Why I Am Not A Christian

Reflections on Bertrand Russell’s speech from 1927. (Read the essay online here.)

This is the only essay of his I’ve read. I recommend it. It’s short, amusing and to the point. Many of the arguments he raises are still being raised by those in the New Atheism movement. I want to use this post to talk very briefly about Russell’s essay, even more briefly about the New Atheism movement, and about why I, Niki, am not a Christian.

We begin with Russell’s essay. It’s hard to deny most of his points: that many of the arguments made for Christianity just don’t hold water. Morally, the world will not fall apart if we’re not Christian. Plenty of moral people exist in other religions and no religion at all. No one can prove the existence of God in any scientific way. The argument from design is not compelling. Christ is a fascinating character, but equally problematic. I love the discussion of the fig tree story in the New Testament – Jesus passes by a fig tree, it isn’t bearing fruit and Jesus is hungry, Jesus angrily curses the fig tree to never ever bear fruit. Dude, what did that fig tree ever do to you? Jesus could stand to work on some anger management issues.

Like the ‘New Atheists’, Russell believes that only science is the way forward; science, along with “knowledge, kindness and courage.” I can support these things, and I think most people of faith can too. As great as the essay is I find that he raises up intelligence as a sort of God-like entity. And this is one of my main critiques of the New Atheism: that science becomes godlike. It is raised above all things. Our intelligence is trusted as the single most guide. I love science but it is a tool, not a god, not the end all and be all of wisdom.

Another of my issues with New Atheism is that science and religion (or faith, because often people of no particular organized ideology get thrown into the cart here) are not incompatible. There often is conflict between the two, but science and religion are not inherently opposed, nor is it a zero sum game where only one can stand victorious.

I have read some essays by the handful of (privileged, white, male) New Atheist writers, but I have not read their books. I do not want to as I find their tone smug and belittling. And yes, there has been legitimate critique of the movement as anti-feminist (this Ms blog post on the topic is a great place to start). I find that the writers in this movement are as closed-minded as the people the critique.

One of my biggest concerns is that many of the arguments laid against belief by atheists are actually quite specific to the Abrahamic faiths. Many of the things they don’t agree with or like are things I don’t agree with or like! When the average atheist is talking about why they don’t like God, I have to ask them which God. The Judeo-Christian monotheistic idea of and personality attributed to God is usually discussed as if it is the only one. I don’t believe in that God either. Millions and millions of people don’t believe in that God. So we all have something in common there.

I don’t want to spend too much more time on New Atheism. It’s been a few years since I followed the movement with any regularity; I’m sure I’m out of touch already on the subject. I will stand with them in support for a secular government and public arena, but I don’t support a religion-free world. I’m a big fan of religion. I like it. And there that is.

As for why I am not a Christian, the simplest answer is this: it isn’t my story. I’ve said that before, but it feels more and more true with each passing day. There is much I love about the Christian story: the Annunciation, the Resurrection, even the story of the Crucifixion. Jesus is a great and divine person. I support the social justice aspects of the Christian message. But Yahweh is not my god. I don’t believe that Yahweh is the Great Ground of Being, who created the whole universe. I do not want to bad mouth a god, from a spiritual point of view, nor do I want to bad mouth anyone else’s god, so I’ll stop there. While I love and respect the Jewish tradition, I do not see how the god of one group of people could be the god of all. I do not see how there could be now or have been then a Chosen People. How could one tiny tribe be chosen among all the tribes in the world? It doesn’t make sense intellectually, nor from a position of faith. I fully believe that Yahweh chose the Jewish people – but that is their story, not mine. I cannot be a Christian because so much of the Christian story and symbolism is dependent on Jewish symbols and stories.

I want to pause here and admit that I fear talking about the above because I am afraid people will assume I am anti-Semitic. I reject Yahweh, but I see that from a monotheist view-point it could be construed that I reject God entirely or people who believe in Yahweh. From a polytheist view-point, which is how I see the world now, I don’t reject God, just that specific god as mine, as the One God.

There are many other intellectual reasons for my moving away from the Christian faith – issues with politics, the roles of and beliefs about women, the body and sex, systematic examples of hypocrisy and domination of the weak and vulnerable by those in power. We can pick up any newspaper and find numerous reasons why the Christian tradition leaves a lot to be desired. But I know that those things are not the entirety of the Christian tradition. There are many beautiful and helpful parts too.

What it comes down to is personal experience. I am not a Christian because my deepest spiritual experiences have never been in church or with or about Jesus. My deepest spiritual experiences were in the wilderness, alone in prayer, or in decidedly pagan space.

It’s taken me a long time to let go of the Christian label. I wanted to fit in. I wanted all that was best about it, but I found that I couldn’t reconcile all the pieces. I have a great love in my heart for the tradition, as I do for the Jewish tradition. I still cannot read or watch people like Pat Robertson or Rick Santorum because their views hurt my heart. Physically, it hurts me to see their distortions of something I find meaningful and beautiful at its best.

But when we get down to the core of who I am, I am not a Christian. And there that is.

 

18 responses to “Why I Am Not A Christian

  1. Interesting post! I don’t have your same background with Christianity, but I think I come to a lot of the same conclusions, and had a similar reaction to a lot of Bertrand Russell. I did find that Reinhold Niebuhr made an excellent balance to Russell, though – check out “Does Civilization Need Religion?”, if you get the chance. He’s one of those authors who comes from very different premises than I do, but wins me over with his intellectual honesty.

  2. Gee, I like this post alot. A lot of good stuff, said better than my (often unvoiced) sentiments about both atheists and Christians, and atheism and Christianity. Suffice it to say, I cannot stand the ideologues on either side.

  3. An interesting post. I know what you mean about the tone of new atheists being “smug and belittling”. I keep meaning to read The God Delusion because it is so famous, but I haven’t because I don’t think it will be an enjoyable read.

    I find it more useful to concentrate on what I am than what I am not. Strangely I have come to understand more of how Christianity could be a valid path for some since I became a Hindu. The easiest answer to “why are you not a Christian” for me is simply “because I am a Hindu”.

    • At this point in my journey, recognizing that I am not a Christian has been a big step! I don’t know that I will ever be able to state definitely that I am a Hindu, as I don’t think it’s the full or most accurate representation of my practice. But eventually I’ll not have to say ‘I am not….’ and be able to say ‘I am….’

  4. This is a great post, Niki! It has me thinking about an exchange I had recently with the pastor of my parents’ church (she was pastor back when I was still attending there myself). She said it was a pity I missed the Christmas Eve service (mutual pagan friends of ours sang for it), and I said something about how church just isn’t my scene and I don’t feel comfortable there. She understood, but seemed a bit distressed and asked what the church could do to be more welcoming.

    I couldn’t articulate at the time that it’s not the church that isn’t welcoming (I’ve known some of its members since I was tiny), it’s the deity it’s for. I have no real beef with Jesus (and from my own experiences with him, I think stories like the fig tree were added as political allegory when the gospels were being written), but it felt really clear to me the last time I was there that I have no business in a building dedicated to Yaweh.

    Thank you for sharing such a thought-provoking and thoughtful post.

  5. Modern Science is totally sensual, and God or supreme force is beyond all senses. Indian science had proved the existence, if we go through Vedanta and Upanishads.

  6. As a semi-christian type guy kinda there but still weighing what’s true i found this interesting. at first read i ALMOST dismissed all paras above “I am not a Christian because my deepest spiritual experiences have never been in church or with or about Jesus” as its a lot of talk of why you don’t ‘like’ things. I don’t like cancer but it truly exists and it effects the world in very specific ways.

    SO awesome you mentioned polytheism ! in that your rejecting the god Yahweh because u don’t agree with some of his ways but u don’t deny his existence :) Most ppl use the horrible ‘ i don’t like it therefore untrue’ thing. I think the experiential evidences you’ve had without Jesus/God is also one of my sticking points for accepting Christianity in full !

    “No one can prove the existence of God in any scientific way”… or any god i would say…

    So true about propping science to a god like level ! its only a tool useful for certain areas of our existence !

    “Morally, the world will not fall apart if we’re not Christian. Plenty of moral people exist in other religions and no religion at all.” would be a shame if some Christian intellectuals would be claiming you have to be Christian to be moral as of course that’s bunk. The evangelical Christian philosophers & theologians I have read don’t claim this though I can see how this idea would exist :) tho after reading ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’ i could see how they could have constructed new arguments to combat Russell’s.. still i think his reasoning is surprisingly weak..or im like a child in my understanding of him and need to read more.

    Since im coming from reading theistic philosopher’s arguments for a god and for God its interesting reading russell’s. Unfortunatly i dont find them partially satisfying at best. But maybs im not getting it yet or maybe because the stuff i’ve read had been combating Russell and is either tainting my reasoning or is more reasonable :S

    Thanks for writing and getting my mind thinking cuz !

    • Hello, cousin! You “ALMOST dismissed all paras above “I am not a Christian because my deepest spiritual experiences have never been in church or with or about Jesus” as its a lot of talk of why you don’t ‘like’ things”?? Um…. that’s just about the entire post.

      Russell was writing in 1927 – I think we’re just a lot more familiar with his arguments at this point. Reading his essay though, it seems like not much has changed.

  7. Hey Niki,

    Great post. For the record, while Bertrand Russell had some useful works and he may have made some decent points in Why I am Not a Christian, he and Whitehead TOTALLY had their asses handed to them by Kurt Gödel in the 1930s with his Incompleteness Theorems, derailing any hope that the universe can be described as a purely rational and mathematical. The pure rationalist mentality has had a tough time staying relevant in the last 100 years of philosophy.

    While I think science is a great way forward, I stop short of endorsing any of the New Atheists. Sam Harris, Dawkins, etc- they all come across pretty much as jerks. Also add to that list Ayn Rand- it can’t be said that it was all privileged white MALES per-se, but the majority certainly is.

    Personally I am not a person who invests himself in mysticism. I appreciate various religions for what they are and I have no problem with those who practice them. I do however have a deep reverence for the natural world and a profound appreciation of life. I don’t feel like I have to declare myself as anything specific. At the closest you could say I’m a Taoist or have an Eastern bent, spiritually, but they lose me when they start talking psychics and reincarnation, or when I realize politically how close Taoism is to Libertarianism or Anarchism, neither of which I can get down with at all.

    What I’ve found as my best way forward is to sip on a cocktail of belief and ideas that constantly has new things being poured into it, changing the taste into something more flavorful. Those that don’t work in the mix get tossed. Anyway. Thanks for the great post! Got my wheels a-turnin. :-)

    • You definitely know a lot more about philosophy than I do! I do not doubt that this style of thinking got taken to the mat. Even though there is a fair amount of philosophy in theology (no, really!) I have avoided as much of it as possible. I realize now that it felt *even more* male privileged to me than theology did. I just don’t want to spend my time wading through tough language that in the end tells me women are inferior. I realize that’s not the focus of most ‘modern’ philosophy, but still. It’s also a big part of why I got out of Christian theology.

      As for Rand and Dawkins and the lot, I will repeat Adam here: It’s often not what you say but how you say it.

      I am definitely a mystic at heart, though my actual experiences still lean toward a practical enthusiasm for life. Can’t say I’ve had too many deeply mystic experiences. As for you, my friend, you are one of the most spiritual non-spiritual people I know! I feel like you are really open to embrace the best this life and all things living in this world have to offer. If that isn’t a deeply spiritual attitude then I don’t know what is!

      • Yeah philosophy in its traditional form is barely alive as it is, but of what remains most of the best modern stuff now is from women. Check out Martha Nussbaum, Judith Butler, and my all-time favorite political philosopher (though deceased), Hannah Arendt. While it’s inevitable to have to trace the history of Western philosophy through the dead white males, as Whitehead said, most of it is “footnotes to Plato”.

        Of the dead white male lineage I continue to focus on the existentialists and the American pragmatists, mostly Heidegger, Nietzsche, William James and John Dewey. But the likes of Descartes, Kant, Hume, Locke, Mill, etc… in the dustbin for me, I’m afraid.

        As far as crossing over from philosophy to theology, I think you might be interested in Soren Kierkegaard’s “Sickness Unto Death” and James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. I’ve had a thorough introduction to both of these but haven’t studied them in depth (yet). Worth a look.

        Spiritual, non-spiritual, eh? I dig it. I might just use that on my Facebook profile. :-)

Let's discuss

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s