Opposing the Jesus Meme

Opposing the Jesus Meme February 26, 2014

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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  • ZenDruid

    I’ve addressed this conundrum by thinking of Jesus as the man, the myth, and the message. The man, to a high level of probability, existed as a rebel heretic amongst the Pharisees, and earned his mortal punishment thus. The myth, to a similarly high level of probability, was made from thin air by Saul of Tarsus. The message, only hazily and tangentially portrayed in the synaptic Gospels (as appreciated by Jefferson), reveals itself to me most plainly through the gospel of Thomas.

    • what do you take to be “the message”?

    • ZenDruid

      To the extent that I can parse Thomas, the message is strongly humanist, and prevails upon people’s ability to make sound ethical decisions.

    • ZenDruid

      Oops. “Synoptic” vice “synaptic” in my earlier post….

    • Margie

      I remember starting a study of The Gospel of Thomas many years ago at a liberal Episcopal church in adult Sunday school. As I recall, it was an important document for early gnostic Christians who were, I’d guess, pretty mystical in their beliefs. I don’t recall how humanist that gospel was. Would you say it portrays a humanist Jesus?

    • Margie

      OK, just a quick look at the first page of this translation yields some material thats difficult (for me) to reconcile with humanism:

      13b. Thomas said to them [the disciples], “If I tell you one of the sayings he [Jesus] spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”

      14. Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.

      When you go into any region and walk about in the countryside, when people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them.

      After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.”

      15. Jesus said, “When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your faces and worship. That one is your Father.”

      16. Jesus said, “Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the world. They do not know that I have come to cast conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, war.


    • ZenDruid

      What do you think of the rest of it? All in all, most of the fare in this particular cafeteria is palatable.

    • Margie

      I don’t know…since I’ve given up trying to be a “sophisticated” Christian, I still love poetry, but, honestly, much of the Gospel of Thomas just sees a bit weird. What verses are you favorites?

    • ZenDruid

      This one stands out.

      (39) Jesus said, “The pharisees and the scribes have taken the keys of knowledge
      (gnosis) and hidden them. They themselves have not entered, nor have they allowed to enter
      those who wish to. You, however, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”

      There are other sayings that suggest the value of a childlike perspective, free of the emotional baggage of doctrine.

      The main hurdles for me are the words like ‘father’ and ‘kingdom’, which evoke the patriarchal modality already in place. My general impression is that the Jesus-speaker is playing with the concepts attached to those words, with an aim to challenge their mystique.

    • VorJack

      Out of curiosity, why should I assume that the sayings in Thomas accurately go back to the historical Jesus? Even its proponents generally conclude that only a modest kernel can be traced back to the early church, while its present form dates to the early second century.

    • ZenDruid

      Short answer: Assume nothing.

      I can only say that, given the dearth of “many” converging lines of evidence, the fact that parts of the Gnostic heresy accord with parts of the canon suggests that both groups came away with similar sentiments. Beyond that, who knows?

  • moon_bucket

    I personally can’t stand hippie, new-age, all things to all people Jesus. He just wants to smoke a bowl with us man, and like, chill out. It’s like everyone has made some secret pact to not read the bible and then give an oral report on it.

  • eonL5

    Good thoughts. As someone raised (yes, in America) with no indoctrination in Christian mythology, I never gave any great weight to the Jesus meme, but for those who had to “escape” their upbringing, I can see that it must be a difficult yoke to shed. That it IS a meme bears repeating as often as possible. Memes are like brain viruses, though. Stubborn and infectious, and obviously often damaging. The fight to free our culture will not be brief.

  • 9B9K9999

    Absolutely brilliant Dan! I too wiped my internal references to the J-man, given he was portrayed to be standing on the moral rottenness of the old excrement. A total disqualifier IMO. And its also true that good thought can arise in bad contexts (same as faulty reasoning may yield a true result by coincidence), so occasionally there is an idea out of that mouth worth keeping , but best re-expressed outside the usual cultural references if possible.

    Furthermore I wish certain of my fellow atheists would prove their detachment from their religious past by quitting critiques of Abrahamism, and moving on.

  • MNb

    As I never ever have even been baptized I personally just have a historical curiosity about Jesus. The problem of course is that many people around me, even in the thoroughly secular Netherlands, think Jesus is much more. So I congratulate and thank you. I have written many times in the recent past that we atheists tend to focus on fundies too much. That’s understandable as they are an easy target and are annoying. Still we should not give liberal christians (liberal meaning here accepting many stories of the Bible as myths) a free ride either.
    I like your writing much better when you’re mad, crazy, angry and bitter. So may I ask you to debunk Jesus’ virtues in our modern, 21st Century light? Personally I would think it a shame if mankind hadn’t made any ethical progress since that guy died at the cross. Indeed it doesn’t matter here if Jesus formulated his morals himself or that his followers did. A suggestion: start with the liberal christian concept of agape. In my experience this is a central concept in liberal christianity.
    You might be the guy to do this job; PZ Meyers, JA Coyne and even Chris H probably aren’t.

    “the myriad of rotten things he said ”
    I’d really love it reading how you tear these things apart systematically.

    “Your Thoughts?”
    I totally agree. For once I complain you have written to little iso too much. As someone who never has been christian (three days at Sunday school, that’s it) I ask you to provide me with as much ammo against “Jesus is the perfect embodiment of agape” (this comes from a liberal christian) as you can produce. Again thanks, this time in advance.

  • Liralen

    Well, I’m so clueless, I don’t understand what you’re talking about at all. I’m guessing it’s about doctrine, which I wasn’t taught, and most importantly, didn’t know when I first read the gospels (which wasn’t that long ago). A lot of the bad things I had heard about Christianity just weren’t there.

    Then I read this blog article http://morganguyton.us/2012/10/10/unpaving-the-romans-road/ that focuses on the Woman at the Well story and finally understood. One really has to have been taught quite a bit of contorted, tortuous doctrine to come up with the sin conviction interpretation. Because this is how a plain reading of the scripture comes across to the untutored https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q49BbfgJbto

    Edited Note: So it makes me wonder how much of what you are talking about is really there in the gospels (a distinction I didn’t understand from the Bible generally until recently, but I’m sure you do), and how much is based upon what you were taught?

  • Well, I guess it’s chacun a son gout, more or less.

    FWIW, my least favorite meme is the “chosen people” meme, particularly in its Christian version. Not that the Jewish version is harmless. We have after all waltzed into “our” land as if it was sitting there, empty, waiting for us, then proceeded to displace, suppress or attempt to exterminate the folks who actually lived there. And then been surprised when it didn’t work out well. How foolish do you have to be to do that THREE TIMES??

    But the Christian version is worse, since it married the Jewish Chosen People meme to the Zoroastrian idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Jews came into contact with that idea during the Persian exile, and brought it back to post-exilic Judea, where it sloshed around and found its way into the Bible, just a little (e.g., Book of Job.) But the rabbis found the notion blasphemous, since it implies that there is a second Power of equal or near-equal power to G-d. The rabbis won nearly all the religious arguments among Jews, and those they didn’t win, they outlived, so that Judaism today is nearly 100% rabbinic.

    Christians, however, picked up the cosmic battle meme along with the Chosen People meme, then merged the two, and the result has spawned a LOT of really unskillful mental habits. For instance:

    — Religious intolerance, not only against non-Christians but even more fiercely against Christians of differing views. Has there ever been a conflict within a single religion as destructive as the Wars of Religion? This is also why Christians apparently CANNOT get along with atheists of Christian background (unlike, for instance, Jews. Religious Jews of course believe atheists are wrong, but not that they are perverse or demonic enemies of the Jewish people.)

    — An inability to believe that Christians (who are, let us remember, both Chosen People and the forces of good in the world) can ever perpetrate systemic evil. I see this pretty commonly among slavery apologists, but also in the reflexive denial of the evils — evident every day in the news! — of European and American colonialism. This goes beyond simple arrogance or self-respect or chauvinism. To the extent that the Christian version of the Chosen People meme is internalized, it is literally impossible that the People of God could be infected by systemic evil.

    — American exceptionalism. For some reason, Americans more than other Christians, have married their Chosen People narrative to their political narrative. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen the equivalent view elsewhere — “French exceptionalism”, say, or “Dutch exceptionalism”.

    — This ties into the idea that the People of God can do no wrong. After all, even if they screw up, God will come and make it right. This takes away the basic discipline of agency, namely full responsibility for one’s own (corporate) actions. I have personally heard this argument brought against the need to act to avoid climate change.

    So, that is my candidate for worst religious meme.

    • Liralen

      Good post. With respect to “For some reason, Americans more than other Christians, have married their Chosen People narrative to their political narrative”, I read a post at Slactivist that may be an explanation why American evangelical theology differs from the rest of the world: Slavery http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2013/09/16/three-strikes-against-white-evangelical-theology/

      It also explains why they are going ballistic now. However, what gives me hope is that we did elect Obama, i.e., there are a lot of us who disagree with the evangelicals.

  • The Man With The Name Too Long

    The reason I also, as you say, “oppose the Jesus meme” is because there’s nothing special to consider about him outside of the supernatural claims. If Jesus was just a guy who told people to give to the poor and to do other nice things, then nobody would care so much about him. It’s only because he’s supposedly the divine Son of God that died for everyone’s sins and came back to life that people think he’s so important. That Jesus is nothing more than a myth to me and the ordinary Jesus just isn’t that important. All in all, I see no relevance of Jesus to my life.

  • jean gehrz

    I do understand what you are talking about. I am just wonering, you identify yourself as an atheists. Why does it matter if people believe in God? Jesus?

  • $24687638

    I wonder how much the Jesus meme eclipses the Yahweh meme in a popular Marcion sense.

    The Old Testament deity to whom Mozis speaks and to whom the Diety reveals not only the Torah but also something else (exodus 3:14)

    ‘What’s your name?’ asks Mozis, the archetypal Jew.
    ‘Tell them I AM sends you’.

    Later 1.5 millenia later, the (not so archetypal, note the parallel created by the writer/writers of John) ask ‘just who do you think you are?’

    Jesus identifies himself, by his own witness, as that I AM, hence the Jews attempting to lapidate him..

    Since Jesus=I AM, it is necessarily, ineluctably means that when the I AM speaks in in lev 26; deut 28; lam 4; ezek 5 Jer 19:

    “I will make parents eat their own children.”

    It is Jesus who makes parents eat their own children. Christians must necessarily state this in their kerygma….

    hence, pace Dawkins,

    “[Jesus in the] Old Testament is arguably the most
    unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty,
    unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic
    cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal,
    filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously
    malevolent bully.”