I distinctly remember the day I became an atheist. I don’t remember how old I was because I was so young - four, I think; just before or just starting school. Religion wasn’t a big thing when I was little - Dad’s a (somewhat vague) Catholic, Mum an atheist, and both had apparently agreed to basically not make a thing of it, figuring we’d sort things out ourselves. Which in hindsight was very sensible - while my sister and I each went through sort of vague hippyish New Agey phases in our difficult teenage years, as you do, before deciding that was all so much toss (for all I know, my brother did too, but he’d have done it after I moved out and wasn’t there to see it), none of us ever got caught up on the notion that we’d somehow disappoint our family, friends or community if we’d been brought up one thing only to decide to be another. I’ve seen that more than once, and it’s always nasty, usually running very deep because this thing has been a part of that person for as long as they can remember.
Anyway, back to my infant self. I’d been aware of the “big beardy angel-wrangler” notion of (what Grown Up Me appreciates was only ever the kids’ dumbed-down blobby version of the Christian) God that you can’t really avoid if your playschool uses a church hall, even if it’s not a church playgroup, and vaguely aware that my dad at least, and many other people, seemed to think he was real. Crucially, that he watched everything, that you could talk to him and ask him for things, and that he was capable of helping out in ways that were basically magic.
Basic interventionist deity, which is more or less how he gets portrayed in his best-known works. Raising the dead, drowning the whole world, stuffing someone into a fish for days for daring not to go to some place to tell some people they were wicked because God was, one assumes, too busy stuffing his prophets into fishes to get someone more local to do the job. All that jazz.
My infant self was never, that I recall, especially convinced by this idea. (I also never, as far as I remember, believed in Santa Claus. Even though I didn’t conclusively prove his non-existence until the age of about seven when I finally managed to stay up until midnight to catch my mum in the act of putting a satsuma in my stocking.) The problem was that in the stories you heard, God was all about wading in, laying about with fire and storms and driving your enemies before you, but despite all the people who claimed he was still the same chap, these events didn’t seem to happen in real life. Not, especially, to a four year-old in Langney.
Then there were the other people, the ones who claimed that he wasn’t the same chap, that all that stuff with the wise men and what have you ended up with Jesus magicking all the bad things anyone had ever done away - not that it stopped them happening - and in return, in what seemed like a very bad deal, God basically took a back seat and left everyone to their own devices. No more floods, storms, turning people into salt, raising the dead etc. In which case, I wondered, why did people still spend all this time acting like he was still looking over their shoulder? What was the point in asking for anything if basically the answer was already “no, sorry, I don’t do that any more”? Wasn’t that just stupid?
I’d mulled this over for some time, and one night I settled on a test. I prayed loud and clear and told God that if he still wanted me to believe in him, he was going to have to prove his existence in a way that even a four year-old could grasp. There was a particular Lego set, a moon transmitter, with a crater baseplate and a big aerial and things, that I’d wanted for ages, but it hadn’t come up yet in our slowly-becoming-regular swimming awards (when I did a width for the first time, for instance, I got a little moon rover Lego box from my mum; prizes made for a keener swimmer than I might otherwise have been). If that particular Lego box - and no other, I was remarkably clear in the limits set in the test - was there in my room come morning, and no later, God would get no more hassle from me. No argument, real as real. Praise the Almighty, amen. If it wasn’t, well, that would put paid to that notion.
It wasn’t, and, the wibbly-wobbly embarrassing teenage New Age phase aside (to be fair, I was never completely convinced by that either, but it had far more interesting bookshops), I’ve been an atheist ever since. (Which, incidentally, is a pain when filling out school forms. My mum used to put “non-denominational” to avoid awkward questions.)
Now you may scoff at the logic of a four year-old (and insist that God doesn’t help the greedy), and Grown Up Me certainly has a lot more nuanced view of religion and theology, which I find rather more interesting now than I ever did as a kid - apart from anything else, it’s only as an adult that you get to find out all sorts of fascinating stuff like textual criticism and the actual archaeological history of Israel (for which I’d commend to you ‘Misquoting Jesus’ and ‘The Bible Unearthed’; both are awesome) and how wildly different it is to the book version we all know. I still know a lot more about Christianity than other religion, but that’s pretty much inevitable; you can’t avoid it growing up in the UK (literally; schools are still required by law to have a daily act of “broadly Christian worship”, though most ignore it as far as possible as far as I know, and a good thing too).
That said, the basic process behind the Lego Question still more or less defines my personal issue with belief in anything supernatural; the total lack of anything incontrovertibly miraculous (not just “unexplained”, because unexplained things generally gather a swarm of possible, non-magical, explanations around them in short order because we’re all terribly inquisitive like that), the absence of BANG, here’s your Lego, no doubt, no argument. Something that would win God, or fairies, or Mighty Thor, a million dollars from James Randi.
Aside for a moment: Belief in the Christian God, well that I have other issues with, mostly stemming from the faith’s nature as one cobbled-together out of Bronze Age myth, several contradictory elements of an Iron Age personality cult and many, many increasingly half-baked reinterpretations of such to try to continue fitting them within an ever-more alien framework of broader knowledge and social development. And the churches sprung up in support of it, with their outright horrors - cf. the Vatican’s approach to child abuse - and widespread massive hypocrisy. For example, the Old and New Testaments teach that killing is a sin, and that when one’s struck one should turn the other cheek. And yet all Western military units have chaplains and I can’t remember ever hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury coming out and saying, “No, we shouldn’t be in Iraq/Afghanistan/France fighting the Iraqis/Taliban/Germans because God pretty damn clearly says that killing’s wrong.” (And even then, oh ho, you’d have to explain how Joshua’s conquests in the OT sit in relation to “not killing”, and cover how in the Hebrew the inference is, as I understand, that it’s not killing as such in the Commandments, but killing other believers that’s wrong. Still doesn’t get past the WW2 Germany test, mind; Germany was overwhelmingly, Hitler included, Catholic (if you extend “other believers” to “Christians” as opposed to “Jews”; and the latter, stricter, definition plays merry hell with every pogrom every Christian church has ever committed throughout history).) Practical me says, sure, sometimes it’s you or them, and they’re really not nice, but the basic instruction manual for the Christian religion makes no such distinction in its “more Christian” NT form. Jesus, as we all know, didn’t do “us or them”, and willingly went to his death rather than resist blah blah blah. The Quakers, I know from legends of WW1 medical teams, had it right, but they were and are very much in a minority.
The world we live in is a strange and fascinating place, good and bad in equal measure (and depending greatly on your point of view), and the wider universe even stranger and even more fascinating, our own place in it exceedingly insignificant. But I don’t see the need to start plopping deities into the picture just to give it order, or a point or purpose. I don’t find the idea of some mystical “life after death” comforting; there’s an old Isaac Asimov short in which a recently dead soul expecting heaven finds that eternity is basically emptiness and, furious, resolves to destroy God (after all, he’s got eternity to figure out a way). God, unknown to the man, closes out the story by sincerely hoping he, or one of the countless others who’ve felt cheated in the same way, succeeds because eternity is too much even for him. I tend to agree with the basic idea, that I’d rather have my one shot and that’s it. That’s comforting. (I have a softer spot for the old Norse version of the afterlife, because theirs wasn’t infinite; almost, but not quite, everyone dies at Ragnarok, and then the world kind of starts again with the kids of the old gods running things, like a spin-off series at the close of a long-running sitcom. Even the dead have an end.)
(Which also brings to mind my favourite proverb ever, from an old GURPS RPG viking sourcebook back in the day: “Everything in life has an end, except sausages, which have two.”)
The failure of that set of Lego to appear in my bedroom all those years ago shaped me in numerous ways. And I’ve turned out, as they say, all right, a fundamentally nice (I hope) guy. Ironically, it’s Christmas - not the religious holiday that was near-dead in the UK in the early 1800s (until a sort of reform movement including Victoria and Albert, Dickens et al., took it and turned it into a family gift-swapping celebration; let’s not forget, too, that “Father Christmas” was a US creation of people opposing the Puritans’ attempts to eradicate it as a festival, and not some commercial hobgoblin cooked up by Coca Cola), but the midwinter human get-together when we let our hair down a bit and try to remind each other how awesome we all are, that is more likely to actually make a Lego moon base appear in your bedroom. Because ultimately all we’ve got for sure is each other.
Total change of topic, but since I’m not planning on bringing up religion again for a while, here’s a genuine question I’ve been curious about for a long time (this isn’t an attempt at a “gotcha” so please don’t read it as such; anyone who thinks there are any left to find after 2,000 years of Christian theological debate is an idiot). It’s more appropriate for Easter than Christmas, but hey.
Jesus Christ, we are often told, was effectively an aspect of God (brushing past the clunky trinity stuff; not a trinity-related question, this), sent to the human realm in order to save us from ourselves. He eventually made the ultimate sacrifice and died and we venerate him for that.
OK, so. It strikes me that there are two possible Jesuses.
There’s Classic Jesus, who as just outlined is basically an aspect of God, part of the divine essence, or else a human so rammed full of it/connected to it that he’s able to do magic, because only God can do that. (Let’s skip over the two totally different and rather silly Nativity stories and the Immaculate Conception because these are clearly mere attempts to marry the writers’ knowledge of the later days of Jesus almost exclusively up in Nazareth with an OT prophecy (written, it seems, for the benefit of Judahite king Josiah, who was rather unfortunately killed by the ruler of Egypt just as he was about to declare his divine mandate for ruling the territory we now know as Israel) saying that the Messiah had to be born down south.) Being divine - raising the dead and turning water into wine would only be possible if he were - he knows that God exists, that there’s a heaven (to which, he claims, he is the Way, etc.), and that this heaven is what we on earth should aspire to. One could then infer that it must be pretty great to be there.
Then there’s Realistic Jesus. He’s one of a number of Messianic cult figures wandering Palestine at the time (and there were, as Python said, quite a few on record), come out of humble beginnings in the Galil. He doesn’t actually have divine power - he’s not an aspect of God - and doesn’t do anything miraculous - those are just legends sprung from the following around him after his time - but he forms a philosophy based largely (but not entirely; there’s a bit of less-good stuff in the NT) on a sort of extreme non-violent, hippy code. When it starts looking like he could be a sort of Gandhi-like revolutionary threat to Roman rule, they round him up and threaten him with execution if he’s going to carry on pulling this kind of activist nonsense. Even in the face of his own grisly death, he sticks to his “turn the other cheek” ideals and sets an example to those around him.
If Jesus were Realistic Jesus, well then his eventual sacrifice has meaning; he has no concrete certainty of what’ll happen next, whether there’s the afterlife he’s been talking about, whether there’s anything at all. He’s just a guy dying, effectively, for his principles. That’s sacrifice, right there, and I can respect that. But then why would you pray to him? He’s not God, just a man. You could make an argument for “most favoured guy” status and it’d be a decent one, but if you’re Christian you don’t go praying to anyone but God - unless you’re Catholic and you’ve got saints, and then technically you’re asking for intercession with God, and no Catholic I’ve ever heard deals with Jesus in that way.
If, on the other hand, Jesus were Classic Jesus, you can pray to him all you want because he’s an aspect of the Divine, and the Divine can do anything; praying to Jesus is praying to God, no difference. But Classic Jesus knows what happens after death, because he’s also an aspect of God. It’s debatable whether or not death even has meaning if you’re basically composed of immortal divine essence. What happens after death is that you go to Awesomeville. (Even, if you want to cheat and say Magical Jesus Part does the miracles and Human Jesus Part does the dying, Human Jesus Part still knows all this stuff because, hey, dead guy back to life, God’s real and I’ve got a direct line to him.) This is not sacrifice. This is, at worst, minor inconvenience when held up against an eternity of being in charge of the universe from the great basking centre of light and love in the sky. Easter should not, if Jesus were Classic Jesus, be a big deal, really. (Especially since Classic Jesus then comes back from the dead with nary a sweat.)
I don’t see how this can be resolved. (And essentially meaningless waffle like “he died for our sins” fixes nothing in this respect, incidentally.) I’m sure it has been, somewhere, because people have had a long time to do the mental gymnastics to try to make these things work, but I’ve never heard it. Answers?