A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 5

This is part 5 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.


Thanks again for making the trip out to my neck of the woods the other week. I thought the turnout for our second live debate was excellent! I was surprised by how many people told us we should do this again, so maybe that’s something to consider for the future.

Personally, I could go on about the roots of morality forever. But since I think we’ve pretty well delineated our areas of agreement and disagreement, I’d like to offer some closing thoughts and then perhaps we can move on to different topics.

To briefly address your latest post, I’d contend that it’s wrong to deliberately kill someone who would otherwise have lived to save the life of someone in danger of dying. But when a group of people all share the same danger of dying, it’s not wrong to sacrifice some to rescue others. (You can read more about this in my post on double effect.)

I agree that the extremes of any philosophy can be horrific. But I’d put it in a different way: morality has to be empirical, in the sense that it has to be reality-checked against its beneficial or harmful effects on real people. Any moral system which claims to be derived wholly from first principles, without the necessity of looking at the world to see how it plays out, can lead to bad results whether it’s consequentialist, deontological, or something else entirely.

So, to move on. How about we discuss the distinctiveness of Christianity next?

I’ll lay my cards on the table: I think Christianity, like all faiths, is a product of its time and place. It’s recognizably an amalgam of two religious traditions, Hellenistic Judaism and the pagan mystery cults which taught salvation through ritual sacrifice, and it arose at the time and place those streams of thought were mingling, at a cosmopolitan crossroads of the Roman Empire.

As you know from our live debate last year, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a mythological figure, not a historical human being. The New Testament gospels are our most detailed source of biographical information about him, but they’re also anonymous, contradict each other on many important points, and contain material clearly drawn from legendary-hero allegories or Old Testament midrash. Mentions in the writings of secular historians are late, scanty on detail, and are generally based on what Christians believed in any case.

The usual secular explanation is that Jesus was a historical person who was later elevated to divinity, but I think the process happened in reverse. I’d argue that there’s evidence that Jesus Christ started out as a spiritual savior figure, similar to the redeemer gods of the mystery religions, who later acquired the characteristics of a mortal man and was inserted into history. If this strikes you as bizarre, we can see the same thing happening in new religions today: I’d cite John Frum of the cargo cults and Jesus Malverde the Narcosaint as two modern examples.

As far as the actual teachings attributed to Jesus, I find things to like and things to dislike. I’m all for the teachings about loving one another, showing compassion and helping the needy; these are good ideas common to many cultures. But I’m disturbed by Jesus’ equally numerous teachings about the imminence of the apocalypse, which have always been used to justify turning away from this world and delaying efforts to establish earthly justice.

But the great freethinker Robert Ingersoll said, and I agree, that Jesus’ most serious moral flaw was that he believed in Hell. For all the cruelties of the Old Testament, it never envisioned further punishment after death. It was Christianity that introduced this idea into the Western religious tradition, the idea that those who don’t worship God in accordance with his commands will be condemned to an afterlife of infinite suffering. I think this is the most evil religious teaching there is, and it’s always been used to dehumanize outsiders and treat them as worthy of destruction.

This is just a brief summary of my position, but I think it’s enough to get going with. You said that you find Christianity to be a uniquely compelling religious worldview. In what ways?

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  • Psycho Gecko

    Yeah, most historians have traditionally taken it for granted that Jesus existed at least as a real person, though not necessarily as the messiah. They held him to the same standard of evidence as any regular person in those days, as in “We don’t really have anything, but we know there were lots of people like that at the time so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

    Given that his followers attribute so much more to him, though, it’s better to actually look at the evidence and see what you can find…which in this case, includes nothing contemporary. The closest they have is Josephus, who was born after the time when Jesus was supposed to have lived, and whose only mentions of him are later alterations. Tacitus, usually next on the list, is flawed as well.

    It’s such a popular tactic that they’ve taken to changing up the Wikipedia page about the historicity of Jesus to try and support their view.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    It is quite obvious that many biographical were fabricated afterwards to fit alleged prophecies. Every time the author of Matthew writes “Jesus did X in order to fulfill the prophecy…” (e.g. 1:22, 2:15, 2:17… I could go on and on) it is obvious that this is occurring. Also, it is telltale that sometimes the gospel writers fabricated independently and came out with incompatible versions (most famously the foster-paternal lineage of Jesus, but other examples as well)

  • L.Long

    Is jesus real or myth? Who cares!
    Is religion true or not? Who cares, I’ll find out when I die & will deal with what comes round.
    The ONE thing I do know, from today’s news and older history, EVERYWHERE religion has been tied to gov’mint we see hate, bigotry, poverty, misery, and other negatives too many to list.
    Many of the nicer places to live have generally secular gov’mint. Every place where you start with a secular gov’mint which gets taken over by religion, you have a decrease into what is listed above.
    So keep your faith to yourself and keep your psychotic gawd and Book of Lies out of the gov’mint.

  • Alex SL

    Okay, “who cares?” is, to a certain degree, a good question, but it is still interesting to speculate, as in the case of whether life on other planets will be similar to us or very different. We will not really settle the answer but we can make informed judgements.

    I have looked at the arguments for Jesus being a mythical being and they still don’t seem to satisfactorily explain the oddities of the gospels. If Jesus was supposed to be merely a figure of the spirit realm, why does he rave about the punishment of unbelievers like a deranged cult leader hurt in his pride? What are we to think of the bizarre story where he cursed the fig tree?

    Especially his “the end is nigh”ism mentioned in the post itself appears too painfully familiar from contemporary doomsday cultists. No, I can easily imagine some small cult leader who was seriously convinced that the world was ending as the seed of one of the strands that later merged into Christianity. At the time when the gospels were written his insistence that the end would come during the lifetime of his contemporaries was already a potential embarrassment, so why put it in unless there was really somebody who made that prediction?

    The thing is, it is not necessarily a yes or no question. I have forgotten who wrote it but remember a quotation going something like “the less similar we envision the historical Jesus to have been to the one in the gospels, the more likely it is that that Jesus actually existed.” As in: any Jesus who has a significantly non-zero chance of having existed was obviously no son of God, wroked no miracles, and wasn’t resurrected, because all those things are impossible. Instead, he was a Harold Camping of his time.

    Is such a person then “Jesus”? Your mileage may vary.

  • cipher

    I don’t know that I’d say Christianity “introduced” the concept of hell into the Western tradition. It preexisted Christianity in a number of ancient cultures. At most, you could say Christianity transmitted it, and even in that it wasn’t alone.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Every time the author of Matthew writes “Jesus did X in order to fulfill the prophecy…” (e.g. 1:22, 2:15, 2:17… I could go on and on) it is obvious that this is occurring.

    Not to mention the fact that the gospels sometimes flat-out misinterpret or misquote the Old Testament, and then write their story to have Jesus fulfill these nonexistent “prophecies”.

  • Richard Hollis

    Could you give me a few examples, please?

  • cipher

    Babylonians, Egyptians, Greco-Romans, Zoroastrians.