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The Life-Changing Power of the Mythical Jesus

jesus changes livesJesus has the power to change lives. At one time, Jesus wrought change in my life, as he has for millions of American Evangelical Christians. Having spent 50 years in the Christian church, and 25 years as an Evangelical pastor, I witnessed first-hand the mighty power of the life-changing Jesus. I know of many alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, murderers, and thieves who are now exemplary citizens due to Jesus and his ability to change and transform lives. I know of a family member who, thanks to the Jesus, is now out of jail and no longer on drugs. Recently, this family member was baptized and he is now a faithful member of Crossroads Baptist Church, (link no longer active) a Southern Baptist church in Newark, Ohio. If “knowing” Jesus causes my nephew to stay off drugs, all praise and glory to the mythic powers of the son of God.

Those of us who were once card-carrying members of Club Jesus™ know firsthand the transformative powers of Jesus. While we are now atheists and agnostics, we cannot deny the fact that religion does have the power to transform substance abusers and criminals into model citizens. Wait a minute, Bruce. I thought atheists deny the existence of the Christian God? Correct. Here’s the thing that most atheists and Evangelicals fail to understand: the transformative powers of Jesus have nothing to do with whether Jesus is who Evangelicals and the Bible claim he is. Myths and stories can and do have great power to effect change. Politicians and preachers alike understand this, using myths and stories to bring about political, religious, social, and personal change.

American history is littered with stories about how sermons from a mythical book about a mythical God and his son Jesus produced great change. That this change was brought to be by belief in a mythical God is immaterial. All that is required is that people believe the myth to be true. This is why the mythic Jesus and his miracle-working supernatural power is still a powerful force in America. Substance abusers go to church, hear about the wonder-working power of Jesus, make a decision to turn their lives over to him, and their lives are transformed. While many “saved” substance abusers will return to their addictions, some do find lasting deliverance from their demons.

How then, should atheists respond to such stories? Perhaps we need to determine what is more important: destroying the myths or seeing lives put back on the right track. Take Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a program devoted to helping substance abusers get clean. AA’s appeal to a “higher power” drives many atheists nuts. Pointing to AA’s group and accountability dynamics, atheists rightly say that a “higher power” has nothing to with substance abusers kicking their habits. Fine, but participants “believe” God is helping them to work the program, to take another step forward in their continued sobriety. Are programs such as AA a crutch? Sure, but all of us, now and then, need crutches to helps us walk.

Should we ridicule and demean those who find help and support from religiously oriented institutions and programs? Isn’t the ultimate goal the betterment of society? Yes, I wish people could find help without getting entangled in the mind-numbing web of Evangelical Christianity. I wish my nephew and others like him could find help for their addictions without having to turn to Jesus and his emissaries on earth. But wishing changes nothing. Christianity still gives life, purpose, and meaning to a majority of Americans, and atheists such as I need to accept this. Until secularists, humanists, and non-Evangelical Christians can provide comprehensive help to people struggling with addictions, addicts have little choice but to turn to religiously-oriented programs. It matters not whether Jesus is who Christians claim he is. Addicts want and need help, and Jesus is ready and waiting to help them. If non-Christians want things to be different, then we must be willing to invest our time and money in developing “ministries” to help those in need. While good work is being done of this front, we are likely several lifetimes away from the day when the miracle-working Jesus is returned to his grave.

One of my sons had a substance abuse problem, one that resulted in him stealing medicine from his father.  I am proud to say that my son has been drug-free for a number of years. If religion played a part in restoring him to mental and physical wholeness, so be it. All I care about is that his life is back on track and he is a happily married and father to four awesome girls. He is gainfully employed and our once-fractured relationship is now restored. While he himself finds it frustrating to attend group meetings where Bible-thumpers remind him that the only reason he is clean is Jesus, he has no other option. While my son attends the Catholic church with his family and is a spiritual person, he no longer believes in the Evangelical version of God.

The nephew I mentioned earlier? I hope that he finds Jesus to be the addiction counselor that sticks closer to him than a brother. All that matters to me is that he finds mental and physical deliverance from methamphetamine. He has been down the Jesus path before, having made numerous professions of faith and rededications at the family church, the Newark Baptist Temple. None of these previous attempts worked, and in time my nephew found himself back in the gutter, homeless or in jail, losing countless jobs and destroying his relationships with family members in the process. I know that if he continues on this path it will only lead to continued misery and heartache, and likely result in incarceration and early death. If Jesus can help him break free of his addictions and turn him into a productive citizen, count me as one atheist who will say AMEN.


  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Modern studies have shown that success in kicking addiction does NOT correlate with attending group help meetings; most people who successfully kick it do it on their own, without help or with real therapy. A key thing is something in their lives that matters more than the drug/drink, such as children. OTOH, that’s a statistical analysis, individual mileage may vary, and some people find group support helpful.

    Some secular support groups, like LifeRing, have online support, too.

    But, I can’t fault anyone for using whatever psychological tool available for kicking a habit. However, I’m leery of groups that tell people the line about them being nothing, absolutely nothing, without God/Higher Power. I’m not sure it is truly helpful. It by executing one’s own agency that one eventually walks away from the addiction.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      I think, in general, being around likeminded people is something we humans find encouraging and helpful. This blog is testimony to this fact. While many people successfully overcome substance abuse on their own, many of these same people will testify to the help they received in group settings. Over the years, this blog has been frequented by thousands of people. Many drop by for a time and move on. Others buy real estate, enjoying this blog ‘s friendly view. ?

      Few in life make it to the end without the help of others.

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      Having had a former dependency on benzos and having been to a 12-step program rehab, I certainly do agree with you that that particular program was an aching thorn in my side for 28 days. There had been no intervention, no one begging me to stop. I just decided one day I couldn’t live like that anymore and my psychiatrist’s only ‘exit strategy’ was rehab. Of course, I’ve learned since then that more skilled doctors have better exit strategies that don’t involve steps or higher powers or rehab, for that matter. If you’re highly motivated, as I was, they can successfully wean you off of them themselves.

      At any rate, the moment I decided to go, it was already all over but the detox. I never attended another AA or NA meeting after the day I left rehab (well, one reason was because I left there completely physically run down because of little sleep and a big, honking case of pneumonia that had me housebound for about six weeks), and that was five years ago and I’m still clean and sober. I’ve never had any desire to take benzos again. I did do it on my own, in no small part because I know I would not survive another bout with addiction. Benzos are just as likely to kill you as narcotics are.

      But, I never had any doubt that those who credited ‘god’ or a ‘higher power’ were, indeed, making that decision ON THEIR OWN every day not to use. I wanted to tell them all so, but my pride is not a bigger deal than whatever they credit for keeping them sober. So, if it works for them – or that’s what they believe – fine. Better that than relapsing. But you’re right, god or higher power or whatever, they really do accomplish it themselves. All I know is that I got really, really tired of hearing the same stories from so many of the same people about the worst, most fucked up time in their lives. It does no good to wallow in or forever live in that place. The time comes to move on, and tell more positive stories of how sobriety has improved their lives over the years. I never heard much of that, though, and I certainly didn’t intend to wallow in one of the most difficult, painful times of my life.

      I wish I had known about secular programs back then. That’s what I would have chosen and would have fought tooth and nail for my insurance to pay for it as readily as they did the 12-step program.

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        Oh, and Bill W didn’t die completely clean and sober, either. While he had abandoned alcohol, he still used LSD and other hallucinogens to escape whatever ‘demons’ that seemed to pursue him all of his life. I just couldn’t take seriously someone who claimed to get straightened out but clearly never did. I don’t think my life would be much improved if I weren’t taking benzos but thought LSD or mescalin were A-ok. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try to convince anyone else I had gotten all the right answers in that manner, either.

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    The ‘Welsh Revival’ of 1904 is still accredited here with turning thousands away from ‘the demon drink’ and to religious conversion. Life was unremittingly grim back then, most men worked in quarries and mines, got silicosis in their 30s and coughed themselves to death in their 40s. The revivalist preachers offered the only way out to those who knew they were drinking themselves to death, would leave a destitute widow and kids and had no hope. Had an AA-type of organisation sent its workers into those communities offering a way out, I’ve always thought they they would have had similar success. It was a sort of mass hysteria that gave hope to the wretched. As it was, many of the chapels that opened around 1904 and boasted huge congregations, closed within 2-3 years. But believers here still hold prayer meetings for ‘The flames of revival to once again sweep our land.’

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      Bruce Gerencser

      Ah, the Welsh Revivals. Back in my Calvinistic days, I did a lot reading about the revivals. At the time I thought, oh that God would that today! While revivals of all kinds “seem” to be supernatural, careful examination yields sociological, cultural, and economics reasons for their existence and power. Faith keeps Christians from seeing things as they are.

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    Here’s the thing that most atheists and Evangelicals fail to understand: the transformative powers of Jesus have nothing to do with whether Jesus is who Evangelicals and the Bible claim he is. Myths and stories can and do have great power to effect change.

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    Evangelical religion is poison. It is poison. Sometimes a little poison (AA, for instance) allows people to tap into a well of human strength that was previously stripped from them by lack or outright abuse in their lives. The learned through experience that they were not loved, and therefore love was unavailable. The human need, of course, remained. Groups like AA are so far from Evangelical that some in the church would call them entirely secular (and you know how evil secular is).
    A problem in atheism, a big problem, (one that PZ Myers speaks to quite regularly) is the disappointing and mud-puddle shallowness of people generally, that atheists fail to provide a social structure that is humanizing and caring beyond denying the woo-woo of belief. Just calling the lie does not offer a human hand to somebody in need, in particular need. Believers maintain that being saved frees us to serve and they are sometimes correct in that addicts and sufferers can sometimes find a way to refocus and begin to help the self they hate so much. They do this by saying woooo-woo and it does allow for movement in many cases. I know of few atheists who would attack this aspect of poisoning. Many Rx drugs are poison too, carefully dosed to achieve a reduction of negative symptoms, to free the person to heal.
    One trouble with religion is that they are armed by greed to spread the gospel of hatred and hellfire, of disrespect for people who are not in the club. Who would complain if they kept their greed to themselves and just served their master? But patriarchal Christianity is a blight that harms us. It is an emotional rape of children, of the innocent, the harmed, the weak. The Great Commission is a Crusade: As was said in the Cathar Crusades, when the thousands upon thousands had surrounded a city and breached its walls. A fighter asked the religious authority how to tell who was true Catholic in the city and who was not, as in, who do we kill? The great man of Christian wisdom from Rome said, Kill them all, kill them ALL…. God will know his own.

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    Every once in a while I miss that crutch. Even though religion has harmed me in many ways, the idea of a God/Jesus helping you and standing on your side can be very helpful and powerful. Now I have to do it alone, by myself. Most of the time no longer having a God or religion is empowering and gives me a sense of freedom that I didn’t have before but sometimes it does feel lonier. It helps to remind myself whether I really want it if it isn’t real… What also helps is knowing that my ‘Jesus’ was just an encouraging voice in my head and that I haven’t actually lost that as it is simply a part of myself.

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