Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Jesus Was a Dick"

This presentation was originally given at the St. Louis Ethical Society at the St. Louis Skeptical Society event, "Skepticamp."  

I argue that the character Jesus in the Bible's New Testament was not a good moral teacher and that skeptical nonbelievers should get over the cultural mystique of Christianity and stop saying otherwise.  

Link to PDF of the 4 gospels with my commentary on Jesus' moralizing:  https://docs.google.com/open?id=0Bxg5Qg9Ka1qGaWpxTmNiNWlXems


Slide 1 (intro):

Hello, my name is Ben Schuldt.  I’m here to convince you that Jesus is a dick.  

Slide 2 (disclaimer):

I should offer a disclaimer up front that I will be using the term “dick” a lot in a pejorative context. No offense to actual penises.  

I understand there may be some Christian skeptics in the audience.  Double warning, I call Jesus a dick a lot.  Sorry.

Slide 3 (clarification):

Specifically, to clarify, the underlying issue here is moral skepticism.  Is the character Jesus as presented in the Bible a good moral teacher as many atheists like to claim?  I know you’re out there!  Regardless of how fictional or trustworthy our sources are, or whatever reconstructions of the historical Jesus you may fancy, do we find good moral advice in the texts, as is, put on the lips of Jesus?

Slide 4 (why this matters):

So 4 reasons I think this matters:

For one thing, it’s just false.  Jesus is not that great of a moral teacher as we’ll get into here in a second.  Skeptics are supposedly reality-based lifeforms, so let’s get that right.

Secondly, many Christians are more likely diagnosing you with a spiritual illness rather than respecting your concern for morality.  You may manage to disable uncomfortable conversations you don’t want to have, depending on where you are in life, with Christian family, friends, and co-workers, but you should know what their belief systems tend to teach about people who only get Jesus half right (according to them).

Thirdly, saying that Jesus is a good moral teacher is a bit insulting to those of us who grew up with the many questionable moral statements in the gospels and who have suffered under the inhumanity of the teachings and the lingering effects even into apostasy land.  After we’ve toiled to strip ourselves of these evils, we get to hear from our uncritical atheist friends how great and wonderful it really actually was since Jesus only gave one pleasant sounding sermon on a mount that one time and then quit talking apparently.  

Fourth, whenever the topic of Jesus being a great moral teacher comes up, it’s a great opportunity to encourage Christians to think critically about their moral beliefs.

Slide 5 (moral extremism):

The underlying theme of Jesus’ ministry is preaching the kingdom of heaven, which as it is said in parable form (Matthew 13:44):

...is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Everything you have to do to be a Christian is totally worth it because your rewards in heaven will be so much greater.  

Slide 6 (perfection):

Jesus is a moral extremist by his own acknowledgement.  There is a worldly morality where people love each other for the sake of natural reciprocation and then this is where Jesus puts that down and tells us we have to do much better than that.  In fact, we have to be perfect.  

Matthew 5:46-48  

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Aside from how classist and racist that sounds to my ears (the jabs at tax collectors and pagans), what reward will you get if you love those who love you?  Um...their love?  Jesus makes that sound like a bad thing.  

And aside from that fumble, burdening people with perfection is quite inappropriate in my view.  No where with Jesus will you find moral nuances like, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” or other such practical and realistic moral concepts that emphasize patience and progress.  

Slide 7 (moral impossibility):

Jesus even admits he's asking for the morally impossible.  His disciples are baffled out how difficult his moral teachings are and he responds:

Mark 10:27 With man this is impossible, but with god all things are possible.

(See also: Matthew 19:26)

So...Jesus tells us, “Just add magic.”  Seems quite legit.

Slide 8 (moral extremes):

As the key examples of this extremism:

Matthew 5:29 Pluck out eyes, and cut off limbs if they come between you and heaven.

Mark 10:21 Sell all your stuff to prove you aren’t attached to worldly wealth.

Matthew 19:12 Don't get married since that just gets in the way of focusing completely on the Christian god.

Luke 14:26 Hate your family and your own life or you just aren’t worthy to be Jesus’ disciple.

Matthew 8:22 Don't have funerals for loved ones if they aren’t Christians, because that’s just a waste of time.


Slide 9 (black and white thinking):

Black and white thinking pervades Jesus’ views on salvation with the all or nothing, you’re either with me or you’re against me crap which is much more of a hook for a religion (or something George W. Bush says) than correct moralizing.  

As we all know, only a Sith moralizes in absolutes.  

So rather than seeing the many diverse people in the world as complex individuals coming from different perspectives, filtered through a myriad of influences, cognitive biases, and honest mistakes, Jesus wants to take us back to nursery rhyme land where there are just sheep and goats destined for heaven or hell.  To Jesus there are people who mystically see the light and evil people who want to live in darkness to hide their sins.  That means the most of you!

This appeals to our brute ingroup vs. outgroup tendencies, but it is not mature moralizing.  It just divinely validates the actions of immature Christians who neglected to impose their own maturity on Jesus’ advice.  

Slide 10 (moral living vs. cult think):

Taken together, this is all a very scary theme.  However, it works great in the context of a purity cult that is designed to cut you off from the rest of the world and fill your head with self-serving ideological delusions, much like say, Scientology does today.

It does not work so much for plain moral living most of us would likely judge by.

Slide 11 (eternal damnation):

Of all the voices in the entire Bible, Jesus is the most prolific advocate of eternal damnation.  The doctrine is barely in the OT.  It’s only mentioned or alluded to by others in the NT (except for the book of Revelation, which is also supposed to be Jesus), but Jesus goes out of his way to spell it out.  So you can be anyone from the most well behaved 7 year old girl to international war criminal Joseph Kony and without the Christian god working his salvation magic, you are headed for an eternity of torment of one sort or another according to Jesus.  The flame never dies, the worm never stops eating at you.  Judgement has come, the doors are shut, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth on the outside of paradise.  Whatever you did in the drop in the ocean of the beginning of eternity dictates your fate forever.  No appeals, no parole, no rehabilitation, just eternal overkill on what most Christians throughout history have wanted to pretend is justice.  

And as you can see in these bottom references, Jesus peppers his teachings with these threats rather than selling us the virtues on their own terms.  

Slide 12 (few will be saved):

Jesus even tells us that few will be saved, logically entailing that most will be damned.  

Do you think most people you know deserve anything like this?  

We’re not talking about just Stalin and Pol Pot here.  These would have to be your neighbors, family, friends, co-workers, etc. since the body count of Jesus’ hell has to come from somewhere.

So including eternal damnation in his moral paradigm alone puts him on my moral philosopher shit list.  I mean, there’s really no reason to even go further since this is much more than enough to establish the conclusion that Jesus is a huge dick.  [As Billy Mays would say] But wait, there’s more.

Slide 13 (mystical repentance):

One might think that preaching forgiveness and starting over again with your moral slate is a really good thing.  But where does Jesus take us from there?

Mark 9:23 Everything is possible for him who believes.

Matthew 17:20 Tiny amount of genuine faith lets you move mountains.

Perhaps you can say the "mountain moving" is just an exaggerated metaphor, but for most people the path to the moral life is much more about things like, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  We should be working with molehills long before we get to mountains, but you’ll never hear anything about that from Jesus.

It is much more likely that the character Jesus is trying to stimulate his audience into more magical thinking rather than sound moral advice.

Slide 14 (doormat ethics):

Here we come to Jesus’ “too good” of advice.  What do I mean?

Matthew 5:38-42  says:

You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 18:21-22 tells us to forgive our neighbor up to 490 times.

...effectively turning you into either a doormat for evil people or someone that continually makes good people feel bad for taking advantage of your excessive generosity.  There’s really no practical in between.

And it raises practical questions if someone is pushing you around: Can you run away?  Can you call the cops?  Are you allowed to fight to protect your family and friends or have you been too busy hating them as Jesus elsewhere seems to recommend?  Should we just let bad people get away to do it again tomorrow to someone else?  Should we let con artists just keep taking advantage of us or should we be skeptical and proactive against their efforts to deceive people?  Jesus doesn’t tell us or rather he does, since he seems to be saying we should let ourselves be taken advantage of.  The reasoning seems to be that relationships in this world don’t matter anyway and that you need to make sure you are ultra good to prepare yourself for what really matters, which is the kingdom of heaven in the next life.

I don’t see Jesus advocating the maintenance of a healthy balance of reciprocation with the people you interact with.  In fact, as you may recall, he puts that down and only seems to find ways to disrupt it.

Slide 15 (anti-skepticism):

Jesus is not a friend of skepticism.  There is a very consistent theme of anti-evidence in the gospels (and of course elsewhere in the Bible as well).  This is no good since you can’t have good morality without a firm grip on reality and you can’t have a firm grip on reality without evidence based critical thinking.

Mark 8:11 There's no reason to ask for evidence.

Matthew 12:39 & Luke 11:29 An evil and adulterous generation asks for evidence.

Luke 16:31 Evidence never convinced anyone.  

John 20:29 Credulity is the virtue Jesus craves.   

Jesus is not a champion of critical thinking...he’s a champion of mysticism.  You are supposed to have mystical confirmation that what he says is true from having read and properly interpreted the Jewish Bible or believing his very words in a similar way which for us is the Christian Bible.  Ultimately, we’re just left with “believe what the Bible says and if that’s not good enough, you are evil.”

Slide 16 (Jesus on Sex Ed):

Sex is a big part of human life as we are a sexually reproducing species.  

The Jewish Bible that Jesus falls back on to justify the basics of his perspective on marriage and sex is simply a blunt moral instrument when it comes to dealing with intersex people, gender dysphoria, people who are romantically inclined to one sex or gender and sexually inclined to another, polyamory, hypersexuality, and a long list of issues that the prescription, “Get straight married or else, because that’s what Adam and Eve did” simply does not touch.   And, in a positive immoral sense, that same advice overly pressures immature straight people into long term commitments they may be coerced into making when more moderate approaches would be more appropriate.

So instead of advocating the generic moral navigation tools of harm and happiness, good communication, consent, fairness and equality to really navigate the perils of love, sex, and marriage for all Jesus adds 4 unhelpful and harmful things to the mix:  

1. Instead of acknowledging there are many good reasons to get divorced and that moving on to a better relationship can be a good thing we get this:  Divorce is bad and you should feel bad. If you get divorced for any reason other than your partner cheating on you (depending on what gospel you read), that's bad.  If you divorce and get remarried that's still bad.  (Matthew 5:31-32)

2. Celibacy and castration are better than marriage to begin with since marriage is just so hard (Matthew 19:12).

3. A healthy sexual fantasy life is a thought crime = to betraying your spouse. (Matthew 5:27-30)

4. The institution of marriage is abolished in heaven regardless of what married people would choose for themselves. (Mark 12:18-25)

It’s pretty safe to say that Jesus is out of touch.  

Slide 17 (celibacy vs. our species):

Jesus’ teachings here are the kind of thing that make great sense from the perspective of a celibate monk who has little investment in sex and marriage (other than to pounce on it when it goes wrong, which is a common self-justification mechanism backhandedly endorsing whatever prefered path happens to be), and who believes that such things are a mere distraction from true spirituality, and who thinks the world is going to end soon anyway so why bother with all the fuss?  

It is not so much great moral advice for the vast majority of our species who actually live in reality.

It’s not like everyone of Jesus’ day was stingy about sex.  Historian Richard Carrier says,

"...mainstream pagan culture was more sexually progressive than Jesus (prostitution [was] legal; [there was a] thriving recreational dildo industry; [it was] okay to be a concubine or divorcee; male homosexuality [was] acceptable as long as you pitch and don't catch; lesbianism [was] fine, [...]etc.).”

Carrier says that was just the mainstream of paganism.  There were more liberal groups making Jesus a fanatical right winger even in his day which might have been pretty obvious since he was peddling celibacy as the ideal to people who obviously haven’t been taking his advice for 2,000 years.

No one in Jesus’ time period is going to have a fully sex positive moral message as we would expect today (and things would be a bit different given the lack of modern contraception).  However we can find better messages that do not so closely revolve around, “Run away!”  

Slide 18 (OT approved):

Jesus seems to approve of the entire OT, that thing skeptics love to hate:

Matthew 5:17-18

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Jesus may not directly moralize about things like slavery and homosexuality, but you’ll never find him saying an ill word about the OT.  In fact, you’ll find him glorifying it, teaching from it, and of course, trying to fulfill its prophecies (both intended and contrived).  Far from being a replacement warm fuzzy from that old grouchy god from the Jewish Bible, we are expected to think of the OT as saying to the Jesus character, “You complete me.”  

Slide 19 (terror and genocide):

Just as one extreme example of a specific OT endorsement, in Matthew 24:37-41 Jesus considers a terror-filled end of the world morally justified, relates it positively to the genocide of Noah's flood, and thus condones terrorism and genocide as the morally appropriate response to the moral failings of this world.

Slide 20 (in review):

To review:

Christians probably think there’s something wrong with you for thinking Jesus is a good moral teacher, but not recognizing him as their god.  

It is insulting to many ex-Christians who have suffered under the perversity of Jesus’ moral extremist teachings to pander to Christians in that way.  

Jesus is not a good moral teacher.  

His morally extremist views are designed to cut you off from the world and put you in a purity cult.

Jesus advocates unhealthy black and white concepts on morality.  

Rather than advocating practical moral moderatism, he pushes people to a perfectionism they cannot hope to attain without the aid of magic.  

Jesus was the main proponent of eternal damnation--a punishment that cannot possibly fit any finite earthly crimes--and hell is peppered as a continual threat throughout his moral teachings.  He also surmised the majority of humanity would be going there.  

Jesus was an anti-skeptic that advocated credulity and magical thinking over evidence-based critical thinking.

Jesus had laughably bad things to say about sex education like “get straight married or else,” that divorced people are bad, that celibacy and castration are better than marriage, that lust is just as bad as adultery, and that marriage is abolished in heaven regardless of what married couples actually want for themselves.

Jesus condones the OT which includes the approval of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, institutionalized rape, and genocide (to name just a few enlightened moral ideas).   

And he’s not a pacifist.  He’s a very patient warmonger who intends to return with an army of angels to violently destroy everyone who disagrees with him.  And that means you!

Make no mistake; the character Jesus in the pages of the NT is a huge dick.  

Calling out a few religious hypocrites and getting himself executed does not excuse his horrible moralizing or make him any less dickish.

As Jesus would say, "First remove the plank from your own eye [, Jesus]..." (Matthew 7:5)

Slide 21 (final point):

In my opinion, it is better as a good skeptic to encourage moral critical thinking than to pander to Christians with the “Jesus is a good moral teacher” meme.

Slide 22 (closing):

Thank you!

If anyone has any objections or brilliant moral insights of Jesus they’d like to point out or how the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff is not as I’ve implied, please feel free to email me or find me on FB.  I’m Ben Schuldt.

I have prepared a PDF of the 4 gospels, red letter edition, highlighting Jesus’ less than stellar moralizing, good, bad, and ugly, with some commentary from me.  I will be sure and make that link available to anyone interested in exploring the issue further.