Several months ago, I ordered a bumper sticker from CafePress.com that reads “I’ve read the Bible. That’s WHY I’m an ATHEIST.” Thus far I have not been brave enough to put the sticker on the bumper of my car, as I dread the prospect of having the sides of my car keyed or finding handwritten notes left underneath my windshield wipers admonishing me for rejecting God and corrupting the impressionable youth of suburban Long Island.
It is a bit of an oversimplification to say that reading the Bible turned me into an atheist, though it certainly was an important factor. As I mentioned in the introductory post to this series, I did read the Bible from Genesis 1 through Revelations 22 three times in a row, and I read different parts of the Bible numerous times apart from that.
I don’t recall the precise moment when I began to have my doubts about Christianity, though I believe it began some time during my first semester at Nassau Community College in the fall of 1987. And before any theists reading this roll their eyes and mutter about atheist liberal college professors turning another decent and God fearing young man away from the Lord, the change in my thinking about Christianity was not inspired by any of my professors. In fact, I don’t recall any of my instructors during my first semester of college being conspicuously liberal at all. Rather, I would say that I started to look at the Catholic Church and read the Bible with a critical eye instead of with blind faith and devotion.
If memory serves, it was my disillusionment with Catholicism that came first. I found it absurd that in the late 20th century the Church still did not allow women to be priests. “Why?”, I wondered. Isn’t the truth the truth whether it comes from the mouth of a woman as well as a man? I felt the same way about allowing priests to be married. Church masses became mechanistic exercises of stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, stand, kneel, utterly devoid of any true spirituality to me. I began to see the Church for what it was, an institution created by men that set itself up as being a necessary intermediary between the human and the divine. Even worse, the Church acquired the means to enforce its religious monopoly by coercion and terror. I stopped attending mass on Sundays, which became difficult anyway, as my job as a stock clerk in Sears at the time often required me to work on Sunday.
It was not long after that when I realized that the God of the Bible, or at least of the Old Testament, did not comport with my idea of a just, compassionate and fair deity. Rather, the God of the Israelites displayed characteristics that were typical of a cruel, capricious and oppressive monarch. This deity worshipped by so many people as the all powerful creator of the universe struck me as being rather small and mean.
As someone who was always fascinated at an early age by astronomy (as early as the third grade I devoured all of the books in my elementary school about the solar system), I was always consciously aware of our planet Earth being one planet in one solar system in a galaxy filled with millions of planets and stars that in itself is just one galaxy in an infinite universe filled with galaxies. I thought to myself, would a god create this vast and complex universe filled with planets, stars, galaxies, quasars, comets and other celestial bodies and then proceed to behave as the personal tribal deity to just one small group of people on Earth? The only answer I could come up with was “no.”
Around the same time I was reading the Bible from a critical thinking perspective, I was also reading “The Outline of History” by H.G. Wells. From elementary school onward, an even greater fascination for me than astronomy was history. And Wells’ “Outline” was and remains a great introduction to the grand sweep of history and the forces that shaped it from the dawn of time to the end of the second World War.
Wells devotes a chapter of his masterfully written work to “The Hebrew Scriptures and the Prophets.” In reading this chapter, a number of things had a profound impact on my thinking.
First off, Wells noted the similarity between the story of Moses and that of the Sumerian king Sargon I, whose mother by his account, placed him in “a basked of reeds, she shut up the mouth of it with bitumen, she abandoned me to the river, which did not overwhelm me.” Furthermore, Egypt had no records of a man called Moses, the Ten Plagues, and Pharaoh’s chariots being drowned in the Red Sea. I know that some apologists for the Bible will argue that the Egyptians simply chose to cover up an embarrassing moment in their history, but the truth is, such a monumental disaster cannot be covered up. If such calamities had really befallen the Egyptian kingdom, it would have been impossible to sweep under the rug, The archaeological record would show a sudden and rapid contraction of Egyptian power and influence in the region, because a kingdom that endured such disasters would be fatally crippled. But the historical record tells us that Egypt’s decline did not become evident until the 12th century B.C., after the reign of Rameses III.
Wells writes that David’s story, “with its constant assassinations and executions, reads rather like the history of some savage chief rather than of a civilized monarch.” His last words in the Bible have him telling his son Solomon to kill Shimei, because David’s oath to not harm Shimei did not apply to Solomon. As for Solomon’s reign, Wells observes that “for [Solomon‘s] wisdom and statecraft, one need not go farther than the Bible to see that Solomon was a mere helper in the wide-reaching schemes of the [Phoenician] trader-king Hiram, and his kingdom a pawn between Phoenicia and Egypt His importance was due largely to the temporary enfeeblement of Egypt.”
On the Babylonian Captivity, Wells writes “The plain fact of the Biblical narrative is that the Jews went to Babylon barbarians and came back civilized. They went a confused and divided multitude, with no national self-consciousness; they came back with an intense and exclusive national spirit.”
From all of this, I could only draw one conclusion, the Hebrews were not really the chosen people of a universal Supreme Being, but rather a collection of tribes whose priesthood propounded such a doctrine in order to give a fractious people a sense of cohesion and unity. After all, when you have been conquered repeatedly and dragged away from your homeland, what better way to make you feel better about yourself than to believe that there is only one True God who created the Universe and that this God will protect you when you are righteous and cause you misfortune when you stray from his laws?
Once this all sunk into my consciousness, the Old Testament became discredited in my eyes. And once it became clearly absurd to believe that the Hebrews were the chosen people of some Supreme Being, then the foundations were knocked out from underneath the New Testament. Jesus is presented as being a descendant of King David and being in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but if the Hebrews were not some special chosen people of God, as clearly shown by the historical record, then Jesus was not the son of God. As an aside, with all of the debates and back and forth between skeptics and Christians over the existence and alleged divinity of Jesus, I have always been curious why skeptics did not focus on this aspect of the debate. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the empty tomb, or the Virgin Birth or the veracity of the Gospels. To me, this is like trying to knock down the castle gate with a battering ram, when all you need do is tunnel underneath the wall and cause it to collapse.
To be honest, I did still try to remain a Christian for a while. After all, when you have invested so much of yourself into believing a particular doctrine or faith, it is hard to accept right away that it was a all a waste. I attended Easter Mass in the spring of 1988 in one last attempt to try to overcome my doubts with a renewed sense of faith, but as I stood and sat amongst the other parishioners in the Church, I knew it was over. The Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, no longer held any meaning for me. I remember my father coming to my room one day, I can’t remember if it was that same year or the year afterwards, to give me a Palm Cross to hang on the wall in my room. I told him that I did not want it. He look baffled, and said, “It was blessed by a priest.” I do not remember the exact words of my reply, but it was delivered in the spirit of a “yeah, so what?”.
While I had ceased to consider myself a Christian by Easter of 1988, I was not yet ready to let go of a belief in the divine. In fact, for a time, my belief in a God was strengthened because I saw all religion, whether it be Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and all of their various sects and denominations as being barriers between the unity of the individual and the divine. But that is a story for another time.