The Making of a Skeptic: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

Skeptics are generally self-made, in the sense that their cultural background provides little support for their views. Our civilization, far from encouraging skeptical thought, throws an enormous weight of persuasion on the opposite side–even to the point of insisting on belief in obvious impossibilities. Tertullian wrote in De Carne Christi that resurrection of the flesh is certain and believable because it is impossible. By such reasoning, we can all believe six impossible things before breakfast every day, recalling Mark Twain’s definition of faith as believing what you know ain’t so.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, said, Give me a child before the age of seven, and I will have him for life.” In most cases, it works. People tend to retain the beliefs of their early training. Skeptics are exceptions to this rule. And because religious belief does involve details that even the faithful can recognize as impossible, most religious sects try to shield their members from any unbiased or skeptical discussion, which might expose them to rational doubts.

That’s why almost every religious sect has touted itself as the “only true” one, with the predictable result that our Judeo-Christian world has been filled with mutually contradictory sects, each trying to denegrate or diabolize the others, or to out-proselytize them. It has often been remarked, that if there were a God wishing to get a particular message across to humans, he has certainly gone about it in the most muddleheaded way imaginable.

Religion in America is a scrap-heap of boulders trying to pretend that it’s a monolith. This is not altogether bad. It is better than Europe’s condition when the medieval church really was a political monolith, self-empowered to dominate, confiscate, excommunicate, and use torture and the stake to annihilate nonconformists. There are fundamentalist forces today that strive toward a new age of monolithic religion allied with the state: a vision that surely threatens the basic principles of democracy and intellectual freedom.

I began to become a skeptic at a very early age, when I was grief-stricken over the death of a beloved dog. Our minister came to visit my mother, and I asked him to tell me how I would meet my dog again in heaven. He said I could not meet my dog again in heaven because animals have no souls and God does not allow them in heaven. But, he added as a palliative, I would surely meet all my loved ones and relatives there.

I tried to negotiate. I said I would willingly trade a couple of aunts and uncles for my dog. But God, according to the minister, was not to be bargained with. Shocked beyond all decorum, I finally stamped my foot and shouted that I wanted nothing to do with mean old God, and he could just keep his nasty petless heaven because I didn’t care to go there anyway; and I ran away crying.

My embarrassed mother made me come back and apologize, though I didn’t know what for. The minister smirked indulgently and said he forgave me. But in my heart, I never forgave him.

I didn’t know how to say it at the time, but I felt what anyone feels who has ever shared that special interspecies bond with a pet; if soul indicates the capacity to love, then certainly animals can have as much soul as any human, and more than many. Some of the deepest and most rewarding loves in my life have been those shared with animals.

I also argued at some length with a childhood friend who went to a parochial school. She insisted that I and my whole family were automatically doomed to spend eternity burning in hell because we went to the wrong church, an Episcopalian one, of which God did not approve. She had it on the best authority, from “Sister,” who knew everything. I didn’t know how to refute “Sister,” and I wondered why we bothered to go to church at all, if it was useless for our salvation. I hated going, in any case: it meant dressing up in stiff, itchy “good” dresses and pinchy shoes, and sitting still, trying not to fidget, while listening to interminable and incomprehensible talk from the same minister whom I already disliked because of his low opinion of dogs.

Still, I did not think of myself as a skeptic. At such a young age I didn’t even know what a skeptic was. I didn’t doubt the claims of Judeo-Christian religion; I just found their trappings uncomfortable.

Another shock came when I entered Sunday school and faced a life-size portrait of Jesus crucified, dripping blood, twisted with agony. I could hardly bear to sit before this dismal icon. I learned that God, whom I thought one could trust, not only decreed this hideous death for his allegedly beloved son, but also decreed that his worshipers had to become cannibals and eat him. Even though his flesh and blood were made to look like bread and wine, we were assured that they remained essentially flesh and blood. The idea made me vaguely nauseous.

I wanted to know why, if God was so all-merciful and all-powerful, did he have to make Jesus die before he was willing to forgive anybody? Why not just forgive everybody right off? For that matter, why did he create hell in the first place? I wanted to know why God was so mean to his children, to make them suffer eternities of pain for an offense committed by a remote ancestor. It wasn’t my idea of justice; no human being that I knew would be that cruel.

Moreover, this was the same God who allegedly told us to love our enemies, and be kind to those who were unkind to us. As Robert Ingersoll cogently remarked, it seemed that even gods ought to practice what they preach. I began to think of God as some sort of celestial lunatic, certainly not to be trusted. My Sunday school teacher evaded all my questions and even scolded me for asking them; so one of the things I learned in Sunday school was that God will not explain himself, even though he purportedly wants humans to know all about him.

Seeking further solutions to the puzzles of religion, in my teens I set myself to read the bible all the way through, three times. Thus I learned that God didn’t really like people at all. Though he claimed to have created them, he frequently destroyed whole populations at a time, setting one tribe against another and fomenting ruthless wars with casualties in the hundreds of thousands. It made me wonder, what ever happened to “Thou shalt not kill”? He forbade any show of mercy, and according to First Samuel demanded the slaughter of “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Even worse than the killing of innocent people, I thought, was the killing of helpless animals who couldn’t even understand the issues.

In the books of Exodus through Judges, God said thou shalt kill 10,000 Perizzites and Canaanites, 120,000 Midianites, 25,000 Benjamites, all the Hittites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Jebusites, Geshurites, Gezrites, Amalekites, and al1 the people of Jericho, Libnah, Lachish, Gezer, Hebron, Eglon, Debir, and Goshen, including the infants, sucklings, and animals–except for the young girls, who were to be raped and enslaved. God also demanded the killing of all unbelievers, adulteresses, brides found not to be virgins, Goddess worshipers, and seeresses.

My Sunday school teacher naturally was unaware of the real basis for the blood sacrifice that formed the core of Christian faith. The ancients thought that blood was the divine substance of life, responsible for making babies in the womb, and the gods themselves needed blood to keep their incorporeal selves alive. Blood was poured out on their altars to feed them and keep them happy.

If destructive storms or crop failures indicated that a god was angry, volunteer sacrifices were called for, or involuntary blood donors such as slaves, children, or prisoners of war. The Old Testament God demanded the blood of firstborn children in particular. Abraham was praised as a holy man for being willing to cut the throat of his son, Isaac, on God’s altar, when God demanded it as a cruel trick to test Abraham’s faith. I couldn’t help thinking, what would I have done if God ordered me to kill my child? I would tell God to go to hell, that’s what. In any case, I thought Abraham the moral equivalent of pond scum, especially in regard to that story about pimping for his wife. But the story of Isaac really was written to mark a transition from human to animal sacrifices. God changed his mind and agreed to let animal blood appease him; so a ram was substituted for lucky Isaac.

Human or animal holy victims were apotheosized, giving rise to the many sacrificial ram gods, bull gods, goat gods and so on in antiquity. Besides Jesus, there were many divinized sacrificial saviors whose blood was credited with life-giving and healing powers: the Bronze Age substitute for the original “blood of life”: woman’s. The bible stories were composed in a time of transition to patriarchal religion, and they hit women where they lived, by making motherhood a curse, and diabolizing the sacred blood that made babies.

One of the bible’s ugliest stories is still revered today in certain circles. Orthodox Jews view it as the foundation of their Passover holy days, and fundamentalist Christians see it as a prophetic foreshadowing of the “Lamb of God” sacrifice. It is the Exodus tale of God’s mass murder of thousands of innocent children and animals in Egypt, to induce Pharaoh to evict the Hebrews from his land. Pharaoh seemed willing, at first, but God deliberately “hardened his heart” in order to carry out his, God’s, plan for all the plagues and slaughters (Ex. 7:3, 10:l).

It is a crude and cruel myth about the efficacy of blood sacrifice, which was used in this case to protect Moses’ people from God’s wrath, which could be turned away only by blood: the blood of the paschal lamb. The myth also reveals the extreme provincialism of the biblical deity, who is not seen as a universal father of all humankind, but rather as a local godlet for a small group. Obviously the Egyptians were not his “children.” Egyptians of that time had their own Goddess-and-God images, long established, and considerably less boorish than the one with whom Moses claimed to converse “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8).

God was lavish in handing out all sorts of afflictions to punish people for offenses that seemed to me pretty minor. In the story of Job, which for some unaccountable reason is considered a highly moral teaching, God punished a man who was “perfect and upright” for nothing at all, and destroyed all his relatives, servants, and domestic animals into the bargain. He did this for the most frivolous of motives: God wanted to win a bet, and counted on Job to be a better (or more subservient) follower than such a God deserved. The writer(s) had all kinds of sympathy for the long- suffering and endlessly gullible Job, but not a single word of regret for all the other folks who were wiped out by God’s whim.

I was told that I was expected to love this God. Far to the contrary, I found that I couldn’t even begin to like him. The bible presented him to me (and to everyone, I thought) as a pretty unpleasant piece of work. He deliberately caused humans to do wrong, apparently to give himself an excuse to punish them.

God also killed thousands by punitive lightning or plagues, and threatened a colorful list of torments such as the scab, the itch, the botch of Egypt, madness, blindness, slavery, famine, fever, consumption, blasting, mildew, and hemorrhoids, which the Bible calls emerods (Deut. 28). God took no account of innocence or good intentions. He killed poor Uzzah for touching the ark of the covenant, to keep it from falling off its oxcart (2 Sam. 6:6,7). He had 42 children torn to pieces by bears for making fun of Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 2:24). He condenmed the whole human race, of course, because the first couple gained the knowledge of good and evil–which religion is supposed to teach, yet–by eating a fruit that the bible doesn’t say was an apple; there were no apples in the Middle East in biblical times. And after many centuries, God arranged to have only a few people escape eternal torture, provided they ate his son’s flesh and blood, according to the church that claimed to be God’s personal favorite.

I was astonished that people could read this chronicle of atrocities and still think God worthy of respect, let alone adoration. He terrified me. I figured he had it in for me because he must know my thoughts. On reading a newspaper transcript of one of Hitler’s Gott mit uns speeches, in which Der Fuhrer said God was on his side, I believed it. I thought them two of a kind.

One night during a violent thunderstorm, I decided that I couldn’t live any longer with the fear of God. With a sort of desperate, cornered-rat courage, I gave God the chance I thought he was waiting for, to blast me with his act-of-God lightning. From my bed I told him, “I think you’re awful. I hate you.” Then I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists, squeezed my eyes shut, and waited. No lightning. I spoke again, more boldly. Still no lightning. I began to realize that I was speaking into a celestial telephone with no one at the other end. The weight of my fear was lifted forever. I was free. All by myself, I was born again in reverse, and woke the next morning feeling as light as air.

My real education in comparative religions began after I graduated from college. Over the course of 25 years I studied and took notes from more than 400 reference books and many ancient texts, seeking the real sources of religious concepts. They are, of course, in the human mind rather than any allegedly divine utterances; for the divine is without objective existence–it is whatever human beings say it is. Religion is a psychological and cultural phenomenon, common to a species that communicates in words and verbally passes all its notions throughout its generations without ever subjecting more than a tiny fraction of them to any rational test.

Fundamentalist religions still deny rationally-established facts whenever they are perceived as contrary to scripture. Yet even fundamentalists are usually willing to admit that the bible can be wrong in saying, for example, that the earth is flat, or that heaven is a great brass cistern holding rain water, or that rabbits are cud-chewing animals, or that a whale is a fish, and many other naive mistakes of the ancient writers. Glossing over all these, they will insist that the bible is useful as a moral guide, is in fact the only genuine moral guide. Yet these scriptures have proved mostly worthless in this respect. For 2,000 years, bible-based Christianity has fomented wars, crusades, persecutions, pogroms, witch hunts, child abuse, and radical sexism. Some of the old pagan scriptures displayed a distinctly higher standard of morality than the bible.

For example, suppose a major moral guide of Western culture had been not the Ten Commandments but the commandments embodied in the famous “Negative Confession” of ancient Egypt, which the deceased must recite before the Judgment Goddess, Maat, truthfully in order to win entrance into paradise. In part, it ran like this: “I have done no evil. I have not inflicted pain. I have made no one weep. I have not done harm unto animals. I have not robbed the poor. I have not fouled water.

“I have not trampled fields. I have not behaved with insolence. I have not judged hastily. I have not stirred up strife. I have not insisted that excessive work be done for me daily. I have not borne false witness. I have not stolen land. I have not cheated in measuring the bushel. I have allowed no one to suffer hunger. I have not increased my wealth at others’ expense. I have not taken milk from the mouths of babes.”

When I first encountered this list of no-nos, I thought what a truly moral society we might have today if the religion of Maat had prevailed instead of the religion of Yahweh. We might today have more respect for the earth and for nature, less ruthless exploitation, less pollution, less misery in general; we might be gentler, less warlike people.

I have lived my life in an atmosphere of Judeo-Christian mythology being taught as history, and aggressively marketed every day, through all possible media: radio, television, movies, books, even door-to-door salesmen of salvation. This barrage of propaganda permeates every school in the country, every political speech, every courtroom. Even social gatherings can be used as religion-sales events if a fanatic or two happens to be present. Such folk feel that they can freely discuss and describe their beliefs, but unbelievers must not argue back because that is “bad form,” or impolite. Personally, I have never found it necessary to show any great respect for the opinions of those who refuse to respect mine. And I resent–have always resented–the complacent assumptions of traditional religionists that I must adopt their way of thinking, and listen to their demonstrations, about which I may already know more than they do, after nearly a half-century of study.

I found spiritual satisfaction in uncovering the long-suppressed concept of the Great Goddess, which has considerable appeal for women and those who still respect Mother Nature as a sacred symbol. Because She was defined as a devil early in the Christian era, women were locked out of positions of religious authority and made the real scapegoats for everything that went wrong in human existence. Jesus was supposed to have been the sacrifice who atoned for the mythical original sin; but in fact it has been women–millions and millions of them–who were forced to atone for that mythical sin, and often suffer still from this church-manufactured guilt. It still impedes even strong women, and can completely ruin weaker ones.

One would think that organizations claiming to be arbiters of morality should demonstrate honesty, at the very least. Yet a major problem with religious organizations is that honesty is not part of their agenda. Over the centuries, churches have suppressed and/or falsified a great deal of history to their own advantage; they have deliberately misrepresented non-Christian traditions; they have lied to their congregations about theological matters; they have exploited, cheated, extorted, and (during the Burning Times) even tortured and murdered to acquire money and property.

Reprehensible enough are the scandals of modern televangelists, misusing funds donated by their over-trusting followers; but even they pale beside the dishonesty and oppression of earlier centuries, when Church and State were merged in one arrogant authority that few dared resist. Much of this information has been deleted from standard history books. Similarly, information on the derivative nature of Christian legends and practices has been covered up, to the point where it may come as a surprise even to educated people. Honest, well-meaning folks who think of themselves as “good Christians” often have no idea of how much dishonesty and violence has been perpetrated by Christianity.

Women in particular need to know how sexist are the policies that have grown out of Christian theology, and why they were established in the first place. When I started to study these subjects I thought, with nearly everyone else, that sexism is simply a warped social phenomenon having little to do with spirituality; but I have since come to realize that religion is its real source, not society as a whole. Some churches are still promulgating sexist doctrines, as much as they can get away with. Yet women are the main support of these churches, which would collapse without all their voluntary work and freely donated time, effort, and enthusiasm.

During the 20th century we have seen some relaxation of the old rules against ordination of women, so that there are now female ministers and rabbis (though the Catholic church has yet to admit priestesses). However, most of these women are considered to be in the service of the same old male God. Too much talk about the Goddess might put their jobs at risk. No one ever says it plainly, but it would seem that in the popular mind, God still has a penis. As the early fathers of the church insisted on asking, how else could it have happened that the Virgin Mary became impregnated?

Men get together in pretentious councils to decide what God is, thinks, and wants, but women have always been barred from such exercises in God-making. An element of woman-hatred still lurks at the root of Judeo-Christian traditions. There is also an element of hatred directed toward humanity in general. Faith in God implies a lack of faith in humanity: the profoundly cynical basic premise of this religion is that people won’t behave decently to one another unless they are promised pie in the sky, and simultaneously terrorized by threats of extreme torment in the Other Place.

”Putting the fear of God” into children is often a euphemism for harsh punishments, and childhood fears so indoctrinated can become adult dysfunctions. Indeed, the very fears and guilts imposed by religious training were largely responsible for some of Western history’s most brutal wars, crusades, persecutions and pogroms, including five centuries of almost unimaginable terrorism under the church’s Inquisition.

Fear and credulity may interact to create a population vulnerable to charlatans of every stripe. The spellbinders, gurus, psychics, channelers, mediums, UFOlogists, crystal healers, fortune tellers, and miracle mongers that abound today make money off a public trained to believe improbabilities: the more colorful and imaginative, the better. Religion’s war against fringe or New Age beliefs is not a battle of the rational against the irrational. It is a conflict between different fantasy systems, with a good deal of money at stake.

Mainstream beliefs are backed by political and financial clout, and can advertise themselves into respectability. But miracles and magic are the same at bottom, so churchmen shouldn’t be surprised to find that many of their congregations accept astrology as readily as theology, a channeled Atlantean priest as readily as Moses, or an Ascended Master of the White Brotherhood as readily as an apostle. No matter how many times it is demonstrated that psychics’ predictions don’t come true, that crystals don’t cure disease, that transcendental meditators don’t levitate, that dead people don’t talk, and no matter how many similar absurdities are debunked over and over, large numbers of people still maintain an indomitable will to believe the unbelievable.

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation