I was brought up by loving parents in the Christian Anglican tradition. When only fifty seven days old I was baptised and I won my first prize, for good attendance, at Sunday School just four years later. I was confirmed when 13 years old. Although there was a strand of the sceptic in me I was in thrall to Christianity, on and off, until after both of my parents had died. Only then, aged fifty-eight, did I finally break away from the embrace of religion.
It really shouldn’t have been that way - after all when I was 22 I became a graduate geologist with a good understanding of evolution and deep time. Somehow I seemed content to separate matters of the head from matters of the heart, including religion and morality. Only now, ten years after coming out as non-religious, have I wanted to try and look objectively at what Christianity actually is.
What triggered my interest was reading ‘Jesus, The Son of Man’ by the poet Kahlil Gibran. There seemed much that is plausible in Gibran's semi-fictional narrative and I decided to re-read the four New Testament gospels with a critical eye. There, together with parables, miracles and the reported fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies, I found the description of a remarkable man. A man who set himself against the corrupt, self-serving and hypocritical religious authorities of his time, spoke up for the downtrodden, drew crowds wherever he went, and ultimately upset the Jewish hierarchy so much that they contrived to have him put to death by the Roman administrators of Jerusalem.
I feel no need to question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure - on this point the New Testament combined with the known development of Christianity seems plausible. The earliest independent historical reference, which appears genuine, occurs in Tacitus’ ‘Annals’. He mentions a community of Christians in the year 64 CE / AD in Rome, followers of ‘Christus’ who was put to death in Judea at the hands of Pontius Pilate (see Footnote).
However, as a beneficiary of the scientific knowledge of the twenty-first century, it is obvious to me that such essential elements of Christian faith as the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Resurrection and a prayer-answering God are simply impossible. Occam’s Razor and all that. Faith asks us to accept the say-so of others instead of evidence and forms no part of a rational society. It is the rationality of science and technology that has given us an understanding of maths, evolution, genetics, engineering, chemistry, earth history, astronomy and electronics. It is the rigorous application of evidence-based knowledge that has enabled the discoveries and inventions which allow so many of the world’s seven billion inhabitants to live comfortable, healthy and fulfilling lives. What, then, if anything, remains for Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity?
Religious people generally insist on a moral code of behaviour as an integral part of their religion, but often fail to understand that morality is independent of religion. Indeed, conflicting religious doctrines throw up conflicting moral codes, which have always led to disputes, too often involving atrocities and bloodshed. Make your own list of mutually intolerant religious groups, past and present.
Thoughtful and objective people now understand that morality depends on universally applicable human rights, not on arbitrary rules of behaviour that dictate what people may or may not eat, wear or do. Nevertheless, the seeds of universal human rights exist in many religions. Thus the ‘Golden Rule’ (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) is to be found in the Gospels — but it existed long before the birth of Jesus, in Egypt and in Confucianism. Similarly we can all recognise universal values in the Parable of the Good Samaritan and in some of the Ten Commandments (no murdering, stealing or bearing of false witness).
So morality has nothing uniquely to do with Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion. It forms part of the bedrock of successful social cooperation in much the same way that the theories of evolution or gravity form part of the bedrock of science. Identifying these fundamental facts enables the type of society in which technological progress can happen, but in which social wellbeing and happiness also have the best chance to prosper.
The Jesus of Nazareth that I found on re-reading the Gospels appears to have been a gifted thinker and charismatic orator with some valuable moral insights and a profound contempt for hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of power and the ill-treatment of the lower ranks of society. In other words he was an exceptional and interesting man of his time. His refusal to accept the hypocrisy, wealth and privilege of the Jewish hierarchy of his day, their extravagance, cronyism and the exploitation of simple folk, show that he was, in modern parlance, a dissident and a protestor. Surely many of today’s political leaders would have found him as bothersome as the Jewish authorities found him two thousand years ago.
I think Jesus’ legacy was worth preserving even if one discounts the supernatural events related by his followers. Theirs was a primitive society with poor communication and a natural tendency to exaggerate and jump to invalid conclusions when faced with the inexplicable. A Christian community of morality, not faith, might have made valuable contributions to social wellbeing and could have avoided the egregious excesses of the Church of Rome, and many other churches. Jesus would have been just as upset by what the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant Churches became as he was by the Jewish Church in his own day.
Many other people have done what Jesus of Nazareth did, fought and suffered for what they believe in - recent examples might include Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, or the Tiananmen Square students, but brave protestors who fought injustice can be found throughout history. It does not matter that Martin Luther King was killed - what he taught remains a valid guide for us today, and for similar reasons it seems to me that it does not matter if Jesus of Nazareth did not ‘rise from the dead’. We can still learn from his insights on hypocrisy, corruption and his respect for the less well-off - something that might well go under the name of love.
There is much in the Gospels that seems bizarre by today’s standards, but the benign tenets of the Anglican Church in which both my parents and I were brought up are a not-unreasonable basis for a civilised society. Nevertheless faith-based morality will always lead to disagreement and/or conflict and that is why I feel sad when David Cameron, Nicky Morgan and Eric Pickles of the Conservative Party promote Christianity in what is a country of many faiths and none. It is wrong that the Anglican Church enjoys political privilege as the Established church of the UK, that the Head of State is the head of that church, that Anglican Bishops sit by right in the upper legislative chamber and that the country’s national anthem has us singing ‘God save our gracious Queen’ three times in each verse!
Everyone should be free to practice a religion of choice, or to practice no religion at all. The only basis that allows such freedom is a secular polity in which no religion is granted any legal privilege or access to public money. I feel that if Jesus were alive today he would think so too.
Footnote: See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jesus The 'Annals' were written about 116 CE / AD. Note, though, that the earliest surviving material comprising the ‘Annals’ dates to a manuscript said to have been written in 850 CE / AD - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Testament#cite_note-3 )