There are a few reasons why Christians are Christian. One of the main reasons is to do with Jesus and who he was and what he did. After all if he was who he said he was and performed those miracles, rose from the dead then it would be foolish to deny his claims about being the son of God and that the way to heaven is through him. What's a way to convince them that the gospels cannot be true?
skg posted one of them. If you happen to be interested in using historical analysis to defeat Christianity, modern scholarship like Ehrman (or Geza Vermes or Paula Frederiksen) is pretty much your go-to source.
These are genuine scholars with very good reputations, and their books aren't actually written to refute Christianity (thus their objectivity), but laying out the history of how the early Christians came to believe as they did, is about the best inoculation against believing it that you can ask for.
I like the way you think. I used to be in the all is black or white crowd. My wife get's the credit for pulling me out of that on/off mind set. For people who are born into a faith based ideology it helps to be hyper pragmatic to deprogram the thought engine. It's difficult to think in analog when the mind tends to work in digital. Here's a great example; use the word that best describes the middle of these extremes:
1. black and white = gray
2. large and small
3. up and down
4. left and right
5. fast and slow
6. easy and hard
7. young and old
8. loud and quiet
9. good and bad
10. near and far
11. pass and fail
12. happy and sad
13. clean and dirty
14. shy and outgoing
15. calm and anxious
Gray area thinking isn't an innate characteristic, it's more of a learned behavior. Or skill maybe?
I enjoy hypothesizing what rational event seeded mystic stories such as religion and wives tales. I know that every few hundred years the Yellow sea parts due to conflicting tides. Could the same thing have happened in the Red sea? Odin was an actual first century king, Hercules was the actual first Olympiad winner and maybe, just maybe Jesus was a street magician. Probably like a circus style faith healer with a few ringers in the crowd. That always makes me laugh a little thinking that a third of the world is still buying his Snake-Oil.
"It'll cure what ails you folks!'
Heh, that's cool. I never noticed that about extremes; you're right: we describe things by thinking about extremes rather than about things in the middle.
As for Jesus as a street magician, there's quite some literature on that very subject actually. For instance, many of the miracles in Mark (first gospel) are really not that spectacular and are roughly the same as your run-off-the-mill Sunday faith healing session in an Episcopelian Church.
Jesus' healing of the lepers could be seen in this context; a "leper" in the ancient world was not just someone suffering from leprosy, but was used to refer to all kinds of skin conditions, just like lame referred to just about any movement impediment. And in a culture that sees illnesses as punishment from God, a charismatic faith healer coming along and "curing" you is perfectly possible. It's the same set of gimmicks that continues to this day: simple placebo effect and psychology.
Similarly, Jesus' healing of the blind (again, that's a very broad term) involves rubbing sand and spittle on the eyes; and we have records of the Emperor Vespasian doing the same thing! Because rubbing sand mixed with spittle on the eyes was actually a primitive "cure" for cataract which could (temporarily) relieve the symptoms.
And then there's the story of Jesus going to his home town Nazareth and facing a skeptical crowd. Jesus promptly declares that "he can't do any miracles here", which is exactly what modern-day faith healers and psychics say when presented with skeptical audiences"! (And it bothers Christians to do this why this supposedly divine figure "couldn't do miracles", obviously.)
For much of this we do have to assume that there's historicity behind specific episodes of the gospels, which is always a dangerous thing, but I'm certainly not the first to notice that many of the early anecdotes about Jesus are entirely consistent with a wandering faith healer/magician persona.
Also, the most overlooked aspect is the simple "lie". It is the most common behavior in human interaction. We can't even ask a person how their doing without both the question and the answer being deception.
Me: "How ya doin'?" (I'm just being polite. I have absolutely no interest in your wellbeing.)
Matt: "Just fine, yourself?" (I'm just being polite but actually these damned hemroids are FN killing me! I also have no interest in your wellbeing.)
Me: "Good." (I hate small talk.)
We are so practiced at interpreting or deliberately dismissing them we lose perspective on the proclivity of lies. I interoperate all communication written or spoken with a grain of salt. To bad language isn't like math, you can't embellish on 1 and 1.
I think it's far too hard to argue that Jesus didn't exist in history and any style of argument that was presented to argue this would probably also work for someone like Julius Ceasar or Siddharta Gautama. It's much easier to present the case that it's highly unlikely that the mythical Jesus didn't exist.
I am not a student of christian history, but I think that the story of Jesus can not be considered in isolation. A great deal of discussion is required on persons like Pillate, StPeter, St. Paul etc. We will have to see whether they existed or not and if they did, then we have to varify what they have said about Jesus. I hope I am not wrong.
I'm not sure it is possible. With the threat of hell for even doubting the faith, it takes a personal journey to realize that the invisible dude is not going to get you out of the pickle... because there is no invisible dude who cares. And there's the locked on notion that bad things happen because they sinned (like had a bad racy thought about someone's butt), so that is why they are broke and can't afford medicine. And for everyone, there is a question that sticks, like the very precise aim of fire by Luke into the Death Star. For me it was "If God didn't want me to question him, and it is the worst possible sin, why did he invent my investigative mind?"
My rise out of Christianity began with a thorough study of the Bible and then asking my preacher to help me make sense of things. He encouraged me to really study it. So I took him seriously and I did. I even went to translations from Hebrew and Greek and asked him to explain to me why the many versions of the bible veered so far from original text. I pointed out how one word can change an entire meaning of the beginning of the earth. For example, first line of Genesis, if translated correctly from original Hebrew is "The Earth BECAME void and without form." This suggests that there was a time that the earth existed before something bad happened to it. As a studious, trying-to-be-devout-Christian, I thought it was great to see the Bible confirm science such as prehistoric times and dinosaurs. Especially since other, more modern, version of the Bible said "The Earth WAS void and without form" or "The face of the Earth was void and without form." suggesting that the earth was just created in a few days and didn't have anything on it yet.
When I pointed this out to my pastor, he told me that Satan was starting to fill my head with doubts and to be careful and watchful and pray about it, etc. Basically, he scared the crap out of me. Another friend disowned me and wanted to burn anything in my house that I had given her because I was possessed by demons. These were people that I thought were rational. Nope. But sadly, I held onto the idea for the longest time that I was a bad person, God was mad at me and that that was why things weren't working out for me.
I hate to admit to this now but this is what happens when religion is taught to children at a young age. These things become ingrained as truth and to me, is serious psychological harm. Praying is NOT the answer to solve problems. And one of my missions will be to promote freethinking children and to not convince them that something without evidence exists (other than Santa Claus - which I'm totally cool with because we don't expect anyone to believe in Santa beyond about age 8).
So, whenever I debate a Christian, I usually like to really have them do the work of understanding their own Bible and justify why it's okay to take some parts literally and not others. I ask them how they get to decide if God is the ultimate authority. I ask how do they know what God wants them to take literally when he doesn't talk to them. I ask them how are they sure that the bible was inspired by God. I ask them why it is bad to think they don't have a creator when it is okay to think that nothing created God.
I've had very little luck with swaying a Christian but one said to me that I got him thinking. That was great news to me. I can only hope that the thinking continues. Perhaps that one little question he can't resolve, will eventually reach the depths and cause all that belief to completely unravel. It's a painful process for some. Belief can be comforting. Accepting that we are truly alone in the universe is a bit hard for some. And it can also mean a total implosion of the community of family and friends who will no longer accept you for your lack of faith in their religion. I speak from experience.
Making them think by asking them questions that are aimed at the core of their beliefs is usually the best method of debating a religious person, regardless of their specific religion.
Keep up the good work!
A side note for this discussion.
When contradicting christians beliefs, roughly one in ten christians will become aggressive. Twice I've had people so aggravated that I believe if I weren't an intimidating looking man I might have found myself in a physical altercation. So be carful.
I suppose it depends on how belligerent the believer with which you are arguing happens to be or how personal they take their faith. I've noticed that to really question them fervently, they do tend to take it personal and then I'm enemy number one. After my own "I'm free of religion and now I want to scream about how much I abhor it" phase, I realized it wasn't worth ruining some relationships over trying to convince others that it is so much more freeing and life is better without religion. In a way, I had become like them, wanting to spread the gospel of non-belief. I could very well see, however, had I continued on the path of being somewhat belligerent myself, it could have created provocation for violence. Fortunately, I don't associate myself with people who are so into it that they are completely irrational and aggressive but I can see how it can happen. So, I agree with you that it is good advice to be wise, careful and implement measures of tactfulness to preserve the dignity of the believer and avoid aggressive emotions.
That early "phase" as you put it is exactly what I was talking about. Now I don't really talk or discuss religion with theists unless they get pushy or approach me about it. I think it's the nature of the beast, that urge to validate beliefs or disbelief's in our case. But once the notions marinated in my head for a few years it became more of an equation than a belief. Similar to the notion of bills don't pay themselves and one and one are two. When I was a believer I never felt that way about spirituality, it was always in a separate container. In hind sight I may have always been to pragmatic to allow it to be cohabitant with my cognitive thoughts. That in itself could be what allowed me to escape from the matrix?
The problem with this discussion is not really whether Jesus existed, the evidence (although tenuous ) is in, he did exist But, we then have to confront Christians with our acceptence of his existence, but that there is no evidence to support their claims in the Bible of his supernatural qualities.
Thus, we tell Christians that we accept he existed, but that he was nothing special, that would be as acceptable to xtians as trying to argue that he did not exist.