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Yesterday was “Good Friday,” and this time around I was struck with how Orwellian that sounds to someone on the outside of the Christian faith looking in.

Strictly speaking, there never has been only one faith by that name, although when the weather is fair they do play nice enough to get along. But despite their many squabbles, they all seem to agree that this Friday is good, and they do so because they all believe that on this day God had his own firstborn son killed in order to mitigate his own anger toward the rest of humanity.

Good for Whom?

Growing up, I was taught to celebrate moral paradoxes like this because my entire faith was predicated upon logical inconsistencies. It’s pretty f**ed up for a father to sacrifice his own child in the first place, but then to teach everyone to call it good? Ew. Good for whom?

Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker

From God’s perspective, it is good because he’s no longer angry. From humanity’s perspective it’s good because someone finally took away their guilt and shame. What they don’t tell you up front is that guilt and shame are both renewable resources, but they’ll get around to that later. First you have to start with accepting the torture and execution of a man whose only apparent crime was being too perfect.

Of course, there was also that bit where he lost his sh** in a marketplace and damaged or destroyed thousands of denarii in Temple merchandise. As I recall, the decision to arrest him was made immediately after that. People have been blaming the Jewish faith for Jesus’s death for centuries, but it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see what really happened here. This wasn’t about committing blasphemy or breaking Sabbath rules. Jesus pissed off the 1%, the people who stood to lose the most from a rabble-rousing preacher throwing the marketplace into turmoil. That’s the fastest way to be shown the exit.

A Deleted Scene

They also call this Friday good because, according to the story, Jesus came back from the dead and appeared to his followers several times. How many followers is hard to say, since most of the stories have him showing up behind closed doors, appearing only to his inner circle of disciples. Decades later, there was this one guy who said that nearly 500 people once saw the risen Jesus, except that guy wasn’t one of them because he wasn’t from there, nor did he name any of them, so that doesn’t really help us anyway.

All four gospels agree that people were skeptical about Jesus coming back from the dead, but one of them preserved an earlier legend that didn’t make it into the rest of them for reasons that should be pretty obvious. Matthew’s gospel tells of an earlier mass resurrection on Friday night with scores of dead people later roaming the streets of Jerusalem, hanging out with the locals and shooting the breeze.

Related: “The Greatest Story Never Told

It doesn’t make a lot of sense for people to be skeptical of Jesus’s resurrection on Sunday morning if the whole city witnessed a flash mob performing Thriller around the same time. Poor Doubting Thomas would had to have just awakened from a week-long coma to need convincing that one more guy came back. This probably explains why only Matthew’s gospel retains that deleted scene.

People get past these details because the Christian faith is protected by a fortress of rationalizations and justifications that has been built up around it over these last two millennia. It also endures because it meets enough of the deepest needs of its members to be celebrated and passed along to the next generation. Like a nepotism of the mind, religious beliefs get privileged treatment not because they have proved their worth, but because they are too central to a family’s or a community’s identity to be rejected without suffering consequences.

Religion Works

Humans are an insecure, self-doubting species. We are very easy to manipulate, and religion continues to thrive because it keeps evolving to give us what we want. Do you feel guilt for mistakes you’ve made? Have they got good news for you! Do you feel lonely, insecure, uncertain about what the future holds? Well, guess what? They’ve got something for that, too! Do you want your life to have purpose and meaning? Boom! Done. They’ll even provide activities for your kids and help mark the important milestones of their lives and yours.

I get so frustrated with how many atheists don’t get this. I know so many people who are convinced that if you could only rid the world of religion, the world would be a much better place. What they don’t get is that more of them will always spring up no matter how many gods you kill because we just keep making more. Sometimes they’ll drop the religious language and dress up as political ideologies, but as we’ve seen over the last few years, those can be just as good at radicalizing zealous young people as anything else (see the alt-right, Q-Anon, Trumpism, etc).

These belief systems are created by us because most people seem to need them. They take shape around our emotional and psychological needs the way a glove is fashioned around a hand. That explains why Jesus is always exactly what you need, no matter what it is. Need a counselor? You got it! A disciplinarian? He can be that, too. Even if you’re a straight dude, Jesus is still somehow your lover, and at some point you’re going to be made to sing about it. Whatever your need is, he can become your solution if you believe hard enough because that’s how placebos work.

When people lose their religion, many of them end up finding something else to obsess over, whether it’s food, exercise, an involved hobby, or a cause. They may have to cobble together multiple subjects of interest to match the comprehensive nature of the faith in which they grew up, but they’re likely going to keep looking for things to do for them what their religion used to do.

Looking for a New Drug

Can atheism per se meet all the emotional needs of humans? LOL, no. It’s not really a comprehensive ideology, it’s merely a statement of disbelief in something. It doesn’t provide a unifying view of politics or relationships, and it doesn’t provide purpose or meaning to life. You cannot form a sustainable community around disbelieving in gods nor can you coalesce a cohesive voting bloc around it because it’s only an answer to one single question.

But people will keep looking. Humans need ways to connect around ideas, beliefs, and even rituals to help reinforce who they are and who they want to become. Do we have that to offer them outside of the church? I don’t think we do, and that’s going to remain a problem for skeptics, something that’s not good at all.

I strongly suspect that Trumpism will flush out large numbers of fence-sitters who can no longer stomach the political polarization nor the hypocrisy of religious leaders taking the church further and further away from anything remotely resembling the teaching of Jesus. But what will they find when they get out here? A whole lot of people fighting with each other about what matters and what doesn’t, and about how we should conduct ourselves if there really aren’t invisible overlords keeping score. Some of the people out here are just plain mean, and they don’t sugar coat their hate the way we were taught to in church. Out here, the humanity is more raw.

As a species, we still have a lot of work to do in order to come up with something that better suits our needs than religion. Perhaps another way of putting it is that unless we create ways of thinking and living that meet the same needs our religions once met, people will keep rotating through the faiths and ideologies that are available to them and there’s no telling how weird it will get. The Jesus you’ll meet 50 years from now would likely look unrecognizable to anyone today.

I don’t really have any bright ideas about this, only thoughts I’m sharing because they haunt me and I want them to haunt you, too. Maybe in time we will learn to create a culture that embodies the values of a secular society at its best. But so far it’s the religions that do the best job of incorporating people into their machinery, and they succeed  because of days like Good Friday, no matter how sick and twisted it appears to those on the outside.


***I’d love to post this article on my public Facebook page, but somebody hacked my personal profile and now I cannot post onto it anymore. Anyone know how to reclaim a page taken over by an unauthorized user? The forms Facebook offered have been useless.***

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...