I struggled with religion and my faith for more than 40 years. If religion is a collection of people who see their belief as the only true way, how would it be possible for a common understanding? If, on the other hand, religion was really a personal belief to be practiced in private without concern for what others believed, there would be no reason for interfaith wars. Religious freedom would be a reality. Where would one go to find acceptance of that idea? I found my answer in Thomas Jefferson. He and other thinkers like Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine, of the late 18th century, believed that Jesus’ original teachings had been grossly distorted for the benefit of the church. Jefferson was so convinced that he wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (also known as the Jefferson Bible). Of course, I bought a copy from the Smithsonian and have read it cover-to-cover several times. One quote from Matthew 6: 5-8, strikes home, “…and when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in their synagogues or on the street corners that they may be seen by man. They have their reward. When you pray, enter into a closet, shut the door and pray to thy Father in secret for thy Father seeth in secret and shall reward thee openly.” Jesus himself saw no value in the church!
There is no question, according to Jefferson, Priestly, et al, that the clergy has purposely mystified religion to dominate and control the masses. In its infancy, the U.S. was heavily dominated by religion yet Jefferson was able to author and get passed the Religious Freedom Act in VA. (the basis for our separation of church and state). During the election of 1800, John Adams accused him of being anti-religion and even an atheist. Jefferson countered by saying he was extremely religious but just didn’t believe in the distortions. Although an ardent believer in Jesus, he did not believe in the holy trinity, virgin birth, or original sin. Those that subscribed to that philosophy came to be called “Deists,” a label I have adopted myself. Recently, seriously questioning the rantings of the religious right pertaining to socialism, I began a project (still in the formative stages) which I call “The Socialists teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.” Ignoring all the interpretations of what he supposedly said, I searched for what he actually said as quoted in the Gospels. The results are eye-opening and make one question what those Evangelist’s are reading…It ain’t the bible.
When I struggle with a concept for as long as I did with religion, I began to believe I was alone in my perceptions. Rightly or wrongly, I wanted a label for my beliefs yet none of the common ones fit. Atheist didn’t work because I do believe in God (cosmic creator). Jesus, I believe existed, but not as a deity, just a man (a great philosopher). Therefore I could not accept the holy trinity or the virgin birth. Christianity concocted original sin so it would have a reason to create a Messiah to deliver us from sin. Finally, I questioned, if there is a God (which I believed) then why does he/she not intervene against plight and plunder? Oddly enough, I never allowed those concerns to interfere with my academic pursuits of history, particularly American History, until the day I discovered Jefferson’s writings. There, 200+ years ago was a cadre of learned men who believed near what I do, and they explained the lack of divine interference by defining Deism: the belief that God exists and created the world, but takes no part in its function. My problem with that philosophy is, if he takes no part in the function, why pray? Also, under that system, would there be an afterlife? Always questions, but I am much more comfortable with where I am theologically today than ever before.