The Massive Damage Done by Sunday School and Catechism

Indoctrination is not education

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals how much early Christians disagreed with each other, but even so it’s possible to create a profile of its weird cult beliefs. 


The early Christians expected to meet Jesus in the sky—along with dead friends and family who had accepted Jesus—and to live with him forever (I Thessalonians 4). Those who qualified for this status said out loud that Jesus was lord, and believed in their hearts that god had raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). He had died as a human sacrifice to a god, to enable this god to forgive sins—Jesus was the ransom (Mark 10:45). Belonging to Jesus meant that prayer requests were guaranteed (Mark 11:24), that sexual desires had been cancelled (Galatians 5:24, I Corinthians 7:1). Even if that were not entirely true, since the arrival of Jesus on the clouds would happen any day now, it is best to remain pure. The unmarried state is preferred (I Corinthians 7:32-34). In fact, families were a distraction, cult loyalty was the primary value—to the point of cutting off family relations (Luke 14:26, Matthew 8:21-22). In addition to believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead, ritually eating his flesh and drinking his blood were additional ways to guarantee eternal life (John 6:53-57).



So: a holy hero was expected to arrive from the sky to enforce strict rules of behavior, the reward for which was getting to live forever. Variations on this theme have been preached by cults over the centuries. Many modern Christians have managed to modify/soften this Bible-based version of how life is supposed to be lived. But all it takes to see these elements of cult fanaticism is a careful, eyes-wide-open reading of the New Testament. Which means that this ancient document is stunningly out of sync with our modern understanding of how the world and Cosmos works. 


Hence, to the degree that Sunday Schools and Catechism teach any part of this cult fanaticism, they are doing damage. The world doesn’t need people who are hoping for/expecting a holy hero from the sky to make the world a better place—to guarantee they’ll get to live forever. A few years ago I was invited to attend the First Communion ceremony at a Catholic Church. Truly it was like stepping back into an ancient cultic ritual. Girls seven/eight years of age wore wedding dresses for the privilege of eating the flesh of their god for the first time—and in the Catholic church, the Miracle of the Mass means they are eating the real flesh of Jesus. 


The ancient cult still has traction in the modern world because the mammoth Christian bureaucracy—even though splintered into thousands of different brands—keeps it going. The clergy, usually groomed themselves in Sunday School and Catechism, are fully committed to it. That is, the indoctrination worked exactly as it was supposed to: “Here is the truth as handed down to us. Believe it, take it on faith.” In some denominations, the more alarming elements of the original cult mindset are softened, e.g., the requirement that family be set aside; the famous Jesus-script about hating your family isn’t usually heard from the pulpit. 


But the massive damage done by Sunday School and Catechism is the stunting of curiosity. If anyone is bold enough to ask, “Reverend, how do we know that this particular item of faith is true?” the response will be standard formulas, e.g., it’s in the Bible, it’s been part of our sacred tradition for centuries, the holy spirit guarantees it. And commonly the assumption will be that the good reverend has studied and/or prayed about it enough for everyone to trust him/her. It is not the obligation of the clergy to urge their parishioners to question, probe, or be skeptical. And that’s why religious indoctrination does massive damage.


Once that crucial question has been asked, “How do we know this is true?” full-throttle curiosity should be encouraged and rewarded. No matter what the item of faith may be, e.g., god is love, Jesus rose from the death, the holy spirit is there to guide us, prayer works—the best question to ask is: 


Who was the first person to come up with the idea? Who said or wrote about it for the very first time? 


Maybe it was the author of one of the gospels, or the apostle Paul in his letters. Then the crucial question must be: 


Did this article of faith pop into the author’s mind because of revelation, imagination, or hallucination? 


If the clergy are quick to answer revelation, we need to ask how they know this. How can this be verified? Obviously, “Please, just take it on faith,” means that curiosity really is not welcome or appreciated. 


The laity commonly fail to realize that Christian origins—the thought-world in which the Christian cult arose—have been thoroughly, exhaustively studied for a long time now. And it is startling to realize how many ideas the early Jesus-cult borrowed from the other cults that had been up and running for a long time. It is na├»ve to assume that Jesus came along, preached his message, collected his followers—and had such an impact that Christianity sprang to life and spread dramatically after his death. The clergy and the church have thrived for a very long time on this “greatest story ever told.”


It's bad enough that the laity are woefully ignorant of the gospels—I mean, being able to discuss these documents intelligently, aware of their differences, contradictions, and the theological problems they pose—but it would seem there is close to zero interest among the laity in serious study of Christian origins: let’s find out where our faith really came from. Come on, the resources are available to discover what many other ancient religions believed, and their impact on Christianity.   


There’s an especially handy tool for exploring Christian origins. Richard Carrier’s 618-page book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, includes two chapters, 4 and 5 (pp. 56-234) that provide detailed descriptions of 48 elements that are crucial for understanding Christian origins. The book as a whole presents the issues that have prompted doubts that Jesus was a real person. I have urged laypeople to study the issues—rather than just being alarmed at the very idea—that is: do the homework. Carrier’s book, by the way, makes the scholarship easily accessible; early in the book he explains why he avoids a stuffy academic style. 


But quite apart from the issue of Jesus-myth-or-real, the 48 elements that Carrier describes are basic for understanding how Christian beliefs were shaped by its context. 


Here I’ll focus on just a few, starting with Element 4:


“(a) Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. (b) It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults. (c) That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.” (p. 67)


The mission of the gospel writers was to champion their candidate for messiah. The author of Mark’s gospel reports (1:11) that a voice from heaven declared Jesus to be god’s son. Of course, this is the focus of lessons taught by the church, but nothing is mentioned about the rash of messianism in the first century—and its implications for the bragging of the Jesus cult.  


I recommend careful study Element 15 especially, pp. 124-137, which begins with this statement: 


“Christianity began as a charismatic cult in which many of its leaders and members displayed evidence of schizotypal personalities. They naturally and regularly hallucinated (seeing visions and hearing voices), often believed their dreams were divine communications, achieved trance states, practiced glossolalia, and were (or so we’re told) highly susceptible to psychosomatic illnesses (like ‘possession’ and hysterical blindness, muteness and paralysis).” (p. 124)


So we wonder what was going on in the heads of those promoting the Jesus cult. This brings us back to that crucial question: did their ideas about god and Jesus come from revelation, imagination or hallucination? After providing details for ten pages, Carrier concludes:


“All of this provides considerable background support to what several scholars have already argued: that the origin of Christianity can be attributed to hallucinations (actual or pretended) of the risen Jesus. The prior probability of this conclusion is already extremely high, given the background evidence just surveyed; and the consequent probabilities strongly favor it as well, given the evidence we can find in the NT.” (p. 134)


We can safely assume that this hallucination factor isn’t covered in Sunday School and Catechism—oh wait: they get away with it by talking about visions. But, of course, overlooking the fact that religions generally won’t grant that the visions of other religions are authentic. 


Element 31 delivers another blow: 


“Incarnate sons (or daughters) of a god who died and then rose from their deaths to become living gods granting salvation to their worshipers were a common and peculiar feature of pagan religion when Christianity arose, so much so that influence from paganism is the only plausible explanation for how a Jewish sect such as Christianity came to adopt the idea.” (p. 168)


Carrier goes into considerable detail on this embarrassment in his article, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It.


Finally, I’ll mention Element 43:


“(a) Voluntary human sacrifice was widely regarded (by both pagans and Jews) as the most powerful salvation and atonement magic available. (b) Accordingly, any sacred story involving a voluntary human sacrifice would be readily understood and fit perfectly within both Jewish and pagan worldviews of the time.”  (p. 209)


We wonder why Christians aren’t, in fact, horrified by this grotesque belief as the centerpiece of their faith. The clergy do a good job of making it look good.


Carrier offered a good summation of these data in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails


“The New Testament is recognized by biblical scholars the world over as an arbitrary hodgepodge of dubious literature of uncertain origins and reliability. We have no reason to believe the authors of the New Testament documents were any more honest or critical or infallible than any other men of their time, and there’s plenty of evidence to suspect they were less so.” (p. 297-298)


How can the promotion of the ancient Jesus cult NOT involve massive damage? 


There is one prominent example of the damage that comes to mind: Mike Pence, raised a Catholic, who has described himself as “a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” He does not believe in evolution. Chris Matthew, in an interview with Pence on MSNBC Hardball, pressed him on this. He responded:


“I believe with all my heart that God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them. … How he did that, I’ll ask him about some day."


This is a special brand of stupid, a symptom of a brain locked by cult belief. He doesn’t have to wait to ask god about it—and what arrogance, to assume that a creator with hundreds of billions of galaxies under management will sit down to have a chat with Mike Pence about the science he should have made the effort to learn. That is cult craziness. Evolution is an established fact; just do the homework! Pick up a few books on the basics of biology and learn. The same holds true about Pence’s opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people; his mind is locked into the assumptions of the cult. Human sexuality has been studied in depth. Study the research, find the books. Learn


And what one human out of eight billion believes with “all his heart” means nothing. Back up your claims with hard data: reliable, verifiable, objective evidence. Move beyond the mindset of Sunday School and Catechism.




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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here


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