How to take Christ out of Christianity

May 12, 2015

Image credit: Mike Cherim

By Alana Massey

When I tell my socially progressive, atheist friends that I’m “culturally Christian,” they’re momentarily concerned that I have a latent preoccupation with guns and the Pledge of Allegiance. Using the term with devout believers gets me instructions that I just need to read more sophisticated theology to come around. I’ve tried hard to accept my fully secular identity, and at other times I’ve tried to read myself into theistic belief, going all the way through divinity school as part of the effort. Still, I remain unable to will myself into any belief in God or gods — but also unable to abandon my relationship to the Episcopalian faith into which I was born and to the ancient stories from which it came.

And though I am without a god, I am not alone.

The group of nonbelievers dubbed “Nones” in the media — because they don’t mark a religious affiliation on demographic surveys — grew from 15 percent of the U.S. population to 20 percent between 2007 and 2012; almost a third of them are under 30. These are the people who identify with ambivalent, ambiguous statements like “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; “I’m kind of agnostic”; “Now I’m an atheist, but I grew up Catholic”; or “I believe in something, but I don’t know if it’s God.” There are those of us, too, who still feel a profound connection to the Christianity we grew up with but who can no longer — or never could — connect those feelings to theistic belief. Some miss the ritual of singing in unison or wishing peace to their neighbors in a pew. Others miss feeling grounded in a community where they can celebrate life’s milestones and heartbreaks. Some find secular life lacking in sufficient ethical frameworks and systems of accountability to reinforce them. For many, it is a combination of all three.

All those severed connections, though, mean a new opportunity to create spaces for the “culturally Christian” nonbeliever and to examine how churches lost them in the first place.


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50 comments on “How to take Christ out of Christianity

  • Taking Christ out of Christianity ? Somewhat like taking the Prince out out of Hamlet, or the Pope out of Catholicism !

    For people like me Christianity means the ‘fiery lake’ promised by the humble carpenter. Bloody hell, Voldemort scares me more !



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  • @OP – The group of nonbelievers dubbed “Nones” in the media — because they don’t mark a religious affiliation on demographic surveys — grew from 15 percent of the U.S. population to 20 percent between 2007 and 2012; almost a third of them are under 30.

    I was just drawing attention to this slightly more up-to-date poll on another thread!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-32710444
    Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 – down from 78% in 2007.

    In the same period, Americans identifying as having no religion grew from 16% to 23%.



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  • It puzzles me why leaving the faith causes some individuals such problems. Leaving the faith, any faith is easy, just think for yourself. That’s it.

    Regretting a lost faith seems to me like regretting the remission of cancer.

    Reminds me of that Neil Innis/Bonzos song “How sweet to be an idiot”.



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  • To me Christianity means violent homophobe, lover of kitsch, con man, teller of lies, prude, irrational, harpy — hardly anything I would want to associate with.



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  • To me Christianity is a mixed bag. From the screaming creationists lunatics imported from the US thru to the CofE with its concerns for social justice and gender equality and largely reasonable view of the world. I suspect it is the latter that is missable.



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  • But a lot of people that think for themselves quite adequately when it comes to things like politics, science, economics etc etc etc have a blind spot when it comes to faith.

    The ability of very intelligent, deeply analytical thinkers, including scientists, to compartmentalise belief and protect it from critical analysis suggests it dies fill some deep human need.

    Christianity has been declining in the UK for years. I’d be interested to see what happens to it now we’ve elected a right wing, benefit cutting, NHS hating, money grubbing govt. Will our poorer ‘nones’ move to Christianity when they no longer have a safety net and therefore no hope? Especially given the churches currently provide most of the food banks that our population are increasingly coming to rely on.



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  • Philoctetes
    May 12, 2015 at 3:51 pm

    It puzzles me why leaving the faith causes some individuals such problems. Leaving the faith, any faith is easy, just think for yourself. That’s it.

    I think it’s like an addiction which has been deeply ingrained and integrated into individual core thinking from early childhood, so many basic assumptions and copied behaviours are faith derived to the exclusion of other more rational or evidence based ideas.
    It can take a long time for indoctrinated individuals to disentangle these old thought habits and preached rosy spectacle images.



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  • Given the state of religion in the US compared with Europe I’d say 23% is depressingly low. It’s easy to profess a faith in the UK where it isn’t in your face, where it isn’t run by screeching, clapping magic pastors offering healing, doesn’t effect your politicians or how they run the country and where it doesn’t effect your health care or control over your own body. It’s easy to profess belief here because we never have to think about it or how silly it is. Nor does it negatively impact on things like access to contraception.

    The people I know who claim to be christians/Catholics largely haven’t got a clue what they are supposed to believe in.

    But in the US where religion is all of those things you’d expect the sheer effort required to believe when you’re constantly being confronted with how silly it is, coupled with the interference in your daily life and rights would make it impossible. I’m amazed and depressed at how high the level of belief is.



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  • Not sure I agree. I’ve found those who’ve been brought up in a religion rarely have a clue what it is they believe in. It’s just there as habit. They believe only because they’ve never had to think about it, it’s just there. It’s not absence of rational thought it’s absence of thought. On the other hand I’ve known people ‘find’ religion as adults. Often from non religious backgrounds.

    I was brought up as a Catholic. I can honestly say that before leaving it I knew sweet FA about any detailed theology. Mass was some words I’d heard since I was a kid, like background music in a lift. And like background music it didn’t filter out onto real life so there were no contradictions to see. It wasn’t until I sat down a consciously thought about it that I decided it was idiotic.

    My brother in law, from the same atheist background as my fiercely atheist husband became a Christian two years ago. Not one of the loopier sects just normal CofE. But he’s serious about it. It’s not just background noise to him. That I find harder to understand.



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  • 10
    aroundtown says:

    Its been my observation that people who begin to question their faith start a journey that includes the inevitable pangs of loss for the community aspects they had in church. The social aspects are missed but the faith aspects no longer square with their new internal barometer, so the mix becomes like oil and water, they won’t blend.

    I’ve seen some adopt a new faith or spirituality but those fall to the wayside fairly quickly after they install analytical perspective. Pretty hard to put the genie back in the bottle after you’ve started to question religious dogma as reality and superstition makes for poor bed fellows in my opinion. From my perspective and experience, most religions have a problem with self-governance anyway, so the idea of fringe participation is going to run into trouble fairly quickly with those who are still in the fold. Your going to hear something pretty damn quick about Satan having control of your life now, and you’ve been tricked into questioning your belief. That is part and parcel of the built in fear they’ve used for eons.

    Religion crumbles under examination, and those who let go will experience a much larger world eventually, but the transition isn’t a simple one, it takes some work. New social connections result in time but what they thought they lost will be insignificant to that which they have received in turn, a life free of forced beliefs that were not of their making. In the end I doubt that you will not see them running back to church once they have tasted freedom.

    There are also some new figures out, I’ll post a link. More are waking up.

    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11447404



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  • 11
    aroundtown says:

    Once they require your brother in law to give up more and more control of his life I wonder if that might start to grate on him. I had posted before reading your post and it shakes the tree a bit to see a man who was free jump into the fire so to speak. I just wonder how long he will be able to wear the new suit of clothes?



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  • I wonder how much in the US this is about losing friends and community. That has to be an issue when the number of people claiming to be religious is high. It’s like giving up smoking when all your friends are smokers and you lose the camaraderie of standing around outside the building for a fag. When none of your friends smoke it’s a lot easier. When you are raised somewhere like Australia where nobody talks about their religion, mostly because they don’t have one in any serious sense like attending a church, you are much less likely to have built your social circle around religion.



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  • Christianity has been declining in the UK for years.

    That’s certainly true. Though the number of young people becoming Catholic priests and nuns in England and Wales has been steadily increasing over the past decade. It’s an odd statistic given the prevailing climate.



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  • Aye , and if you become a catholic priest , you get far more illicit sex than the rest coz believing women drop their drawers faster because they think it makes them all the more desirable if a man who has pledged his life to god shags them!!!
    When I was young we went on a stag do in Dublin all dressed as priests – and our cover story was that we were on a last hurrah before taking our orders….we were beating them off with a shitty stick !!!



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  • You probably have a point but then it does not account for the hermits. More pertinently, neither does it gel with religious sects propensity to split. Has anyone calculated the number of different factions in Christianity alone?
    RC, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Coptic, and I’m not even going to attempt to list any of the protestants.

    It’s a paradox how an institution that its members define as a “uniting” force can be so divisive?



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  • 21
    Weverton says:

    It seems to me that there is a huge confusion between the person JESUS CHRIST from NAZARETH and the JESUS son of God. It is clear to me that he did exist and eh taught us a lot of moral lessons… besides that, including the creation of a CHRISTIANITY or his name, miracles, etc., you have to have faith on it. Obviously, He would be ashamed nowadays looking what we do on his behalf: violence, war, rape, kidnapping, etc… specific things that only the HUMAN BEING is used to do, since we were created a long time ago!



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  • You seem to conform to the meme that JC was a cool dude. If he ever was: he may have been, but consider the evidence on which you are basing your claim. All sycophantic spin doctors of subsequent generations. Imagine 2000 years on basing your assessment of Tony Blair on the writings of Alistair Campbell and his team and their descendents.

    The Christian Church cannot be judged on its self created image of the founder. It should only be judged on its tenets and its actions.
    As to JC returning and being appalled at the illiberality and misogyny of the modern world, well I very much doubt it. Imagine yourself Woody Allen like reawakened 2000 years hence, would you embrace that world or prefer your long dead one? My guess is that a latterday JC would be more like Billy Graham, Fallwell or other media monopolising layabouts than a holy innocent



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  • Alana Massey’s article resonated deeply with me. She cannot believe in God but feels the support and emotional nourishment of her Christian community working throughout her life to embed an abiding sense of fellowship, celebration, and altruistic morality. If you take on board the qualified points she makes, you will find no substantive disagreement with any comment on this thread. She’s talking about the persisting influence of ancestral community faith traditions. We may be New Atheists but our biological family and their peers mostly practiced Christianity (or Judaism).. She makes no excuse for the atrocities perpetrated by Christian institutions and believing accomplices, nor for the the inhumane fanaticism of evangelicals or Catholics peddling regressive hatred for gays or safe, legal, elective abortion. Though she must attribute the trait of “community” to all Christian congregations throughout history, however those communities may have acted for good or evil, I distilled a sense that her ideal would be a progressive modern protestant church welcoming gays, agnostics and non-believers even in opposition to official positions held by the ruling hierarchy.

    In my view, the crucial development to follow is the greying of mainline protestant congregations. A new Pew research poll shows a decline of self-identified Christians in the United States from 78% to 71%. Surprisingly the decline is about as great among Catholics and mainline protestant denominations with lesser declines (but decline nonetheless) among evangelicals. As the decades pass will both believers and cultural Christians die off? The current trend suggests that outcome will occur over time though religion will remain alive and well for several generations. Probably we will witness short bursts of revival as cohorts over 30 return to churches as they have children and seek “meaning,” moral values, and community for their families.



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  • The myth of JC without the magic is still a good one Whether you’re the most hardened atheist on the planet or the most devout there is no doubting the rightness of do unto others as you would be done by has a goal to live by. That’s one of many tenets that are good ethical messages.

    Whether he said any of that or whether it’s gleaned from other early ethical guides I don’t know. It’s possible that genuinely forward looking people (and for that time they were forward looking ideas) hung their ideas on a convenient preacher to get attention.

    Whether JC the human being matches up to his myth in real life we’ll never know. What we do seem to know is that in its earliest incarnations Christianity was a force for equality, especially of women and good. I would imagine that contributed to its early growth. But those days are long gone. To add to your Blair analogy that new labour judged against years of Thatcherism was better, early Christianity does appear to have been better than what preceded it.

    I would have thought any decent human being would be appalled at the illiberality and misogyny.

    Billy Graham, Fallwell and their ilk do fail miserably if you judge them against things like the difficulty of rich men getting into heaven. The most bizarre thing about US Christianity is how far it is from the JC original it’s supposed to worship.



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  • I’d also be interested in the type of belief of those left behind. I know in the UK we have Christianity lite and Catholicism lite. They wouldn’t survive trying to tell people what to do.

    The community aspect is underrated by critics of religion. There are points in your life where making friends is easy. School, college, university, ante natal classes, school/nursery playgrounds. When I count my friends that is where I’ve meg the bulk of them. Lots of new people in a similar position. However outside of those specific life events where do you actually find a community? Especially if you move.



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  • “early Christianity does appear to have been better than what preceded it.”

    I’m not so sure about that. It was a product of its age. St. John’s gospel is clearly the origin of antisemitism with its doctrine of “christ-killers”. Immediately on becoming the “State Religion” under Constantine it adopted oppressive anti-heretical measures.

    I would sincerely recommend everyone here to read Robin Lane Fox’s “Pagans & Christians” about the environment surrounding and created by the early church.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_8?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=pagans%20and%20christians%20robin%20lane%20fox&sprefix=pagans+a%2Caps%2C143



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  • The myth of JC without the magic is still a good one

    But not at all an original one. The Golden Rule is a pretty basic moral universal, espoused by many, some long before Jesus.

    And Jesus’ teachings come with some very deep flaws that undermine their value as a moral guide, in my opinion. For example, any teaching that suggests that a loving god would consign any of his creations to everlasting hell-fire (or even just to some of the arbitrary sufferings of this world), seems to stretch the definition of “loving” to breaking point. For that matter, as the late great Hitchens pointed out, any idea that there is a god with a Plan, makes us pawns in someone else’s game – a rather dubious moral principle, in my view.



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  • …and largely reasonable view of the world. I suspect it is the latter that is missable.

    If Christians have a reasonable view of the world, it is in spite of their faith, not because of it. What sets religious people apart from reasonable people is their religious beliefs. Almost by definition, those are the parts that don’t fit with the real and observable universe, and so are not “reasonable”.



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  • 31
    ldn_sw11 says:

    One of my interests and hobbies is Italian (Florentine) Renaissance Art, its meaning and history. I have a great collection of Thomas Tallis cds and go to see performances. I don’t see how being a “none” in any way reduces my ability to understand or enjoy Christian art and music. My particular specialist interest is depictions of The Annunciation and I can discuss them until the cows come home. So trust me, being a “none” cultural christian is very easy, it’s no different to people I know who similarly enjoy and study Greek and Norse mythologies.



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  • 35
    Fernando says:

    Besides the funny Monty Python’s “Life of Bryan”, I recommend Bertrand Russell’s “Why I’m not a Christian”. The book seems based on a talk Russell gave on March 6, 1927 at Battersea Town Hall, under the auspices of the South London Branch of the National Secular Society (data from Wikipedia). So long ago and we are still discussing on this boring and old-fashioned subject. Maybe in my country the issue is not so dramatic than in the USA, but…
    Anyway, you can find the text of the talk buy Russell at: http://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html

    Enjoy it



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  • Like you I love Tallis and Bach & Mozart, Haydn etc. all of whom composed sublime religious music. Sometimes the words spoil it a bit for me, but not being fluent in German that is seldom a problem. The Latin of the masses is comprehensible but formulaic and repetitive so hardly detracts from then enjoyment. The real problem is when it is sung in English. I first got to know Haydn’s “Creation” in the German version. Some years later I acquired an English version and there were a few “pass the bucket” moments. Thankfully the absolutely wonderful voice of Emma Kirkby over rode the childish drivel. Fortunately the “Messiah” generally takes the more benign biblical texts and though I wonder that any one would wish to make Hills and valleys uniformly level and the rough places plain, I forgive everything for the splendour of the music. And Tallis just has that ethereal utterly timeless feel that would not be diminished even if the words set were “bah bah black sheep”

    Just had to put the CD on “verily I say unto you” So beautiful it’s painful



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  • Some find secular life lacking in sufficient ethical frameworks and
    systems of accountability to reinforce them

    The Op is mostly harmless and is arguably more moral than most believers, but I weep when I see self identified Atheists, still arguing that we need the Church for Morality, Ethics, or Accountability.

    It doesn’t take that much inflection to realize our Ethics and Morality comes from Empathy, this is not an absolute as some are more flexible for a variety of reason on these than others, and depending on your experiences and environment your model of morality may vary. Though there’s strong scientific evidence explaining things like “mirror neurons”, the very construct that makes us cringe when we see someone get hurt.

    This also gives credence to things like “Good” and “Evil” which implies there’s an objective standard for both, and while colloquially we can for purposes of expedient conversation use these terms, we know for a fact that the abstracts of Good and Evil are purely subjective and have more do with the environment and experience than anything else.

    We’ve understood this since the time of Socrates through his Euthyphro Dilemma, Objective Morality shattered 400 years before Christianity.

    “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious
    because it is loved by the gods?”

    Multiple religions already attribute any moral act to their religion, even people that don’t share their faith, when they see someone else do something positive they’ll assume it’s their God working through someone else. We really don’t need to put that feather in their hat.



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  • I don’t want to take Christ out of Christianity or Allah out of Islam. It just shouldn’t be the basis for any decision making that affects any other individual. Practice your religion quietly in private, and let evidence be the decider in the public forum.



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  • 39
    gothgirl says:

    One can still sing in unison (join a choral group or get likeminded musical friends together) and wish your neighbors peace (say hello to people on your block and smile and greet people you pass as you walk on the streets) without being involved in religion. It’s amusing to me that people will use such lame ideas to justify something that does far more harm than it’s ever done any good. Do such people honestly think that all those “sign of peace” people are completely sincere? How many of them are shaking hands with the person next to them while criticizing their appearance or, if they know them, are thinking about their foibles? Just because people perform some sort or small gesture or engage in lip service does not mean it is anything more than that.



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  • 40
    gothgirl says:

    I don’t know if I’m an outlier, but I haven’t really lost any friends or family because I declared my atheism. My friends don’t seem to care (and most profess to believe in god or to be “spiritual”) and my family doesn’t have a problem (even though my mom, stepdad, and grandmother are very Catholic). My mother, however, does seem to think that as I get older, I’ll return to being Catholic – you know, that whole “if you get a serious illness, then you’ll reconsider” type thinking. I’ve always been the odd duck of the family so that might have something to do with it. Maybe they’re just used to me by now. I can see how this might be a problem for people in the South where religion is really tied up with identity. I can’t imagine how tough that might be for people to declare their atheism.



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  • Alice
    May 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    Not sure I agree.

    I did say “preached” not “doctrine”!

    I’ve found those who’ve been brought up in a religion rarely have a clue what it is they believe in.

    Many certainly have only the rosy spectacle images they have been told by parents and preachers.

    It’s just there as habit. They believe only because they’ve never had to think about it, it’s just there. It’s not absence of rational thought it’s absence of thought.

    That is the point I was making. There is no depth of understanding – just warm feelings within an exclusive community, and the superficial view that this offers a “superior” view of life to that held by the “outsiders” about who they know little or nothing but are assumed to be inferior.

    “The Bible” – they have been told and believe, contains “wonderful messages” – even if they have not read most of it and have no idea who wrote it or what it actually says!



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  • 42
    gothgirl says:

    Alice, I must respectfully disagree that “Christianity was a force for equality, especially of women”. Religion, by its nature is never in favor of equality. Throughout history, religion has allied itself with the ruling class because that’s how religion prospers – #1, from the monies received from the wealthy (i.e. indulgences, building churches etc.) and, #2, from conning people into believing that god put everyone in his or her place for a reason and that rebelling against that is rebelling against god and besides, the poor will be rewarded in heaven. As for the status of women, allegedly Jesus hung around with a great many women yet his spokesmen still treated women as dirt (Paul, Jerome, Augustine) and women were/are not seen as anything other than brood mares and unpaid servants in all religions, especially the Abrahamic. Here, in the US, the theocrats are still angry that women have the vote and are constantly trying to return women to the chattel status that was common when the US was founded. As a woman, I can tell you, I have never found any good directed towards women from any religion.



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  • All this completely unreasonable acceptance of such fables as God and Christ without any real observable evidence is due to two basic human behaviors: (1) fear of death and (2) conformity.

    Humans have evolved the capacity for purposeful behavior, that is the ability to plan future activities based on past experiences and results of previous actions. So, when it comes to death, it is natural that a person is fearful of an unknown future. What happens after death??? It is the fear of the unknown that makes us vulnerable to charismatic self styled dogmatists or fanatics when they seem to know how to assuage the fears of the hereafter (if you follow their directives). The fear of death drives many to listen to these self styled leaders so they can be free of this fear. Hence we have widespread belief in the fairy tales of “heaven” and “hell.”

    When a number of people believe in such fairy tales, others soon follow without question.This is conformity, a behavioral trait found in most social animals. Conformity has a high evolutionary selective value. One can observe conformity in many different species such as schools of fish, elephant herds, whale pods, baboon troops, and grasshopper swarms.When the young conform to behavior of the adults, they are more likely to survive and reproduce than those who do not conform. Thus, children of Christian parents become Christians and children of Muslim parents become Muslim.

    Conformity works well for humans when learning the use of tools, finding food, or avoiding predators. The down side of conforming is the ubiquity of religion. What causes some highly Intelligent people to believe in entities and stories that have absolutely NO validity in the observable natural universe?? It is fear of death and conformity.



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  • Do such people honestly think that all those “sign of peace” people are completely sincere? How many of them are shaking hands with the person next to them while criticizing their appearance or, if they know them, are thinking about their foibles?

    Are any of us completely sincere in our personal relationships?

    The thing to remember about the Sign of Peace is that the Peace is not that of those sharing the Sign but the Peace of Jesus himself. So while we may be fairly dodgy channels, the Peace itself is not.



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  • Some find secular life lacking in sufficient ethical frameworks and
    systems of accountability to reinforce them.

    If you feel this way, please do not have children because as a parent you wouldn’t know what they hell you were doing. Seriously, if you can’t raise kids to empathize, sympathize, relate to others and live healthy, fulfilling lives while doing everything possible to not stomp on other people without some god holding them accountable, then please, please do NOT reproduce yourself. Geesh, I hear this comment so many times I have to wonder if religious people make a habit of deliberately raising psychopaths who prevent themselves from lying, cheating and killing just because they fear going to hell.



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  • Ewan
    May 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    The thing to remember about the Sign of Peace is that the Peace is not that of those sharing the Sign but the Peace of Jesus himself. So while we may be fairly dodgy channels, the Peace itself is not.

    So the “peace” is some idealised imaginary peace? – Nothing to do with the actions or commitments of real people?



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  • So the “peace” is some idealised imaginary peace? – Nothing to do with the actions or commitments of real people?

    The Sign of Peace is an expression of communion between the faithful. It leaves some people discomfited but I think the physicality of the handshake is important. (For some, it’s the only human touch they will have from one week to the next.) And there’s nothing idealised or imaginary about the peace entreated for you by a fellow human being.



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  • Alan4: Ewan makes a valid observation here, once you back out the theology: “The Sign of Peace is an expression of communion between the faithful.” The church service can be a communal setting where people commit to the ethic of peace, goodwill and empathy for their fellow human beings. There is nothing “supernatural” about it, but psychologically people are motivated to put aside their resentments, judgements and grievances for the moment and appreciate common humanity.

    My own view is that Christianity like other religions will burn themselves out because of the absurdity of their theologies and confessions of faith in fabricated supernatural entities and narratives which the modern educated mind finds silly, provincial, divisive and above all disconnected from any evidenced-based experience which could appeal to universal consensus. I suspect many people who shakes hands or hug during “the sign of peace” moment in the pews are already doing so for largely secular reasons, trying to connect with other people in empathy –not in faith in Jesus, Yahweh or Allah.



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  • My cultural heritage goes back through the Enlightenment then splits intellectually back through the flowering of the Renaisance and its human face of Montaigne, Cervantes and Shakespeare to its classical seed from the Islamic Golden Age and Ibn Rushd and Omar Khayyam and back into Classical Greece and splits civically back to classical Roman culture.

    The Christian heritage, as soon as it went beyond vicars and cucumber sandwiches and the village fete was just weird and a great backdrop for horror movies.



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