We are pleased to share this video from our recent presentation to the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, Texas. Special thanks to our good friend Zachary Moore for filming, editing, and uploading this presentation! Thank you for watching, and we invite any and all feedback! Cheers!
Owen here… a month or so ago Rex made a blog post about something that we see with a greater than 95% consistency whenever we visit a bible study class somewhere: it’s always Paul. When we speak with atheist and free thinker groups usually our audiences are able to immediately grasp why this is significant to us, but in a recent conversation with a Christian I got a confused look and a question in reply: why should that be interesting? This blog post is my attempt to answer that question.
The Christian religion holds that there is a single deity having three parts, and that one of those three parts, Jesus, actually came down to earth and lived among us for a little over thirty years as a human being, roughly two thousand years ago. During the thirty or so years that Jesus was here, Christians believe that he spent the last year or two of his life traveling, teaching, and expanding on what God’s message and hope was for humanity, and then the culminating event of Jesus’ life was to be a human sacrifice to serve as a means for God to forgive humanity for its sins. I’m giving you the nutshell version.
The Christian holy text, the Bible, and in particular the New Testament of the Bible, contains four different accounts of Jesus’s life, and we call these the four gospels. Following the four gospels there is one document calls the Acts of the Apostles, which really just tells us stories about what the Apostles did, and after that are the thirteen letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (nobody really thinks Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews and I am not counting that one – so I said there are thirteen). After Paul there are some other letters, and then the last book in the New Testament is a Revelation.
So when you’re a Christian in a bible study class you have a wide choice of things you could focus on in your study. The four different gospel accounts presumably (and I use the word presumably because scholars debate the veracity of the gospel stories) capture the words and deeds of Jesus. On the other hand, the letters of Paul (only seven of which were actually written by Paul, the others are forgeries) are documents written thirty or more years after the death of Jesus by a guy who never actually knew Jesus in life. So let’s think through that for a minute. On the one hand, if Jesus really was the incarnate god of the entire universe, if he was literally the author of the entire universe, and he were here on earth teaching us a very important message, would the message and the behavior of that incarnate god be the most important things that human beings could ever learn about? I would think so. And the more deeply you think about it the more interesting it becomes. Granted I don’t accept that the Christian concept of god actually exists, but what we’re talking about is how Christians prioritize what they study. And Christians overwhelmingly choose to study the writings of Paul and not the deeds and words of Jesus. Could this be significant? We think it is, for lots of reasons. First, consider what Paul didn’t seem to know about Jesus. Paul didn’t seem to know that Jesus had a ministry, and if Paul did know that he never mentioned it. Paul had no idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. Paul had never mentions the Sermon on the Mount. Paul never talks about any of Jesus’s miracles – feeding the five thousand for example. If you’re a Christian and you’re studying Paul instead of Jesus, why? Don’t you think the message that the creator of the universe had for us would be more important than what Paul wrote about three decades later? Why should Paul even be an authority if he didn’t really know anything about Jesus’s life? It has been said that all Paul really knew about Jesus was that he came and then died. If Paul wrote a gospel account of Jesus it would literally be a single sentence. Why wouldn’t Paul know these things if he were living and writing three decades after Jesus died? Isn’t that an interesting question? But there is still at least one more reason why the things Paul didn’t know might be significant. The second reason, then, is that Paul disagreed with the disciples of Jesus who were still living. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that he confronted Peter in Antioch because he thought Peter was wrong. Let’s consider the context: Peter would have known the living Jesus even if Paul didn’t, and Peter had a different understanding of what Christianity was supposed to be than Paul did. Paul was opposed to “Judaizers” by which he mean people who were teaching that before you could be a Christian you first had to be a Jew. As it turns out, the people who knew Jesus while he was alive thought you needed to be a Jew before you could be a Christian…and Paul thought that was wrong. See what I mean about this getting more interesting?
How do we really know that Paul’s understanding was and is the correct one and that the people who actually knew and traveled with Jesus had always gotten it wrong? Is there anything else that might be called into question? As it turns out, scholars have argued that Paul’s lack of knowledge of Jesus’s life combined with the way in which the gospel stories seems to evolve over time clearly demonstrate that much of what is recorded is likely legendary in nature and not literally true. This would be particularly true for the Gospel of John, the last one that was written. If I were a Christian, the idea that I was following Paul and not Jesus might cause me to lose sleep at night. I might also lose sleep at night wondering if there was anything reliable that I actually knew for sure about Jesus.
Every time Rex and I walk into a bible study class and see a verse from Romans or Ephesians up on the board we wonder to ourselves if the folks in the class have ever really thought this particular set of problems all the way through.
This particular religion is called Christianity, but the single most important Christian proponent in history knew virtually nothing about namesake of his own faith. And most Bible study classes that we visit prefer to study Paul rather than Jesus himself.
If you’d like to learn more about the academic scholarship on New Testament studies please take a look at our recommended reading page and look for Ehrman and Mack as a place to begin.
Rex Here… Last week I had the great opportunity to be interviewed by Joshua Richards for the JRRTalking podcast. We covered a range of topics around Christian de-conversion and atheist activism.
Joshua is a former Christian clergy member who came to reason and left the ministry a few years ago. Be sure to check out his other podcasts also!
I hope you enjoy our conversation!
As always, we invite any feedback you may have! Cheers!
Yesterday Rex and I presented to the Oasis organization in Houston about our project, and we were ecstatic about how well received we were. This was our first exposure to Oasis, and we loved what we saw and experienced with you. We want to give a big Texas sized shout out to Mike Aus, to the leadership team at Houston Oasis, and to all of the volunteers who make Oasis happen on the ground for every meeting. The questions we received were excellent, and the lunchtime conversations and feedback were awesome. It was clear to Rex and me that y’all are deep thinkers who care about the world, and who do the hard work that is required to stay inclusive. This is an amazing, interesting, and friendly group of folks who are wonderful models of humanism and atheism, and Rex and I are looking forward to visiting again. The atheist and freethought community in the Houston are is fortunate to have such a strong organization there. Thank you so much for having us, and keep living out loud!
One of the things Rex and I encounter with disappointing frequency is the No True Scotsman fallacy. As former Christians who are now atheists and advocates for freethought, it is sometimes difficult for believers to accept that we were ever Christians to begin with. The argument usually goes something like: “No true Christian could ever fall away, so you couldn’t have really believed.” I’ve always tried to take this reply in stride. It’s not worth being offended about because it doesn’t really diminish me at all personally, and from the point of view to my counter-party it makes sense that some kind of rationalization would be necessary to help that person confront the difficult reality right in front of them: it is possible to be a true believer and then walk away. When you unpack that, even just a little, what you find is a person who’s intellect is already struggling with the idea that disbelief is even possible. There is cognitive dissonance there, right under the surface. The saddest thing of all is that this would have been an argument I might have used many years ago back in my Christian days if I had encountered a former Christian. There are several takeaways, I think. First, anytime you have a conversation with someone where you have taken ownership of non-belief, please don’t ever be offended at the responses you receive. Try to understand the interaction from the perspective of the person saying this to you. This is a potentially painful and personally challenging situation for that person. Second, when you see a flawed argument like this, point out (gently and politely) to the person that the argument they’re using is actually a common and well understood logical fallacy that actually has a name. Explain to them why its a fallacy (it’s circular – the premise and the conclusion are the same). And finally, remember that you’re a representative of freethought, and the behavior you model might stay in that persons mind forever. You’re planting a seed into the mind of a person who may never have encountered a non-believer before. You never really know how that seed may germinate.
One of the things that Rex and I hear all the time in conversations with believers is that life can only have real meaning if you believe in a deity of some kind. If you have listened to or watched our presentation on “Answering the Five Claims” you will have seen us spend some time on that, and if you’re a fellow skeptic you will likely already agree with us that the meaning in our lives is self-determined rather than ordained for us in advance by a supreme being. This is important. Frankly, this might be the ultimate freedom that comes from a rational skeptical world view like ours.
So here’s what I ask: tell us what makes your life meaningful. Let’s make our voices heard that we’re allowed to choose this meaning for ourselves.
Rex and I have the good fortune of being able to live “out loud” as atheists committed to free thought and rational inquiry. Our lives, families, and professional responsibilities are not hindrances and do not impose any filters on our ability to live openly as skeptics, but this is not true for some, and maybe even many, Americans. For many people, the pressure of family, the expectations of peers, or the potential professional implications of admitting to being an atheist on an open forum like Facebook, is a significant barrier in allowing you to outwardly live the life that your mind and your integrity have determined is right for you and correct in truth.
If you’re one of those people who for social, family, or professional reasons simply cannot admit to being an atheist or even a skeptic, know that we appreciate your silent moral support, and we who can live out loud will work to make America safer for you and for future generations to openly admit their skepticism without any negative consequences.
If you’re a believer and you assume that nobody around you could ever harbor any doubts about the faith you assume everyone shares with you, let me assure you that you’re wrong. Rex and I talk to these doubters all the time, some of whom even cautiously look both ways in the church hallway before admitting their doubts or even outright non-belief to us.
Rex and I are committed to helping America reach a place where the only consideration a person need consider in openly rejecting faith is that person’s own conscience.
I wish you all the best.
Here is a video link to our recent presentation on veganism. This is a bit of a departure from our normal subject matter, but the FOF asked us to give this talk, so we did. We hoped to demonstrate that even though we don’t agree, we can still have a calm, rational conversation. We hope you enjoy, and any feedback is welcome. Once again, special thanks to Zachary Moore for his amazing video and editing.