I’m one of the most religion-friendly atheists you’ll ever know. Because I don’t believe in disparaging people’s beliefs for being different than my own. On the contrary, those around us who believe different things than we do, they hold these beliefs for some very good and interesting reasons, and this makes me curious.
This is why I am grateful, atheist that I am, to be able to relate to the message of Jesus Christ.
I probably should be clear: this does not make me a Christian in atheist clothing, or anything like that. I do not believe in “God,” and I do not believe in Jesus as God, anymore than I believe in Gandhi as God or Madonna as God. But the fact that I don’t worship Jesus as “God” doesn’t mean that what Jesus spoke of isn’t a good, powerful message to relate to, among others. And given that the story of Jesus Christ is one of the most widely known stories throughout the world, a reference point from which so many people base their value system, it’s often quite valuable to be able to say to these Christians “yes. I understand.” From there, we can communicate on a deeper, more appreciative, less patronizing level to each other.
I also find this topic important specifically because it is important to those people who do have a religious faith. These folks are out there, and I am going to be interacting with them. And when interacting with religious folks, ignoring their belief or worse, mocking and shaming it, is bigoted. When an atheist’s (or anybody else’s) beliefs are mocked and shamed, or made invisible through ignorance of them, this is bigoted too. Well, it works both ways.
Now, I’m not excusing those religious fanatic leaders who mobilize people and resources in order to deprive or cause harm to others. Those folks can go chew on some scrap-metal – they really do cause pain and distress, to many people that are supposed to share their beliefs as well as those that don’t. I often think that the biggest problems in many belief movements (non-religious as well as religious) are the leaders; the folks who are ”just believers” are often quite different from these leaders, even when they may not “look like it” at first. When you can communicate compassionately across these walls on a humanity-to-humanity level, you break down myths and learn about the real person, and the experience can often be rewarding on both sides.
So … about Jesus Christ. Let’s begin.
Jesus’ message, as I see it, is not about some big indictment of society’s sins or condemnation of nonbelievers to hell. In fact, most Christians would agree with me on this – Jesus’ message was one of love and compassion and openness: help the underdog, help sinners, don’t turn your back on people even if you don’t agree with them or don’t like them. Do the best you can, no matter how negative people around you get, to stay positive and compassionate, in a mindset of giving and friendship; keep hope alive, both inside yourself and in your actions with other people. These values are, by themselves, not exactly the fruit of religious zealotry; sure, they can be taken and fetishized – like anything else. But if we strip away the fetishism, there is nothing to be afraid of here, is there?
Now, while this is a nice starting point, it’s not unique, of course. Many other figures say things like this. But there is another dimension to Jesus Christ’s message, one that often is not touched on in secular circles – that directly relates to all that business of Jesus being on the cross (which is why Jesus on the cross is such a widespread representation of the faith).
“Jesus died for your sins”
For those who are uncomfortable with Christianity itself (as opposed to the way in which some Christian sects conduct themselves), this concept is one of the most befuddling. To Christians, it’s one of the central points: your sins are forgiven! But ask somebody who isn’t on the inside of this concept and you are most likely, at best, to get something like “so what?” And no wonder. For one thing, whoever talks about “sin” outside of religion? The whole concept of “sin” by itself is uncomfortable, because just by using the word, it is almost automatically implied that you are stepping into religious thinking. Very uncomfortable indeed, for those who are not religious.
So let’s talk about sin, and break down what it really is supposed to mean.
Popular understanding of “sin” relates heavily to shame. Things you shouldn’t do. Things that make you a bad person. Things that make God and other people angry with you, disappointed in you, less trusting of you. Things that hurt other people. Things that take away from what is good in life, and lead toward what is bad. Things that will lead you to hell, rather than to heaven.
These are some heavy, unpleasant things to think about. And then, the Bible comes along and tells us that we are all sinners – that there is nothing we can do, we are doomed to sin anyway. This association of sin with an inescapable shame and doom is a really distasteful point of view for those who are not Christian. Who wants to suddenly be told that they aren’t good enough, no matter what they do?
Of course, this is not all there is to the concept of “sin” as Jesus and others wanted people to understand it. However, this is generally the most widely held understanding of sin – that it is associated with shame, and accepting the concept of sin involves accepting this shame. I absolutely hate shame, so I’m quite in agreement with not thinking of oneself as an eternal sinner in this regard.
But like I was saying before … there is more to the concept of sin than this. And that is what so many people don’t see – many “Christians” included.
Let’s talk a bit more about the “love” aspect of Jesus’ message, shall we?
If somebody genuinely loves and cares about you (as it is often said that God and Jesus do), then they try their very best not to shame you, not to make you feel bad, not to criticize and browbeat you into feeling inferior or “not good enough,” right? Someone who really loves you wants you to feel good, to feel strong, to feel fulfilled and happy; to see you succeed, to see you rejoice and share your joy with others. Someone who really loves you will even sometimes sacrifice themself or their own joy in order for you to benefit – not because they want you to repay them; that’s not real love! No, any sacrifice made for your benefit by somebody who really loves you is just that, for your benefit. For no other reason than that you feel better, happier, more liberated.
Well – Jesus is said to have made “the ultimate sacrifice,” giving up his life out of love for humanity, just so that humanity would benefit. Whether or not you really do believe that this “saves” you from your sin, that’s what the whole symbolism of Jesus on the cross is about.
I know that some of you still don’t get it. Keep reading, I’m not done yet. I’ll come back to this “sacrifice to save humanity” stuff a bit later on.
Seeing “sin” in a critical, progressive light – without shame
When Jesus talked about sin, he wasn’t talking about sin in the way that some of these modern-era Bible thumpers imply it, e.g. “you are a sinner, and you are going to Hell if you don’t do XYZ.” Jesus was not a scorner; the only time Jesus actively scolds people in the Bible is when a group of people is causing harm in some way. The same way you and I would directly oppose neo-Nazis, to make a clear example of things. When Jesus speaks to individuals, he is careful not to pass judgment on them, careful not to take a condemning, shame-throwing tone at them. Very often, he does things that make them feel wonderful and grateful, specifically to the people that he knows will appreciate it and pass it on. He certainly doesn’t go telling them about the next sin they must get rid of.
Now think about this: that’s not much different to the way any of us would aspire to help someone, right? Lots of people need help, and since you can’t help everybody, you’d rather help those that (1) you really care about [which was everybody, from Jesus' point of view], and (2) those who will appreciate it, and “pay it forward,” helping others as they have been helped.
So now that we have eliminated all this shaming junk that modern religion throws in there, let’s talk about what sin without implications of direct shame on the “sinner” means:
- Things that will make you feel shame
- Things that will make you feel sorrow and regret
- Things that make somebody else feel put down, shamed, or otherwise belittled
- Things that make you or other people feel more negative, less loving, less giving to those in need, less trusting
- Things that coerce of force something against a person’s will
- Things that promote intolerance and combativeness over open-mindedness and peace
- Things of “ill will,” as opposed to goodwill: acts of vengeance or spite, in contrast to thoughtful, corrective, and reconciliative actions
- Things that will make your journey towards fulfillment and happiness harder (often this is the sin that you don’t know you are engaging in)
Looked at in this light, free of any moralistic judgment about what being a “sinner” means, sin is both something we usually try to avoid and also something we inevitably cannot always avoid: All of us have at some point or another struggled with things that have made us feel ashamed or regretful, and these struggles don’t exactly end, even if they might get easier as life goes on. All of us have grappled with feeling unable to be loving, unable to give to someone in need, unable to feel goodwill toward somebody that inspires anger in us, and most of all, unable to love ourselves and show charity toward ourselves. In this sense, sin is always with us, not because we are bad and undeserving, but because, well … these struggles are simply part of life.
We are not always aware when we are committing “sin,” in the sense that we might not be aware that we are engaging in something we will regret later, for example. But again – whether or not you are aware that something is “sinful” does not change that you are not inherently a bad person just because you have engaged in “sinful” activity – unlike what a lot of modern-day religion seems bent on claiming. It was in that sense that Saint Augustine wrote [and I'm paraphrasing] “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
About the whole “dying on the cross for your sins” stuff
Imagine, just for a moment, that you have done something truly … unforgivable. You’ve killed a small child. You’ve ruined somebody’s life somehow. Something truly unthinkable.
Now that would be an unbearable mountain of shame, wouldn’t it?
Some folks who read this know exactly what I’m talking about. A lingering sense of shame. A shame that just does not go away, no matter what. A shame that might even make you feel like you deserve to be miserable, that it’s justice that you should feel awful about yourself.
THAT is the heart of the concept of “sin,” in a nutshell. Shame upon shame. Negativity that just multiplies and reduplicates itself – from which there seems to be no exit. A sense of inadequacy and self-hatred that just doesn’t quit.
Even when the “sin” that we commit is of a lesser degree and we get over it, we still get these feelings. Sometimes, it can be a less obvious, more creeping, general feeling – for example, the person who for years and years doesn’t go after something [s]he wants because [s]he believes [s]he is not good enough or deserving enough to have it. Where do these feelings come from? And even if it isn’t as bad as some horrible “unforgivable” sin, still – lives get slowly choked off when people get preoccupied with shame and negativity like this. It takes up a lot of brain power – brain power that could be used to better yourself or help others better themselves.
When Jesus let himself be sacrificed on the cross, what he was trying to do was psychologically give everyone a clean slate – to say to everyone, “look, whatever you have done or think you have done in life that is holding you back or keeping you from realizing your potential – stop worrying about it! Stop worrying about your sin. Devote your brain power solely to being a better person from now on. Whenever you feel like you’re doing something wrong, or if you feel like you can’t pay it back, like nothing you have to give can make up for your shortcomings … think of me and my example. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done; my example is for you, so that you can stop being prisoner to shame and just go be your best from now on.”
You may ask, “ok, cool … but still, what does Jesus dying actually do for me to feel any better?” Good question. Imagine that your life is put in great danger, and you are about to be killed, when somebody saves your life – jumps in front of a bullet for you, or something like that – and suffers a horrible death as a result. Moreover, imagine that this person was a wonderful person, loved by the people that knew her/him. You would undoubtedly feel a lot of emotions – survivor’s guilt being one of them – but the one that might most likely stick with you would be a sense of obligation to honor this life, that was lost in order to save your life, by being the best, humblest, most grateful person you could be from that moment on.
That is basically what Christians believe about Jesus. He jumped in front of the bullet for them. Even knowing all along what was going to happen, he still chose to go forward and let himself be torturously killed, without even protesting. He did this intentionally, for the very purpose of making you and other people think “somebody selfless and beautiful let themself die for you, so don’t sweat all the stupid drama, just go honor what that death was meant to inspire and make the best of your life.” He did this to motivate all of us, en masse, to just start helping each other to be better people.
You don’t have to be a “Christian” to understand and benefit from this message
I think this is an absolutely beautiful message. Even if you don’t believe the story, still, think of the real-life examples you know of people who did sacrifice themselves for someone else’s happiness, so that others could be better, freer from fear and shame and insecurity; it makes tears come to my eyes. These people are what keep hope alive in the world – and don’t think that you aren’t one of these people, even if you aren’t always selfless and humble in everything you do. Who is, anyway?
Some say that Jesus was perfect, but eeeehhh, I don’t think so. No kid, not even the best behaved kid, never has any fits of selfishness – otherwise, how do you learn to be humble? I think that believing that Jesus was perfect is idolatry, actually; believing this, if anything, would seem to put you further away from having a relationship with Jesus, if that is what you desire. I quite decidedly disagree with people who include this in their belief.
I also think it’s downright tragic that some people believe that you cannot benefit from this message unless you also accept that Jesus is God, or that he was of a “virgin birth,” or that you must be baptized, that you can’t believe in and benefit from other philosophies or religious messages also, that you can’t be LGBT, and so on. Please! That dogmatic nonsense can go take a hike. I call BLASPHEMY! Believe what you want to believe, but don’t tell me that I am obligated to believe all this extra junk when the whole point of the original message was to instill the most minimal sense of obligation – to just be the best you can be. That is all!
Much modern religion has also severely screwed things up by twisting a couple of other concepts backwards:
- The idea of guilt and shame being a prime motivator to be a better person. Of course, all of us have our moments when we learn things “the hard way” – but seriously – this business of piling shame upon shame about all the things you aren’t doing to show gratefulness to Jesus for sacrificing himself for your sins – this is NOT the real message! The real message involves becoming free of guilt and shame – but those folks out there who like to take something popular and convert it into a vehicle for their own dogma, well – they’ve collectively turned this one upside down.
- The idea that somehow, we aren’t supposed to love ourselves – that this is “selfish” or “sinful.” One very insightful Christian once told me, “you know, when people think about that Biblical saying ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’, they often don’t realize that the reverse applies as well – ‘love yourself as you love your neighbor’.” Indeed, one of the greatest problems out there, in my opinion, is people’s lack of self-love! So many people want to go loving and giving to other people without taking the time necessary to love themselves, also. That’s not how it works, folks! If you don’t have self-love, if you can’t keep yourself running properly, what use are you going to be to others? I believe that Jesus understood this – which is why his message was not a moralistic tirade, but rather a message of comfort and reassurance.
There are many different religions and belief systems out there, for which, most often, these same principles apply: the underlying message [that too often gets lost in a whole bunch of dogmatic manipulation] is usually some equivalent of “be respectful to other people, do right by them and yourself, and don’t worry too much about the stuff you can’t change, because there are things out there that are greater than you, which you have no control over – so it’s best to learn to let go and trust the process.” This really isn’t that hard. And whether it’s through the stories in the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Four Noble Truths, or the Torah, or whatever other example you take that helps you get in touch with the spirit of these principles – that doesn’t matter one bit to me. If we have our hearts and minds open, we should still be able to help each other be our best, no matter what we believe or don’t believe.