Explaining Christianity to a 5-year-old atheist

This is in response to a lot of questions Andrew had about whether Christianity makes sense or is worthy of concern.(The challenge was to EILI5, I suppose this is as simple as I can make it for now.)  I am coming at this in an admittedly unorthodox way. I don’t know that I believe in a personal God, or even really know what that could mean, so setting aside this fundamental Christian doctrine, i.e. whether God is either personal or ethical. I will try to put the other rudiments of Christianity in a way that would make sense to the average five-year-old (or 35-year-old) deist, atheist, or pagan.

Human beings are animals, and all evidence suggests that we developed in the same mysterious way that most animals developed, the process that we are beginning to flesh out in biological science. We developed into a social species, and became primarily predators after we developed technology and were able to make friends with wolves (natural social predators), and then evolved together with them.  Later in our development we were able to bend other species, both plant and animal to our will.

The social side of our nature involves rule-keeping drives.  We are very much like ants, naked mole-rats, certain monkey species which have develop complex social etiquette, drives, and inhibitions.  The law is one of our oldest superstitions.

Because we became artificial predators, we have more aversion to killing, yet not having evolved with predatory weapons, like teeth and claws, we are naturally less psychologically in control of our killing power. We empathize with what we kill, but we are also a bit mad with our killing power, compared to natural predators and under stress we will kill without second thought.  When wolves get in a bind, they generally run away rather than kill, and they have developed strong inhibitions about using their teeth against their family because if they hadn’t, there would be no wolves.

Humans can’t live as solitary creatures, we are tied together as clans, a sort of de-facto captivity.  When flock/herd animals like roe deer and doves are kept in captivity, they will murder members of their family mainly because they are not able to flee.  Humans murder because they don’t have adequate inhibitions against violence against our own kind (unlike wolves), and because we can’t simply run-off and live alone (like wolves do).  Humans use violence to control other humans because, as law-keeping species, we will kill without guilt if the rules compel us or allow us to.

If we are anything like Bonobo Chimpanzees (we are), we are also hyper-sexual, and use sex in social ways not simply in reproductive ways. But, as is completely obvious, sex leads to hot-headedness and, not being predators, we didn’t develop coping techniques that allow us to keep our violence in check. So, unlike most other animals, we routinely slaughter each other, sexually assault each other, and use violence when we are angry, even against our own children.

When humans developed language (something that is not yet explicable), we were able to become conscious of death, and it set fire to our own creative power. Talking to ourselves allowed us to manage our fears to the point that we could take on any challenge. It also allowed us to manage our guilt and empathy for those that we killed. We became sort of monstrous because language allowed us to think and talk about things that other animals simply cannot.

However, in our earliest religions there is the idea of a creator, a master of the whole crazy show, the source of nature. Recognizing that a single personality probably does not account for all of the mysterious forces of nature, and the endless variety and complexity of natural phenomena, we used language and art to describe what God was.  The different images of God multiplied in accord with our creative genius.

Law developed as a social technology, as a way to standardize the rules of the herd, promote cooperative activity, and keep our sex and violence problem in check. Being herd animals, we are totally adapted to law.  Because we have language, and became conscious that we could make our own rules, we developed the art that is law. Because the stakes are so high, our deepest drives and superstitions guide what the law should be, our sense of justice and integrity.  A lot of law is simply what is best for the herd, some law is what is best for the leaders of the herd (who understand the game), and some law is what is best for the individual in the herd (this has sprouted late in history).  Law is generally described as the way humans should behave.   Law is used by the few to control the many, to keep our sex and violence problems in check, and very lately, to protect the individual against the many.

Given the power of rules, the lawless will gravitate to develop their own laws leading to gangsterism.  When gangsters get a hold of the reins of a respected government, all hell breaks loose.

So, whatever story is used to convey the depth of our problem, it seems that humans are in an incredible bind.   As a species we are stuck with a schizophrenic cooperative/predatory nature, we can’t help but see things in terms of rules, but we also can’t help but break them.  We naturally honor the law, but we are creative enough, and clever enough to manipulate rules to serve our own lusts for control, sex, and domination.  Civilization and technology has led to massive inequality among cultures.  The specter of gangsterism is literally around every corner.  We started from a more peaceful nature (Gorillas, for example, are an extremely peaceful species) and now drives inside us push us to hurt our families and our conscience teaches us to hate ourselves when we break the rules and let ourselves off the hook when we keep them.  These conflicting ethical drives lead to murder, war, genocide, personal violence, and suicide.  As shown in the monkey experiment I mentioned before, inequality leads to anger and violence as well. There is a war on out there, between the rich and poor, between the man and the woman, between the meek and the brutal.

Those of us who live among the luckiest of humans, who are filthy rich, have developed beneficial social structures that allow the curious idea of state-protected freedom are not immune to the war.  The idea of freedom of religion assumes a very curious, but very ancient idea of there being one God making all men brothers and sisters.  Monotheism is part and parcel with our liberal notions of rights.  However, believing that only the perfect is divine causes problems. Our rule keeping instincts, our complex mythology, and the unconscious lusts and drives in us lead us to despair when coupled with the idea of perfection.  Suicide, a disease that afflicts only the more advanced monotheistic and perfectionist civilizations, is on the rise.

Christianity provides a way out of the madness.  In its most Protestant forms, Christianity provides that an individual is free from the moral blame that society thrusts upon them through law and necessity, and gives hope that our individual inability to control our disjointed animal natures will not be held against us.  Understanding that we are free from the blame of our own conscience, which most sane people adhere to, is a tremendously powerful social innovation.  It opens up a path for joy in the face of suffering, it gives a person the freedom to choose sanity, even when they have been neck-deep in madness.

There is a lot of evidence that idea of God developed in different ways depending on the tribe, but the unknown god, the source of all things divine, seems to be a natural, if not logical, part of most traditions.  The oldest religions acknowledge the inexplicable source of all there is, both in heaven (whether real or imaginary) and on earth.   However, most tribes developed their own cult practices and ways of manipulating the power of Deity in their own minds. This has allowed them to stabilize laws and prevent social disorder. Cult is essentially synonymous with traditions that dominate tribe, patriotism, nation, and ideology.

In history, there was one tribe that was rabidly monotheistic compared to other tribes.  Their cult practice enshrined their unknown sky-god over the lesser gods devised by other tribes.  They also were fanatically tied to a certain plot of ground, which they associated with their God.  Over history their leaders, scholars, artists, and prophets purged the polytheism from their cult and were extremely obstinate about honoring any other god but the unknown creator of everything.  They also had the belief that their God would send a Christ to sort out the injustice, the gangsterism, and our screwed up nature and lusts,  to provide peace and the regeneration of God’s world.  When this tribe faced its the most powerful opponent in Rome, Jesus showed up on the scene.

Jesus proclaimed that in him the law was fulfilled, and that all those that suffered were free from condemnation, whether they had labored for God all their lives in the existing cult, or whether they were cast out of the cult for their moral decadence and mixing with the madness of the world.  The Kingdom of God was both within our own souls and was also nascent in our midst, if we tapped into it.  Jesus, and his followers, announced that he was Christ, and that not only had he conquered the punishments that we believe come from disobedience to social rules, or our own consciences, but death itself.   The doctrine of Christ astonishingly took over the Roman empire and crushed the pagan cults that previously dominated it.

When I started to see things this way, I also realized that nothing really changed in the world since Christianity infected the most powerful cultures.  The government was still dominated by gangsters, still consumed with managing our sex-violence problems, and to make matters worse, our rule-keeping drives allowed gangsters to orchestrate killing more effectively than ever before.  I think one of the most powerful testaments to the failings of Christian civilization are found in Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which is a devastating deconstruction of society using the clear directives of a Christian disciple.  He believed that if people would followed the most basic directives of discipleship found in the Sermon on the Mount, it would revolutionize the world.  I also believed in this vision. I believed that taking the Christian law of love seriously would change the world.  For some reasons, related to accepting my own powerlessness to live by my own conscience in a way that would avoid disaster in my life and relationships, I rejected that vision

But in November, after I accepted simply as a logical fact that there is one mysterious source of the universe, “God”,  I re-read Tolstoy’s conclusions in Resurrection. What shocked me was that his vision lacked any cult of salvation– any method to overcome individual participation in the evil of the world. Tolstoy simply pointed out that Jesus demanded non-participation in evil, and advised complete submission to conscience instead of submission to human law. This was clearly the best path to sanity, but as a “commandment” from God,  it seems just as impossible in practice as any law governing our lust for sex, violence, and anger caused by the disjointed nature of our species.  The injustice in our society, and the sins or our governments are rooted in the natural madness of our own species amplified by our language and made clear through our reason.

However, at this time, I had rejected the cults of sacrifice as simply psychological palliatives.  We naturally feel like we are appeasing our consciences if we give up the best of what we have to a higher power. This is what has driven religious gangsters to manipulate Christianity for their own ends.  This was the sin that sparked the Reformation.

What is the cult of Christianity that allows for salvation, for us to atone for the madness that we participate in?  When I went back to the text of the New Testament, I found that there was no cult.  The mere acknowledgement that a Christ has come was all that was necessary.  If anything could be described as the unconditional “love” of the unknown mystery that put all of this madness into motion this seemed to be its most logical expression. Christ’s proclamation that we are actually free from this madness if we accept that freedom.

That we are actually free from the madness in some real way is the fact of Christ.  If Christ is a fact, we can have hope that people will be able to free themselves of the wretched condition that nature has left us with, become conscious of both our guilt, and the non-importance of our guilt if we decide to live in the light of Christ, i.e. the enlightenment that comes with faith that there is a sane way, and that we can overcome our insanity.

This part of the Christian tradition is essentially independent from whether there is a literal resurrection of the dead.  I remain like Thomas on this point, and admit my heresy. However I can see how the resurrection doctrine is very important in that puts a stamp of urgency that may be necessary to fulfill the hope that joy in Christ will change the world, and allow us to take back the world from the gangsters who run it. It’s hard to tell.

Is Christ actually a fact?   As a matter of sanity, I think the fact of Christ is something that a person should accept if they are monotheistic (either explicitly or implicitly).  Otherwise I think a person should go look for meaning through polytheistic pagan tradition. To be monotheistic and not Christian is a scary proposition. I accept the fact of Christ as an imperative associated with my monotheism, even if I am completely unsure of how to interpret the mythology surrounding that fact.

My acceptance of the fact of Christ, did not come as an answer to my prayers –though it might have been the answer to the prayers of others.  It came at the end of a long and complicated argument in my head. But it was startling when the fact of Christ became clear, it changed my entire outlook in unexpected ways. Many of my thoughts that were obviously self-destructive and destructive of my relationships (or at least barriers within them) disappeared.  I felt joy.  I came to acknowledge Christ without praying whether the New Testament was true, or even thinking it was anything other than a tradition, and in the absence of any “spiritual” manifestation.  I have long since doubted my own visions of reality.

A curious thing also happened when I acknowledged that there was a mysterious fact that brings joy in full view of the chasm between reality and what my conscience tells me should be reality — the New Testament started to make a lot more sense than it did before.

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4 thoughts on “Explaining Christianity to a 5-year-old atheist

  1. What can I say, my kids put me through the ringer when they were five. I am also assuming that atheist children are more plagued with intellectualism. 😉

  2. I never tried to explain Christianity to a 5 year old (or under 10)…

    I just proclaim it. I tell them who Jesus IS …and I tell them what He did in their Baptism for them. That He adopted them as His very own child. And that He will always be there for them all throughout their lives.

    And I tell that to them as often as I can and in as many varied ways as I can.

    And leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit…to keep them in the promise of their Baptism.

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