An Atheist Who Honors Jesus More than the Christian Right
For most of my life, I believed in God. During my college years, though, I finally recognized the concept of the all-knowing papa in the firmament—with his self-manufactured evil counterpart fanning the flames of hell below—could be nothing but a fairy tale. Nonetheless, exposed to Christianity since my youth, I wasn’t ready to give up on God altogether. If the Father seemed too anthropomorphic, too patriarchal, then the idea of the disembodied Holy Spirit, with its pervasive, mystical presence, still resonated with me.
Then, years later as a doctoral student, while reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the universal propensity to place faith in at least one unseen deity was simply a byproduct of evolution, a “spandrel,” as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin coined it. Based on my layperson’s understanding, these offshoots are characteristics that originally had no functional design and weren’t selected because of their adaptive properties. Instead, they just happened to be coupled with features that did in fact serve an adaptive role. A belly button, for example, has no useful purpose (other than to collect lint, maybe?) but is something formed when the very vital umbilical cord is severed. Not long after my personal revelation, the hypothesis of religion as a side-effect of some evolutionary phenomenon began to receive considerable attention in the realm of popular culture, through books and debates on radio and television.
So there I was, following my encounter with Jaynes, an atheist. In the minds of millions of Americans, then, I had become a loathsome creature, a person to be scorned, one of Satan’s vile envoys. Actually, I couldn’t decide if I were an atheist or a pantheist. No matter, I eventually thought—if everything is God then there is no God. Either way, according to multitudes of Sunday worshipers, I was part of the scum of the earth and destined for eternal damnation beneath it.
But I confess that, to this day, I still believe in Jesus, the second of the three beings that comprise Christianity’s sacred trinity. No, I don’t accept that he was born of a virgin. (Surely, conceived out of wedlock, he was a bastard—small wonder he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder toward his mother, even slighting her on occasion. One of the gospels, for instance, reports that in response to a woman who shouted, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that gave you suck,” he dismissively replied, “No, blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Take that ma!) Nor do I subscribe to the far-fetched notion that he magically rose from the dead on the third day after his public execution. And it goes without saying that I don’t equate him with God.
Yet I believe in many of Jesus’ purported teachings, that is, I am convinced they offer a path to a more meaningful and—dare I say it?—spiritually enriching life. Though I realize the great prophets, gurus, and masters of the other major religions also have similar lessons to share, because of my lifetime of cultural contact with Christianity, I can’t help but place Jesus at the top of the pedestal. I especially admire how he snubbed those in authority while rubbing shoulders with everyday fishermen, prostitutes, and lowly tax collectors (well, maybe he should have left out the tax collectors). Were we to try harder to embody his messages on love (a utopian prospect, I admit, but isn’t it better to set the bar high?) there is no question we would experience less conflict both interpersonally and among nations, as well as exercise more care toward our warming planet.
It is my profound respect for Jesus that explains why I am so offended by the countless number of Americans who identify as Christians yet support such utterly cruel political policies. When I read the gospel they have internalized, I discover a Jesus who declares:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, reject the poor. They are lazy, filthy, and dimwitted. With nobody to blame but themselves, they deserve their wretched status in life. Do not gather your resources together and collectively help them for that is socialism and worthy of the lake of fire. You may each individually cast a few dimes in their direction but be careful lest you become an enabler. Rather, give bountifully unto those corporations that bless you with iPads and smart phones. Then you shall see God.
Clearly, their Jesus is a proud card-carrying member of the NRA who, when about to be seized by Judas and the surrounding hoard of accusers, screams out to his disciples: “Quick, grab your guns! Peter, you got the chief priests and scribes! Matthew, take out the elders! Leave that traitor Judas to me. It’s payback time, muthafucka!”
Naturally, their dear Lord is a real American and hardcore capitalist. In their scriptures, when asked about the coin bearing the visage of Caesar, Jesus replies, “Give unto God that which is God’s but always trust in the free-market, whose invisible hand is guided by your Father in heaven. . . . And replace that wreath-wearing emperor with George Washington, for Christ’s sake!”
Accordingly, when an affluent young man inquires about what he must do to be saved, their savior answers, “Again I tell you, the entrance to the kingdom of God is like the eye of a needle and very few may go through it. But when it comes to the mega-rich, my Father will replace the needle with an opening the size of a four-car garage.”
Of course, the perspective of these Christian distorters is nothing new—our nation has a long heritage of mixing godliness with goodies. Backed by the Puritan ethic, many a nineteenth-century, Bible-toting captain of industry could justify his mansion and stockpile of all the best that money could buy by assuming his fortune was not a sign of greed but of God’s holy favor for a job well done. After all, wasn’t he helping to fully realize God’s New Eden? What were all the factories, the packaged foods, the ready-made clothes, the labor-saving devices, and the plethora of other mass-produced products but evidence that America really was fulfilling its Manifest Destiny, its hallowed calling as a City on a Hill, its mission to not only civilize its own citizens but to spread its Christian gospel of abundance to people all over the world, starting with the Native Americans and Mexicans, continuing with the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, and its “little brown brothers” in the Philippines, and proceeding on from there?
Obviously, I speak here not of those myriad Christians who genuinely strive to love their neighbors as themselves but of those Christian extremists whose disproportionate influence poisons our politics. Steeped in their rigidity, they brutally affront my sense of morality, with their homophobia, their misogynistic views and practices, their severe discomfort with healthy sexuality, their emphasis on individual duty rather than communal responsibility, their yearning for the bombs to drop on the evildoers residing in all those rogue nations abroad. As an atheist, motivated not by fear but by the earnest desire to make the most of this gift called life, I can freely choose to honor Jesus’ words and, during those rare moments when I am able to rise above my inner-Homer, actually implement them with my wife, my son, my neighbors, and yes, my enemies. As for his hard-right representatives, if Jesus could see what they do in his name, he would be turning in his grave.