A Mighty Fortress Is Their Faith: Protecting Ancient Superstitions

“…an utterly wrongheaded approach to their faith…”

About ten years ago, when was I writing drafts of chapters that would be part of my 2016 book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief, I asked a few Christian friends to read and critique what I’d written. They all refused, except for one Catholic woman—showing more courage than the others—who seems to have learned something from my chapter on the gospels: “I didn’t know Jesus was supposed to come back.” I was not surprised, since so many Catholics have told me they were never encouraged to read the gospels. Another Catholic woman who refused my request was honest about her reason: she embraced her faith passionately because she is eager to see her mother again in heaven—and she wanted nothing to jeopardize that. One Protestant admitted that he worked hard to keep his faith intact, and was reluctant to read anything that might fuel his doubts.



This experience came to mind when I read John Loftus’ post here a few days ago, 9 October 2023, Ten Reasons Why Most Believers Don't Seriously Question Their Faith (a repost from 2012). This is the third reason he mentions:

“A very large percentage of believers do not seek out disconfirming evidence for their faith, which can be decisive. They are sure of their faith so they only look for confirming evidence. This can only make them more entrenched in whatever they were raised to believe in their particular culture. But it's an utterly wrongheaded approach to their faith.”

An utterly wrongheaded approach: Very often our identities are anchored/locked to what we were taught as children by parents and clergy. How could these trusted figures have been wrong? It’s a thought so many people refuse to entertain, secure as they are in the version of reality that seems oh so right because it has defined who they are for years. In his fifth reason, Loftus states that “…believers fear to doubt. Its the very nature of faith in an omniscient mind-reading God that he is displeased when they doubt his promises. So in order not to displease him they do not seriously question their faith.”

But this is the tragic irony: “an omniscient mind-reading God” is a component of ancient superstition—and the Christian faith is a bundle of quite a few of these components. In the Old Testament, animal sacrifice was a major part of piety, as a way to atone for sins committed. The theologians who wrote the New Testament substituted a human sacrifice, absorbing a common cult idea that believing in a dying-rising deity assured eternal life. As Richard Carrier has put it, “…Jesus is just a late comer to the party. Yet one more dying-and-rising personal savior god. Only this time, Jewish.” (Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It29 March 2018)

Of course, the ecclesiastical bureaucracy doesn’t want the laity to see this background—the blatant superstitions—and works hard with ritual and ceremony, preaching and religious education (= indoctrination) to keep people in awe of Jesus their lord and savior. Loftus’ list of Ten Reasons provides helpful insight into how the church keeps members loyal—and keeps going. And what we’re up against. Religions specialize in blunting curiosity. As an elderly Catholic women admitted to me recently, “We were told not to think about what we were taught in catechism.” 

But are there ways to breach the walls of the Mighty Fortress of Faith? Something must be working, since the church—at least in North American and Western Europe—is losing ground. For details on this, see Robert Conner’s recent article here, The Lingering Death of the American Church, and his book, The Death of Christian Belief

If we could just build little fires of curiosity, prodding the faithful to be suspicious about the plea of clergy to take their teaching “on faith”—to go ahead and think about what is taught in Sunday School and catechism. Three things come to mind when I wonder how to breach the fortress walls.


What a novel idea: let’s start with the Bible! How could people object to that? Well, it’s risky. Catholic clergy don’t urge their parishioners to read the Bible, and despite the central role of the Bible in Protestant belief, its preachers don’t make a habit of giving Bible reading assignments every Sunday, perhaps at the end of the sermon: “Please be sure to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans this week—and write reports to hand in next Sunday.” This doesn’t happen because it is risky. Any layperson who reads the Bible carefully can detect the problems, errors, contradictions, and too much silliness—and then go running for explanations to the clergy, who don’t want that burden. 

Here are a few examples: 

In Mark 4, Jesus tells his disciples that he teaches in parable to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven; his chapter 13 is a frightful depiction of the arrival of the kingdom of god. Matthew claims that, at the moment Jesus died, lots of dead people came live in their tombs, then walked around Jerusalem on Eastern morning. Luke includes the alarming Jesus-script in which he states that his followers must hate their families and even life itself (Luke 14:26), and that his mission is a destructive one: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49) 

So much of Jesus-script in the gospels is riskyhere’s a list of specifics.

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (5:24) he teaches that “…those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” How many Christian couples, on their wedding day, have Galatians 5:24 in mind as they look forward to their honeymoons? In Romans 1, Paul includes gossips and rebellious children in his list of those who deserve to die. In fact, it would be remarkable for clergy to urge the folks in the pews to read the Letter to the Romans. It’s a dense, daunting patch of scripture. Conservative Christian scholar Ben Witherington III, in his massive commentary on Romans (Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary), states on page 1: “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” Isn’t this a dangerous thing to admit? Isn’t the Bible supposed to be the accessible Word of God—perfect for placement in millions of hotel rooms? 

The Bible is a perfect tool for inciting devout believers to doubt their faith. 


The state of Christianity today should make the faithful wonder, “What the hell happened?” What does it mean (1) that this religion has splintered into thousands of different, quarreling brands, and (2) no one is working toward reconciliation? The ecclesiastical bureaucracy of each brand—enjoying prestige and power—doesn’t seem to mind. There are no serious negotiations under way for Southern Baptists and Catholics to work out their disagreements about god and worship—and merge. Every Christian should be wondering, asking: “How can I be sure that my denomination is the right one—a true representation of the religion of Jesus?” No, it won’t do to assume that your clergy have it right. What would be the basis for that assumption? 

The scandal of Christian division and disharmony should prompt deep skepticism, should be a tip-off that cherished beliefs might be dead wrong. Maybe this is another way to breach the walls of the Mighty Fortress. One tool to help with this coaching is John Loftus’ 2013 book, The Outsider Test of Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True.


Does the biblical god concept fit with our contemporary knowledge of the Cosmos? I suspect it will be hard to get people to think seriously about this. Of the eight billion humans now on this planet, how many of the adults know what Edwin Hubble discovered a hundred years ago? Are five percent aware? Ten percent? Using one of the most powerful telescopes of his time, Hubble collected the data demonstrating that the Andromeda galaxy is indeed another galaxy, far beyond the Milky Way. Many astronomers at the time argued that our galaxy was the universe

Our perspective was changed forever: there are indeed billions of other galaxies. In December 1995, the telescope named after Hubble photographed for ten days a tiny patch of sky (about the size of a tennis ball viewed from 100 meters). The result is known as the Hubble Deep Field, and revealed almost 3,000 galaxies. 

So this is a fair question to pose to our churchgoing friends: Do you know how humanity rates in the Cosmos? The Bible deity who keeps a close watch on every human, who enjoys the aroma of burning animal sacrifices—is this idea compatible with what we now know about the universe? Theologians have worked so hard at reinventing Bible-god, to make this deity less local, provincial, tribal, petty. But we come back to the question that all theologians must answer: where can we find the reliable, verifiable, objective evidence for the god you’re constantly updating?

It's unlikely we can breach the Mighty Fortress of faith with this approach, but it might work with a few folks. 


I suspect that faith takes a hit when people face horrors they don’t expect—which their faith is supposed to protect them from—and when they contemplate so much horrendous suffering in the world. It seems that the Sunday after 9/11, church attendance was high in the New York area. I’ve wondered why. Were people looking for comfort—or answers? Why would a good, powerful, caring god have let those planes fly into the buildings? Wasn’t this horror an indictment of religion itself? The hijackers were religious fanatics, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out:

“The nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes. Perhaps we can hear a little less about how ‘people of faith’ possess moral advantages that others can only envy.” (p. 32, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)

When an earthquake killed hundreds of people in central Italy, the pope said that Jesus and his mother were there to comfort the survivors. What feeble theology. Jesus and his mother were powerless to prevent the earthquake? And the 2004 tsunami that killed perhaps 80,000 toddlers and babies—how does that align with “this is my father’s world”? We commonly hear, “god works in mysterious ways”—but that is so anemic, painfully pathetic. Theology has a lot to answer for. 

An utterly wrongheaded approach to their faith has prevailed for such a long time. There are signs it faces a much tougher road ahead. 

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.


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