Things the Clergy Won’t Tell You

To protect thousands of different, conflicting Christian brands 

Let’s look at four forbidden topics.




Each Christian denomination—there are so many divisions, sects, cults—screens and vets those who rise to the rank of clergy. These are the champions of the faith, as it is preached across such a wide spectrum of conflicting versions. No individual congregation would tolerate any clergy who strays far from the orthodoxy cherished by that congregation. Thus we won’t find Catholic priests stepping into their pulpits on Sunday morning to explain that Mormonism or Methodism happens to be the right brand of Christianity after all. Of course not, because all clergy are paid propagandists for their own brand of the faith. That’s how they earn their living.



But that’s not something any member of the clergy will declare out loud. That is, it’s a forbidden topic. Nor will they ever challenge the folks in the pews: “How do you know that what I’m telling you is the truth? That is, ours is the true version of the Christian faith.” In general, there is a failure to urge parishioners to be curious. Here are a couple of things that could be said from the pulpit:


“Please get on your cellphones right away, do a Google search—or whatever—to find out if what I’ve said in this sermon is correct. Can my claims, my theology be verified? It’s not a good idea to just take my word for it. Be relentlessly curious.”


“Please do some homework this coming week. I’d like each one of you to read the gospel of Mark, all sixteen chapters, from start to finish. Read it carefully, critically, and come back next Sunday with a list of problems you spotted. That is, theological problems, as well as items you find hard to believe. Be relentlessly curious.” 


Chances are very slim, of course, that the paid propagandists will make such suggestions. And it is truly baffling that laypeople don’t seem to grasp that the leader of their flock has a vested interest in diverting attention from incriminating questions and embarrassing realities.     




The scandal of Christian division and disagreement about fundamental beliefs can be traced to the very beginning, as the apostle Paul’s complaint makes clear:


“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Galatians 1:6-8)


And it only got worse, as Philip Jenkins has pointed out: “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.” (Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years, p.242)


Yes, it is routine. We are entitled to ask why Christians today aren’t horrified by this “state of chaos.”  “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great followship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” What a joke. Such lyrics are part of more diversion, to keep devout folks from seeing the Christian chaos. How can their faith be the “one true faith” when it’s in such a mess? How does this possibly make sense? So this is also a forbidden topic. 


Here’s a reality: the bigger the town or city, the more different churches—i.e., denominations—there will be. This is another case where be relentlessly curious is good advice. But the clergy are not about to recommend sampling other denominations. The clergy could say to their parishioners: “For the next month, we want you all to visit other denominations on Sunday morning. Do some comparison shopping. Find out what their churches look like, what their preachers have to say, how their rituals differ from ours. Carefully compare their beliefs about Jesus with our beliefs.” In other words, be relentlessly curious why this Christian mess prevails, and shows no sign of coming to an end. Why is it that Christians cannot agree? Something is seriously wrong—which, in fact, falsifies this supposedly great religion. But the clergy won’t tell you to look critically, skeptically at this state of affairs. 




Some of the laity who show up the church every week are perhaps vaguely aware that scholarly study of the Bible is a major industry. That is, thousands of devout scholars—for several generations now—have studied the gospels and epistles intensively. Not a single word of the New Testament has escaped careful analysis. For a long time this passion was driven by the assumption—the certainty—that the Bible deserved such close attention because it had been divinely inspired. But that idea has become harder and harder to defend. The more the Bible has been studied, the more its errors, contradictions, and flaws have become so obvious. Hence there are devout scholars and apologists who make it their business to account/make excuses for the many mistakes in what was supposed to be a perfect book. 


Most of this scholarly energy and activity has gone on beyond the horizon of awareness of the folks who attend church. And the clergy have no interest in telling their parishioners, “Hey, you should be paying attention to what scholars have discovered.” Bible study at that level is dangerous. For example, for a long time now Jesus-studies have been in turmoil. Many different profiles of Jesus— “This is who he was”—have been proposed by scholars who can’t agree on which gospel texts authentically represent what Jesus said and did. Laypeople can sense this is the case: if they read Mark's gospel, then John's, it is so obvious that each of these authors imagined Jesus very differently. 


Why would the clergy want their followers to be thinking about these issues? Here especially, be relentlessly curious can be hazardous to the health of the church. Jesus-lord-and-savior is the primary product sold, and business would suffer if that is undermined in any way. Hence it’s unlikely that clergy, at the beginning of Advent, will say from the pulpit: “Please study carefully the Jesus birth story in Matthew 2, then do the same with Luke’s version (Luke 2:1-40). How can they we reconciled?” Nor will the clergy, at the beginning of Lent, recommend careful study of the four accounts of Easter morning in the four gospels. There is no way these accounts can be reconciled, nor is there any way they qualify as history. Back in June I published an article here, The Bible Can Be a Believer’s Worst Nightmare, offering examples of why relentless curiosity about the Bible is not encouraged. Some clergy do offer carefully crafted Bible study classes for their parishioners—that is, crafted to make excuses for/divert attention from the glaring contradictions and bad theology. 




Any Christian layperson who might adopt relentless curiosity in studying the Bible will sooner or later come across the many books by John Loftus (e.g., Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails and The End of Christianity) and Dan Barker (e.g. God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction)—and will perceive that the Bible itself doesn’t do the faith any favors. 


But there is yet another area of study that falsifies the faith decisively; namely, the cultural and religious context in which Christianity arose. In fact this is extraordinarily complex, and requires as lot of relentless curiosity and discipline. Certainly the clergy will not point their followers in this direction: the information and insights are truly alarming


A very handy resource for this endeavor is a book-sized chunk, namely pages 56-234, in Richard Carrier’s 696-page On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. In pages 56-234 Carrier describes 48 cultural and religion elements that must be grasped to understand Christianity’s origins. In two earlier articles I commented on a few of these elements (here and here). 


Two very important elements are 47 & 48 (pp. 225-234). Carrier draws attention to the fact that the Jesus story conforms to the stories of so many other holy heroes worshipped in other ancient cults. The early Christian authors specialized in borrowing; they wanted their Jesus to share equal status with other cult heroes.  


“…the most ubiquitous model ‘hero’ narrative, which pagans also revered and to which the Gospel Jesus also conforms, is the fable of the ‘divine king’, what I call the Rank–Raglan hero-type, based on the two scholars who discovered and described it, Otto Rank and Lord Raglan. 188 This is a hero-type found repeated across at least fifteen known mythic heroes (including Jesus) …” (OHJ, p. 229)


“The idea of the ‘translation to heaven’ of the body of a divine king was therefore adaptable and flexible, every myth being in various ways different but in certain core respects the same. But the Gospels conform to the Romulus model most specifically.” (OHJ, p. 226)


“Romulus, of course, was also unjustly killed by the authorities (and came from a humble background, beginning his career as an orphan and a shepherd, a nobody from the hill country), and thus also overlaps the Aesop–Socratic type (see Element 46), and it’s easy to see that by combining the two, we end up with pretty much the Christian Gospel in outline…” (OHJ, p. 227)


Some clergy may offer Bible study classes, but, No, they won’t tell you that the story of Jesus was created following other common models. Ancient superstitions celebrated a variety of savior heroes: the early authors of the Jesus cult made sure he got into the club. 





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, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) 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. At the invitation of John Loftus, 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