In the gospel of John, there’s a famous story that Christian teachers love to reference. Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, some of the disciples are gathered together in a room. As should be expected, these individuals were afraid; their leader had just been put to death, and many of them feared they would be next. So, as one is wont to do when isolated from the outside world, they began discussing rumors they’d heard when one of them mentioned that some of the disciples actually claimed to see Jesus. Thomas, ever the skeptic, told them that unless he could put his hands in the holes in Jesus’ wrists where they nailed him to the cross, he wouldn’t believe that it was truly Jesus resurrected.
I suppose the dramatic fashion with which Jesus comes into the story shortly afterward makes the story of doubting Thomas a favorite of preachers and Biblical theologians. But for me, the words of Jesus himself strike me as the most telling thing about this story. After showing his hands and side where his body had been pierced, Thomas aptly declared, “Holy Shit, this is definitely Jesus.”
Jesus then tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This sense of an inherent value to beliefs in and of themselves is something that has infiltrated much of the thinking in our modern egalitarian society. Doctors are often hesitant to recommend things to patients in case they go against their beliefs. Proponents of democracy and equality often feel conflicted when confronted with another culture’s religion that seems to go against both of those ideas, but who are they to question someone else’s deeply held beliefs? In fact, the evangelical saying “don’t be a doubting Thomas” makes it clear that skepticism and unbelief share a nearly equal level of sin for Christians. I think that’s why the doctrine itself feels so distasteful to me.
When people ask why I am not a Christian, it’s easy to get into tangents about the Bible not being written until nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death, or abhorrent acts of the god of the Old Testament, or even the ongoing battle against democracy being waged by the evangelical right in American politics. But none of these actually address my main reason for not being a follower of Christ—there are numerous people who have been able to marry their own beliefs about morality with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and I honestly don’t think they’re necessarily wrong in that. After all, the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the main foundation for much of our modern Utilitarian ethics. This idea certainly predates Jesus with parts of Buddhist Philosophy, but at the end of the day, many of Jesus’ teachings were, at the very least, ahead of his time.
So why, then, do I not consider myself a follower or believer in the teachings of Christ?
To be fair, in a way, I do hold to several of the ideas Jesus is reported to have spoken. Jesus himself very likely would not agree with how I apply his teachings to the modern world, but I’m skeptical that Jesus would even be able to make sense of the modern world if he was able to see it.
But beyond this, the idea of believing in one person is inherently flawed. If the recordings of Jesus’ sermons are to be taken as the actual words of Christ, I would personally have to agree with about 25% of them. It’s the same as with Socrates, Plato, Kant, Buddha, or any other teacher from the past; there is a lot of wisdom that can be drawn from the teachings of these people, but to think any of them are in any way infallible or the ultimate source of wisdom is to me a dangerous position to take. Any idea that requires you to relinquish your own rationality and sense of reason should be approached with extreme skepticism.
One could argue that I am myself a blind follower of science, but I would push back even on that. As much as I admire the accomplishments that science has brought us, I think the only thing that has protected science thus far is the built-in tactics for correcting itself. Science works as well as it does because scientists are willing and even eager to admit when they’re wrong. That’s a system I can get behind—if modern Christianity was akin to a Philosopher’s club which drew wisdom from ancient texts and argued over which ones were actually worthy of holding in our modern age, that’d be an institution I could get behind.
But of course, once again, I’ve gotten away from the actual question. The reason I’m not a Christian is that I am, at my core, averse to believing things without evidence. This, of course, opens me up to the question of what evidence I would accept, and honestly, I can’t imagine one that would work for something that specific. The question of whether Jesus even existed is one that can be debated, and honestly, even that premise has very little evidence to support it. The only reason I assume Jesus to have existed is that the stories about him were presumably based on a real character, and someone like Jesus is not that unlikely to have existed, but of course, that doesn’t negate the possibility of his being a myth.
The bottom line is that to be a follower of Christ, you must, above all else, be someone who has faith. The gospels are filled with times Jesus criticizes people for their lack of faith or condones a child-like faith. I personally just don’t have this kind of faith, and if I’m being honest, I don’t even think it’s a good thing. I think having faith in institutions and societal systems can be beneficial and even necessary sometimes, but that’s not the same thing as having blind faith. Unquestioning, unwavering faith is often heralded as one of the greatest virtues, but I would challenge this presupposition.
Nonbelief may be seen by the faithful as a risk, but I’d argue it’s one well worth taking. More has been accomplished throughout history by people asking difficult questions than by those with childlike faith.