Jesus, Buddha, Abraham and Muhammed: Larger-than-life historic figures or largely legends?

We all know that gods don’t actually have to exist for religions to spring up around them, so mostly we filter out the miracles and god-talk as mere mythology and tend to think of any so called “prophets” as simply human beings who were unusually wise, unusually deluded, or excellent liars. That said, we often accept that the biographical stories about these extraordinary personages are largely true. We credit religious patriarchs and prophets like Buddha, LaoTse, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad, with outsized roles in human history, much as we might credit Napoleon or Thomas Jefferson, or modern cultural icons like Elon Musk.

It turns out that we may be giving them too much credit. Even assuming that most of these iconic figures actually existed in some form in the flesh[1], religions may owe their current (and historic) forms more to social conditions—convergences of culture and technology– than individual founders.

Author David Fitzgerald has spent years researching the origins of Christianity and other common monotheistic religions. In this interview, we discuss some of the patterns and factors at play in how religions emerge and the forms they take.

Tarico: In your lectures and writings, you discuss patterns in how modern monotheistic religions have emerged.

Fitzgerald: Yes, although the doctrines, theologies and tenets all differ, the structures and development stages are remarkably alike—and the same largely holds true for the various non-monotheistic eastern traditions as well. If you go way back, the three Abrahamic faiths—the world’s largest monotheistic religions—have their roots in what is basically pantheism, which evolved into polytheism, and then monolatry. [Believers in monolatry accept that a pantheon or broad array of gods exist, but they commit their fealty and worship to only one of them and bank on his favor in return—to be their god’s chosen people] In western religion, this in turn finally evolved into monotheism—the belief that their god was the one true God and the others were fake; not simply rival deities, but either lower order beings like angels or demons, or outright imaginary.

Tarico: Ok, I have to expound here, because as a former Evangelical, I was fascinated when I first learned about “monolatry” as a transitional form—a bridge between polytheism and monotheism in the early Hebrew religion. Theologian Thom Stark first introduced me to the idea with his book, The Human Faces of God. Stark pointed out the remnants of polytheism and then monolatry in the Old Testament.

Early on, the god of Genesis sometimes is referred to using a plural—Elohim. (El is a god in the Caananite pantheon, and Hebrew-Christian angels retain his name imbedded within theirs: Micha-el; Gabri-el; Rapha-el; Uri-el; Jophi-el.)

Fitzgerald: Not to mention the land of Isra-el.

Tarico: Yes! Later, Jehovah or YHWH appears to be a national god, one in a pantheon of many. (An excavated inscription addresses the goddess Asherah alongside YHWH as his consort.) In the Ten Commandments, YHWH forbids his people to worship the other Canaanite gods, but doesn’t say they don’t exist. “You shall have no other gods before me.”[2] Ignoring the commandment, the Israelites make offerings to his enemy, Baal, the storm god, and are punished. Later still, as monotheism solidifies, one song of praise simply swaps in the name of Jehovah for the name of Baal. The whole trajectory is visible right there in the Old Testament!

Fitzgerald: Absolutely, and as I discuss in my upcoming book, (working title: Sex & Violence in the Bible) there are actually several places in the Old Testament where scribes have stolen hymns and paeans to other gods, and shaved off the serial numbers to turn them into praise for YHWH. As the Hebrew Bible says again and again, he is a jealous god—because there are rival gods for him to be jealous of. The idea that he was the one and only true god (and always had been!) came much later.

None of this is idle speculation; we have plentiful textual, archeological and epigraphic (inscriptions) evidence of how monotheism arose in ancient Israel.

Tarico: The psychology or sociology of this process fascinates me. I could imagine hypothesizing some generalizations here that might fit other religions as well. It seems that religions draw from earlier religions and surrounding religions, the same way that cultural remixing works more broadly. I could imagine that familiar traditions and cultural currents shape people’s sense of what is possible and credible—what stories, beliefs and practices they will accept without excessive skepticism.

Fitzgerald: That’s absolutely right; and they don’t just interact with the concepts and doctrines of the rival faiths around them; they also draw upon the ancestral forms of their own evolving religion. Fragments of older traditions get revised and carried forward, and what can’t be absorbed gets re-interpreted—or condemned as some foreign import or heretical relapse—as new beliefs supplant the old. Hebrews start as polytheists, then henotheists, before borrowing from Zoroastrianism to become monotheistic. Later Christianity shows up with a divine son of their God, coincidentally enough at the very same period that all of these Hellenistic religions have arrived, each featuring a son (or daughter) of gods that is a personal savior living in your heart; if you are born again into their faith.

Tarico: Are there repeated patterns in when or why religions move through different stages—from pantheism to monotheism, for example?

Fitzgerald: Robert Wright laid this out in his book, The Evolution of God, historical period by period. In the earliest layers, there is no religion per se. It’s simply known that the sun and other natural phenomena are supernatural entities. But there are no priest functions, shamanic rituals, no interactions with the gods. It’s just a given that these spirits control things, and the gods are as wild and unpredictable as any other forces of nature. Throughout places as diverse as Siberia, South America, Africa, Polynesia and Europe, anthropologists find commonalities across the board—such as projecting consciousness into nature, or the capriciousness of gods.

Many others have noted evolutionary survival mechanisms that lead to religious impulses, starting even before we were human. For instance, many animals have a very high degree of overactive agency detection, that is, they tend to see threats that aren’t actually there. Animal researchers like Justin Barrett point out that this is because it’s far safer to be wrong about a tiger that isn’tthere stalking you, than it is to be wrong about one that actually is. Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell marvelously showcases how easily this and similar phenomenon become co-opted by religions.

Just by virtue of being social animals, we evolve particular traits. Like us, chimp societies have politics, alliances, cliques, competition for sex partners and other social dynamics. Biologists like David Sloan Wilson have shown how, for instance, reciprocal altruism naturally unfolds, by the raw fact that in small groups dependent upon one another, you really can’t misbehave without consequences.

Tarico: Some of this is inborn. Psychiatrist Andy Thomson, who studied both child development and suicide terrorism, wrote a book that pulls together some of the developmental patterns and cognitive shortcuts that explain, Why We Believe in Gods. Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, delves more into the brain science. The structure of the human mind and cognition may explain why religions around the world have features in common. But then there also are enormously consequential differences. It seems that some religious features require a certain level of social-cultural complexity.

Fitzgerald: Very much so, and the stage of any particular religious theology is predicated on certain levels of social and technological evolution. Once hunter-gather societies start specializing, you soon get to the Shaman phase; i.e., a specialist expert oracle, healer, and all-purpose go-between between humans and the gods/nature. A lot of them rely on sleight of hand, ventriloquism, and other chicanery. And very tellingly, they have no problem in exposing each other’s tricks.

Tarico: Do they know they are doing tricksy things and how much is self-serving elites, and how much is that they really do believe it and it helps society as a whole?

Fitzgerald: There may not be a single, not-messy answer to that. For instance, during the 1980s, a series of murders in Salt Lake City happened because Mark Hoffman, a notorious forger of Mormon artifacts, started bombing to cover up his scam. The Mormon leadership prides itself on their spiritual gift of discernment—but they were totally being played by this con artist.[3] There has to be a point where they can’t not know their claims are pure, unflinching bullshit. Same with the Vatican, Southern Baptists and all the rest: Some at the top have to know that on some level it’s just politics, power and money, but where that happens for people in leadership roles and where they draw their lines? Harder to say.

Tarico: What else do you see as necessary components?

Fitzgerald: Some are technological. Again, as Robert Wright demonstrates, to go from the Shaman to the Chieftain stage takes agriculture, which in turn relies on astronomy. Chiefdoms grow into city-states. At that stage, you need governmental bureaucracies and information technologies to support them: writing, mathematics, recordkeeping.

And along this trajectory, something very interesting happens. When a religion consists of one group that doesn’t think it can get along with some other group, first it’s all “our god will smite you.” But when you think you can do business with this other group, or even join with them in an alliance, then your god will warm up to others considerably.

This is what happened when the Jews became part of the Persian empire; their god didn’t lose, he allowed Israel’s enemies to punish his chosen people – and then went on to evolve into a universal god who was the god of everybody, you just had to choose to accept him or not. That’s when you get talk about eternal brotherhood and God’s love for all. All the old violent verses get reinterpreted. That intolerance/tolerance goes back and forth as history advances, depending on whether it’s the hippies or the fundies who are at the fore…

Tarico: Ok, so religions evolve in serious ways based on social and technological conditions, and degrees of interdependency. These changing patterns also spawn new religions. Sometimes—if I can draw an analogy to biological evolution—one could say that speciation occurs, meaning that the ancestor religion and the younger one become so different that they are two different beasts, mutually incompatible, maybe in conflict, like Judaism and Christianity.

I can see that. But most people would say that the emergence of Judaism or Christianity or Islam wasn’t merely a matter of gradual evolution—that there was a distinctive break at the beginning of each. A specific person founded the new offshoot—Abraham, Jesus, and then Muhammad. You aren’t so sure. You suggest that religions routinely produce a set of legends that take the form of a great men.

Fitzgerald: That’s certainly how I used to see it, too, but when you look closely at the world’s major religions, you find a striking pattern: biographical information about the founder doesn’t appear initially, but only generations after the fact, sometimes even hundreds of years after. And typically there is enormous confusion and contradictions about even the basics of their lives and teachings. So a major world faith starting with a purely legendary founder in a golden-age founding myth suddenly doesn’t seem far-fetched; quite the opposite: it seems to be the norm.

Tarico: But why would you question whether there was a real person at the beginning? Q-Anon has been called a new secular religion. With good reason, I think. The person behind it may not actually be whoever adherents think, but there is someone behind it.

Fitzgerald: Oh there absolutely is someone behind every religion—it’s just not who we’ve been told it was. In every case, it seems to be the faceless, nameless real authors behind the scenes who used their founder figure as a placeholder for all the wisdom and guidance they wanted to convey. Whether they themselves sincerely thought in all innocence they were doing the Lords’ work, or were deliberately and cynically manipulating their flock (or some unconscious blend of both) for, say, political or other reasons, remains an open question, then as now.

And yes, “Q” is a perfect example of that phenomenon playing out today. The “real” “Q-anon Source” is not some anonymous high-level Trump administration insider, or JFK, Jr. returned from the grave, or whatever other new crackpot theory pops up next week – it appears to be a pair of dodgy online influencers currently under heavy scrutiny.

Tarico: You think that the social and technological evolution is both necessary and sufficient to explain the emergence of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Sikkhism and more—with or without a powerful founding figure?

Fitzgerald: If we’re talking Christianity, there are scholars who think the point is moot, because we can account for its rise and origin whether or not there was a single founder. It was certainly comprised of several movements, but even if it had begun as a single one, the spread and geographic distribution don’t appear to have come out of Galilee or Jerusalem. Multiple Christianities appear in a very short amount of time, all over the Mediterranean world, yet they can’t agree on what Christianity is, or what Jesus was. His biographical narratives only emerge generations later. Christianity before the gospels were written is a very different animal than after.

Tarico: Does it really matter if we understand these hypotheses, with the answers so shrouded in history? So much is conjecture—or arguments about trivialities. There seems to be serious, perhaps unanswerable debate, for example, about whether big gods (i.e., universal religions) brought about big complex societies, or the reverse.

Fitzgerald: It’s important to learn what we can, because these evolutionary processes are still going today. You mentioned Q. There are small modern day cults, but also important political movements that take on religious aspects, be it the more extreme forms of Wokeism or the Trump personality cult. A little bit farther back in history are the Luddite movement and William Tell, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. We can look for patterns.

For just one example, it’s no accident that Islam emerged at a time of political vacuum and conquest, or that the burgeoning Arab caliphate needed to develop their own universal-style religion. Muhammad, as described in the traditional biographies that came much later, may or may not have existed—but if there wasn’t such a figure in reality, he certainly needed to be invented. Even before the more well-known rift between Sunni and Shia, early Islam was torn by so-called “wars of apostasy” over many would-be prophets. “Muhammad” (“The Praiseworthy One”) could simply be a title instead of a name, possibly even originally referring to one or more of these other prophets altogether. It’s interesting to see how up for grabs Islam was in its early decades; things could have played out very differently—exactly like Christianity. Or Judaism. Or any other major religion you can think of.

If we understand the birth and evolution of religions as natural processes, we can predict what kinds of religions may emerge in the future. For example, any emergent religion right now would have to be science compatible, or science-proof. As Robert Wright pointed out, as societies and religions become more interdependent, grow bigger and bigger, they have to be more inclusive, or they simply won’t be able to compete with those that are. The definition of your brother has to expand with the size of the social unit—unless you want to go extinct.

It’s ironic that fundamentalists in every religion deny evolution so adamantly, when the origins and adaptations of every sect in human history are textbook examples of Darwinian theory in action. And if you are attached to any one religion, there’s an important take-away from all this: if you look at other faiths and see how they came about, how they changed in response to their changing environment, it isn’t hard to recognize how those same processes played out in yours, too.

_______________________________________________________________________

David Fitzgerald is the author of Nailed and The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series, including The Mormons, Jesus: Mything in Action, and the forthcoming Sex & Violence in the Bible.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

[1] The historicity of almost all religious founder figures appears to be questionable; see Part 1 of this series.

[2] The Prophet Ezekiel complains about Hebrews worshipping idols, the sun and the Sumerian god Tammuz occurring right in the Jerusalem temple itself (see Ezekiel 8, esp. 8:3-5, 10-16)

[3] See David Fitzgerald’s book The Mormons for the whole story of the Hoffman affair.

‘I don’t believe this anymore’: Expert explains what it’s like to escape a right-wing abusive religion

Americans are leaving their religions at a faster rate than ever before, and that means more are looking for help with the transition. People who are casually religious may walk away and not look back. But for others religion is at the very heart of their identity, worldview and community, and having a safe place to process doubts can be a metaphorical godsend.

“Reclaimers,” people who are actively working to rebuild their lives after a period of religious immersion, may struggle with harmful ideas and emotions from the beliefs they once held or the behavior of fellow believers. Alternately, they may find that leaving is lonely and disorienting. Marlene Winell, a human development consultant who assists people leaving their religion, coined the term Religious Trauma Syndrome to describe a pattern she saw in some clients, in particular those leaving closed, authoritarian, fear-based communities. But even doubters who don’t experience this level of distress may find themselves feeling confused, afraid, self-doubting or overwhelmed.

Since 2009, a small nonprofit called Recovering From Religion, has worked to serve this population by establishing peer support groups, organizing “Recovering Your Sexuality” classes, and providing a matchmaking service for clients seeking therapists who are committed to a secular approach. In March, Recovering From Religion launched a hotline, 1-84-I-DoubtIt, staffed by a cadre of volunteers trained in listening and crisis triage techniques. From years of daily emails and calls to their office, the staff knew there was an unmet need. Even so, they were caught off guard by the response—over 1,000 calls in the first six weeks.

In this interview, Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering From Religion, talks about why her work is a personal passion and about the recovery hotline itself.

READ: Addicted to Christianity? Former Christians say yes and no

Valerie Tarico: Your commitment to supporting people in religious transitions comes from your own transition, which started with you as a life-long member of the Southern Baptist Convention and ended with you as an atheist.

Sarah Morehead: Yes. It was a long journey. Twelve years ago, I separated from my Promise Keeper husband. He had been violent toward me, but when he turned that on our kids, it was over for me. I found myself strapped financially, and in desperation I went to the benevolence committee at my church and asked for $600 to help pay the bills. This was a huge, successful mega-church, and the benevolence committee was their mechanism for helping members in need. The committee—all men—said they needed to pray about my request, and that regardless I needed to go to counseling about how to be a more godly wife so that I could lead my husband back to Christ through my submissiveness. They said this even though they knew he was physically abusive. Then, after praying, they let me know that Jesus wasn’t keen on them giving me the money.

As I was leaving I pushed open the church door and bumped into someone etching decorations on the outside, and I had an odd thought. I had just heard that God didn’t want me to have the $600 but this etching on the doors was totally cool with him. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but that was the point that it stopped adding up. You question one piece and then another and then another. Eventually my conscience outweighed my creedal viewpoint.

VT: The heart of your Christianity was belief in God and his word and your relationship to Jesus. But this question of compassion and support is what rattled you and created that first crack.

READ: Ex-cult member explains how she got sucked into a right-wing group -- and her 'beyond terrifying' experience of trying to flee

SM: It was a combination—the disorienting lack of support on the inside and then equally disorienting support from an outsider. We had neighbors, two men who lived catty-corner across the alley. We kept our children away from their children because they had a flag that I thought was satanic. Now I know it was just pagan. They would have bonfires in their back yard, and it was terrifying to me.

After I got home from the church, there was a knock at the door and it was one of the guys from across the alley way. He said, “We don’t talk much but I know there’s a lot going on for you guys and here is a casserole.” It was one of the more surreal moments in my life. I remember standing there and in my mind asking God what he was trying to tell me. Would Satan tempt me through the kindness of macaroni and cheese?

Our homeschool support groups pulled away when they heard of the divorce, and then when they learned I wasn’t going to that church anymore they stopped letting their kids hang out with my kids. It was very isolating and scary because I didn’t know anyone, other than the neighbor I had met, who had really survived this idea of reconsidering religion.

VT: You were really on your own.

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SM: The only people who had the courage to say that they didn’t have all of the answers were this couple, who as it turned out were gay—of course they were, but it took me a while to figure that out because they couldn’t be gay because they were nice and gay people were pedophiles.

VT: So there you were, trying to juggle the loss of your faith and your entire community, while taking care of your children, who were also dealing with abandonment.

SM: The loss of my faith wasn’t all at once, as it isn’t for many people. At first the changes were tiny. I remember the moment when I had the epiphany that American Baptists might not burn in hell. Later, Bible-believing Christianity stopped working for me, but for a long time I thought that was a problem with me, not with the religion. I was probably destined for hell, but I just couldn’t figure it out. Eventually I tried out more liberal religious viewpoints, like the Unitarian Church. When I finally realized I don’t believe this anymore, I didn’t know where I fit.

I had come on this huge, huge journey with no map, and I didn’t know where I was. But you go on the internet and connect with people who are struggling, people who are going through the same things. So, that’s my motivation. There are people who are scared and lonely and afraid and who think they are the only person on the planet who can’t figure it out. The relief some of these people experience when I talk to them—being able to offer them that bridge when there’s nowhere else to go—that is one of the most rewarding things imaginable.

VT: So tell me about Recovering From Religion—the organization.

SM: It was founded by Psychologist Darrel Ray in 2009, after he wrote The God Virus. The book kicked off conversations that made the need apparent, so he started the network of peer support groups. But his time was limited. I came on board in 2011 and started developing it into a cohesive program.

The hotline project came about because of the emails that we get daily. People need someone to talk to, and the groups themselves—we will never have enough locations that everyone has somewhere to go. So we thought, what if everyone could call and talk with one person, just someone respectful? There’s a lot out there that mocks religion and hates on religion. There’s a place for that, but for people who are gently feeling out where they are, they need a place that lets them have one foot in and out.

VT: You feel strongly about giving people space to be where they are at.

SM: We created a tool called the spectrum of belief and disbelief. It ranges from polytheism to atheism, so that people can consider where they want to be. Maybe a caller thinks, there’s something out there but it doesn’t tell me how to have sex and I don’t have to tithe. If that’s where people are at we respect that. The relationship and the person matter more than the religion.

I’m huge on boundaries. Religion takes away boundaries—you tell children from day one that there’s something out there that can see their thoughts—so people in recovery are just learning that they can have boundaries and ideas and limits and can say, no you don’t have access to that part of me. We want to give that back.

VT: So how do you train volunteers for the hotline?

SM: We have a training program vetted by two psychologists to make sure we stay within the bounds of peer support. It’s about 10 hours of training—software and process and simulated calls. Our volunteers don’t provide counseling; it’s really active listening. If the person has a belief in God we don’t question or challenge that. If they say they don’t believe but want somewhere to go, then we might help them create an action plan. When people have safe way to explore their doubts they often do start letting go and they feel good and empowered and that’s a really cool thing to have happen, but we are serious about simply providing respectful support, so we provide careful training and oversight.

We have sophisticated (and I might add, expensive!) call management technology. It’s the same system used by the Trevor Project which works to prevent suicide for gay youth. The system lets both callers and volunteers remain anonymous, and a supervisor can move between calls without being intrusive. All calls are monitored to some extent. We can flag calls if there are any concerns and review them and then provide feedback. There are a lot of pieces to this, which is why it took us two years to get this up and running.

VT: So tell me about that unexpected grand slam opening.

SM: We opened March 1 from 6pm-midnight during the week and 24 hours on the weekend. Within six weeks we had 1,000 calls come in! A thousand calls was a big surprise. Imagine trying to figure out how to staff for call volume when you have no idea what to expect. We estimated based on contacts to the office line. But it’s different when people actually see a banner that says 1-84-I-DoubtIt.

We are getting calls from all demographics, all ages. Some of the calls leave you in tears. People feel so isolated and alone because religion has permeated every aspect of their community. We get calls from people who are being threatened that their kids will be taken away because of their nonbelief. We get calls from teens who are being kicked out because they’ve decided they’re not the same religion as their parents.

We had one lady who called and said that she saw the hotline article on CNN, and she held onto the number for three weeks. She said that it was the first time in her life that she said the word atheist even though she had been for years. Isolation, desperation—people get trapped in their circumstances and for a whole lot of reasons many can’t just pick up and move. Most people don’t want to be famous or activists. They just want to be able to not go to church and have it be ok.

VT: Sometimes you try to hook callers up with other resources, especially resources in their own communities. What are the biggest service gaps? What do you wish existed?

SM: We’ve been out for two months, and we’ll have a better assessment after a year. Right now we’re still in the discovery process. For example, we just got introduced to Footsteps, which supports people leaving Orthodox Judaism. So, we’re not at the point of saying this doesn’t exist, we need it; we’re saying this is probably out there, let’s find it.

When people call in crisis or with urgent needs that are beyond our scope, then processing questions about religion takes a back burner to managing that need. If they are in active crisis when they call, like active domestic violence, or suicidal, there are fantastic crisis-trained hotlines out there. We try to keep them on the line and give them the number and make sure they are connected.

Alternately, they may be in urgent need of a place to stay. We refer to social service networks in their area if they are comfortable sharing their location or to general crisis services, if they are not.

VT: What’s your next big challenge?

SM: The challenge is maintaining the staff at a rate that can take all the calls. We have about 40 volunteers in training. We will be expanding to 24/7 and then will integrate an online system that lets us take calls from around the world. Right now our volunteers are everywhere, but we only serve Canada and the U.S. We want to be a resource to people who aren’t local to North America.

Funding is also a huge challenge. None of the staffing or supervision is paid, including my position, which isn’t sustainable indefinitely. Here is the really hard part about funding: The people we are helping are unable to fund the service. We can’t ask for money when, for example, a caller is struggling to keep their business and all of their clients are at their church. So we are going to need support from the secular community as a whole and people who see the value in what we do.

Also, donor development is really tough for many former fundies. We’ve been drilled from day one that you don’t ask for money. Yes, there’s the hypocrisy that you give all of your money to the church, but you don’t ask for things for yourself. Former minister Teresa McBain and much loved atheist blogger Neil Carter have joined the team. But we’re very wary of the flashy, believe-in-us mentality, so we’re trying to find the right balance. We’re working with people who have more skill in that regard than we do.

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'I have nothing to hide': Trump claims his Jan. 6 speech was 'extremely calming' www.youtube.com

Expert: We know less than you think about the lives of Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammed and most other religious 'founders'

We know less than you might think about the lives of Buddha, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammed, and most other religious "founders."

Author David Fitzgerald is a history buff whose primary fascination is the early history of religion. When he researched the origins of Christianity, he was astounded to discover how little evidence we have about Jesus as a historical person. The least fantastical stories about the life of Jesus are found in the four New Testament gospels, but the four gospels that made it into the New Testament—and others that did not—were written generations after any historical Jesus rabbi would have lived. They contradict each other and contain miraculous events that in any other context we would simply call magic, mythology, or fairy tales. These events echo "tropes" that were common in the folklore of the region, like the idea of a woman impregnated by a god, or talking animals, or transmutation (one substance turning into another), or magical healings, or a person returning from the dead, or being/becoming a deity.

The historical record is so frayed, and so stitched together with obvious myth and legend, that Fitzgerald began wondering whether the man, Jesus, had ever actually existed. He soon discovered he was not alone. Were the stories about Jesus mythologized history (meaning that stories of a real person had mythic elements added over time—like Davie Crockett killing a bear when he was only three)? Or were they historicized mythology (meaning that legends of a mythic personage had historical details added as the stories were retold)? Ancient writings offer us plenty of both. Alexander the Great performed miracles. The three wise men of the Christmas story received names and biographies during the Middle Ages.

For generations now, academic Bible scholars have been gradually transferring bits of the gospel stories out of the History bucket and into the Mythology bucket. As inquiry tools have become more advanced, what we "know" about any historical Jesus has shrunk. The vast majority of relevant experts do think that a real person lies at the heart of the stories. If you want to understand why, read or listen to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman or James McGrath. But either way, we can be confident that biblical portraits of Jesus offer little clarity about whoever he may have been. The form of the gospels, their contents, internal contradictions and most likely dates of writing suggest that they are largely the stuff of legend.

RELATED: The evidence that Jesus ever existed is weaker than you might think

That's OK says Fitzgerald. As several scholars have pointed out, we don't need to know who Jesus was or even whether he existed in order to explain the emergence of Christianity. There are, as it turns out, patterns in how religions emerge, whether or not the iconic founder was a single flesh-and-blood person. These patterns have to do with cultural and technological evolution, which will be highlighted in Part 2 of this series.

But one key piece of the pattern is this: Most major religions have founders who are wrapped in layers and layers of obvious mythology—to the point that little of interest remains when the myths are peeled away. Christianity is far from unique when it comes to sketchy evidence about an ostensible founder who is now heralded as a prophet, god or demi-god. For centuries—or even millennia—religious teachings have pointed to great individuals, prophets, demi-gods, or supernatural beings as the source of divine revelation. But looking closely at these claims can be rather like holding cotton candy in the rain.

As Fitzgerald began to write and speak publicly about his doubts regarding Jesus, he was surprised to be contacted by Buddhists and former Muslims who informed him that they were having similar debates in their respective circles—arguments over whether the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, or the Prophet Muhammad, actually existed! As with Jesus, the vast majority of relevant experts assume that the stories of Muhammad are rooted in a real person. But even assuming these larger-than-life figures did once exist in the flesh, we know remarkably little about their lives or any direct roles they (rather than their legends) may have played in history.

Judaism – Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and other Old Testament Figures

Most non-Christians and non-fundamentalist Christians recognize stories like the Garden of Eden, Tower of Babel, and Noah's Flood as sacred myths which sought to explain natural disasters or bolster moral rules or tribal identity. A devastating meteor strike may have inspired stories about Sodom and Gomorrah or the walls of Jericho (or then again, maybe not), but we lack archeological evidence for major Biblical stories including the conquest of Canaan and the flight from Egypt. We have nothing to back up stories of the Patriarchs from Abraham to Moses and Joshua.

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Evidence on the ground fails to show any sign of Israel's lauded monotheism until the better part of a millennium afterwards. Even then, archeology suggests that David and Solomon existed, but the grandeur of their fabled kingdoms and royal exploits likely did not. To modern eyes, the real David and his "united monarchy" might look like a bandit chieftain of a cow-town in the wild Judean hill country.

Daniel Lazare tells the story this way:

Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late eighth century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way kingdom with little in the way of military or financial clout. Yet at some point its priests and rulers seem to have been seized with the idea that their national deity, now deemed to be nothing less than the king of the universe, was about to transform them into a great power. They set about creating an imperial past commensurate with such an empire, one that had the southern heroes of David and Solomon conquering the northern kingdom and making rival kings tremble throughout the known world. From a "henotheistic" cult in which Yahweh was worshiped as the chief god among many, they refashioned the national religion so that henceforth Yahweh would be worshiped to the exclusion of all other deities.

Jewish history doesn't start approaching historical reliability until centuries later, with well-corroborated events such as the Babylonian conquest and exile, and even the accounts from these and later periods show extensive bias from the scribal factions that wrote them. For instance, they demonize successful, long-lasting rulers such as Manasseh and the Omride dynasty (including the notorious queen Jezebel), while heaping praise on short-lived but pious failures like Josiah.


Islam – Muhammad

The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th century are well-established and undeniable—but the same is not true of the prophet who was the purported inspiration behind them. Before these military conquests, Arabia was a region of many different tribes, including urban merchants, nomadic Bedouin, and Jewish and Christian communities. The pagan Arabs worshipped hundreds of gods, including the three goddesses Al-Lat, Manat, and al-Uzza, mentioned in the notorious "Satanic Verses"of the Qur'an, and high gods like Hubaal and Allah. Features we associate with Islam, such as pilgrimages to the sacred Kaaba in Mecca (originally a thousand-year-old shrine to Hubaal), were important parts of the region's religious life for centuries before the Muslim era.

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According to tradition, it was the prophet Muhammad who united the Arabian tribes and wrote the Qur'an. But there are curious inconsistencies in the official story. Early mentions of Muhammad are oddly non-specific and, at least twice, are accompanied by a cross. The word Muhammad itself is not just a proper name, but an honorific title ("The Praised One")and it is possible it originally referred to Jesus, as pockets of Christianity were well established in the region. Crosses appear on some coins of this era and in some early ostensibly Muslim architecture.

Though orthodox Muslims believe Muhammad received the Qur'an directly from the archangel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic), as much as a third of the Qur'an appears not only to pre-date Muhammad, but to be derived from various earlier Syrian Christian liturgical writings.

According to the standard account, the Qur'an in its present form was distributed in the 650s— but in example after example of important correspondence and records, no one—neither Arabians, Christians nor Jews—ever mentions the Qur'an until the early eighth century.

During the early years of the Arab conquests, accounts by conquered peoples never mention Islam, Muhammad, or the Qur'an. The Arab conquerors are called "Ishmaelites," "Saracens," "Muhajirun," "Hagarians" —but never "Muslims." Approximately two generations after Muhammad's official death date, the first references to Islam and "Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam" appear. Around the same time, Islamic beliefs begin to appear on coins and inscriptions, and certain common Muslim practices such as reciting from the Qur'an during mosque prayers begin.

But no record of Muhammad's reported death in 632 appears until more than a century later. After the Abbasid dynasty supplants Abd al-Malik's Umayyad line in the mid-8th century, the first complete biography of Muhammad finally appears and biographical material begins to proliferate (at least 125 years after his supposed death). The Abbasids also accuse their Umayyad predecessors of gross impiety, and Abbasids, Ummayyads and Shiites all write new hadiths against one another.

All these and still other inexplicable elements of early Islamic history suggest that, incredible as it seems, Islam and the Qur'an and the shape of Muhammad's biography were results rather than causes of the Arabian conquests.

Buddhism – Buddha
Scholars are careful not to put too much confidence in any of the professed historical facts of the Buddha's life. Trying to establish even a ballpark figure of when he lived with any degree of confidence has proven to be deeply problematic. Many scholars tend to place him around the 6th or 5th century BCE, but Tibetan Buddhist traditions put his death in the 9th century BCE (about 833 BCE), while the Eastern Buddhist traditions (China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan), believe he died over a century earlier than that (949 BCE). In any case, it was not until the early second century CE—or roughly half a millennium after Buddha's life—that the first biography of Buddha was written in the form of an epic poem called the Buddhacarita.

According to tradition, the Buddha's teachings were only transmitted orally for several centuries. By the time the earliest Buddhist scriptures were first written down, large numbers of rival Buddhist schools existed—each with their own competing collection of Buddha's teachings. Virtually all of these have been lost, though some have been partially reconstructed through translations into Chinese, Korean, and Tibetan. However, our surviving and reconstructed canons differ from one another so greatly that scholars are unable to tell which, if any, represent the "original" or "authentic" Buddhist scriptures.

Daoism—Lao-Tze

According to venerable tradition, the founder of Daoism, Laozi (aka Lao-Tze, Lao Tzu, Lao Dan, or "Old Master") wrote his teachings in a short book named after him in the sixth or early fifth century BCE. Modern scholars disagree. Based on archaeological evidence, competing collections of sayings attributed to Laozi began to be written down probably from the second half of the fifth century BCE, grew, competed for attention, and gradually came to be consolidated over the following centuries until the Laozi probably reached a relatively stable form around the mid-3rd century BCE.

Nearly every fact about Laozi is in dispute, including the name Laozi itself. According to several scholars, he is entirely legendary. The most common biographical account of his life was recorded around 94 BCE in Sima Qian's Shiji, (or "Records of the Grand Historian"). Scholars today take the Shiji with a grain of salt. According to Daoism scholar William Boltz, it "contains virtually nothing that is demonstrably factual; we are left no choice but to acknowledge the likely fictional nature of the traditional Lao tzu [Laozi] figure."

Sikhism—Gurū Nānak

Sikhism has only been around for about five hundred years, a Johnny-come-lately compared to most world religions. Its founder, Gurū Nānak, said to have lived c. 1469-1539, was the first of a line of ten founding gurus of the faith. Virtually everything known about him comes from Janamsakhis, or "birth-stories" of the life of Guru Nanak and his early companions. These miracle-laden tales are replete with supernatural characters and extraordinary events like conversations with fish and animals. They come in many versions, which often contradict each other, and in some cases have clearly been tinkered with to beef up the role of this or that disciple or advance the claim of some faction. Oddly, they don't begin to appear until 50-80 years after his death, and many more come in during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

Sikhs hold that The Guru Granth Sahib, their scripture, was composed predominantly by Nānak and the first six gurus (along with the poetry of thirteen Hindu Bhakti movement poets and two Sufi Muslim poets). However, the Adi Granth, its first rendition, was compiled by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev (1564–1606) in 1604, generations after the faith's supposed beginnings, and the final edition of Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib, was not finished until a full century after that, in 1704.

Confucianism – Confucius

Confucius, or "Master Kong," a.k.a. K'ung Fu-tzu, Kǒng Fūzǐ, etc., is said to be a 5th century BCE figure, though his earliest biography appears 400 years after his death. The Analectsattributed to himand other ancient traditions was actually composed sometime during the Warring States period (476–221 BC) and reached its final form during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).

Jainism – Rishabhanatha

Jainism claims that Rishabhanatha, the first of its twenty-four founding Jain Tīrthaṅkara, meaning teachers, was born millions and millions of years BCE, lived for 8.2 million Purva years—one Pūrva (पूर्व) equals 8,400,000 years, squared, in Western reckoning—and was 4,950 ft. tall. Skipping forward a bit, in the 9th century BCE, their 23rd Tirthankar, Parshvanatha,is born. He is a mere 13 1/2 feet tall and lives for but 100 years.

Despite this impressive (some might say incredible) pedigree, observers could be forgiven for suspecting that the religion actually started with the 24th and final (and shortest) Tirthankar,Mahavira, supposedly born at the beginning of the 6th century BCE; the actual year varies from sect to sect. It's difficult to say for certain, as tradition also holds that starting around 300 BCE, Mahavira's teachings, transmitted orally by Jain monks, were gradually lost, and the first written versions did not arrive until about the 1st century CE—at least, according to one branch of Jainism, a fact disputed by rival factions.

In Summary

Not all religions claim great men—or god-men—as founders. Shinto & Hinduism are two of the oldest religions still widely practiced. Historically, Hinduism is considered a fusion of multiple Indian cultures over millennia, while Shinto emerged from the beliefs and practices of prehistoric Japan. As such, there is no single founder figure of Hinduism or Shinto. Other religions, like Baháʼí and Mormonism have known founders, but we also have clear documentation of the ways in which they borrowed from and adapted earlier religions. Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, founder of Baháʼí, drew on Bábism, which is itself a spin-off of Shia Islam. Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, amended and appended Christianity. Despite claims of divine inspiration or intervention, the natural history of these religions is pretty clear.

But as with other information sets that replicate and spread (for example: DNA, internet memes or culture), changes can accumulate in small or large increments, introduced gradually or in large chunks. As bits get handed down, people instinctively "correct" those that don't make sense or are no longer acceptable before passing them on. If we strip away the founding stories and look at religions with a critical eye, some of these corrections become obvious.

Looking at the big picture, patterns emerge in this process, patterns that are shaped by cultural and technological evolution and the gradual accumulation of knowledge. And that is the topic of Part 2 in this series.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

These 15 Bible texts reveal why 'God’s Own Party' keeps demeaning women

Why can't GOP politicians trumpet their religious credentials without assaulting women? Because fundamentalist religion of all stripes has degradation of women at its core.

Progressive Christians believe that the Bible is a human document, a record of humanity's multi-millennial struggle to understand what is good and what is God and how to live in moral community with each other. But fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literally perfect word of the Almighty, essentially dictated by God to the writers. To believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God is to believe that women are tainted seductresses who must be controlled by men.

Listen to early Church Father Tertullian: "You [woman] are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die."

Or take it from reformer John Calvin: "Woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading to all perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame."

Both Tertullian, a respected Catholic theologian, and Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, took their cues on this matter straight from the book of Genesis:

To the woman [God] said, I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. -Genesis 3:16

No matter how outrageous Santorum and Gingrich may seem to secularists and moderate people of faith, they are right on target for an intended audience of Bible believing fundamentalists. If you have any doubt, check out these fifteen Bible passages.*

  1. A wife is a man's property: You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17
  2. Daughters can be bought and sold: If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. Exodus 21:7
  3. A raped daughter can be sold to her rapist: 28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. Deuteronomy 22:28-29
  4. Collecting wives and sex slaves is a sign of status: He [Solomon] had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 1 Kings 11:3
  5. Used brides deserve death: If, however the charge is true and no proof of the girl's virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. Deuteronomy 22:20-21.
  6. Women, but only virgins, are to be taken as spoils of war: Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Numbers 31:17-18
  7. Menstruating women are spiritually unclean: 19 "'When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. 20 "'Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. 21 Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. 22 Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, . . . 30 The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge. 31 "'You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place,[a] which is among them.'" Leviticus 15: 19-31
  8. A woman is twice as unclean after giving birth to girl as to a boy: A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. ' 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding. 6 " 'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. Leviticus 12: 1-8
  9. A woman's promise is binding only if her father or husband agrees: 2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said. 3 "When a young woman still living in her father's household makes a vow to the LORD or obligates herself by a pledge 4 and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the LORD will release her because her father has forbidden her. . . . . A woman's vow is meaningless unless approved by her husband or father. But if her husband nullifies them when he hears about them, then none of the vows or pledges that came from her lips will stand. Her husband has nullified them, and the LORD will release her. 13 Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself. Numbers 30:1-16
  10. Women should be seen not heard: Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34
  11. Wives should submit to their husband's instructions and desires: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18
  12. In case you missed that submission thing . . . : Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24.
  13. More submission – and childbearing as a form of atonement: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. 1 Timothy 2: 11-15
  14. Women were created for men: For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. 7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 1 Corinthians 11:2-10
  15. Sleeping with women is dirty: No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb. Revelation 14:3-4

This list is just a sampling of the Bible verses that either instruct or illustrate proper relationships between men and women. In context, they often are mixed among passages that teach proper relationships with children, slaves and foreigners. The Bible doesn't forbid either contraception or abortion, but it is easy to see why Bible believing fundamentalists might have negative feelings about both.

As futurist Sara Robinson has pointed out, traditional rules that govern male-female relationships are grounded more in property rights than civil rights. Men essentially have ownership of women, whose lives are scripted to serve an end—bearing offspring. It is very important to men that they know whose progeny they are raising, so sexual morality has focused primarily on controlling women's sex activity and maintaining their "purity" and value as assets. Traditional gender roles and rules evolved on the presumption that women don't have control over their fertility. In other words, modern contraception radically changed a social compact that had existed for literally thousands of years.

Some people don't welcome change. Since the beginnings of the 20th Century, fundamentalist Christians have been engaged in what they see as spiritual warfare against secularists and modernist Christians. Both of their foes have embraced discoveries in fields such as linguistics, archeology, psychology, biology and physics – all of which call into question the heart of conservative religion and culture. Biblical scholars now challenge such "fundamentals" as a historical Adam, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the special status that Abraham's God gave to straight males. Fundamentalists are fighting desperately to hang on to certainties and privileges they once saw as an Abrahamic birthright. If they can't keep women in line; it's all over. The future ends up in the hands of cultural creatives, scientists, artists, inquiring minds, and girls. It's horrifying.

Mental health expert details 10 thought patterns that trip up former Christians

Perhaps it's been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the Good Book. It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that prayer works, if at all, at the margins of statistical significance—that Believers don't avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn't so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the Bible is a jerk—or worse.

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.

Here are ten mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians even when we think we've done the work of moving on. None of these are unique to former Christians, but they are reinforced by Bible-belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.

  1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You're either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are "lukewarm."This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from Bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn't enough; you need to be all in. No pain no gain. Work? You're a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you'll gain a following.
  2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes—good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. Disagreement becomes synonymous with schism and heresy.When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent—we are just fallen ("utterly depraved" in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
  3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between "I'm awesome" and "I suck." Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn't perfect, and that's the biblical standard.
  4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of "confessing our sins one to another" turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.
  5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people but also straight guys who like sex, it's impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the Bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more matters of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor's wife. Then there's virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don't forget God hates fags.
  6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn't the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues; the consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small every-day wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to center in the moment, breathe in, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.
  7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a Rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown.
  8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what's right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. (Sound familiar?) They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don't share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.
  9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side—just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks!Fiction from Western cultures often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes and specific types of oversimplification. And it's all to easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren't so simple, but it's easy to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, elves and orcs.
  10. Intrusive what-ifs. And so we struggle, with new and old interpretations of reality and thought habits competing in our brains. We tell ourselves it's ok; that we're ok. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I'm wrong? Many years ago I told a therapist that I didn't believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn't talk to anyone about it because I didn't want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real.The journey out is . . . a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if Bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn't mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.

In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids and times of stasis. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence, Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.

I often find myself quoting one former Bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the near and present—a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

RTS: Here's how some religion leads to mental health problems

At age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia. When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister. "If you ask anything in faith, believing," they said. "It will be done." I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn't go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn't just the bulimia. I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help couldn't fix the core problem: I was a failure in the eyes of God. It would be years before I understood that my inability to heal bulimia through the mechanisms offered by biblical Christianity was not a function of my own spiritual deficiency but deficiencies in Evangelical religion itself.

Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Area. She is also the daughter of Pentecostal missionaries. This combination has given her work an unusual focus. For the past twenty years she has counseled men and women in recovery from various forms of fundamentalist religion including the Assemblies of God denomination in which she was raised. Winell is the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion, written during her years of private practice in psychology. Over the years, Winell has provided assistance to clients whose religious experiences were even more damaging than mine. Some of them are people whose psychological symptoms weren't just exacerbated by their religion, but actually caused by it.

Two years ago, Winell made waves by formally labeling what she calls "Religious Trauma Syndrome" (RTS) and beginning to write and speak on the subject for professional audiences. When the British Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Psychologists published a series of articles on the topic, members of a Christian counseling association protested what they called excessive attention to a "relatively niche topic." One commenter said, "A religion, faith or book cannot be abuse but the people interpreting can make anything abusive."

Is toxic religion simply misinterpretation? What is religious trauma? Why does Winell believe religious trauma merits its own diagnostic label? I asked her.

Let's start this interview with the basics. What exactly is religious trauma syndrome?

Winell: Religious trauma syndrome (RTS) is a set of symptoms and characteristics that tend to go together and which are related to harmful experiences with religion. They are the result of two things: immersion in a controlling religion and the secondary impact of leaving a religious group. The RTS label provides a name and description that affected people often recognize immediately. Many other people are surprised by the idea of RTS, because in our culture it is generally assumed that religion is benign or good for you. Just like telling kids about Santa Claus and letting them work out their beliefs later, people see no harm in teaching religion to children.

But in reality, religious teachings and practices sometimes cause serious mental health damage. The public is somewhat familiar with sexual and physical abuse in a religious context. As Journalist Janet Heimlich has documented in, Breaking Their Will, Bible-based religious groups that emphasize patriarchal authority in family structure and use harsh parenting methods can be destructive.

But the problem isn't just physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and mental treatment in authoritarian religious groups also can be damaging because of 1) toxic teachings like eternal damnation or original sin 2) religious practices or mindset, such as punishment, black and white thinking, or sexual guilt, and 3) neglect that prevents a person from having the information or opportunities to develop normally.

Can you give me an example of RTS from your consulting practice?

Winell: I can give you many. One of the symptom clusters is around fear and anxiety. People indoctrinated into fundamentalist Christianity as small children sometimes have memories of being terrified by images of hell and apocalypse before their brains could begin to make sense of such ideas. Some survivors, who I prefer to call "reclaimers," have flashbacks, panic attacks, or nightmares in adulthood even when they intellectually no longer believe the theology. One client of mine, who during the day functioned well as a professional, struggled with intense fear many nights. She said,

I was afraid I was going to hell. I was afraid I was doing something really wrong. I was completely out of control. I sometimes would wake up in the night and start screaming, thrashing my arms, trying to rid myself of what I was feeling. I'd walk around the house trying to think and calm myself down, in the middle of the night, trying to do some self-talk, but I felt like it was just something that – the fear and anxiety was taking over my life.

Or consider this comment, which refers to a film used by Evangelicals to warn about the horrors of the "end times" for nonbelievers.

I was taken to see the film "A Thief In The Night". WOW. I am in shock to learn that many other people suffered the same traumas I lived with because of this film. A few days or weeks after the film viewing, I came into the house and mom wasn't there. I stood there screaming in terror. When I stopped screaming, I began making my plan: Who my Christian neighbors were, who's house to break into to get money and food. I was 12 yrs old and was preparing for Armageddon alone.

In addition to anxiety, RTS can include depression, cognitive difficulties, and problems with social functioning. In fundamentalist Christianity, the individual is considered depraved and in need of salvation. A core message is "You are bad and wrong and deserve to die." (The wages of sin is death.) This gets taught to millions of children through organizations like Child Evangelism Fellowship, and there is a group organized to oppose their incursion into public schools. I've had clients who remember being distraught when given a vivid bloody image of Jesus paying the ultimate price for their sins. Decades later they sit telling me that they can't manage to find any self-worth.

After twenty-seven years of trying to live a perfect life, I failed. . . I was ashamed of myself all day long. My mind battling with itself with no relief. . . I always believed everything that I was taught but I thought that I was not approved by God. I thought that basically I, too, would die at Armageddon.
I've spent literally years injuring myself, cutting and burning my arms, taking overdoses and starving myself, to punish myself so that God doesn't have to punish me. It's taken me years to feel deserving of anything good.

Born-again Christianity and devout Catholicism tell people they are weak and dependent, calling on phrases like "lean not unto your own understanding" or "trust and obey." People who internalize these messages can suffer from learned helplessness. I'll give you an example from a client who had little decision-making ability after living his entire life devoted to following the "will of God." The words here don't convey the depth of his despair.

I have an awful time making decisions in general. Like I can't, you know, wake up in the morning, "What am I going to do today? Like I don't even know where to start. You know all the things I thought I might be doing are gone and I'm not sure I should even try to have a career; essentially I babysit my four-year-old all day.

Authoritarian religious groups are subcultures where conformity is required in order to belong. Thus if you dare to leave the religion, you risk losing your entire support system as well.

I lost all my friends. I lost my close ties to family. Now I'm losing my country. I've lost so much because of this malignant religion and I am angry and sad to my very core. . . I have tried hard to make new friends, but I have failed miserably. . . I am very lonely.

Leaving a religion, after total immersion, can cause a complete upheaval of a person's construction of reality, including the self, other people, life, and the future. People unfamiliar with this situation, including therapists, have trouble appreciating the sheer terror it can create.

My form of religion was very strongly entrenched and anchored deeply in my heart. It is hard to describe how fully my religion informed, infused, and influenced my entire worldview. My first steps out of fundamentalism were profoundly frightening and I had frequent thoughts of suicide. Now I'm way past that but I still haven't quite found "my place in the universe.

Even for a person who was not so entrenched, leaving one's religion can be a stressful and significant transition.

Many people seem to walk away from their religion easily, without really looking back. What is different about the clientele you work with?

Winell: Religious groups that are highly controlling, teach fear about the world, and keep members sheltered and ill-equipped to function in society are harder to leave easily. The difficulty seems to be greater if the person was born and raised in the religion rather than joining as an adult convert. This is because they have no frame of reference – no other "self" or way of "being in the world." A common personality type is a person who is deeply emotional and thoughtful and who tends to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their endeavors. "True believers" who then lose their faith feel more anger and depression and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday.

Aren't these just people who would be depressed, anxious, or obsessive anyways?

Winell: Not at all. If my observation is correct, these are people who are intense and involved and caring. They hang on to the religion longer than those who simply "walk away" because they try to make it work even when they have doubts. Sometime this is out of fear, but often it is out of devotion. These are people for whom ethics, integrity and compassion matter a great deal. I find that when they get better and rebuild their lives, they are wonderfully creative and energetic about new things.

In your mind, how is RTS different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Winell: RTS is a specific set of symptoms and characteristics that are connected with harmful religious experience, not just any trauma. This is crucial to understanding the condition and any kind of self-help or treatment. (More details about this can be found on my Journey Free website and discussed in my talk at the Texas Freethought Convention.)

Another difference is the social context, which is extremely different from other traumas or forms of abuse. When someone is recovering from domestic abuse, for example, other people understand and support the need to leave and recover. They don't question it as a matter of interpretation, and they don't send the person back for more. But this is exactly what happens to many former believers who seek counseling. If a provider doesn't understand the source of the symptoms, he or she may send a client for pastoral counseling, or to AA, or even to another church. One reclaimer expressed her frustration this way:

Include physically-abusive parents who quote "Spare the rod and spoil the child" as literally as you can imagine and you have one fucked-up soul: an unloved, rejected, traumatized toddler in the body of an adult. I'm simply a broken spirit in an empty shell. But wait…That's not enough!? There's also the expectation by everyone in society that we victims should celebrate this with our perpetrators every Christmas and Easter!!

Just like disorders such as autism or bulimia, giving RTS a real name has important advantages. People who are suffering find that having a label for their experience helps them feel less alone and guilty. Some have written to me to express their relief:

There's actually a name for it! I was brainwashed from birth and wasted 25 years of my life serving Him! I've since been out of my religion for several years now, but i cannot shake the haunting fear of hell and feel absolutely doomed. I'm now socially inept, unemployable, and the only way i can have sex is to pay for it.

Labeling RTS encourages professionals to study it more carefully, develop treatments, and offer training. Hopefully, we can even work on prevention.

What do you see as the difference between religion that causes trauma and religion that doesn't?

Winell: Religion causes trauma when it is highly controlling and prevents people from thinking for themselves and trusting their own feelings. Groups that demand obedience and conformity produce fear, not love and growth. With constant judgment of self and others, people become alienated from themselves, each other, and the world. Religion in its worst forms causes separation.

Conversely, groups that connect people and promote self-knowledge and personal growth can be said to be healthy. The book, Healthy Religion, describes these traits. Such groups put high value on respecting differences, and members feel empowered as individuals. They provide social support, a place for events and rites of passage, exchange of ideas, inspiration, opportunities for service, and connection to social causes. They encourage spiritual practices that promote health like meditation or principles for living like the golden rule. More and more, nontheists are asking how they can create similar spiritual communities without the supernaturalism. An atheist congregation in London launched this year and has received over 200 inquiries from people wanting to replicate their model.

Some people say that terms like "recovery from religion" and "religious trauma syndrome" are just atheist attempts to pathologize religious belief.

Winell: Mental health professionals have enough to do without going out looking for new pathology. I never set out looking for a "niche topic," and certainly not religious trauma syndrome. I originally wrote a paper for a conference of the American Psychological Association and thought that would be the end of it. Since then, I have tried to move on to other things several times, but this work has simply grown.

In my opinion, we are simply, as a culture, becoming aware of religious trauma. More and more people are leaving religion, as seen by polls showing that the "religiously unaffiliated" have increased in the last five years from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. It's no wonder the internet is exploding with websites for former believers from all religions, providing forums for people to support each other. The huge population of people "leaving the fold" includes a subset at risk for RTS, and more people are talking about it and seeking help. For example, there are thousands of former Mormons, and I was asked to speak about RTS at an Exmormon Foundation conference. I facilitate an international support group online called Release and Reclaim which has monthly conference calls. An organization called Recovery from Religion, helps people start self-help meet-up groups

Saying that someone is trying to pathologize authoritarian religion is like saying someone pathologized eating disorders by naming them. Before that, they were healthy? No, before that we weren't noticing. People were suffering, thought they were alone, and blamed themselves. Professionals had no awareness or training. This is the situation of RTS today. Authoritarian religion is already pathological, and leaving a high-control group can be traumatic. People are already suffering. They need to be recognized and helped.

—- Dr. Marlene Winell is a human development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of Leaving the Fold – A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving their Religion. More information about Marlene Winell and resources for getting help with RTS may be found at Journey Free. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

These 10 thought processes trip up former Bible believers

Perhaps it's been years or even decades since you left biblical Christianity behind. You may have noticed long ago that there are human handprints all over the Good Book. It may have dawned on you that popular Christian versions of heaven would actually be hellish. You may have figured out that prayer works, if at all, at the margins of statistical significance—that Believers don't avoid illness or live longer than people who pray to other gods or none at all. You may have clued in that Christian morality isn't so hot and that other people have moral values too. (Shocking!) You may have decided that the God of the Bible is a jerk—or worse.

But some habits of thought are hard to break. It is a lot easier to shed the contents of Christian fundamentalism than its psychological structure.

Here are ten mental patterns that trip up many ex-Christians even when we think we've done the work of moving on. None of these are unique to former Christians, but they are reinforced by Bible-belief and Christian culture, which can make them particularly challenging for recovering believers.

  1. All or nothing thinking. In traditional Christian teachings, no sin is too small to send you to hell forever. You're either saved or damned, headed for unthinkable bliss or unthinkable torment, with nothing in between. Jesus saves only because he was perfect. Moderate Christians are "lukewarm."This kind of dichotomous black-and-white thinking seeps into us directly from Bible-believing Christianity and indirectly from cultures that are steeped in Protestantism. Sports? Enjoying the activity isn't enough; you need to be all in. No pain no gain. Work? You're a real worker only if you get back on the computer after dinner. Bragging rights start at 60 hours per week. Political? The more absolutist your proclamations, the more you'll gain a following.
  2. Good guys and bad guys. One consequence of black-white thinking is that we put people into two mental boxes—good guys and bad guys. You are either with us or against us, a patriot or a socialist, an anti-racist or a racist, one of us or one of them. Disagreement becomes synonymous with schism and heresy.When we discover the personal failings of a public figure like Bill Gates, we may move them from one box to the other, good guy to bad guy. Christianity offers no mental model in which people are complicated and imperfect but basically decent—we are just fallen ("utterly depraved" in the words of Calvin) and either washed in the blood or tools of Satan.
  3. Never feeling good enough. Since we are acutely aware of our own failings, it can be hard internally to stay out of the bad-guy box. Some of us toggle between "I'm awesome" and "I suck." Others have a nagging internal critic that tells us nothing we do is ever quite good enough. After all, it isn't perfect, and that's the biblical standard.
  4. Hyperactive guilt detection. Biblical Christianity gives tremendous moral weight to all of this, and the practice of "confessing our sins one to another" turns believers into guilt-muscle body builders. We live in a world of shoulds and should-nots, and in the Protestant ethic, those daily failings are moral failings. A nagging sense of guilt can become baseline normal, with little bursts of extra guilt as we notice one thing or another that we have left undone or goals where we have fallen short.
  5. Sexual hangups. For many former Christians, particularly for women or queer people but also straight guys who like sex, it's impossible to talk about guilt without talking about sex, because sexual sins are the worst of the worst. When it comes to the Bible, getting and giving sexual pleasure are more matters of temptation than of intimacy and delight. Idolatry and murder share the top 10 list with coveting your neighbor's wife. Then there's virgin-madonna-whore trifecta. And don't forget God hates fags.
  6. Living for the future. Sexual intimacy isn't the only kind of pleasure that biblical Christianity devalues; the consecrated life focuses broadly on the future rather than the moment. The small every-day wonders that comprise the center of joy in mindful living are mere distractions for a person who has their eye on the prize of heaven. As former believers grow convinced that each person gets one precious life, those individual moments can become treasures. But the habit of focusing on the future can make it really hard to center in the moment, breathe in, and bask in the ordinary beauties and delights around us.
  7. Bracing for an apocalypse. Even worse than being drawn by the lure of heaven is being braced constantly for some impending apocalypse. We may no longer expect a Rapture or the Mark of the Beast or Jesus riding in on a horse. But the idea of a cataclysmic disruption in history looms large nonetheless. A sense of nuclear doom or pandemic doom or overpopulation doom or underpopulation doom may nudge us to action or be paralyzing. Either way, the experience is very different from being driven by a sense of curiosity and discovery as we face the unknown.
  8. Idealizing leaders. Living in a cloud of anxiety makes us more susceptible to demagogues and authoritarians, people who exude confidence we lack, who convey that they know what's right and true and how to solve problems. They prey on our fears and on our desire to do good and be good. They prey on our sense of ourselves as sinners and tell us how to atone. (Sound familiar?) They prey on dichotomous thinking, reinforcing our sense that people who don't share our worldview must be evil and so must be silenced or defeated.
  9. Desperately seeking simplicity. Biblical Christianity tells a story about us as individuals and about human history that is clear and simple. Multi-dimensional causality? Moral ambiguity? Conflicts with no good side and bad side—just sides? Problems with no right answer? Blurry boundaries between human beings and other sentient species? No thanks! Fiction from Western cultures often mirrors and reinforces older Christian templates and tropes and specific types of oversimplification. And it's all too easy to project these in turn onto the hard-to-parse and hard-to-solve challenges of the real world. We know deep down that things aren't so simple, but it's easy to act as if we live in a world of saints and sinners, elves and orcs.
  10. Intrusive what-ifs. And so we struggle, with new and old interpretations of reality and thought habits competing in our brains. We tell ourselves it's ok; that we're ok. But often nagging doubts persist. What if I'm wrong? Many years ago I told a therapist that I didn't believe in the Christian god anymore, but I didn't talk to anyone about it because I didn't want to take them to hell with me. He laughed and I laughed at myself, but it also felt very real.The journey out is . . . a journey. Along the way people second guess themselves, especially if Bible-belief got inside when they were young. Years after quitting a former smoker may crave a cigarette. That doesn't mean they were wrong to quit. It just means those synaptic connections got hardwired, soldered in place, and some of them are still there.

In the real world, growth is gnarly. It happens in fits and starts, with forward leaps and sideways turns and backward skids and times of stasis. Change is rarely linear. Flip-flopping often serves truth-seeking. Certitude is rarely a virtue. We seldom know where we are headed. Nonetheless, sometimes we can look back and say with confidence, Not that. I may not know exactly what is true and right and real, but there are some things I can rule out.

I often find myself quoting one former Bible believer who made a comment but left no name: I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers. Embracing uncertainty about the future and the big questions frees us to live more in the small delights of the near and present—a nest of blue jays, a hug, the smell of butter on toast. That may be as good as it gets.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Quillette, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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