By March 16, 2017 0 Comments

“Challenging Religious Beliefs” – Discussion Workshop #3

January 21st, 2017

Facilitator:  Tom Cara, Director FFRFMCC

 The FFRFMCC held its third discussion workshop on “Challenging Religious Beliefs.”  The purpose of these events is for non-theists to socialize and learn from each other’s experiences in dealing with talking points from those of religious faith, to encourage those of religious faith to think more critically regarding their beliefs.  Each workshop focuses on two specific questions/topics.  The following presents the topics and summary of input received from the 20 participants on addressing these issues from our September 21st, 2017 workshop.

Topic #1

“The United States is a Christian Nation.  The Constitution was founded on biblical principles!”

 “But the Constitution was written with the Ten Commandments in mind!”

This is a falsehood which secularists must immediately challenge when posed by the religious faithful, and a statement which generated the most conversation among the group.

  • Which Ten Commandments are Christians referring to? There are two different and unique versions found in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament.  One being a “Yahweh” version, and the other an “Elohim” version.  The latter being the more familiar one to Christians.  But if the Ten Commandments were handed down by God, which is the more accurate one?
  • If we examine the Ten Commandments closely, there are only two which are also U.S. laws – “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not kill.” The other eight are only considered “sins” and would not be used to charge someone with a crime.  For example, worshiping other gods is not a crime; blasphemy is not a crime; adultery is not a crime; lying is not a crime (unless committing perjury); coveting is not a crime; working on Sunday is not a crime.  So, where does it come into play that our Constitutional laws are predicated on the Ten Commandments?”
  • Where would one find “freedom of speech” or “freedom of religion” in the Bible? Where in the Bible does it even mention the need for democracy?  These are not biblical precepts.  On the contrary, they are in opposition to biblical teachings which demand we submit to the rule of a dictatorial king.  Many pilgrims escaped religious persecution of the King of England, whose Christian orthodoxy was one they did not want to follow.
  • There are even situations we can cite where lying can be interpreted as a moral thing – For example, when stretching the truth as so not to hurt someone’s feelings. Another example was when people hid Jews during World War II and told Nazis they were not harboring them.  This was done as a moral objection to oppression and murder, in order to protect people.
  • And the Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not kill – except in time of war, or if you’re acting in self-defense, or protecting your loved ones.” The 8th commandment makes no mention of any exceptions where killing might be permissible, as we find in our society today.
  • If our Constitution was based on the Bible, then slavery would still be legal in this country and it would be considered a constitutional right to own another person.
  • Even if these commandments were handed down by a god, are these the best he could come up with? What about, “Thou shalt not commit rape?” or ‘Thou shalt not commit child abuse?”  These are certainly criminal actions under U.S. laws, but are not in the bible.

 “But the majority rules in this country, and Christians are the majority!”

Not when it comes to the rights of citizens.

  • Our Constitution was written in a manner to protect the rights of the minority from mob rule, so their rights could never be infringed on by a majority. The Constitution was amended in 1791 in include the Bill of Rights, which were written to protect the rights of individuals and minority groups.  And the 14th Amendment established that all states must abide by the Bill of Rights, and therefore cannot disregard the Establishment Clause.
  • If Christians think rights are determined by majority rule, how would they feel if Islam became the majority religion in this country, and it was decided we should live under Sharia law?”
  • A Christian who believes the U.S. is a Christian nation must be asked to clearly define what they mean by that statement. Does it mean everyone who is a citizen must be considered Christian?  Does it mean those who are Christian have more rights than non-Christians?  The answer to those of course is “no.”

But we have always been “One Nation Under God,” and “In God We Trust” has always been our nation’s motto and on our currency!”

  • “One nation, under God” is a phrase that did not make its way into American culture until the Pledge of Allegiance was revised in 1954. “Under God” was inserted during the Red Scare with the intention of separating the U.S. from the communists, who were identified as atheist.  The original Pledge, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy long after the founding of our country, contained no mention of God, and it remained that way for nearly 60 years.
  • The phrase “In God We Trust” did not appear on any form of currency until it was added to a coin during the Civil War. It was not added to all U.S. currency until the 1950’s, again as a response to the Red Scare.
  • The original motto of the U.S. was “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “From one, many.” The founding fathers in no way advocated for the phrase “In God We Trust” as a motto for the country.

“The words ‘separation of church and state’ is nowhere in the Constitution.  Therefore, there is no such thing!”

  • In arguing there is no mention of the “separation between church in state” in the Constitution, what many of religious faith do not understand is that there are many Constitutional principles that have been set down by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Constitution, and of which the phrases that define them cannot be found in the written document. For example, “separation of powers,” “right to privacy” and “interstate commerce,” as well as many other phrases are also Constitutional principles that one will not find in the Constitution.
  • The phrase, “A wall of separation between church and state” was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, explaining to them that our government has no authority to promote a specific religion or to prevent anyone from worshiping in the way they choose.
  • John Adams, who was a Unitarian and rejected the divinity of Jesus, in his proclamation of the Treaty with Tripoli firmly stated, “The United States was not founded on the Christian religion.”

Closing Thoughts

The fallacy of the United States as a “Christian nation” is an all-to-common meme found within the Christian faith community in the United States.  While there is no mention of any gods or Jesus Christ in the Constitution, Christians often confuse the mentions of a “Creator,” “Divine Providence” and “Nature’s God” found in the Declaration of Independence as evidence the country was founded as a Christian nation.  The Declaration of Independence is exactly what it is called – a declaration of freedom from the governance another’s rule, and is not the governing/founding document of the United States.

The references cited by Christians in the Declaration in no way endorse Christianity as an established religious tradition for our country.   Many of the authors of the Constitution, while perhaps spiritual in their belief of a higher power, did not even consider themselves Christians, but rather Deists, and were opposed to orthodox Christianity.

As stated by FFRF Staff Attorney and Constitutional Counsel Andrew Seidel, “The Declaration of Independence explicitly states that governments are instituted by the people, not by the magistrate, not by the king. The bible directly contradicts these two ideas.”

The Constitution put in place the laws and established rights for its citizens.  Its only mentions of religion are exclusionary, such as the government shall not establish a state religion, or not prevent the right of individuals to hold the religious beliefs of their choice.  The Constitution also makes it illegal to require a religious test for holding public office.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is very specific in that the United States government must maintain a neutral position when it comes to religion, and not endorse one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

The Constitution expressly provides each citizen with the right to follow any religion they choose.  It also provides individuals with the right to not follow a religious doctrine.  Whether someone identifies as religious or non-religious, we all have the freedom to not have to succumb to the influence of any one specific religion, even if that religious tradition happens to be held by the majority of its citizens.  Freedom of religious exercise, as defined by our founding fathers, means to be free from any religion that is not one of their choosing.  While the United States may be a Christian nation by demography, our Constitution firmly states a majority religion does not have any more power, rights or privileges over those who do not fall within that demographic.  To not be Christian is not to be any less of a U.S. citizen.

The framers of our Constitution, by the time of its final draft, were insistent that the document specifically identify our country as a republic governed by the will of the people, not by any god.

Topic #2

“Jesus was an historical figure.  This is a fact!”

This subject is one that is often found to be a point of contention not only between theists and non-theists, but also between non-theists and each other.  There are even those who consider themselves of the Christian faith who take the position that Jesus was not divine, but merely a prophet spreading the word of God.

“But there is a lot of evidence that points to Jesus being an historical person!”

  • There were a lot of prophets during that time. There is no evidence that the person described as Jesus Christ in the New Testament ever existed.
  • The question of whether Jesus was a real person should be one that is a non-issue to any non-theist. If one does not believe in a god, then the question of whether Jesus was a real person is not something we should even feel the need to defend or argue against.  Jesus, if he did exist, did not actually write anything.  And the fact none of the events in the life of Jesus depicted in the New Testament were ever documented in any other historical records makes Jesus an inconsequential person.
  • Thomas Jefferson was a deist who wrote his own bible by keeping the philosophy of Jesus Christ, but removed all references to his divinity, his resurrection and all the miracles he was said to have performed.
  • Many of the texts of the New Testament were widely edited, and some were found to be forgeries. First Timothy was written as far as the year 400ce by Romans who wanted to subjugate women.
  • Luke was written by someone who never met Jesus or never visited Jerusalem. Luke is identified as a researcher who used other documents to write his gospel.  In his dedication to Theophilus in the opening chapter of his gospel, Luke openly admits he is only documenting previous accounts that were written about, and therefore acknowledges he was not an eyewitness to anything he is writing about.
  • Matthew and Luke were both believed to be derived from the source “Q,” which just came from a German concept. And “Q” has never been fully identified.  Luke is a composite of and shares so much in common with Matthew.  Many scholars consider Luke to be simply another version of Matthew.
  • Those who were tasked with documenting any “radical” individuals during the supposed time of Christ never mentioned anyone named Jesus. So if he did exist, he must not have been a concern to authorities, or even a person of any significance.
  • Given there are so many contradictions surrounding the life of Jesus within the different gospels, and especially the letters from St. Paul whose writings fell closest to the ascribed time of Jesus, it is difficult to presume those who wrote the gospels were eyewitness to anything.
  • The gospels were nothing but oral stories that changed as time went on and were nothing but a bronze age storybook.
  • If we don’t believe Jesus, if he did exist, had any supernatural powers, then it should not matter to non-theists whether he was an historical person. Because the bible is rife with claims of Jesus’s divinity and his ability to perform miracles.  None of which have been documented anywhere else but in the bible. The Christian religion, according to most Christians, is dependent on the belief in the divinity and miraculous acts of Jesus.  Without such beliefs, Jesus is no more significant than any other philosopher in history.
  • Jesus Christ was a prophecy from the Old Testament that many during that time believed was going to be fulfilled. So, it is more likely the stories of the New Testament were concocted simply to tell a fable of a prophecy come true.
  • The time when Jesus was said to have lived was a very well-documented period in our history. There are numerous references to the emperors of that era, as well as kings like Herod.  Statues were also erected to honor these figures.  But such documentation, or imagery, cannot be found for Jesus Christ.
  • A question that could be asked of those who believe Jesus Christ was a real person is how they are certain he was historical when the four authors of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) have never been truly identified, as those are just assigned names. If the authors cannot be deemed credible, then how can the texts be credible?
  • Many Christians deny much of the writings of the Old Testament. In as such, they should be asked that if they don’t believe in the Adam & Eve story, or the Noah story, or the story of Jonah be swallowed by the great fish, then why believe the prophecies of a messiah from those same texts?  If Christian faith is not built on the credibility of the entire bible, from where then is their faith derived?

Closing Thoughts

The consensus of the group felt there is no solid evidence that a person named Jesus, as he is described in the bible and who was supposedly responsible either directly or indirectly for the stories and parables written in the bible, ever existed.  As a result, non-theists really have no reason to be concerned with whether or not he was a real person.

In debating Christianity with Christians however, the question of Jesus’s historicity should be addressed.  The entire basis of Christianity is predicated on Jesus being a real person.  Therefore, his existence should be considered quite relevant in order to consider Christianity to be relevant.

Can someone who follows the philosophical doctrine of Christianity, but does not believe Jesus was divine, still consider themselves a Christian?

For Christians, is the bible built on credibility, or is it built more on comfort?  Are Christians who do not find the bible a credible source simply failing back on Pascal’s Wager and basing their faith on not taking any chances?  If there are a good number of Christians who fall into this category, it becomes entirely possible that this is nothing but a reinforcement of an understanding that Jesus is just as much a parable as the stories in the gospels.

If some Christians believe the philosophy of the religion is more important than the historicity of Jesus, can they still be considered Christian without acknowledging the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus?  If there are Christians who believe the concepts in the gospels were man-made and written only to fulfill some need within humanity and to help us cope with life, this would certainly be a divisive issue within the Christian community.

And perhaps one that Christians should debate among themselves before making any attempts to legitimize their religion, as well as its principal representative of that religion.

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