own miracles, but it now seems he wanted to get in on the Christian action (vv.18-21):

“Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.’”

This is the same Peter, by the way, who (in Acts 5) wanted Ananias and Sapphira to give him all the money from the sale of a field—and they both dropped dead of terror when Peter denounced them. But now, here in Acts 8, Simon offers money to Peter, but is scolded and condemned. Wouldn’t it have been kinder for Peter—the Rock upon whom Christ would build his church—to say, “Simon, your pure heart will merit receiving the Spirit, no payment is necessary.” And maybe Peter, who wanted everything from Ananias and Sapphira, could have had some of Simon’s cash in the bargain.

Religion gets way with it all too often because texts like Acts 8 are taken at face value: “The Bible tells me so.” But, examined critically, anyone can spot the bad theology, superstition, and magical thinking. Robert Conner has also said that most Christians know bupkis about what’s in the New Testament, and they know even less about Christian origins. What was good enough for grandma is good enough for them.

Christianity looks a lot less special, compelling, and believable when its origins are studied in context—that is, as Conner has said, “the era in which Christianity appeared.” There is a 178-page section (pp. 56-234) in Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, in which he presents, in considerable detail, 48 Elements that constitute the background from which Christianity arose. Truly, this is need-to-know stuff.

But of course missionaries, evangelists, priests, preachers, and Sunday school teachers don’t encourage such close examination of the faith. As John Loftus has pointed out:

“…new converts in different cultural contexts have no initial way of truly investigating the proffered faith. Which evangelist will objectively tell the ugly side of the Bible and of the church while preaching the good news? None that I know of. Which evangelist will tell a prospect about the innumerable problems Christian scholars must solve? None that I know of.” (p. 90, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails)

We’re dealing with non-overlapping magisteria in the Christian world: on the one hand, the ongoing glut of Christian devotional books designed to sustain faith; however, almost entirely untouched by the folks in the pews is the other: scholarly works written by devout and secular specialists that critically analyze Bible texts. Any venture into this second world is a painful eye-opener: lay readers would see the problems presented by almost every chapter of the Bible. This would be work; it’s hard enough to get Christians to read the Bible, let alone read scholarly books about the Bible.

There would be a lot less of religion getting away with it if believers could be persuaded to do some homework.

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 published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video description of the Library is here.