Fundamentalists Don’t Become Mythicists

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by Neil Godfrey

Not as a rule. Look at the Who’s Who Page in the right-hand column here and you will see that only a minority of mythicist authors or sympathizers come from a fundamentalist background.

If you want to put fundamentalist Christians on some sort of ideological continuum then their polar opposite would be liberal Christian.

In a misinformed effort to tarnish the very idea that Jesus might not have existed some “historicists” have attempted to suggest that “mythicism” has been found an attractive refuge from disillusionment with extremist “fundamentalist” forms of Christianity. Maurice Casey dwelt heavily upon that misinformed assertion in his book Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths? Others have followed in his wake assuming he knew what he was talking about.

I myself have been placed in that category: the fundamentalist who reacted against his fanaticism by going to the “opposite” extreme of atheism and even mythicism. The latest instance is in Christopher Hansen’s book available in draft form on academia.edu: THE QUEST OF THE MYTHICAL JESUS: A History of Jesus Skepticism, ca. 1574 to the Present. There Hansen writes:

The website Vridar hosts a very useful table (though rather outdated now) of Jesus Skeptics and their backgrounds in the church. Of these, Robert M. Price, Raphael Lataster, Frank Zindler, Charles O. Wilson, Valerie Tarico, John Loftus (who is releasing a volume on the varieties of Jesus Mythicism), Hector Avalos, Neil Godfrey, and Tim Widowfield come from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds, and since then many of these figures are now active in atheist communities arguing against Christianity.

That characterization is not uncommon yet it presents a common bias. It conveys the image of a reaction from extreme to extreme. A more complete picture would point out that several of the names in the same list are sympathetic or in some way positive towards Christianity and are in no way attempting to “argue against” or undermine people’s faith. More, it would point out that other names in that same list had other experiences of Christianity apart from the fundamentalist one, thus raising the question of whether they stepped from some other religious outlook to mythicism.

A little bio will hopefully go a little way to countering the misguided image presented by those who too facilely link mythicism and atheism with disillusionment with the fundamentalist experience. So here goes.

I grew up in a Methodist household, but one that considered itself “liberal”. We were not like those “horribly strict” Methodist who forbade dancing. We were allowed to dance and play cards and some of us even drank a little alcohol. The reason I moved away and joined a quite strict “cult” was idealism: I wanted to be “perfect”, practising the original ideals taught by Jesus. (It was more complex than that — as I have described before — but I am speaking at the ideological level.) I eventually learned that the cult I had joined was not the ideal I had believed in and still believed in. That realization causes one to leave the cult but it does not cause one to drop all of one’s ideals.

Get to know some fundamentalists. You will find in their conversation that their primary focus on any sort of opposition will be the “liberal Christians”. Atheists don’t even register on their radars, not seriously.

So where did I turn? I first looked for another church as close as possible to those ideals I still cherished. I am not alone. Look at how many ex-cult or ex-fundamentalists simply migrate to other cults or fundamentalist organizations of some kind. The cult I had joined eventually (after the death of its founder) broke up into dozens of other sects each taking their share of the members of the original outfit.

To cut a long story short, I eventually realized that the mainstream “liberal” church-type that I had originally left was the best place to find fellowship, after all. Sure, those churches had their sinners, but I suppose I had matured somewhat in my own “idealism” and was now more realistic in my expectations of others. I returned to a “liberal” set of churches. I was resistant towards any that were “fundamentalist” in the sense of being judgmental over any behaviour. I came back to where I started!

So what led to atheism? and then being open to the possibility of mythicism?

My experience in the cult had taught me how easy it was for me to be wrong. So on my way out of that organization I learned to question everything. Everything. And I kept on questioning. I cannot forget how emphatic I was telling the minister of a mainstream church I was associating with that though I had learned that so much of what I had believed in the cult was wrong, there was one thing I knew was never wrong: I would never doubt or question the truth of God and the Bible!

But over time, questions sometimes rekindled, and I did even come to question the truth of the Bible first, then God. I must have been listening to an ABC Radio National interview with a psychologist or ex-Moonie or whatever and questions would return. I had learned just how wrong I could be but it took me some time before I could accept that that included being wrong about even the Bible and God! I saw how many others would question their beliefs but only up to a point and then they would question no more. I took the bull by the horns and eventually questioned God and the Bible — and that threw me. For days I was living in a surreal world, unable to register what was up or down. I felt like I was tumbling through space, not knowing when or if ever I would land and how painful that moment would be, if it ever came. When I did land, I found myself in a new world — like Adam in a new creation but without God to guide me. What was life all about? To answer, I looked at life – from the lizards in my garden to the flowers and plants there too. I picked up books by anthropologists that introduced me to the vast range of human experience.

So I became an atheist. But I cannot for the life of me agree with anyone who tries to suggest I became an atheist as some sort of irrational knee-jerk reaction against “fundamentalism”. What led me to atheism was the realization of just how fallible my mind was, how wrong I could be — and a slowly and seriously painfully acquired effort to examine everything as honestly as I could from that moment on. I refused to accept any “Stop Signs” along the way. Some would stop at the point where they would question God. I said, No. I can question everything — even the Bible, and God. I know many readers here can relate to that experience.

Doubting Jesus was an entirely different matter. Once having prayed to God, “God, if you send me to hell for being as honest as I can be with the evidence I have, then I will not respect you and will prefer to be in hell than with you!” (that was my last prayer to God, by the way), whether or not Jesus existed was a totally pointless question. I presumed he did. But so what? Jesus was even presented as a Che Guevara type when it was useful. Indeed, when I first heard anyone questioning the historicity of Jesus (that was Earl Doherty in my experience) I was immediately suspicious. Sure, sure — another weirdo like those who doubt moon landings, I thought. As the questions raised by Doherty became more pressing, I panicked. Jesus, I feared, I had no intention of being suckered into another set of false beliefs as I was with the cult! So it took me quite some time before I admitted that the questions Doherty raised were serious ones. And I did one hell of a lot of consulting and cross-referencing all cited and other sources. I was not going to make the same mistake I made with joining the cult.

It was not a fundamentalist who became a mythicist sympathizer. It was an atheist who had moved on from liberal Christianity — and whose past fundamentalism had made him painfully aware of just how wrong he could be — and who became open to doubting the historical existence of Jesus, or the relevance of that existence to Christian origins.

And so here I am now. I don’t argue against the existence of Jesus. I argue that the normative methods of historical research do not allow for any prima facie acceptance of a historical Jesus. The historicity of Jesus is not a question. The real historical question is: How did Christianity begin and grow? We don’t have any sources to allow us to research the “historical existence” of Jesus or some other key figures in the literary record. There may have been a historical Jesus, but that hypothesis needs to be demonstrated and shown its relevance to the question of the origins of Christianity. Nor will you see on this blog “attacks” on Christianity. Hopefully, though, you will see explanations for Christianity and religion per se, along with alerts to the dangers of certain forms of Christianity. But even when it comes to fundamentalist Christianity you will see posts that seek to encourage those who have been through the experience to take away positives from it, not only negatives.

So when I read yet another boring and mindless assertion that “ex-fundamentalists” have become ethicists I think, What a load of crock. This author has no idea what he or she is talking about. They are clearly enmeshed in the ideological bias of a certain academy that, especially under its post-World War 2 American dominance, has never learned its methodological flaws and has been coopted by its ignorant ad hominem responses to those who are open to serious questions about its foundations.





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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Fundamentalists Don’t Become Mythicists”

  1. “And so here I am now. I don’t argue against the existence of Jesus. I argue that the normative methods of historical research do not allow for any prima facie acceptance of a historical Jesus. The historicity of Jesus is not a question. The real historical question is: How did Christianity begin and grow? We don’t have any sources to allow us to research the “historical existence” of Jesus or some other key figures in the literary record. There may have been a historical Jesus, but that hypothesis needs to be demonstrated and shown its relevance to the question of the origins of Christianity.”

    Exactly! Though that is not my only question.

  2. Jesus was a Jew. He had nothing to do with Christianity. So there is no relevance between the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. They are separate ideas.

    Paul invented Christianity based upon his creation of a mythical Jesus. Paul’s theology of Christianity took hold and spread.

    Christianity grew quickly for two basic reasons: a). the Christian god was not capricious like pagan gods. If you had faith in the Christian god you were assured of your reward in heaven. B). Christianity offered social security to its followers; unlike pagan religions or any particular government, Christians took care of each other, they offered a sense of a supportive community to their members. During any natural or personal or political disaster, Christians could count on one another for support.

    In antiquity, a reliable god and a supportive community of fellow believers would have been huge assets in a religion, more so than the willfulness of pagan gods.

  3. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. No wonder fundamentalists don’t become mythicists. I sometimes ask myself which was scarier : to commit my life to Christ at 19 in fear and trembling, go down into the waters of baptism, ask the Holy Spirit to come into my heart, beleive that my sins had been washed away, turn away from my promiscuous addictive lifestyle given over to the lusts of the flesh, confront my atheist parents and tell them I’d given my life to God, ; or, to deal with failure to maintain my Christian life, cope with serious depression, suicidal thoughts, question the reality of my faith, seek psychiatric help, dare to ask whether God alone was adequate to heal me and risk being cast into the lake of eternal fire. ‘Good thing this story has a happy ending at 65 (if it ended now). I’m a liberal mythicist.

  4. I could call myself a ‘mythicist’ but I not an atheist. Never was one and never will. I was raised in mainline churches, Lutheran and Methodist. I had some dealings with evangelicals, baptists and pentecoastals but never embraced their doctrine. In fact, we used to make fun of them by calling them ‘fundies.’ I am not a ‘liberal’ either as I am not keen on the ordination of women and gays by these mainline churches now days. I don’t think there was a historical existence of a personage known as Jesus as stated in the NT. (and I emphasize ‘historical’). Does that make me a mythicist? Does mythicist have to be an atheist? Because I know there is Universal and one does not need the ‘historical’ Jesus to know that higher power exists. Now, I could call myself a ‘docetist’ if that distinguishes me from being an atheist.

    1. Thomas Brodie remains a Christian even though a mythicist. Others like Tom Harpur, I think, believe in God and are in some ways positive towards Christianity and remain theists.

      I see no reason to link atheism and mythicism. Mythicism is simply a conclusion one draws from historical evidence. Atheism or theism should be irrelevant.

      1. Also Dr. Hermann Detering had never abandoned Christianity.

        His early withdrawal from his office as a Lutheran reverend was due to terminal (as we now know) illness,
        not because of his controversial statements.

  5. I believe ‘What a load of crock …” is a mixed metaphor. One could say “What a load of bullpucky!” or what crock of bullstuff!” but a load of crock makes little sense.

    What eventually got me running screaming from the church was the absolute absurdity of what I was expected to believe. It was almost as if they were saying ‘Well, if you believed that, then you have to believe this, too … without end.’ What a crock of bullstuff!

    I guess my expectations got lowered by people who kept insisting that Jesus was the son of God and was God, too. Heck, I get flummoxed by the idea of married bachelors, so that was impossible to swallow.

  6. There had been some interview on radikalkritik.de around 2010;
    and I have tried to find it again;
    but (like many other old posts) it is no longer available.
    It was just one of many points in that interview, after all.

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