My journey as a “spiritual atheist”—Pt. 2

Reason from the East

My doubts regarding the existence of god received surprising validation about this time through the discovery of Buddhism. While some call Buddhism a religion, others look upon it as a philosophy. Buddhism is atheist and teaches that each person can (and should) find his or her own answers through a combination of effort and reason. I liked Buddhism’s self-reliance, its non-corporatism, and its emphasis on ethics and understanding. It resonated with my desire to live a moral life while searching for ultimate answers.

In the 1980s I returned to Oregon and worked for some years at the State Psychiatric Hospital. The work was dangerous and I eventually transferred to a private hospital where admissions were on a voluntary basis. In my spare time I continued to investigate Christianity but did so now with a jaundiced eye—as if I were learning about a sick patient. Half-forgotten Greek and Latin studies from school came in handy. They would eventually be supplemented by post-graduate coursework in religion and ancient languages, including two years of college level Hebrew and Pâli study in Sri Lanka.

Each morning and evening I read a little in the unfamiliar corpus of Buddhist scriptures and was amazed to discover a wealth of parallels to the Christian scriptures. The Buddhist parallels were invariably to the non-corporate aspects of Christianity discussed above—they extolled personal effort and reason. It was as if Buddhism and Christianity both possessed similar ethics as well as a similar goal: understanding. This has long been suppressed in Christianity, yet Gnosticism (as it is termed) was an early and genuine form of the quest for understanding—and it was a Christian movement. The Gnostic Jesus said things like: “Whoever understands the meaning of these words will not taste death” (from the Gospel of Thomas). It appears, however, that Gnostic Christianity became entirely overlaid with the corporate theology of “belief” in an almighty savior.

I learned that later forms of Buddhism were also eventually hijacked by corporatism and likewise turned into vehicles for popular worship, with rituals, gods, saviors, and organized clergies. Only the South Asian tradition seems to have preserved the system’s original emphases upon reason, self-reliance, and atheism. Known as Theravada (“Way of the Elders”), that tradition is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. In Theravada Buddhism one still detects the plain human desire to understand existence, the attempt to grapple with ultimate questions, and a rational analysis of the steps leading to “enlightenment.” In the West we term this approach Gnostic. But what we’re referring to is essentially the application of man’s reason to the ultimate questions of life—without, of course, the reliance on a god.
BCParIt took me about twenty years to systematically read through the voluminous Theravadin scriptures which extend to fifty or so volumes. There is a great deal of repetition and elaboration in those scriptures, so that the Buddhist teachings can in fact be condensed down into a few hundred pages. While reading, I made a note of Christian parallels in the margins and eventually compiled these into an ebook .
The ethical nub of Buddhism is the doctrine of karma, admirably expressed in Christianity’s Golden Rule. I discovered an almost total correspondence between Buddhist and Christian ethics, including the exhortation to love one’s enemies, the value of humility, of renunciation, and of charity. The Gnostic core of Buddhism is the rational search for enlightenment. This one also finds in Gnostic Christianity with its emphasis on effort, its dualism (the “world” lacks enduring value), and its goal of transcendence. Christianity, however, has not survived as a rational, Gnostic philosophy. That philosophy—though still quite detectable in Christian scripture—was smothered by a theistic religion.

It was personally exciting for me to gain these insights and also to perceive the underlying unity between Buddhism, Christianity, and even Atheism—for ethics and wisdom require no god. This unusual combination is possible if one jettisons the various artificial (and organized) religious systems which have overlaid the private spirituality common to both East and West. Reason is part of man’s spiritual equipment, and thus I consider myself a “spiritual Atheist.”

The lie that is Jesus

Gnosticism has no corporate nor public dimension. Being entirely personal, it was useless to those who, in the early Christian centuries, were less interested in the individual’s inner spiritual life than in building a mass movement. The theistic aspects of Christianity triumphed, with their obviously contrived corporate elements which long ago made Jesus into the “only begotten Son of God,” which still sternly instruct the congregation to worship him, and which invoke a mythical damnation on those who refuse.

A number of years ago I came to the realization that the Jesus story, as related in the gospels, reflects the fraudulent, corporate side of the religion, one which is in all essentials contrived for “display”—from Jesus’ virgin birth, to his miracles, to his atoning death, to his resurrection. Appreciating this, some scholars have taken the logical next step and repudiated Jesus entirely as a historical figure. Known as “mythicists,” they claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not even exist. This view is actually not new but has already been cogently argued for several hundred years. Yet the view is so impolitic, so odious to the popular psyche, that it has been exiled far outside the mainstream where it can do no damage. Mythicists are still beyond the pale. Religious scholars who profess the non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth do so at risk of their livelihood.

However, there comes a point where one must tally up the evidence, and if all the particulars prove fraudulent, then one has to ask: What is left? In the case of Jesus of Nazareth the answer is: nothing.

Thus, what began as my simple desire to understand Jesus ended some three decades later with his total disappearance. I now join with others in affirming that the Jesus of history is an invention, Jesus the redeemer a travesty, and faith in Jesus Christ a comforting delusion. One might say that I am now an evangelical in reverse. I do not witness to Jesus. I witness to the disappearance of Jesus.

Many conclude that Christianity today is in decline while atheism and secularism are on the ascendant. Church attendance is down and the “nones” (those claiming no religious affiliation) is approaching 20% of the American public. I would say this is no coincidence but the inevitable outcome of a betrayal long ago, when a bunch of crafty and power-hungry bishops concocted an invented savior and foisted him on the unsuspecting masses, substituting easy faith (“Believe, and just think as we tell you to!”) for the uncertain and laborious exercise of independent reason. That betrayal has been enormously successful in gathering wealth and power to the Church. But from the start it has also engendered an anti-intellectual conservatism inimical to rational thought, producing—among other things—incessant problems with science and scientists (heliocentricity, creation, evolution…), not to mention a lengthy Dark Ages which set the progress of mankind back about a thousand years.

The point I wish to make now is that the betrayal of reason (which faith requires) produces not only intellectual conservatism but also moral hypocrisy. The link between faith and ethical compromise is rarely noted, but it is abundantly evident in history. The intolerance and aggressivity of faith-based Christianity are legendary and in stark contrast to the humility and pacifism of its vaunted founder. Such an ethical disconnect is only possible when the mind and the heart are not in sync.

What I am saying is that the born-again Christian is moved by emotion, not reason, and that he is a moral hypocrite. With unbridled passion he thunders verses from church pulpit and village square, yet his actions speak otherwise. We need only look at history. Christians have crushed innocent “heretics,” “witches,” and “nonbelievers” with aplomb, while at the same time finding excuses for the most unseemly indiscretions inside and outside the Vatican, now including pedophilia among priests and criminal deception among televangelists—all in the name of “Jesus.” Their excuses, however, dissolve when faith is removed and the light of reason is introduced. It is then that Christian actions are clearly seen for what they are: products of intolerance, greed, aggression, and perversion. Incidentally, psychologists have linked these four qualities to “emotional dysregulation”—which simply is another way of saying that the individual’s reasoning capacities are in short supply.

—> My Journey, Pt. 3

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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