I’m always fond of saying (or selling t-shirts that say) “I am grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today” (the t-shirts also have “…grateful to Sunday School…” & “…grateful to Sunday School…” versions because I’m all about being inclusive).
I suspect I was born an atheist but whatever lingering doubts I might have had as to atheism’s core truths were quickly tidied up by my religious education. I attended Hebrew School in one form or another for 8 years. I was bar mitzvah-ed. In fact, I was so good at doing the “bar mitzvah song & dance” that the synagogue my family belonged to invited me — at age 14 — to recite torah portions several times. I was fully immersed in my religion’s ooga-booga — the “conservative” (as opposed to reform or orthodox) version that held onto traditions like the orthodox but didn’t quite turn the synagogue service into a wannabe church service like the reform temples did.
Mind you, I don’t view my religious education with any animosity. At all. I mean what I say: I am grateful for that education. I consider myself a cultural Jew. I am damned proud of my tribe’s culture. I have no use for its religion however. To a large degree, I have Hebrew School to thank for that.
My fascination with Christianity began with being hated by it. It seemed a natural question for a curious kid to ask: “Ummm, I get that you hate me, but why? What did I ever do?” When you get down into the “why”, if you’re honest about the history you’re reading (as opposed to the religious text — one of my Hebrew School teachers, Mr. Hymen, was very clear on that; the Pentateuch is a religious book, not a history book), the whole reason that Christians hate Jews — the “Jews killed Jesus” story — is absolute rubbish.
Quick diversion… It’s a fact: none of texts of the Old or New Testaments magically wrote themselves. People — men most likely — wrote them. Call their inspiration divine, call it gas. Call it whatever. A person thought it up and wrote it down — inspired in whatever way you like. Jesus did not write a word of the New Testament. Paul (the former Saul of Tarsus) however did. The bulk of the NT is Paul — writing to the new, far-flung churches he was creating and instructing on the just-invented rules and mythology of Christianity. That HE was inventing.
Back in the 1985, American biblical scholar Robert Funk put together a group called The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar’s 150 members focused on the New Testament’s historicity — and what, if any, of a historical Jesus could be drawn from the texts. The Seminar settled on about a dozen-and-a-half of Jesus’ sayings that all the gospels agree on — that Jesus said (versus things the gospel writers — or Paul — put into Jesus’ mouth).
The Jesus that emerged from the Seminar’s work was big into doing unto others. He wasn’t into forming churches. Why would he be? He was a lifelong Jew who, actually, hated the institution of the Temple because, to Jesus, no one needed a go-between. The believe could/should go directly to the god character.
Churches exist for the sake of their own existence — like any institution. Whatever its founding principles, once you get past the abstract, it all comes down to survival. Churches need money and believers to remain in the church business. They are motivated first and foremost by the need to continue “being”.
The Catholic church was brilliant — once it created its message — at selling its message. One of the ways they sold their message was in the way they ultimately imagined their own sanctuaries. If money permitted, they imagined them BIG. Big was the point.
These are from inside Notre Dame de Paris — before the fire. See how enormous the cathedral is vs how small each individual human is? That’s the point. To put a single human in his or her place relative to the power and awesome size of the institution and its church. It’s a not-so-subtle kind of psyche war the church launches against its own believers.
But, I love it. I adore the use of architecture to create a visceral feeling. Churches are all about that, of course. To put you in the right frame of mind to approach the divine.
There’s a church in Venice – San Pantalon. Like lots of the churches in Venice, it’s beautiful. But this one has something quite special — a painting that fills the entire sanctuary ceiling. The painting depicts an opening to heaven — into which all the people and creatures in the painting are being sucked. It’s as if a portal to heaven had opened directly above the church — and the painting was revealing that fact.
It’s a brilliant affect.
So, yeah — I’m an atheist who likes visiting churches. I wouldn’t sit too, too still when the magical incantations began, but I do appreciate the artistry of the people who imagined the church then manifested their vision out here in reality. For what it’s worth, I’m a big museum-goer, too.