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?
I'm reading throught Bart Ehrman's book Misquoting Jesus. It's very well written and, although all authors have a bias, this is the least biased I've read.
One of the alternative explanations he gives for Christianity is that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who had a small group of followers who believed that he was going to come back from the dead. When he died and didn't come back they were at a loss and didn't know what to do. They truly believed what he had told them and expecting his return started to fabricate stories about his life and his resurrection by sending letters around.
I think that this sort of explanation that accomodates the historical Jesus is quite plausible because we also see evidence of this sort of human behaviour, the mechanics involved in the transfiguration of a human into a deity by man, in other religions.
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.
Madhukar, you are correct. Interestingly, those stories play a large role in the rise both of christianity in general and a later split during which Martin Luther attempted to correct perceived flaws in catholic church teaching and practice - he was trying to become more catholic not less but ended up starting the protestant movement, which has split into irreconcilable sects (e.g., baptism requires adult baptism; methodism (there is a method to get into heaven); etc.
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!
Michelle, you make several good points.
After reading of the texts translated from the hebrew rather than from Greek, I was surprised at the number and significance of the textual differences. Two key ones: Mary is a young woman, not a virgin; thou shalt not murder (that is, commit unauthorized killing...jewish teaching very much requires active defense against evil and against harm in general).
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.