The Frontal Cortex

The Humanist Jesus

I spent a year studying theology at Oxford. I focused on the relationship between religion and science (lots of Galileo and Darwin and William James), but couldn’t help learning a lot about the Bible along the way. I went in pretty unimpressed by Jesus (I’m a Jew who doesn’t believe in God), but left the program convinced that Bush is essentially right*: Jesus is a fantastic philosopher, like Buddha if the Buddha had been influenced by Neo-Platonism. (In other words, worldly wealth is vanity and the secret to life is compassion.)

So I tend to ignore those atheist voices who bemoan the obvious flaws with religion, especially at the extremes, while neglecting the essential wisdom contained within our religious texts. This eloquent letter to Andrew Sullivan pretty much captured my feelings on the subject:

I would describe my own embrace of science and secular humanism as being motivated by a form of faith that is deeper than Christian faith. I believe that if Jesus lived today, he would be a secular humanist and would reject Christianity, just as he “rejected” Judaism and inspired Christianity. Christianity was once the vehicle for the boldest and most honest thinking about reality, the brotherhood of man, and the human condition. I think in light of the advances in science and our exposure to other religious traditions, it is time again to humanize further our understanding of “God” (or the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty) and come to a more universal understanding of religion.

I feel that I have lost nothing by rejecting the doctrines of Christianity. Rather, I have rediscovered what it means to have true faith and true understanding by embracing humanism and science. Humanism then does not reject Christianity, it completes it. Paul was wrong. Our faith is not foolish if Jesus is not literally and physically risen from the dead. We know our faith is true, because we know that death has not defeated him. As a humanist, I do not discard the rich legacy and richness of the Christian tradition, rather I claim to be the true heir to the Christian patrimony. Christians embrace a shallower version of Jesus. I know this because I continue to be transformed by Jesus’s love and he continues to inspire my humanist faith – faith that there is yet some good in this earth, that we can all be redeemed by love, and that we should all choose life and should try to live it fully in a spirit of peace and brotherhood with all mankind. It makes no difference to me whether Jesus was born of virgin or rose bodily from his grave after three days. These are signs that the wicked demand because they do not have the heart to see the divine in Jesus and in all of us without such signs. Blessed are those who follow Jesus not having seen and without any need for signs and wonders.

Read the whole thing, and then come back here and discuss. I’m pretty convinced that you can replace “Jesus” with “Yahweh,” “Allah,” “Buddha,” etc. and end up with a similar idea. Certainly, such a secular religiosity requires selective interpretation. I don’t endorse stoning adulterers, or banishing homosexuals. I also like bacon and lobster. But all things considered, I believe that our religious texts are essential historical documents that can teach us much about how to live the good life.

In a related vein, one of my favorite science books from last year was The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt. He basically reinterprets the wisdom of various religious and ancient philosophical texts in terms of modern psychology and neuroscience. Turns out that the Buddha, the Stoics and Jesus were pretty accurate armchair psychologists.

*I should note that, unlike Bush, Jesus isn’t my favorite philosopher.


  1. #1 Steve Silberman
    February 21, 2007

    Nice post, Jonah.

    Speaking of Buddha, you might be interested in a book I’m reading called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, which is about Buddhist practice in light of neuroplasticity. The writing is not exquisite, though it’s serviceable — it’s a “popular science” book, not as self-helpy as the title sounds — but it contains a fascinating capsule history of the discoveries that led up to the knowledge that adult brains are capable of rezoning and neurogenesis. I’m about a third of the way through it.

    Since I know that you’re as fascinated by the subject of neuroplasticity as I am, if you’ve run across any other books or papers that examine the intersection of neuroplasticity and spiritual practice, I’d love to hear about them.

  2. #2 Mark
    February 21, 2007

    “I believe that if Jesus lived today, he … would reject Christianity …”

    Of course Jesus would reject modern christianity. Jesus was a Jew. Christianity is a mostly Greco-Roman, polytheistic religion that pays lip service to Judaism but rejects its central thesis: the lord our god, the lord is one.

    The letter errs in saying that Jesus rejected Judaism. He rejected the Jewish religious hierarchy, the establishment of his day. He accepted the meat of Judaism, that one should love god and love one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self.

    Jesus struggled against the religious establishment of his day, and he failed. He was recruited by his followers and some who came later and today serves the religious establishment of modern christianity. I think if Jesus were alive today he would not just reject christianity, he would be be appalled by it.

  3. #3 quitter
    February 21, 2007

    I think your version of atheist problems with religion is a bit of a straw man. I’ve never heard an atheist say, “Jesus’ ideas were flawed and he was wrong about happiness and love.” I’ve heard them challenge whether or not he was divine, or even if there is very good evidence that he really existed, or his miracles.

    Yeah, Jesus says some pretty good things on sermon on the mount, except that whole eye-plucking and sinning in your heart crap. He was also totally wrong on divorce. I don’t think atheists are his central message though. When atheists criticize religion it’s precisely because the Christians are picking and choosing other parts of scripture (Isaiah and Leviticus for instance) and ignoring the central messages of these texts. They object to killing in the name of a guy who said “blessed are the peacemakers” (or was that cheese-makers?).

    Besides, Jesus’ actual words are just a tiny portion of scripture. The rest of the racist, genocidal, and homophobic mess still has to be answered for, and the fundamental immorality that is often promoted with complete scriptural justification is the source of most the atheists’ ire. You can use the bible to justify anything. It is actually pretty poor, taken as a whole, as a guide to morality or human goodness. Jesus on his own? Not so bad. The rest of scripture is like a ball-and-chain attached to his ankles.

    So to sum up, atheists aren’t ignoring the so-called “central wisdom” of these texts. I’ve never heard one bemoan the messages of peace and love. They’re pissed precisely because Christians are ignoring the central wisdom of the texts (which fits because most atheists tend to have better scriptural knowledge and understanding than most passive Christians). Your guy here is dead on when he calls modern Christianity a “shallower version.” That is the atheist complaint.

  4. #4 quitter
    February 21, 2007

    That should read “I don’t think atheists are doubting his central message…

  5. #5 Roy
    February 21, 2007

    If Jesus had existed, and was anything like the biblical character, and could zip through time to the present, then he would have a hell of a problem with ‘Christianity’. There are so many versions, all of which cannot be right. And none of them preaches what the biblical character preached — especially the part of rejecting all things and following him, literally, which meant becoming beggars.

    So, what would happen? Christians would kill him.

  6. #6 tharding
    February 21, 2007

    Actually, I don’t know what the central mesage of Jesus was. We have four authors (five if you include Thomas) who wrote about Jesus’ life and included supposed quotes. Even the earliest of these (Mark) was written after the destruction of Jerusalem temple some forty years after Jesus died. It is nearly certain that not one of them ever met Jesus. Each came from a community of believers which had its own ideas about Jesus’ message. Each has its own take on what Jesus said and each contradicts the others. Paul, who very clearly never met or heard Jesus preach but was the earliest intreperter of Jesus’ message, generally disagrees with all of the gospels. When the Jesus Seminar tried to determine what Jesus actually said, they were forced to vote on each quote.

    Jesus’s central message is like an ink blot, we each see what we want to see

  7. #7 Jonah
    February 21, 2007

    These are all wonderful comments. Thank you very much. Quitter: My point was that I wish angry atheists would, in addition to criticizing religious notions of the divine and miraculous and evolutionary, take a little time to note what parts of religion are also worthwhile and important. Perhaps then we could foster a little more dialogue and little less anger.

    As for tharding: I completely agree. Reading the New Testament is like watching Rashomon. The text deliberately contradicts itself, offering a multiplicity of perspectives on who Jesus was and what he believed. This same internal contradiction is also visible in the Old Testament. (eg, God made humans in his image, and out of dust.) I’ve always felt that this is one of supreme virtues of our Judeo-Christian religious texts. They seem to deliberately undermine any literal reading, since there is no single literal interpretation. That’s why I’m always so dismayed by the sheer abundance of people who insist that they know exactly what Jesus stood for. Luke, Mark, Matthew, John, Paul, etc. couldn’t even agree on what Jesus stood for. This is why it’s so important to focus on the general themes and metaphors of the bible, and not the contradictory specifics.

  8. #8 tharding
    February 21, 2007

    I have trouble with your notion that the contradictions are intentional and intended to challenge us. In some cases, like Luke trying to correct what he saw as errors in Mark, they are certainly intentional. The bible unquestionably has plenty of those efforts to fix earlier works, but it is more often clear that one author simply never saw the text he contradicted. Each piece of the bible was written by its own author for his (perhaps her, in a couple of cases) own audience. The editors/redactors that assembled the pieces had to work with what they had. They could add a few small pieces, like the endings of John and Mark and they could drop a few pieces, but they were limited because they were dealing with works that were already known in their entirety.

    The contradictions tell us a great deal about the authors and about the history of the bible itself. I don’t see them as being philosophical contributions to the book itself.

  9. #9 Jonah
    February 21, 2007

    Good point. Certainly, some of the contradictions within the Gospels were accidental. I’m pretty sure that most of the gospel authors were convinced that they were giving us the authentic version of things. But I’d quibble with your point that the editors had to work with what they had. Given the large amount of apocrypha and gnostic texts that were omitted from the “official” bible, I tend to believe that the editors had a large amount of editorial discretion. It would have been rather easy to make a few minor changes to the various gospels in order to make them less contradictory and more continuous. I believe they left the variety of viewpoints in because it is the textual variety that make the new testament such compelling reading. It would be rather boring and tedious to get the exact same narrative four times in a row.

  10. #10 The Science Pundit
    February 21, 2007

    I think the contradictions were left in because the compilers of the “official” bible didn’t have much of a choice. They were trying to unite disparate sects (Pauline, Johnanine, Luke, Matthew, Revelations, etc.) of Christanity into one “true” Church. They couldn’t very well tell Matthewites that “we’re all part of the same true Church, but your holy scripture needs to be modified to mesh better with Luke.” That’s my take at least.

    Also, the claim that most atheists make is that the morals and virtues found in the scriptures derive from sociological and psychological roots and predate the religious texts. They (we) take issue with religions claiming that these virtues originate from God and hence are in the domain of religion.

  11. #11 tharding
    February 21, 2007

    Sorry, Jonah, I said that badly. I was referring to the deletions and additions within a book rather than the editor’s choice of which whole books to leave out.

    The Science Pundit seems to see this pretty much the same way I do. The bible itself was never written to be a single book with an overarching moral and philosophical theme but rather reflects the views of its different writers. At times in the bible’s development, there wasn’t even much of a common religion between the writers; look at the P and J in the Torah. The common themes are more a result of common humanity. You can find much the same themes and morals in any ancient religious text.

  12. #12 quitter
    February 21, 2007

    Jonah is being to kind to that damn book.

    Yes there is a good central core, to those who care to see it and use it. But it also represents an infernal document of torture, slavery, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Taken as a whole the world is better without it.

    Yes it would be wonderful if the religious would just focus on the good parts of what their supposed savior said. They don’t, never have and probably never will. Instead they insist on biblical literalism (the antithesis of the way you read it by the way) and focus on all the parts of the bible which represent human prejudice, greed and evil.

    As a moral guide it is very, very poor. And, in a way, your selectivity of listening to the “good” message is just another relative viewpoint, equally justifiable by the scripture as the hate spewed by Fred Phelps (Jesus did after all say he didn’t come to undermine the scripture but with a sword to enforce it). Maybe you should laud the Jefferson bible instead? It at least had a competent editor.

  13. #13 Mary Jones
    February 21, 2007

    I really don’t get your argument at all. First of all, I think most athiests have no problem with taking the good teachings out of any religion. It is the superstitious and intolerant parts that are problematic. Secondly, I think you are cherry-picking Jesus, which is fine, as long as you admit that is what you are doing. How about all the parts about “believe in me and get to God or burn in hell for eternity” and other parts that promote intolerance and violence. Thirdly, I don’t know where you got your ideas about the Buddha. He did not champion material wealth, he was all about ending attachment to the material world and having compassion for all living things. The Buddha’s teachings(there a 12 volumes of teachings in Theravada Buddhism alone), are vastly superiour in many ways. They are way ahead of their time in many respects, and without the violence, contradictions, dogma and superstitious nonsense of Christ.(Though Buddhism has diluted and distorted his teachings.) The Buddha said that he was not a God, just a person who had realized the true nature of reality. He also said not to believe anything he said without investigating it and thinking it through for yourself. On the other hand, it is doubtful that Jesus of Nazareth was evern a real person. Most likely he was a myth propagated by people with various agendas. The Buddha was a real person. And there were other Buddhas before and after him.

  14. #14 MattXIV
    February 21, 2007

    There are severe problems with trying to read a secular moral philsophy from (or more accurately into) Christianity. Most of the justifications for its moral prohibitions are not that the actual behavior itself is bad, but that the behavior is the province of God. You shouldn’t judge or harm, but God is sure going to and the results aren’t going to be pretty if you don’t submit to His will. You can’t remove the idea of submission to divine will from Christianity – it isn’t just some tacked on anachronistic prohibition, it is a, if not the, core tenet of Jesus’s teachings and is reiterated consistently in them. It’s the main theme of the sermon on the mount, which says little more than suffer the status quo to prove your loyalty to God. Christian moral teaching’s emphasis on submission to the divine combines gnostic contempt for the material with an enthusiastic embrace of “slave morality” (to use Nietzsche’s term). In order to excise anti-humanism from Christianity, you need do nothing short of remove the Christ and strip it down to a cherry-picked series of pleasant aphorisms. It’d be easier to edit Ayn Rand into a collectivist than Jesus into a humanist.

    I’m not generally this harsh in my criticism of Christianity, but I feel I need to make a point here that that the last thing Christianity’s apologists want to do is subject it to the same standards as secular moral philosophy. If you want to get value out of Christianity from a humanist perspective, treat it as you would other classical mythology. It sometimes eloquently deals with moral issues, but to derive a moral philosophy from it is folly.

  15. #15 DavidD
    February 22, 2007

    I wasn’t quite as enthusiatic about embracing science and secular humanism at age 30 as Andrew Sullivan’s letter writer, but that’s where I was then. Then with various setbacks in my life I was motivated to explore other things. By 40 I was a liberal Christian who sometimes sat down and decided on a particular course of action based on that shorthand for Christian morality many liberals like, “Love God, love neighbors, love enemies”. Eventually I came to re-evaluate all those words. What is love anyway? If I devote my life to end strife, should I cause strife by challenging others about their complacency or is it done differently? In devoting my life to end poverty, should I work with the needy as I do, knowing it makes little difference, or is there something more powerful for me to do? On specific questions like this all the world’s religions are impotent.

    Whether one’s desire is for a life like the above or for an ordinary materialistic life supplemented by good relationships and existential joy, any religion is about as helpful or not if you look at groups of people, yet for some of us our particular religion provides some help that no other religion would. Some say that’s because all religions are true. I would look at the other side of that and say all religions are false to some degree, including atheism. People argue about them, but what do you get? I love to detail all the experiences and thinking that led me from where I was at 30, but it’s not what’s key. If I’m 90% wrong or 10% wrong, I’m still going the way I’m going. For anyone who’s written here, if he or she is 90% wrong or 10% wrong in his or her assertions, everyone is still going to be going their own way.

    It does make a difference where biological evolution and cultural evolution starts any of us. I’m sure the biology of empathy matters if someone wants to helps people. The subculture of evangelical Christianity certainly matters to someone who only knows people who believe the Bible alone is true. Knowing the culture of science well matters. Yet beyond those influences people still get to decide to go off in some direction or stay put, to embrace discontent or contentment. So everyone follows their individual course.

    I think academic research will provide more information about what the best way to live is over the next hundred years than individual explorations, but I don’t have that research today. I just have what is known empirically today, plus a whole lot of subjective experiences of other people from the past and present, and my own intuition about what I need. And that makes me follow God the way I do, even though the way I do pisses off a whole lot of people for not valuing their way enough to follow that way. Both atheists and fundamentalists talk to me with contempt. If I get on just the right issue, even my fellow liberals talk to me with contempt. Yet there is no other way than to follow one’s own conscience. That’s what everyone writing here is doing, even if they claim to have good reasons for that as well. Not everyone here is right in what they say. Yet everyone will go they’re own way. It’s the nature of beliefs.

    My fellow liberals try to make that easy saying that it’s all the same, that all ways are true. Conservatives say that those making a mistake will wish they hadn’t, even if they don’t think that could possibly apply to them. It doesn’t matter who’s right. We have no other way to go but our own, whether that’s one way for a lifetime like some people or a way of twists and turns like mine. That has frightened me, enough to talk with God about it, enough to reach some contentment about it. I know it doesn’t frighten everyone. That’s the way it is. Everyone gets their own beliefs.

  16. #16 Jonah
    February 22, 2007

    First of all, I wish you’d start your own blog so I could read it. Your comments are always so incisive and intelligent. Thanks.

    My only response is that I don’t think any single text, or philosopher, or school has all the moral answers. (And that includes, of course, neuroscience and neuroethics and evolutionary psychology.) Jesus didn’t solve all our moral problems, and neither did the Buddha. So I always cherry pick wisdom from my personal favorites. I subscribe to the eloquent parts, and ignore the commandments to worship the divine. It’s all very ad hoc and inconsistent, and that’s fine with me. I get suspicious of anybody who pretends that any branch of knowledge or ancient text or school of philosophy has “solved” morality.

  17. #17 jeremy
    May 20, 2007

    *I should note that, unlike Bush, Jesus isn’t my favorite philosopher.

    So… Bush is your favorite philosopher, huh?

  18. #18 tapas ghosh
    January 5, 2008

    I am doing my research on humanism and universalism of Jesus in India under Senate of Serampore College. i feel it very good site, and rightly helpfull for me.

    My request to you, could you help me in your possible way? I would grate to you for that.

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    Tapas Ghosh
    Kolkata India

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