I used to say that I grew up where the Bible Belt buckles, but these days I wonder if that quintessentially American expression has any meaning. Uncle Sam doesn’t just have a religious accessory now, a Bible Belt strapped around his Southern waist, he sports a full length Bible Body Suit, a spiritual coat of armor for defending all the soft spots (war crimes, corporate theft, poverty etc.) of the body politic from The Devil Twins, otherwise known as Common Sense and Reason.
I attended Sunday School and Church every Sunday, sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ in the children’s choir and for the Christmas pageant donned my Dad’s bathrobe for my annual shepherd’s role. But though I memorized hundreds of verses, for some reason religion rolled off of me like rain rolling off a duck’s back. I guess I was born with some kind of natural immune system to the damp viral charms of Christianity.
Luckily for me I was born in twentieth century USA rather than, say, twelfth century France, or twentieth century Saudi Arabia, (or twenty-first century USA). I could boldly say “Your God is a creation of the human mind” and though somebody might threaten to kick my ass, there was little likelihood that I would be burned at the stake, or have a hand chopped off.
As a self-proclaimed agnostic (pure atheism seeming too certain, in effect another form of dogmatic belief) I attracted the well-honed conversion skills of countless evangelical Christians, whose good intentions were not wasted because they stimulated me to develop counter-conversion arguments. Over the years I heard just about every argument for Christianity that has ever been formulated, and I learned how to refine my counter argument. My problem was (and still is I suppose) that I could never keep my mouth shut about Christianity. I not only did not believe, I questioned believers about why in the world THEY believed.
My response to Christianity has changed over the years. Originally it was ‘that doesn’t make sense’. Among the things that didn’t make sense were some of the basics: the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension, the divinity of Jesus Christ. I simply didn’t think the world worked like that. No evidence.
Later I became critical of the logic of the Christian belief, especially the tendency for Christians to prove the Bible is the Word of God by quoting the Bible itself. That, I would say, makes as much sense as asking a con man (or a CEO) if he is honest, or a devout Muslim if the Koran is the Word of God. It proves nothing. Another logical sleight of hand that I uncovered was the ‘leap of faith’, whose honey can be used to swallow any crazy idea that catches in your throat. But it’s not a recommended method for getting you over the Grand Canyon, or even a roadside ditch.
But I found that logical inconsistencies are absolutely no problem for Christians. Though they may attempt to convert the non-believer with logical-sounding arguments, Christians, if these arguments are proven illogical, just keep on rolling like Casey Jones. They think up something else even crazier, like Heaven or Hell or, my personal favorite, The Rapture.
So I switched to a more potent approach: the accusation of hypocrisy and the evidence of Christian history. I would quote the Ten Commandments ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, and the New Testament ‘Love Thy Neighbor As Yourself’ and ask, “So why do you, a Christian, support dropping cluster bombs on other human beings?” This is where Christianity shows its human pretzel ability. No matter how clear a certain verse sounds, there’s another one somewhere which says exactly the opposite. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and Jesus cleaned out the temple with a whip in his hands. Morality can be twisted and fly off in the opposite direction faster than you can flip the page from Matthew to Deuteronomy. You could say the Bible makes hypocrisy inevitable. ‘War is Peace’ is, after all, not an invention of Orwell. ‘Just war’ is not an invention of Aquinas. It’s right there in the Bible. And in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the 16th century Religious Wars, the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Anglo-Saxon extermination of the Native Americans, etc., etc.
The response to my recitation of Christian Crimes was very similar to George Bush’s current defense of corporate capitalism: yes there are some bad apples, but the apple basket is fundamentally sound. So, how much mass murder will it take to delegitimize Christianity, or any religion?
But, looking at myself in the mirror, I have to say ‘we are all hypocrites’. And there are countless Christians who put their belief into action every day. For example, many of the people protesting courageously against the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, are at least partly motivated by their Christian faith. However there are also countless others doing equally heroic moral protests who are not motivated by religious belief. Moral courage is not dependant upon a certain form of belief or non-belief. My critique of Christianity is not disproved by courageous Christian activists.
However, seeing a flaw in my hypocrisy argument I moved into my psychological phase. I studied the inner Christian, looking for Nietschean ‘ressentiment’, and Freudian ‘guilt complexes’. Frankly, this was a fertile area of research. If you probe many sincere Christians you often discover oily wells of anger, inferiority, guilt and shame. The religion seems to create and nourish underground oceans of the stuff.
I started calling Christianity the Snake With the Magic Tail. The snake has its fangs buried in your neck (the shame and guilt) but if you bite down hard enough on the snake’s magic tail (absolute faith) it withdraws the fangs a little, and your pain is relieved (forgiveness). It’s a whole system, but Christians don’t see the connections.
During my psychological phase I also discovered the reason for the pervasiveness of Christian hypocrisy. People have a natural tendency to want to think well of themselves. So they think ‘I’m a good Christian’ and ‘The US is a good Christian Nation’ a few hundred times a day. However there is always evidence that they are not a ‘good Christian’ and ‘the U.S. is not a good Christian Nation’; for example, those children’s corpses at the Afghan wedding ceremony last month, courtesy of US helicopter gunships. But acknowledging this atrocity would prevent the pleasant feeling which comes with thinking ‘We are a Christian nation’ and also require the good Christian to challenge the status quo (that is, to have moral courage). So the massacre of other human beings is often ignored. Or even better (to get a really wonderful feeling), justified.
Sometimes I would trip up my Christian interlocutor with a particularly maddening little argument, which I’m sure I encountered while browsing in a New Age bookstore: Christians aren’t following Jesus, they are following the followers of Jesus. In reality Jesus never claimed to be divine, that was a song and dance invented by his biographers, the famous Jerusalem quartet, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and later developed by Paul. The apostles deified Jesus in order to have the power of Priests, and Christians have been worshipping the Priests’ invention for 2000 years.
Later I added the sociological ‘opiate of the people’ angle, and I carried a pretty solid defense in my briefcase against evangelical Christians.
But my greatest discovery was absurdly simple: instead of asking ‘Does it make sense?’, or ‘Is it logical?’ or ‘What is its history?’ or ‘What is its psychology?’ or ‘What is its sociology?’ I asked another question: ‘How does Christianity work?’.
This is when I realized that Christians (and all Believers, for that matter) are worshipping themselves. This is simple to prove. It’s as easy as 1-2-3.
1) Christians learn about Christ and Christianity by reading the Bible, and by listening to others ‘tell the story’.
2) This learning becomes part of their memory. (It doesn’t take a genius to see that around 99% of the time people believe the religion of their parents and their culture, which, like all conditioning, is carried by the memory.)
3) They worship this part of their memory, calling it ‘God’. Thus they are worshipping a product of their own conditioning. They are worshipping themselves.
This helps explain many interesting characteristics of Christian behavior. For example, since Christians are worshipping themselves they identify completely with the object of their worship. Any questioning of their religion is immediately felt as a personal attack, and they react accordingly. And so the court decision in California, which said that the phrase ‘one nation under God’ was unconstitutional, was experienced by millions of Christians as a personal threat.
And the conditioning process itself can be seen as a parental form of spiritual violence against defenseless children.
So now, when asked what I believe, I state: ‘I believe that humanity needs to examine the process of how belief works’ and I invite my questioner to examine that process with me.
Unfortunately, after working so many years to build up a solid analysis of Christianity, I made the worst mistake a non-believer can make. I’m talking about a non-believer like myself, who actually enjoys arguing with religious people. I left the one place where my painfully developed skills could be used 24/7 to frustrate conversion-oriented Christians, the USA, and I moved to a place where there was nobody to argue with. A place where people don’t care much about religion. A place where people are more concerned with cooking than praying. A place where lots of people send their kids to private Catholic schools (subsidized by the State), but almost nobody goes to Church.
You guessed it, I moved to France.
So now, when I spot one of those duos of white shirted well-scrubbed young Mormon men (I know, according to some they are not ‘real’ Christians, but at least they are definitely ‘true believers’), who seem to be more prevalent in European plazas than Peruvian bands, I immediately rush over, and, with a little smile, offer myself as a conversion candidate. It’s a sure cure for homesickness.
Lawrence McGuire is the author of The Great American Wagon Road. He lives in France.