Deconstructing Religion

“…either Christ was who He said He was, the Messiah, or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched.”

~ Bono (lead singer for the rock band U2)

So, I could lay the “existence of God” issue to bed once again, but the intellectual conclusion that there is an intelligence behind the universe was as far as I could get.

Consequentially, my Christian faith became something I had, not rejected, but set to the side for an indefinite period.

I had fallen for the seduction of modern science’s ability to explain everything and become fascinated by its findings as well as its potential. Simultaneously I continued to dismantle the worldview I grew up in. The further I went, the more I found to dismantle and the more distant the world of faith became.

I wanted to hear from the other side of this topic. I wanted to minimize confirmation bias as much as I could on this issue, after all, I wanted to know what is true, or is the closest approximation to it.

For me to settle a belief in God at an intellectual level was still a million miles away from the belief that Jesus was God, and I was not at all certain where this path might lead in that regard. When your worldview gets upended, you can end up questioning everything you ever believed, experienced, were taught or believe you already know.

One of the more easily accessible ways to find the counter arguments for both God and Christianity is from a popular quartet of atheist apologists from the 2000s often referred to as “the four horsemen”, a parody from the four horsemen mentioned in the book of Revelations.

These four atheist intellectuals: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris began spearheading a movement against religious fundamentalism after the 9/11 attacks and to varying degrees, against religion in general. They weren’t just atheists either, they were anti-theists.

To be honest, I was afraid to watch their videos and debates at first because I was fearful that they may end up decimating my Christian faith to a point of no return which was already in a state of crisis. Nevertheless, I pressed forward, wincing at the possibility of the beginning of the end of my faith, ironically in search of the truth based on my Christian values.

After listening to their arguments for an extended amount of time, I found them surprisingly likable, particularly Hitchens and Harris. I also found that they made more than a few fascinating points and observations that I agreed with.

Sam Harris arguing that religions are failed sciences.

Equally surprising however is that I did not find the smoking gun argument and evidence against faith in Jesus from any of them that I was afraid of or expected to find.

Having heard from them, I decided I would turn my attention more directly toward social psychology to see if it might not shed more light on the subject.

In social psychology I found more compelling arguments for alternative explanations of the existence of faith and belief in general. I will say however that I think psychology can be too one dimensional in its approach in attempting to answer these types of questions.

On a more basic evolutionary level, there is also the idea of emergence, where essentially humans are evolutionarily something distinctly different than lower life forms which has both interesting and troubling theological implications.

Holmes Rolston explaining the concept / argument for human uniqueness.

I concluded from my time reviewing the different points of view about religion in psychology, sociology, anthropology and other social sciences, that the case for evolution driving religious belief and virtually all other social, economic, and political factors of life to be highly compelling and convincing.

Jonathan Haidt explaining how group selection is a basic feature in evolution which is intrinsically connected to politics and religion

Here is the pressing question I was wrestling with however. Setting my own personal experiences aside, sure, it appears evident to me there is a God, but is there any compelling reason to believe that any religion in the world truly represents God?

Does God actually speak through a religion or any religion? On a more personal level, is there any compelling logical reason to believe that God cares anything about me as I was raised to believe and experienced profoundly in the Pentecostal charismatic world I was raised in?

I remembered asking this same question about God caring about me (in a far more simplified manner) as a child and I think it was a fair question even then.

I concluded that I do not believe there is any reason to believe God cares about us, let alone me when viewing reality through a purely naturalistic lens.

And what about the rest of the thinkers within the Christian world that wrestle with the evolution question? 

One of the most noticeable trends was movement within Christianity that embraced elements of post modernism in increasing measure, abandoning traditional constructs, and attempting to pave a new path forward in different ways.

Then there were some who would try to keep as much traditional Christian doctrine as they could while re-evaluating aspects of the traditional faith they no longer found reconcilable.

Others almost categorically rejected most or all the premises of traditional Christianity, reinventing them to fit a new perspective or even a new religion.

In my searching I saw no small amount of energy expended in Christian intellectual circles among those who, from my assessment, were accepting or open to evolutionary theory yet resisted any broad categorizations, instead embracing a sort of incrementalism approach, giving up ground only when the evidence is overwhelming, arguing that evolution explains this, but not that. Ironically I saw this in the secular domain as well (Nazi Germany might have had something to do with that reluctance).

Traditional fundamentalists meanwhile reject all of this as heresy, and I was sympathetic to them for feeling that way. I could not much blame them for wanting to protect the status quo. However, I found that was something I could not do.

Having considered these different points of view and others, I still found the evolutionary framework made the most sense. I found the idea of Christians doing patchwork to shore up loose end aspects of the Christian faith determined to be obsolete due to scientific findings to be foundationally problematic.

For me I wanted something more compelling rather than nuanced, accommodating approaches to new information. I wanted to know, is there anything truly revolutionary about my Christian faith that did not fit the evolutionary theory paradigm or is it just another social construct?

I was already familiar with the intellectual arguments for the resurrection of Christ, mainly in evangelical circles. The prophecies that uncannily foretold Christ’s sacrifice and the historical reliability of the Gospels, including the resurrection.

Historian and professor Bart Ehrman, a former evangelical turned agnostic put it bluntly when he said that it is clear from an historically reliable perspective that Jesus was a real person, his crucifixion really happened, and they (his disciples) really believed they witnessed Jesus risen from the dead. He also claims Jesus promised to return and judge the world and when he didn’t, the church changed the story to accommodate the absence of a quick departure from earth.

Agnostic historian Bart Erhman pushing back against the mythicism view of Jesus

Was there anything truly unique though about Christianity that separated it from every other religion in the world that could possibly serve as compelling evidence for the uniqueness of its claim? I couldn’t readily see one from an intellectual perspective.

The key to the answer to this question for me came from a book I had read many years before by Philip Yancey.

In that book Yancey tells the following story of professors at Oxford attempting to answer this same question.

“During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace. After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing About Grace

Now I had a question that went to the heart of the Christian faith, pitted against the explanatory power of evolution in the natural scientific world.

In order to answer the question of whether or not evolution could explain grace, I would need to examine the following:

  • Revisit the Jesus story and the evidence for the claim that Jesus is God.
  • Jesus’ own statements and behavior
  • Jesus’ disciples’ statements and behavior
  • The effects of the Jesus narrative and how it has changed the world

Prophetic fulfillment

Prophetic fulfillment from the Old Testament is covered extensively in Christian writings and is considered by many Christians to be the crowning evidence of Jesus’s claim to be God.

Christian overview of major prophecies that Jesus fulfilled

Could alternative theories provide a better explanation for this? Could it explain these prophecies in a more compelling way? I think at first glance one might think an argument could be made from an evolutionary standpoint concerning the Messianic prophecies as being a collective unconscious hopeful wish to solve systemic issues within the nation of Israel.

Sacrifice was a deeply ingrained part of ancient cultures (not just for the nation of Israel). There was a need to try and set things right with the various gods or show gratitude to the gods to avoid a precarious reaction from one of the gods.

Rob Bell points out in his “The Gods Are Not Angry” seminar, that you never knew where you stood with the gods in ancient times. You were always on edge. That when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son and provided an animal in its place it was completely revolutionary at that time. That the elaborate tabernacle ceremonies that provided a system where you knew you were at peace with God and did not have to guess, was revolutionary. It was something completely new; a completely new way to view God.

The question this poses then is, was this just an evolutionary progression in human religious thought, unrelated to any divine guidance or intervention? Do I assume Abraham based his whole life on hallucinations or the story was a mythological representation of collective thought and reasoning concerning God?

If we take it in isolation, then I think either of these could theoretically be a reasonable conclusion for a skeptic.

The arguments over how many prophecies Jesus fulfilled range from 50 to over 500. Let’s take a conservative estimate of 40. There were 40 unique things about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

Could the Jesus stories have been modified to fit the prophetic narrative after the fact?

Honestly, I am not sure whether the evidence supports this or not. The four Gospels are quite different in the way they describe Jesus. This is even used to argue the lack of consistency in the Bible from people who do not believe.

One notable issue mentioned by Christian theologians is that of women being the first to witness the resurrection. In that time, a woman’s eyewitness account was substandard and unreliable compared to a man. If they were going to modify the story to make it more believable to their audience, they would have certainly not had women being the first eyewitnesses.

The genealogy in the opening of Matthew comes to mind. This is given to show that Jesus has the right genealogy to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. When taken with all the other subtleties though and with the other information, I find it unconvincing that intentional misrepresentation took place.

It seems far more likely that they witnessed what they believed was the real risen Jesus and in retrospect, they (or their contemporaries) pieced together the puzzles in different ways in the four Gospels showing the significance of Jesus in context with the Old Testament prophecies.

Could it have been mass hallucination perhaps? People see UFO’s all the time. No, I don’t buy that idea. This is categorically different than simply seeing strange, unfamiliar lights in the sky. We are talking about a group of people who followed Jesus for three and a half years everywhere he went, knew him intimately and then gave their lives proclaiming that he had physically rose from the dead.

These stories were passed orally before being written down, but I’m not sure if that is a reason to doubt or a reason to believe.

Jesus’ own statements and behavior

Jesus’ behavior is evidenced throughout the Gospels in incredible ways. He had a deep love for and compassion for outsiders, those rejected by society and the religious elite. The woman at the well, the prostitutes and tax collectors, the lepers; they were just about the most outcast people you could have picked out from society at that time.

He told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, and as he hung on the cross, he said “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” He claimed to forgive sin, which from a Jewish perspective, was a claim to be God, yet how he presented himself in relation to others, specifically his disciples, is perhaps (aside from his crucifixion) portrayed no more powerfully than when he washed his disciples’ feet.

I personally haven’t found anyone or any religion that expresses such profound concepts of love as Jesus. The concept that God is love for example is a distinctly Christian idea in origin.

Jesus’ disciples’ statements and behavior

As I previously mentioned, the lives of Jesus’ disciples were transformed after the resurrection. Peter, the one Jesus chose as his main disciple, who denied him three times, is said to have been crucified upside down at his request because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his master.

The depth of love that would provoke such a reaction is as foreign today (even within many churches) as it was 2000 years ago, yet if you look closely at the story, without bringing preconceived, critical judgements to the text or the baggage of religious dogma, this narrative of redemptive love is right where it has always been.

The events surrounding Jesus have transformed the world

There is a wealth of information out there that covers this subject. One of the best summaries I am familiar with is from a secular historian and agnostic Tom Holland who wrote the following in an article in 2016 for the New Statesman:

We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans.

The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering.

It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.

~ Tom Holland
Holland unpacking his findings about Christianity on the western world.

This leads me to question, are human rights socially constructed or is there something divine behind the premise that originated with Jesus of Nazareth that manifested itself teleologically overtime?

Can evolution explain grace?

Evolution tells us that organisms adapt to survive. Reciprocity, cooperation, and tribal relationships are three key aspects to how humans and similar animals have evolved to navigate and master their environments and relationships with others, long before the formation of cultures and religious systems.

In theological terms, evolution is a works-based system.

However, I don’t see how one could make a compelling case for evolution of thought in the Old Testament (and before) with a trajectory toward the eventual concept of grace because it violates basic reciprocity that governs cooperative relationships in evolutionary systems. An entirely naturalistic explanation becomes even more problematic when we add in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus comes on the scene abruptly, unexpectedly, from anonymity and leaves in the wake of his resurrection, a reverberating belief that his life and death has somehow changed things at a universal level for mankind.

The religious systems that existed before (and still exist today), attempted, and failed to use natural means such as reciprocity, cooperation, and social (group) identification to navigate toward a right relationship with God and with their religious tribal community (presumably for survival and in group selection purposes).

Religion in general was and is an extension of the ways in which we learn to cooperate and survive in our environment in larger numbers according to sociologists. This fits with the evolutionary paradigm.

Religions also provide larger structures for imparting information about survival to different generations within larger grand narratives. Seeing religion as a whole through this naturalistic lens just makes so much more sense. That religion as a whole is not something God is doing, but rather is humans adopting concepts of God that serve collective survival purposes. The Christian religion often behaves this way as well.

This “new and living way” (a reference to Jesus in the New Testament) however seems different. Jesus didn’t say, “I will show you the way.” Jesus said, “I am the way”, God Himself, coming down and accomplishing what was necessary for reconciliation and right standing with God, once for all, as a free gift and without mankind even asking for it.

One could definitely argue (and I would agree) that this belief adapted and survived afterwards and continues to do so today. The history of organized Christian religion is certainly replete with examples of adaption and capitalization of resources for tribal furtherance of self-interest, while marginalizing or even killing off the opposition from outside groups.

Jesus of Nazareth though is not so easily dismissed. On the contrary, Jesus’ story is one that seems to transcend human nature, touching the deepest places in the human heart that long for complete love and acceptance, not just from one’s fellow man but from the creator of the universe.

Tim Keller explains the grace narrative at the heart of the Christian faith.

He defeats mankind’s two greatest enemies, defeating the shame and despair that comes from our flaws and failures of the shortcomings of our human nature that destroy our relationships and defeats our concept of the finality of death with his resurrection.

The question of whether evolution can explain grace, for me really boils down to the question of whether evolution can explain Jesus.

There are aspects of Jesus that were very human. He got angry, he was tempted, he cried, he felt compassion, he pleaded with God to spare him from the cross, and was completely dependent on God who he referred to as his Father.

If you believe the accounts, there was definitely something supernatural going on with Jesus as well, calming the storms, healing the sick, raising the dead.

Far more compelling than that though, the concept of the love of God that Jesus’ story reveals is not something that I see evolution producing.

In theological terms, evolution is a works-based system. It does not freely offer up unlimited resources to be taken advantaged of and killed, because if it did, it would not survive. Evolution works on reciprocal relationships.

The love of God that Jesus’ story reveals though just empties itself and gives unconditionally and Christians call this grace. At times you will even find this grace overflowing from communities of believers and with it extraordinary things tend to accompany it.

Summary of Findings

Evolution might be able to explain numerous behaviors of people before and after Jesus, but I did not find it to provide a compelling way of explaining the origin of grace in Jesus of Nazareth, the resurrection and the disciples who witnessed with their own eyes the resurrected Jesus and chose to die rather than say it did not happen.

I could see how one might fall back on the belief that it was simply an anomaly, with no teleological cause, but this is a philosophical assumption that presumes a larger philosophical assumption about the nature of the universe that I already dismissed.

This topic, like all topics can and will be endlessly debated. I eventually found myself at a place of frustration caused by the endless malaise of different arguments, debates, dialogues and diatribes on the subject, both by believers and unbelievers.

My frustration for getting to a consensus on these matters was multiplied when it became painfully clear that my search for the truth in these matters which are very personal were grounded in a presupposition that such a thing as absolute truth exists, and that this is not a philosophical presupposition shared equally by others.

I found when delving down the endless rabbit holes of the major arguments for and against God and Christianity, that postmodernists are right in the sense that everyone has their own personal experiences, thoughts and subjective understandings of these issues and they can range from being very simplistic to extraordinarily complicated. That bias, agendas and motivations that aren’t primarily concerned with truth, color every aspect of human behavior. I am also forced to conclude that this also applies to me as well, and that I cannot be truly objective in these matters.

I found that where I differentiate myself from postmodernists is that I do believe that there is such a thing as objective truth, even if we cannot fully comprehend it. I believe logic and reason and the nature of the universe that allows for the flourishing of science and the modern world as we know it to be fundamentally reliable, though inescapably incomplete.

At the same time, the more I looked at the basic philosophical assumptions I was operating under, the more I came to realize at a much deeper level, what I mentioned earlier, that we all operate on faith presuppositions. The important distinction then for me is that some faith presuppositions are self-evidently demonstrated throughout history to be life affirming because they work and produce human flourishing while others lead to destruction.

The concept of grace brought into the world by Jesus of Nazareth seems to me to be a singular anomaly, not reflected in or caused by nature and not shared by other belief systems.

From science and modernity, I learned that the natural drive for thriving and survival that we share with all other living things permeates all human nature in ways we cannot possibly begin to fathom, with every thought, belief, emotion, drive, desire, discipline and even virtue being inextricably connected with and influenced by those fundamental natural drives.

Yet the sudden appearance of the concept of grace in human history, embodied in Jesus seems foreign to the natural world of evolution. Like it came from another place.

All that being said, the deeper I delved into these matters, while it has answered many questions I had and many I did not even know to ask, it has given way to a much deeper appreciation of just how much I do not know and will never know.

As my dad half jokingly told me when I was young, “I know just enough to know that I don’t know anything.” That was about 30 years ago when he told me that, and I continually have a deeper realization of how much wisdom there is in his statement.

The modern world had failed me in this regard. It could not bring me any resolution on the matter one way or the other. The postmodern world was even more unsatisfying, claiming absolute truth either does not exist or isn’t knowable.

It was not all in vain though.

I had set out to find out if there was a reasonable basis for my Christian faith after deconstruction based on evolution and I found there was, but it still wasn’t enough for me.

It is one thing to find reasonable intellectual grounds for one’s belief after having your faith upended, but it is quite another to find emotional and spiritual reconciliation to one’s faith after such an occurrence.

Looking back now I can see how the trauma of the realization of evolution caused deep doubt to be cast across everything I had been told and everything I ever believed. Even my profound spiritual experiences were not exempt from critical evaluation and suspicion.

While there were Christian people in my life that tried to be supportive or offer answers, no one really had any answers for me, let alone any ability to guide me through the process. The internet was not exactly helpful either. This was a path I had to walk alone.

I had spent the past several years intensively deconstructing my Christian faith. The way I like to describe it is to imagine the word deconstruction in literal terms like it was a complicated piece of machinery with every part disassembled and laid out on the floor in front of me.

While I had not lost my faith exactly, it was virtually unrecognizable from any meaningful standpoint. I felt relatively safe in my analytical frame of reference, emotionally distant, not just from my faith but also, to some degree from everyone, including my family.

I was also relatively content on spending an indefinite amount of time in my analytically skeptical world with a disassembled faith until I found something that would capture my faith back.

The church had tried and failed in this regard. If you mention evolution in most conservative churches, they tend to treat you like a leper. If you mention evolution in most liberal churches, they don’t see why it is a problem. Both positions were a problem for me.

My attitude eventually became, OK God, no one else really gives a shit about where I am at in all of this, or they can’t help me. You know where I am. If you do care, come and get me.


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