Opposing the Jesus Meme

The other day, I explained why Jesus is “dead to me”. I talked about why I have few sympathies with either liberal religious believers or atheists who want to salvage Jesus as a great moral teacher.

My core point was that I see it as simply wrong to contribute to the aura of holiness around a figure who is already mistakenly deified on a massively widespread scale, at the cost of hundreds of millions of people losing their freedom to engage fully with reality in matters of philosophy and practice. And having been myself systematically brainwashed into worshipping Jesus and living my life in mental and emotional servitude to a Jesus construct, it is emotionally repulsive to me to consider going on playing along with the charade of how wonderful Jesus is. I compared asking me to do that to asking someone to sing the praises of the leader of a cult they escaped. I spent too much of my life rationalizing everything related to Jesus so that he must come out as the most awesome human in history. When I see liberal believers who are otherwise so liberated from the corruptions of their tradition nonetheless show hardly any intellectual or moral integrity when it comes to Jesus, prattling on about how the J-Man is really in line with their values and against all the corruptions of their faith, I think of them, with no small amount of contempt and pity, as still very much trapped as I used to be. And I am bitter at the tradition that spiritually cages otherwise smart and goodhearted people so that they believe in their deepest heart they simply cannot live outside of Jesus.

But in bashing Jesus, talking about how he’s dead to me, complaining that he claimed to be God, it might sound like I’m mad at the 1st Century Palestinian Jesus who it’s presumed inspired the whole Christian tradition.

But, no, I’m not really very concerned with such a figure. Whether or not there was a historical Jesus itself means very little to me. Were there one, I still wouldn’t blame him because there could have been no way he could have fathomed all that would come from what he did. And I consider it a matter of total mystery what he really said or did or thought given that all we have attesting his words and deeds are the products of decades old oral traditions written down with agendas worked in all over the place. And one can hardly find an interpreter of the texts who doesn’t carry to the texts all sorts of theological prejudices due to the outsized influence of this character. Add in the challenges of reading historical texts with the mindsets of the people of spiritually incredibly remote in time and place and religious milieu from our own, and the problem just gets worse and worse.

So, no, I don’t really have a gripe with the historical Jesus. I don’t even know, if there was one, if he claimed to be God himself. I find the Gospels incredibly unclear as to that point–and the early church itself was deeply unclear on the point–and I am inclined to think, if taken on face value, at least three of the four Gospels imply he didn’t claim it. The only book where he comes really close to saying he was God is the book of John, in which he’s still not as direct as one would like, and that is the most mystical and fantastical and self-consciously philosophical and political of the four Gospels, so far as I can tell. Mythologization towards the writer’s agenda is all over that text.

And I am not even hostile to the myth of the crucified and resurrected Christ per se. Were it true, it would be the terrifying and ugly revelation that we live in a psychotic God’s universe. But taken as sheer myth, there is world-historical quality and pathos to the imagery. It deserves its place in the pantheon of great myths of Western culture. The whole idea of deifying the tortured and martyred execution victim is a fairly fascinating cultural, psychological, and literary twist with interesting connotations and profound resonances for two millennia strong. It’s a meaty myth, capable of various interpretations, and it’s proven fruitful for endless appropriations. Its power over so many minds is a subject for a great deal of anthropological and philosophical interest.

So, no, I’m not mad at either the historical Jesus or even the mythic crucified and risen Godman Christ. I would have no problems were the historical Jesus merely a scholarly curiosity and the Christ myth only ever taken as authoritatively as the other fascinating myths of gods no longer believed in nor worshipped.

What I really, at the core, oppose is Jesus the avatar of the Christian church. I oppose the meme of Jesus and the way that through it so many people, including liberals and some atheists, are held back mentally and emotionally from thinking for themselves in the most honest and productive ways possible. I oppose the mind-rotting prejudice that Jesus must always be right. When I am talking to otherwise clever and curious people and the subject turns to Jesus and they start gushing his praises and distorting reality to fit the received narrative of his wonderfulness, I watch the termination of thinking in otherwise critical minds happen before my very eyes. I feel my worthwhile conversation partner slipping away. I see two millennia worth of Christian constraint on thinking perpetuate itself. Whether from conservatives or liberals or pro-Jesus atheists, nearly everyone on Team Jesus becomes a PR rep when the conversation goes Jesus. It’s all whitewashing banalities. It’s all proxy for church power.

I get that there are a few people out there who have no real dog in the Jesus race and may just have a historical curiosity about him and they may wonder why I’m agitate against all rehabilitations of him whatsoever. There are other things to see in the texts, maybe even find to be of value. So why throw him out altogether? Isn’t that an overcorrection? I actually don’t go that far. I even have a small handful of expressions from Jesus that I use quite liberally. Occasionally they pop up in my writing. I’m not calling for a ban on all appropriations of Jesus or ever plumbing the Gospels for some material of interest. The only thing I would stress here is that even morally and intellectually rotten thinkers express a number of fine platitudes. There’s never been a politician who didn’t express some perfectly approvable sentiments. But we do not judge them by that. We judge them by the full scope of their thinking and their deeds. We contextualize their good remarks with how their ugly underlying ideas sour, or outright betray, them. Or at least make them empty. Here too we must be vigilant, if we are to treat Jesus honestly, to not give him special exemption to always have his best remarks stand for him rather than his worst where with other thinkers their worst would often be as important to denounce as their best are to preserve.

What makes my skin crawl the most and what I push back against is the disingenuous approach to him that continues to treat him as the most special of all people or, much worse, a deity. And in that context, my primary writing about him is to challenge people to stop overblowing his value because it robs equal and far better ideas than Jesus’s of their spaces in the conversation and in people’s minds. It makes the Gospels the gatekeepers of truths so that hundreds of millions of people feel they cannot affirm things they see plainly without finding some way to run it by Jesus and get his approval first. It contributes in general to that elevation of the Gospels and of Jesus so that the myriad of rotten things he said still get venerated as holy and retain their potential to be destructive anew.

It’s all this lying. It’s all this undue power to this ever-morphing meme. The meme of the specialness of Jesus is a roadblock to having conversations that can start and end as free inquiries. When Jesus comes up we have to take the long way around to get people to accept ideas that without him should take no work. And for many people, convinced by the rotten parts of Jesus (some really in the Gospel texts, some just part of the traditional Jesus who has a cultural life of his own just as much as the kinder gentler Jesus does) there just is no getting around the road block. Their minds are closed because of the Jesus meme. This is a feature, not a bug of the Jesus meme. It is a mental virus that affects minds like cult leaders do. This is why rationalists should range themselves against it if they care about everyone’s genuine ability to think for themselves. Smart people shouldn’t be wasting their energies finding cleverer paths around the road blocks. They should be laying intellectual dynamite.

The meme of Jesus is, at its core, the internalized absolute command that Jesus has to be right. This is the characteristic Jesus prejudice that makes people willing to defend any text, offering any absurd rationalization. When I hear the kind of praise of Jesus that doesn’t just attribute a clever saying but pumps him up and participates in that tradition of veneration in such a manner, I hear an avatar for stalled, prejudicial Western thinking itself. I am reminded that our progress in getting everyone on board with truly free thinking is still slowed by the giant clog in the pipes that is Jesus.

It’s through the Jesus meme, through the specter of Jesus, that the Christian church miseducated me and distorted my view of the world. I refuse to perpetuate the meme, even to rehabilitate it because its structural function as the idea of, at minimum, a wholly perfect and supremely admirable human who must be right no matter how wrong his words flatly are, is the epitome of the cult leader. The effect of the Jesus meme has been precisely to make people talk like cult followers, resolutely resistant to criticize him as callously as they would others, and willing to distort all reason to defend him. He has had this mesmerizing effect, redounding to hegemonic influence by the church for so long, and across such a wide spectrum of people, that I cannot in good conscience contribute to the mass delusion or let it pass without denunciation.

So, my plea is simple. Stop rationalizing Jesus. It’s okay to say he was wrong. It’s okay to take his words at their face value and acknowledge when they’re actually evil or, at least, human. All too human.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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