There is much skepticism today about the tenets of Christianity, even by different varieties of Christian. I’m an apostate, which is more than a regular skeptic. A skeptic generally challenges conclusions and methods. An apostate, on the other hand, is initially a believer, who examines the fundamental beliefs and assumptions that the whole edifice is based on, and finding them illogical and unconvincing, abandons his beliefs.
I was born in Northern Ireland, and have lived most of my life there, at present near Belfast. I remember my first taste of skepticism, at the age of four, from my primary teacher. Back in the winter of 1942 (yes, I’m that old!) during the War when we had no private cars, I used to paddle through the rain three-quarters of a mile to school, when necessary. Our classroom was heated by an open coal fire, which had a substantial fireguard surrounding it. Our good-hearted teacher, Miss Morrison, would hang our wettest raincoats over the fireguard in the hope of drying them out a bit, before we had to set out for home again. One day, my coat got a bit too close to the fire and got somewhat scorched. I don’t recall noticing this, but my mother certainly did, and said that I was to tell Miss Morrison about it the next day—new coats were not easy to come by in the middle of the war. So I did that.
Miss M. replied: “I don’t believe it!”
I was shocked! I said: “It’s wrong not to believe!” I got this idea from my God-fearing parents, doubtless in a less terrestrial context.
I forget the exact words of her reply, but she clearly conveyed that it was not necessary to believe everything that you’re told, even if you’re only four. This, to me, was her most memorable lesson.
The following argument fails to prove that God does not exist. It only means that I can’t believe that if there is a God, “He” is not the sort of being outlined below. And I admit that I have not spent my life diligently trying to find, from all the world’s religions, one to which I could subscribe.
For many protestant Christians, the fundamental doctrines were laid down in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which defines official beliefs concerning the Christian religion, based on the doctrines of John Calvin, with reference on all points to texts or passages from the Authorized (aka King James) Version of the Bible, which is believed to contain the Word of God. All these doctrines therefore have biblical foundations.
The WCF was drawn up in 1646 and 1647 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians and laymen intended to bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland, which is the original Presbyterian Church founded by John Knox. One might have hoped that the WCF would be critically revised, say every century or two, but that would probably have resulted in more schisms.
A member of the Presbyterian Church, who wishes to become an elder (a senior member involved in the administration of his or her church) or a minister (a clergyman) must subscribe (personally sign) a copy of this document, signifying that this is what he or she believes.
This is, therefore, a faith with very well-defined and obligatory foundations, and thus is easily amenable to logical inquiry.
My parents, both devout Presbyterians, brought me up ‘in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,’ as described in the Presbyterian Baptismal Sacrament. As a child and a lad, I attended Sunday School in term time, besides church twice on Sundays. Sunday School, for me, provided the sort of instruction that most pupils safely ignored, as it did not lead to any recognized qualification or opportunity. One was, however, rather expected to learn by heart various passages of scripture, catechism questions, and some psalms and hymns. My mother had been a school teacher, and was keen to ensure that I was a credit to her in all matters of education, so I was obliged to do that more than most other Sunday School pupils. On one occasion, at the age of about twelve, I got 100% in the annual Sunday School examination run by the local Presbytery (which is a geographical group of the churches). This involved memorizing selected Bible passages, and all the questions in the Shorter Catechism, so it was easy for me to recall for the purpose of this article.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a set of short questions and answers based on the Westminster Confession of Faith, intended to be used as a teaching aid for the young, and to concisely define beliefs for inquirers.
It is of course entirely possible to learn this sort of thing by rote without absorbing the least idea of any actual meaning—as in Hamlet, “words, words, words.” The Sunday School teachers did attempt to expound and explain all these matters, but one let one’s mind wander, if the expounding extended beyond the thunderously obvious such as “Thou shalt not steal!” I just went along with it all, being much more interested in science, technology, and girls, not necessarily in that order.
For me, what blew the whole schmeer out of the water (to use a colorful American phrase) was the first four short verses of the poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, which I came across in a poetry book. It seemed to me, at first glance, to be an alarming piece of blasphemy, which as everyone knows, is a very grave sin, punishable by death in at least one other religion, and probably consignment to Hell in all. (“… for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”)
But when I considered what I had learned in Sunday School and church, I saw that the first few verses say very concisely much of what we Presbyterians are supposed to believe:
O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell
A’ for Thy glory!
And no for ony gude or ill
They’ve done before Thee.
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou has left in night,
That I am here before Thy sight,
for gifts and grace,
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.
What was I, or my generation,
That I should get such exaltation?
I, wha deserv’d most just damnation,
For broken laws
Sax thousand years ere my creation,
Thro’ Adam’s cause!
When from my mither’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plung’d me in Hell,
To gnash my gooms, and weep and wail,
In burnin lakes,
Whare damned devils roar and yell,
Chain’d to their stakes,
Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To shew Thy grace is great and ample:
I’m here, a pillar o’ Thy temple
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a ruler and example
To a’ Thy flock.
—’Holy Willie’s Prayer’ by Robert Burns, verses 1-5
The poem goes on to demonstrate Willie’s hypocrisy, but let’s look first at the doctrines encapsulated here, as expounded in a selection from the Shorter Catechism.
For this selection, which I have cribbed directly from the Westminster Shorter Catechism—the numbered questions and answers are shown below, with references to books, chapter, and verse numbers in the Bible, on which the doctrine is based (some of them at a long stretch!).
If you go to the website, you can look up the Authorized Version Bible (i.e., KJV) texts directly. Just hover the cursor on the biblical reference; no need to click. The Bible book names are mostly abbreviated to the first two or three characters: so Gen = Genesis, Heb = Hebrews.
In what follows, my personal comments and opinions are in square brackets, [sic], and some important emphases in bold. If you wish to look up a modern translation, go for the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.
Holy Willie Verse 1 to 5: This takes in four major points of doctrine: the doctrine of foreordination (or predestination), the doctrine of the Fall of Man, and the doctrine of the Elect, and the doctrine salvation by faith rather than works.
This is what the Catechism says:
Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, He hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
Ephesians 1:4,11; Romans 9:22-23. [Basing foreordination on only these two texts is stretching it a bit.]
Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.
Ps. 145:17; Ps. 104:24; Isa. 28:29; Heb. 1:3; Ps. 103:19; Matt. 10:29-31.
Q. 12. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death.
Gal. 3:12; Gen. 2:17
[So God made everything, which for the purpose of this discussion we can call “the world,” and everything which has happened or will happen in it has been foreordained (or predestined), including the actions of his creatures, i.e., all living things. This is a bit like setting up a computer program. Except for Adam and Eve, the first human beings, to whom he gave free will, subject to absolute obedience. Bad move.]
[Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and God was very angry. Why should he be angry if he had foreordained it? Had he made a mistake? Was humanity inherently unreliable? Of course, that must have been it.]
Q. 16. Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?
A. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in his first transgression.
Gen. 2:16-17; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22
Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of Hell for ever.
Gen. 3:8, 10, 24; Eph. 2:2-3; Gal. 3:10; Lam. 3:39; Rom. 6:23; Matt. 25:41, 46.
[This is the doctrine of original sin, in which we are all born with inherited sin, and are thus only fit for Hell because of our origins, unless born to a virgin. Matthew’s gospel is the one particularly in favor of eternal punishment by fire.]
[This elided into the notion, once held in many Christian sects, that any sexual function is inherently sinful, unless within the marriage of a man to a woman for the purpose of the propagation of children. For example, up until 1979, the Irish Republic under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church outlawed the sale or use of any material form of contraception. But I digress.]
We now come to the doctrine of salvation by faith:
Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.
Eph. 1:4; Rom. 3:20-22; Gal. 3:21-22.
[This is the central dogma of Christianity.]
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s Elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, for ever.
1 Tim. 2:5-6; John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; Rom. 9:5; Luke 1:35; Col. 2:9; Heb. 7:24-25.
[So God, instead of rubbishing the entire human race, decided to save some of them, and sent his only son Jesus into the world in human guise, about four thousand years later by biblical reckoning. This salvation was to be done by effectual calling of the Elect. Why the long delay? Why only one son?]
[In the meantime, God had favored a tribe of nomads in the Middle East, whose frequently unedifying exploits had done little to enhance God’s following in the world at large. Vide the Old Testament.]
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; Acts 2:37; Acts 26:18; Ezek. 36:26-27; John 6:44-45; Phil. 2:13.
[It is called “effectual” because it always succeeds. If it didn’t, it would be ineffectual. You have no choice in the matter. If you are, by foreordination, one of the Elect, God’s spirit, aka the Holy Ghost, will persuade you to believe that Jesus Christ is your redeemer. This gives you several advantages, delineated below.]
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, sanctification, and the several benefits which, in this life, do either accompany or flow from them.
Rom. 8:30; Eph. 1:5; 1 Cor. 1:26, 30.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Rom. 3:24-25; Rom. 4:6-8; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Rom. 5:17-19; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9.
[Justification is by faith alone, not on account of any good or evil that you do in the world off your own bat. Ephesians 2:8-10 says:
8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.]
[Faith is therefore the greatest virtue. But foreordination determines whom amongst us will have the necessary faith. Faith is essentially believing what you are told (how else would you know what to believe?), and another name for faith is therefore credulity. If you can believe this, you can believe anything.]
Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are, at their death, made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves until the resurrection.
Heb. 12:23; 2 Cor. 5:1, 6, 8; Phil. 1:23; Luke 23:43; 1 Thess. 4:14; Isa. 57:2; Job 19:26-27.
[And there’s more; eventually they get resurrected in their—presumably renovated—bodies, and live happily for all eternity. Some of the faithful in this life do not wish to be cremated, because they feel that it might be too difficult to reassemble them properly. Seriously!]
But what about the unelect?
What about all those who never heard about Jesus Christ, either because they lived during what we call Before the Common Era (BCE), or because they died too young to understand anything like that, or lived in another part of the world that the Gospel never reached? Holy Willie’s next four verses give us the answer. They go to Hell. Including, by default, infants who have not been baptized. Unless God has made some provision for them not mentioned in the Bible.
So let’s be blunt about what we are supposed to believe. Does this sound like the “Almighty and most merciful God, our loving heavenly Father”? Does the punishment fit the crime?
Or did God say “Well, that first effort was a bit of a failure. But the program’s running now and can’t be stopped easily; I’ll pick out a few individuals that I might like, and their immortal souls can come and worship and praise me for all eternity, which should be nice. The rest of them can go to Hell.”
More like a pantomime Demon King.
Other Christian sects may have different interpretations; the Bible is a bit like a supermarket, where you go in and choose the items that you fancy or are good value, or, as has been alleged, “take a text out of context and make it a pretext.”
Anyway, if the Bible doesn’t have a satisfactory answer, there’s always the Saints—the Roman Catholic Church teaches that divine Revelation did not necessarily finish with the Bible, and the existence of Limbo and Purgatory (see Wikipedia) were revealed in this way to cover such questionable cases. But enough of that.
About the Bible: When I was very young, they told me, “The Bible is true. We know that for sure, because it says so in the Bible.” Ah yes. Of course.
The Christian fathers, who drew up the WCF, were actually rather more circumspect:
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
2 Tim. 3:16; Eph. 2:20; 1 John 1:3-4.
[Note ‘is contained in,’ not ‘consists of’]
I have read the Bible from cover to cover twice, plus some commentaries, once in the Authorized Version, and many years later in the New International Version in case I had missed something the first time. My reading has persuaded me not to be a Christian, although there is much of historical interest, moral interest, and poetry in it: the Ten Commandments; ‘Ruth’—the foreign refugee accepted; and—best read in the N.I.V.—’Song of Songs,’ a remarkable erotic poem; and 1st Corinthians 13—an unusually human perspective from St. Paul in which he admits, in verse 13, that there is something better than faith:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (NIV).
I have no argument with that. It was of course St. Paul, the author of over half of the books in the New Testament, who got the show on the road for Christianity, by writing much of the New Testament and taking the message to Rome.
It is really very easy to read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and to pick out the logical and indeed arithmetical nonsense, and many have spent much time doing that; but it feels like bad form, like hitting a very old and demented lady, who was once the belle of the ball, for being so stupid.
I have known and been friends with many Christians, and the great majority are good and pleasant people to be with—just the same as unbelievers.
Well, you might ask, what benefits does a Christian have in this life?—or what disadvantages? The Church, of whatever faith, is often in effect a social club where young and old meet and get to know their neighbors, all generally on their best behavior. The value of this is not to be underestimated, especially if the majority in a nation agree on what particular religion or sect they belong to. In the earlier times, a group of men who knew and trusted each other implicitly, as belonging to and having been brought up in the same church, were often very effective in establishing and running new businesses and indeed charitable foundations. And young peoples’ church organizations provided a meeting place where matters other than strictly religious could be aired; indeed, this is how my father and mother met.
For those who can believe, whatever misfortune befalls them in this life, they can look forward to a happy eternity: a pair of brothers whom I knew well, my wife’s cousins, each at their funeral services had as one of the hymns, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!” The better sort of Christian is generally a happy person, who mostly gets on very well with his fellow man, whether Christian or not.
And it’s a nice feeling, thinking that you know all the answers, and that all your friends agree with you.
But when everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.
On the other hand, there are those who think that their faith guarantees their place in Heaven, if they just confess their sins to God. This is a pernicious attitude. Let’s see more of Holy Willie:
But yet O Lord—confess I must—
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust;
And sometimes too, in wardly trust
Vile Self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil’d wi’ sin.—
O Lord—yestreen—thou kens—wi’ Meg—
Thy pardon I sincerely beg!
O may’t ne’er be a living plague,
To my dishonor!
And I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.—
Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times—I trow—
But Lord, that friday I was fou
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, thy servant true
Wad never steer her.—
(and so forth and so on)
This sort are generally bigots and hypocrites, the self-righteous, who execrate those who believe doctrines and religions that differ from their own, and stir up trouble. My part of the world, Northern Ireland, has had more than enough of this sort. Need I say more? You have heard it all before. It’s called history.
(Actually, you don’t need religion to be self-righteous nowadays; consider the ‘woke’.)
Nevertheless, while hope of Heaven can lift morale, there is also the fear of Hell. My own mother, a good Christian surrounded all her life with Christianity, tearfully confided in me, when she knew she was dying : “I’m afraid I’ll go to the wrong place!”
As for me, since I’m not one of the Elect, I don’t believe any of it any longer, and live as well as I can only by the Golden Rule. And when Big D comes for me, not so far in the future, I shall say, “Thanks for not coming too early! I really enjoyed a lot of that!” and slip quietly into the same nothingness as there was before I was conceived, over eighty years previously.
“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.” (attributed to Mae West)
Presbyterianism teaches us that:
- God made the world and our prime ancestors, and decreed in detail how it would all work out, down to the personal level; this is called “foreordination.”
- But it didn’t quite work out that way. Our prime ancestors disobeyed God, and that flaw, which is called “original sin” (i.e., sin of our origin) is inherited in all of us who are conceived in the usual way.
- As a consequence, when we die, we will not go to Heaven—unless…
- God in due time, with the virgin Mary, conceived his own son Jesus, who therefore did not inherit original sin (which is obviously transmitted in the male line), and decreed that it was necessary and sufficient for the rest of us to believe in Jesus for our original sin to be forgiven, along with any of our own personal sins which we confess. We could then go to Heaven when we died, instead of Hell.
- But because of foreordination, only some of us, called “the Elect”, are foreordained to believe in Jesus as our savior, and thus get to Heaven. The rest go to Hell, which we hope is not quite as nasty as Matthew makes out.
My opinion: This is nonsense.
 Presbyterianism, however, is a system of church organization (and a democratic one at that) rather than a belief system. A number of Presbyterians, from time to time, find that they do not agree with some aspect of the WCF, and go to join one or another Presbyterian sect like the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian (NSP) Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church, to mention only those to be found in Belfast.
 To understand how these things came to pass, an entertaining and nearly infallible account may be found in Nick Page’s A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2017). Knox is dealt with in chapter 32. His original church is in the Canongate, Edinburgh.
 Apropos of Hell: in the Old Testament, it was called Sheol, which was simply “the place of the dead” and was not considered as a place of punishment. In the New Testament, Jesus referred to Gehenna, which was simply the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, which like many other dumps before and since, was usually on fire from the dumping of hot ashes. It took the Christian Church to turn it into a horrific eternal punishment, as described in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). For everything else you want to know about Hell, see “Hell to Pay: How Religions Use the Threat of Punishment to Terrify, Manipulate, and Control Believers” by David Barash in the special section of Skeptic, Vol. 25, No. 3 (September 6, 2020): 38-43.