The 3 Words That Make Me An Atheist: “I Don’t Know”

“I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today”. That’s how I sign on to “The Faitheism Project Podcast” that I do every week with my good friend the Reverend Randy Lovejoy. In fairness, I’m pretty sure I dropped from the womb an “unbeliever”. Hebrew School merely closed the deal. Back then, I hadn’t had time yet (or the intellectual capacity) to reason out exactly why theism didn’t add up for me. That’s not to say I didn’t feel awe as I gazed up at the cosmos. I felt tons of awe. And tons of curiosity. I just didn’t see Yahweh staring back with the answers.

My awe is no different from the awe a Christian feels as they contemplate the nature of God (their version in their head) or the the all knowing state of Bodhisattva a Buddhist might experience as they achieve nirvana. But that’s where our paths diverge — me and my faith-practicing friends. People of faith need to know what’s behind the awe (even if the explanation isn’t entirely satisfying or logical). Why does the universe exist in the first place? God knows. Whether he reveals that truth to them is a whole other question; that “knowledge” that God has the answer, that’s good enough for them. Not for me. I’m pretty clear about one essential fact: Yahweh did not invent humans, humans invented Yahweh. If you’re looking to Yawheh for real answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.

The scribes who first scratched out what eventually became “The Book Of Genesis” were memorializing more than a thousand years of accumulated mythology — all bent toward answering the question “Why are we here?” Unsatisfied by a polytheist answer, whoever the actual “Abraham” was (mostly likely, he was a tribal chieftain who migrated his tribe from modern day Iraq to Canaan, now modern day Israel), he also migrated his tribe away from the polytheistic gods of their past to a “new God” called Yahweh. But, even Yahweh wasn’t entirely original. The newly arrived monotheists must have liked a lot about the Canaanite god EL; they incorporated not just EL into Yahweh, but El into their identity. El’s presence remains in place names like “Beth EL” and “IsraEL”.

Even Yahweh says of himself that he used to be called El but, at long last, has gotten to show his true self.

Knowledge — “gnosis” — became extremely important in the monotheistic universe. Human beings weren’t allowed to have “ultimate knowledge”. That’s Eve’s original sin — wanting to know what Yahweh knew.

To know everything therefore, is to “be” Yahweh. To be a god.

Atheists aspire “to know”. Same goes for many agnostics. Their agnosticism hinges on the fact that they don’t and therefore won’t conclude definitively whether or not Yahweh (or any god) exists. The information I want is out there somewhere. Will I ever acquire it definitively? I don’t know. And that’s the bottom line. Until I do “know” what happened, I’ll have to accept that I don’t know. The question is — can I live with that? Can I live with not knowing definitively?

What preceded the Big Bang? I don’t know. I think string theory provides a more satisfying answer than “Yahweh preceded it”. At least string theory can rest on a foundation of math. Yahweh rests on a foundation of storytelling in the absence of hard data. If the first monotheist (be it Abraham who whoever) had had access to a telescope or a microscope — or the internet — would they have written Genesis the way they did? Would they have described an earth-centric universe all geared toward the creation of human beings? Of course not — they would have started mythologizing with what they already knew then used the mythologizing to explain what they, as yet, didn’t know. In the beginning, Yahweh might have been standing on the other side the singularity that started Life As We Know It — and Genesis might have opened by describing The Big Bang in remarkable, proto-second by proto-second detail.

The bottom line is how do any of us deal with uncertainty? Those with little tolerance turn to religion because they need to know. Religion says it WILL provide the answer. Science can only say “it might” provide an answer and the answer it provides today may not be good tomorrow because we’ve learned new information. That’s the best science can ever do. If you want certainty, science — ironically — is not for you.

When I say “science”, I mean a process of analytical, observation-based thinking as opposed to “revealed knowledge”. Back before Darwin, theology was considered “the Queen Of The Sciences” — for real. But, with Darwin came not just science but a “scientific method” of thinking that demanded all conclusions be based on actual data and not just “cos God said”. Forced to provide receipts, theology fled the building. Whereas the institutional church could have used the occasion to reinvest in Jesus and teach a spiritual “Do Unto Others” message (something they’d never really done before), instead (in America), the church doubled down on the ooga-booga. Rather than see the Bible as a bastion of good messages for good living, the institutional churches of America insisted that their sacred texts were the “divinely inspired word o’ God” and therefore even better than science. Unlike science, the church insisted (and still does) God does not need receipts.

What’s true inside a church stops being true outside it.

Not having a reason to be here imposed upon me by a bipolar deity doesn’t scare me. Hell, it liberates me! I can tolerate living in a DIY universe where the Big Questions are concerned. Hell, I half expect it to turn out that the the whole Universe is just a giant piece of IKEA furniture — and the nitwit putting it together misunderstood the instructions and flipped the main piece upside down; we’re moments away from him realizing he’s going to have to break the whole Universe down and start all over again. How “Noah”…

That’s just the Universe being ironic, right…?

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust And I Feel That Shadow Growing

One of the first big lessons that stuck in my head as a child — the biggest up to that point being toilet training — was that I was hated because of what I was — a Jew. That’s a strange thing to teach a little kid without an enemy in the world. But, when I was growing up, in the early 1960’s (I was born in 1959), not twenty years since the camps had been liberated, the full weight of what had been done to us (not just by Germany but also by anti-Semites all over Europe) was only just beginning to dawn and make itself felt. In Baltimore — where my surgeon dad was did his residency and began his practice, and where I grew up — Jews began emigrating toward the suburbs, most settling in and around an enclave northwest of Baltimore called Pikesville. Before long, clever Anti-Semites turned that into “kikesville”). My affluent, comfortable, semi-assimilated upper middle class Jewish community could live with name-calling.

Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish — ditto its public schools — that even the handful of non-Jewish kids took all the Jewish holidays off because they knew the schools would be virtually empty. We had a really great tennis team but a really terrible football team that, wouldn’t ya know it, all the other teams loved to beat the crap out of.

American culture was still celebrating having won WWII. There were prime time TV shows about it like “Combat” and “Hogan’s Heroes”.

My culture also celebrated. It felt good not being extinct. And some of us wondered aloud: if not for Hitler’s homicidal madness, would the state of Israel have existed?

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have horrified my community into a stone cold refusal to discuss it. We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. The end of WWII — the end of the Holocaust — didn’t end anti-Semitism the same way the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually end slavery.

As my community tends to do, we turned what happened to us into a teachable moment. There were some essential lessons still to be learned. There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. Turns out, the Nazis were admirers of how racists in America codified and amplified their racism. The Nazi’s method of industrialized murder found significant inspiration in America’s brand of Christo-fascism: slavery

You can’t cram peoples’ heads with tons of bullshit and not expect the bullshit to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram nonsensical, logic-free, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads while telling them it’s truth, it screws them up. It’s worse when the logic-free, hateful mythology also runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger).

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being murdered because of it. But that’s what’s coming to America: death & destruction because bullshit.

In fact, “death & destruction because bullshit” is the Republican Party’s entire strategy going forwards.

Maybe Monotheism’s The Problem…

I have always been grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today. I mean that in the nicest way possible. I’m pretty sure I dropped from the womb a total non-believer, but whatever lingering doubts I had about atheism being “the truth faith” were swept aside by eight years of religious education. The story that iced it for me — made following my tribe’s faith a total non-starter — was the “Abraham and Isaac” story. The three Abrahamic religions all hold up Abraham as “the first monotheist”. In actual historical fact, whoever “Abraham” actually was, while he may have been an early convert from polytheism to monotheism, he was by no means the first human to toss all the other gods in favor of just one, in Abraham’s case, Yahweh. The “innovation” in the Hebrews’ monotheistic creation was their deity’s relationship with people. Yahweh wanted one, having personally created us.

None of the characters in the Abraham-Isaac story made sense to me — even when I was a kid. Yahweh the god is petulant and petty. He’s powerful enough to create literally everything in existence, yet out-of-his-mind-neurotic because humans keep screwing up. Are there any other worlds out there this Yahweh character feels compelled to keep flooding and destroying because he got one of the pieces wrong? How many generations of human — after Adam and Eve — did it take for people to forget Yahweh created them? Why would Yahweh — creator of everything — let a single human get that wrong to begin with? If Yahweh created everything, why would he countenance the creation of other gods — even if only inside peoples’ minds? And, what kind of father is Abraham? He’s a couple hundred years old (per the text) and wants, more than anything, a son with his wife Sarah (whose baby-making machinery was equally old, but never mind!) He has a son with Sarah’s maid Hagar (Ishmael — the foundational character in Islam’s story) but it’s not the same. Finally Sarah bears Abraham the son he’s always wanted.

And, what does this loving, doting, adoring father do one day — with the son that he loves more than life itself — when the voice in his head says, “Hey, Abe — grab your kid and a sharp knife: we’ve got some business to transact”, what does Abe do? He takes that child he loves more than life itself to the place the imaginary voice in his head told him to. If the voice says “sacrifice your son”, that’s what Abe’s doing, no second thoughts. If not for the intercession of an angel — who offers up a goat as a sacrifice to replace Isaac (and what did the poor goat do to get hauled into this bloodbath?) — Abraham murders his own child, end of story.

I remember thinking back then “And the point of this story is…?” I grasped but couldn’t then articulate the perversity of monotheism and its strange “asks”. To accept monotheism, you have to accept Yahweh. And, to accept Yahweh, you have to accept a deeply flawed human creation. Only a human would think Yahweh, as written, is much of a deity. I bet among actual deities, Yahweh couldn’t get hired to bus tables at the Deity Café. He certainly wouldn’t get invited to sit down with them and play in any of their reindeer games. Yahweh’s too puny.

Or, is Yahweh too clearly what he is — a human creation? That’s an important distinction if we’re discussing the Creator Of Everything. Who created who first? Considering as Yahweh wasn’t the first god a human ever invented and wasn’t even the first god that the Hebrews followed (they also followed ElBaalAsherah, and Astarte before the cult of Yahweh over-rode all the other gods and the Hebrews settled on Yahwh as their “Hear, Oh, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”.

Here in the west, we tell ourselves that monotheism was an evolutionary step above polytheism. It was in the sense that monotheism emerged after polytheism as a new way to see the world. But is monotheism an “improvement” the way evolving webbing between our fingers would make us better swimmers? Did monotheism’s creation in the human mind produce improvements to human life for having been created? One could argue yes. In praise of monotheism, great buildings rose. Great art was made. Much thinking has been directed towards it. But, one could also argue that monotheism has been a curse.

It all comes down to Yahweh. As written, Yahweh has it in for his human creations. He tried once already to wipe us all out via flood (if you accept the stories as reality — a dubious thing to do). Apparently the new humans that rose after Noah were no better than the rotten humans that preceded Noah. Yahweh felt they were so rotten that he’d have to create a mechanism to “absorb” all that human rottenness, dispose of it somehow and then permanently redeem these creatures who constantly disappoint him. Yahweh created a “son”. But, not just a son — a way (if you believe in that son just the right way) to beat the thing that scares humans most: death.

The Jews ultimately evolved Yahweh into a creature who commanded them to make the world a better place for them having been it. The Christian world evolved Yahweh into a bully who insists you believe in his son — and his son’s ability to conquer death — or he’ll kill you.

Jesus taught you don’t need a temple or its priests (or a church and ITS priests) to have a relationship with God. And, by the way? Do unto others. But that’s not how the Paul heard it or sold it. He downplayed the “Do unto others” part and cranked up the dogmatic rules involved in beating death by believing in Jesus. To Paul’s credit, his invention was sheer genius. It’s longevity speaks to that. Christianity isn’t a religion you embrace if you want to “Do unto others” (you can do that without it), it’s one you embrace if you want to “live forever”. That’s the “good news” inside every Christian’s “testimony” — a dubious path to eternal life.

Once taken up by a believer, monotheism can morph into authoritarianism faster than any other belief system. How can it not? Where’s the check on Yahweh’s voice? It’s not like Yahweh walks in the door a rational character. His only real innovation is the ability to reproduce with humans. And what does Yahweh have in mind for his child? Death. If the mythology is going to work — if Jesus is going to be proven the actual “messiah” — then a bunch of things have to line up (at least in the telling). To begin with, Jesus has to die because Eve disobeyed Yahweh when she ate from the tree of knowledge thus committing the “original sin”. On top of that, Jesus also has to come from the priestly line and then from King David’s line to boot. Plenty of gymnastics to pull off there.

Plenty of dogma, too. Spirituality demands zero dogma. Religion relies on it exclusively to suck you in and keep you in. Monotheism relies upon the most rigid dogma of all — because it’s deity is so rigid (even at his most “forgiving”). “I am the Lord, your God and thou shalt have no other gods except me!” Gosh, Yahweh, when ya put it that way

What if the monotheist’s core assertion is wrong? What if there is a deity of sorts out there, but it’s not named Yahweh and the deity’s on a completely different mission than the knowledge-challenged Yahweh? What if Yahweh was as real as Harry Potter or Voldemort? Here’s the problem — if I base everything I think on a false premise — if Yahweh isn’t “the guy” despite what Yahweh cultists insist (what if Buddha cultists are right instead?) then literally everything that I do because I believe in Yahweh rests upon a flawed foundation. My core reason for doing anything is based on nonsense.

Or the wrong god maybe… .

The bottom line is this: religion itself is inert until a human being picks it up and puts it on. The “armor of Christ” that the Apostle Paul urged Christians to wear only becomes real and fully active inside a believer’s head. Even a “loving God” needs to be defended to the death.

I take it back. It’s not monotheism that’s made a mess of the world, it’s monotheists.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust And I Feel That Shadow Growing

According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road. Throughout most of Europe’s history, Jews were kept apart. In Venice, Italy, they put them on their own little islands and called that area — where the Jews lived — “ghetto”. That’s where the word comes from.

Historically, when people see Jews as a “nationality”, it doesn’t end well for us.

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated then grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days since 90% of the students would be gone.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have horrified my community into a stone cold refusal to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. The end of WWII — the end of the Holocaust — didn’t end anti-Semitism the same way the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually end slavery.

As my community tends to do, we turned what happened to us into a teachable moment. There were some essential lessons still to be learned. There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. Turns out, the Nazis were admirers of how racists in America codified and amplified their racism. The Nazi’s method of industrialized murder found significant inspiration in America’s brand of Christo-fascism: slavery

You can’t cram peoples’ heads with tons of bullshit and not expect the bullshit to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram nonsensical, logic-free, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads, it screws them up. It’s worse when the logic-free, hateful mythology also runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger).

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it. But that’s what’s coming to America: death & destruction because bullshit.

In fact, “death & destruction because bullshit” is Trump’s entire re-election strategy.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust

It’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road… Historically, it never ends well for Jews.

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.  In my brain, those camps never went away.

I grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment. From a young age, I was told about this tragedy and shown images that burned into my mind forever. I don’t regret that for a second. I needed to remember these lessons – forever.

I have always been grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today — and for giving me a stone, cold accurate view of the world — and my place in it because of my tribe.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

The Bible Is What Happens When Books Meant To Answer “One” Question Are Used To Answer Another…

I’ve always said Hebrew School made me the atheist I am today. That’s not entirely true. I have been an atheist since inception. Hebrew School simply closed the deal.

But I don’t regret any of my religious education (which lasted from age 6 to 14). I genuinely learned a lot from it. In particular, I had one truly excellent teacher — Henry Hyman. Mr. Hyman taught this: the bible is a religious text. It isn’t a reliable work of history. But, as a religious text, it is incredibly valuable.

In other words, Mr. Hyman taught “perspective”.

I remember one especially meaningful conversation I had with Mr. Hyman. It was probably when I was 12 or 13. Like I said, I was born an atheist. Skepticism runs in my blood alongside the red and white blood cells. I bumped hard on the Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac story — and I said so.

I’m sure I didn’t articulate well what bothered me then but the same terrible lesson still disturbs me: Jews are meant to revere Abraham (the foundational “First Jew”) because of his absolute fealty to Yahweh. If Yahweh says “kill your son” (“sacrifice” being a kinder-gentler way of saying “murder in cold blood”), we’re supposed to look to Abraham for guidance. Well, we’re meant to think, since Ol’ Abe was down with killing his son, who are we to go a different way?

To Mr. Hyman’s credit, he tried very hard to sell the metaphorical qualities of the story as a whole over the more disturbing, realistic story beats themselves. I wasn’t having it. In the end, Mr. Hyman encouraged me to continue asking questions. Either I was going to find an answer inside the faith that satisfied me or I wasn’t. That he appreciated that fact — that he encouraged a 12 year old to think that way — I am eternally grateful.

Want to have a religious debate? The bible — OT or NT — are excellent resources. Want to know anything about history? Avoid the bible like the plague. Yeah, sure, there’s “background information” — lots of good insight into both Jewish culture and how Jewish culture thinks about itself. But if you want the historical record backing up your “faith”? Prepare to be disappointed.

As Mr. Hymn said: “The bible is not a work of history”. No, it absolutely is not. Fact — it is debatable that Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt. The Egyptians kept records. Lots of them (they’re called “Hieroglyphics”.) Nowhere in those records do we find Hebrew slaves building pyramids or a Hebrew prince rescued from certain death, raised by an Egyptian princess and slowly remade into a kind of Hebrew Avenging Angel.

Someone made that story up. Or they took a small thing and wrote it larger. Kinda like how Paul did with Jesus. If Saul of Tarsus never has his “come to Jesus” moment on the Road to Damascus, then Christianity never happens.

Jesus — whoever he actually was — did not “invent” Christianity. If you sat him down today and explained to him what “Christianity” was, he’d look at you like you were nuts for suggesting HE was its “founder”. Jesus was born a Jew, lived his whole life as a Jew and died a Jew.

As for creating the Christian church, what we can ascribe to Jesus (at least it’s one of his more consistently reported on teachings) is a very simple (and very Jewish) message — “Do Unto Others”. Also “You don’t need a church in order to have a relationship with god”. Jesus’s message is spiritual perfection — it teaches people how to live a good, happy, successful life and it even teaches them how to do it: be nice to people.

But, of course, not everyone wants to see these religious texts for what they are. We have a whole segment of our population — uber Christians, evangelicals & fundamentalists — who believe that the words of the bible magically appeared on parchment. They say “divine inspiration” motivated the writing.

J. K. Rowling feels exactly the same way. She might not call the inspiration “divine” but her readers do.

Using the bible — old or new testaments — as anything other than a dated “how to live in the past” manual is guaranteed to screw up your life. Ask yourself: if the men who wrote those texts had been aware of germ theory, if they’d had access to microscopes and telescopes and the internet and all the information we now have today about our bodies, the natural world, the cosmos, would they have written the texts they wrote in exactly the same way?

Doubtful. Do televangelists avoid electricity because it would have been unknown to Jesus? Of course not! Modern religionistas use technology when it suits them to accomplish their goals. If any religious work’s author had had access to our modern knowledge base, it would have fundamentally changed what they wrote.

That makes it even more appalling when the faithful try to use their religious texts to answer science questions. They’re compounding the ignorance of the past by continuing to make it part of the present. Wrong information doesn’t suddenly become right.

Bullshit doesn’t suddenly become true.

Magic doesn’t suddenly become real.

The bible doesn’t suddenly become anything other than a story based loosely on reality.

True Fact: I’m An Atheist Who Loves Churches

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 have always been grateful to Hebrew School

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.