Keeping the Folks in the Pews in the Dark

What the church doesn’t want them to think about

Worship services are a form of show business, at which some Christian brands excel especially. How much does the Vatican spend every year on its worship costumes alone? But most denominations, while not so extravagant, do their best to “put on the show,” which includes music, liturgy, ritual, props, sets—those stained-glass depictions of Bible stories—and the trained actors, i.e., the clergy. All this is designed to promote the beliefs and doctrines of each denomination. But there are so many different denominations: who is getting Christianity right? Is there any denomination that urges its followers to look beyond the liturgies? What’s behind it all? What are the origins of the beliefs celebrated in liturgies?


John Loftus, in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, has correctly noted how the church—of whatever brand—tries to win and keep converts:


“New converts in different social 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)


Indeed, it might be argued that the worship spectacle—it really is a show—is meant to divert attention from truly distressing realities that are best ignored—for the sake of keeping faith intact. 


Here are four of these distressing realities:


1.     The Bible doesn’t qualify as divinely inspired


The Bible has been hyped for centuries as a source of information about a god. A splendid edition of the Bible is commonly found on the church altar, and no Christian home would be complete without at least one copy. Presidents are sworn in using the Bible as a prop. One Christian sect has footed the bill for placing more than a billion copies of it in hotel rooms. It has been translated into hundreds of languages, not doubt because of Jesus-script in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”


Yet with all this, how embarrassing that many Christians pay so little attention to it, maybe because they’ve tried reading it, and given up. They grasp—but would rarely admit—that Hector Avalos’ analysis is correct: going line by line, 99% of the Bible would not be missed. After trying to wade through much of the Old Testament or the letters of the apostle Paul, they’re happy with the feel-good verses read from the pulpit. Moreover, they are largely unaware that intense scholarly study of the Bible—for the last two centuries—has revealed how deficient the Bible is from the perspectives of morality, history, or even what might reasonably be called sane religion. 


This is the distressing reality, for which I make a full case in my essay, “Five Inconvenient Truths that Falsify Biblical Revelation,” in John Loftus’ 2019 anthology, The Case Against Miracles. I’ll offer one specific example here. In January 2018, on this blog, I published an article, Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot, in which I discussed several bizarre features of Mark’s gospel—specifically about Jesus. Hence my warning to those Christians who want to believe that Mark’s gospel was divinely inspired: “If you accept the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, you are well on the way to full-throttle crazy religion. No slick excuses offered by priests and pastors—none of their pious

posturing about ‘our Lord and Savior’—can change that fact.” 


Christian apologists have written countless books and articles trying to rescue the Bible, to hold on to it as divinely inspired scripture. For the most part, they convince only each other.


2.     Christian origins scuttle its claim to be the One True Religion


It is common to celebrate the heroism and determination of the apostle Paul, especially as he is portrayed in the Book of Acts. But then we hit a brick wall: this apostle, whose writings are the first we have about Jesus Christ, never met or knew Jesus—and bragged that he didn’t learn anything about Jesus from those who had followed him: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin, for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”   (Galatians 1:11-12) Paul had no problem claiming it was “a revelation,” but we can be properly skeptical about getting messages from the spiritual realm: where is the reliable, verifiable data that this actually happens?  A better explanation is that Paul suffered from hallucinations. So this is not good: the Christian religion received a major primary boost from the hallucinations of a man who never met Jesus. This must qualify as a distressing reality.


Nor can Christians fall back on the gospels as a firm anchor for the truth about Jesus. There is scant evidence that they were written by eyewitnesses. The broad consensus among Christian scholars—outside of fundamentalist/evangelical circles—is that the gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman War. This ferocious conflict brought widespread devastation; it is highly improbable that anyone in the original Jesus-sect, i.e., eyewitnesses, would have survived. Thus one of the agonizing dilemmas in New Testament scholarship: there is no way to verify any of the words and deeds of Jesus reported in the gospels. Especially since the gospels read so much like fantasy literature. Devout readers may think this is okay—after all, they believe in miracles. But each miracle story, each bit of folklore and magical thinking, forces historians to concede that the gospels fail as history. They qualify rather as propaganda literature for the early Jesus cult. And they worked so well in this capacity for centuries, until critical, skeptical analysis of the gospels began to take over.


The fact that the gospels were written in Greek points to even more complications in figuring out Christian origins. Dennis MacDonald has shown, in several of his books, that the gospel writers were influenced by Greek literature in creating their stories about Jesus. Thus it’s no surprise that themes common in other religions were grafted onto the Jesus narratives, e.g., a hero or divine son born of a virgin, a dying-and-rising god bringing salvation to followers; so many of the wonders attributed to Jesus are similar to miracle folklore found in other religious traditions. 


Yet all these factors that influenced the birth and evolution of Christianity remain outside the awareness of those who show up for church—for the worship experience. Many priests and preachers may be in the dark themselves. They were trained to “spread the gospel,” not to encourage probing, skepticism, and doubt. The literature on the complex origins of the Christian faith is now vast; scholars have been studying it for a long time. But almost none of this has filtered down to the laity. 


3.     Christians have fought and killed each other over theological differences


What a sorry history this is, a distressing reality indeed. Even in the New Testament itself, we find the beginnings of Christian dissention. The apostle Paul was blunt: “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood self-condemned…” (Galatians 2:11) And in I Corinthians 1:10-13 we read: 


“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you but that you be knit together in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been made clear to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” 


This tendency of Christians to disagree has resulted in the endless—and continuing—splintering of this religion, with now well over 30,000 different denominations, divisions, sects, and cults: because they cannot agree on theology and worship practice. Which doesn’t seem to bother the faithful, and is even piously denied: “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” (Hymn lyrics by John Oxenham, 1908)  


Philip Jenkins came up with one of the best titles ever: Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. (2010) This is one of his observations: “By the year 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 Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) is an appalling example (four to eight million dead) of Christians killing other Christians. Consider also World War I, Christian nations locked in mutual slaughter for four years. 


One more example—a less terrifying one—of Christians not being able to get along. In this case, Catholics. There are Catholic women who want to become priests, convinced this is their vocation because of they’ve been called to it by the Holy Spirit. But the patriarchy will have none of it, saying, in effect, that the holy-spirit-experience of these devout women is not valid. The male priests, anchored in their own theological certainties, don’t want to admit women to their fellowship of love. 


4.     Small and epic episodes of horrendous suffering cancel belief in a good, powerful god


This is a distressing reality that is perhaps ignored the most. The spectacle of worship is a way for the devout to hold on to their belief that the Cosmos is friendly, that a caring father-god is accessible, and can be influenced by flattery, i.e., “How great thou art!” “Hallowed be thy name!” etc. Even a little reflection shows that this doesn’t bring the desired results. We live in a dangerous world, and even the most fervent believers are not exempt from ssuffering. Just look at the way the world works—if you’re religious, look at the way your god allows the world to work: school shootings, church shootings (one in particular, in which hundreds of women and children were machine-gunned to death), endless warfare for millennia (all that aggression…god couldn’t have done better designing the human brain?), thousands of genetic diseases, the agony of mental illness, plagues, pandemics, cancers; our brutal planet, i.e., earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires.


The faithful need to reflect on the implications of these horrors. But critical thinking doesn’t come easily. We’ve all heard the stories of houses burning down, people killed, but wow: a Bible was left untouched by the flames. A miracle! A plane crashes, hundreds die, but wow one person somehow survived. A miracle! Such nonsense is encouraged by clerical explanations for small and epic episodes of horrendous suffering:


“God works in mysterious ways.”

“God has a bigger plan that we don’t know about.”


These are guesses, speculation. To take them seriously we need to know where we can find the reliable, verifiable, objective data upon which they’re based. No such luck, these are evasive tactics, cowardly dodges: “We don’t want to think about issues that might damage our faith.” And so many of the laity follow. Other excuses are even worse:


“God is testing us, punishing us.”


Of course, the clergy can turn to the Bible to back up this excuse. Bible-god threatens repeated—in both the Old and New Testaments—to destroy people for their sins. Believers who nod approval apparently don’t notice their descent into bad theology, oblivious to a god who qualifies as a moral monster. On the other hand, I suspect that some church folks shy away from Bible reading because the abusive theology is all too obvious, e.g., in this Jesus-script: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter…” (Matthew 12:36) 


The ministry requires certain skills for spreading the good news, preaching the standard creeds, but at the same time suppressing curiosity: “It’s better not to think about the things we don’t want you to think about. Take what we say on faith—please.” 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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