Constant exposure to Christian mythology has inured us to some profoundly strange practices and backward ideas. And our custom of confusing tolerance of lunacy and uncritical acceptance with religious respect has stifled perfectly reasonable questions and challenges. Christianity is laced with archaic, perverse, and patently false claims about human nature, sin, redemption, atonement, and salvation.
Man, we are told, has an intrinsically corrupt nature that leads him to sin against God. This corruption isn’t just a tendency to be selfish or to hurt others on occasion—it’s an essential, metaphysical facet of human nature. Which means of course that if God is our creator, he put it there. We must struggle continually against our willful desire to transgress God’s law. And our guilt from those violations is not assuaged by the fact that no one seems to be able to get clear on exactly what God’s law is. Whatever it is, we become permanently tainted by our moral crimes against it.
And now the story gets even more bizarre. Ordinarily, if you do something wrong to someone, you might reflect on it, consider their feelings, consider the harm that you have done, then you would apologize to them. Maybe you would try to fix the harm. If it’s particularly bad, you face condemnation and punishment from your fellow citizens.
But the Christian story adds a whole strange layer of metaphysical corruption to the situation. The only way to remove that invisible, intangible, but permanent stain on our souls (also invisible and intangible) is through an elaborate magical sacrificial ceremony. Some living thing, something we own, some physical thing we care about has to be given up and destroyed in order to remove this lingering immaterial contamination. The Old Testament is filled with elaborate translation schemes for exchange of moral transgressions for doves, goats, sheep, cattle, money, gold, and so on. One wonders how much worse off these struggling groups of humans were made by the wanton destruction of the scarce supplies they had of food, crops, livestock, and other necessities. (In Collapse, Jared Diamond details many civilizations, like the Vikings, who squandered necessary goods on frivolous religious pursuits like priests demanding expensive donations. Ultimately they met their demise because of their inability to escape the world-distorting lens of religion and get their social priorities straight.)
But we don’t have to chop the heads off of goats, pour the blood out of cows, and broker those strange deals of tangibles for intangibles any more. Jesus, we are told, represents the ultimate object to be sacrificed for the sins of humanity, a onetime mortgage balloon payment for sin. Since Jesus was the son of God (whatever that means) and so much better than a goat, killing him gets all of our livestock off of the hook. And it is here where Christian beliefs and practices are the goriest and strangest. We are depraved, lowly, and worthy of torment. Jesus’ long and torturous execution amounts to a sort of suffering or punishment by proxy. He takes on all of the suffering that humanity deserves for all the bad things they have ever done and will ever do. Since he suffered and died, we don’t have to, goes the often repeated story. We are washed in the blood of the lamb, they sing. And then by eating of his flesh and blood—juice and crackers—we commune with him. Remember that this is all in order to satisfy the inexplicable demands of the magical being who set the whole thing up from the start.
For some reason, God, the ultimate foundation of all reality, the creator of the universe, wants certain things to happen here for which there is no better or more direct path, even if you are all powerful and all knowing. God wants to give us eternal happiness and reward. But he can’t just give it to us despite being the creator of all reality. We have to submit to an elaborate mediation process whereby Jesus comes to Earth, talks to people, gets in trouble with the law, gets executed, and then goes back to God. And now it’s important to the invisible, magical super being before he rewards us that we all adopt a certain mental attitude about Jesus and our place in the world. We are supposed to acknowledge that we are deeply metaphysically tainted with a propensity to not do what we are told. And we must concede that accepting this whole preposterous Iron age mythology about the inherent corruption of humanity is the only way for the creator of the universe to treat us nicely. If we don’t, then we don’t get rewarded—in fact, we will tortured incessantly for eternity. And we will deserve it because of our intrinsically corrupt nature ( that the invisible, magical super being gave us at the outset.)
Another bizarre theme that runs through religious culture is the notion that if you do something wrong, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden, then your children, grandchildren, and all of your descendents will be guilty of the crime too and they will be held accountable and punished. All women are cursed for Eve’s misdeed. Ordinarily, no reasonable person would ever suggest that the grandchildren are responsible for the grandfather’s misdeeds, but in the context of Christianity, those same people seem to be perfectly comfortable with the claim. Do you think that you should have to pay for your parents’ parking tickets? Suppose your great, great grandmother had stolen something a 100 years ago. You should go to jail for that today, right?
Our immersion in a culture where people openly talk about this whole R rated blood atonement process has eroded what would have been reactions of shock and outrage. Even though the whole scheme gives an account of morality, sin, punishment, and salvation that is utterly unlike anything else in our lives, it has become so familiar that no one even raises an eyebrow. It’s stunning that despite the fact that we have cured polio, we fly space shuttles, and we have cell phones in our pockets, no one seems to be even slightly puzzled by this whole bizarre superstitious mythology. Our presidential candidates repeat it all without the slightest hint of irony or insincerity. We elevate professional proponents of the stories to the highest moral and social stations we have. And we hold religious beliefs and practices in the highest reverence. Imagine cutting someone off in traffic and he jumps out of his car and demands that in order to be cleansed of your transgression of the moral law, you must sacrifice a chicken in his honor. Suppose the former chairman of Enron, Kenneth Lay, wishing to express his penitence to the public he had robbed, performed an elaborate public sacrifice of hundreds of cows and used the blood to symbolize his resolve to be a better person. Imagine a serial killer speaking on his own behalf in his trial saying, “All I need to do in order to be cleansed of my crimes is eat some of the flesh and drink some of the blood of a virtuous person.”
One of the many ironies here is that Christian believers so often have the audacity to suggest that only by believing in God and being Christian can a person live a decent, moral life. Yet on their view, we are intractably evil. One could hardly find a more anti-humanist worldview. And it is the nonbelievers who proclaim that humans have good, redeeming traits by nature that deserve to be celebrated and fostered.