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The Life-Changing Power of the Mythical Jesus

jesus changes lives

Jesus 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 fifty years in the Christian church, and twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches, I witnessed first-hand the mighty power of the life-changing Jesus. I know of 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 Jesus, is now out of jail and no longer on drugs. This family member was baptized and he is now a faithful church member.  If “knowing” Jesus causes him to stay off drugs, all praise, and glory, to the mythical 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, BruceI 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 mythical son, Jesus, produced great change. That this change was brought about by belief in a mythical deity is immaterial. All that is required is that people believe the myth is true. This is why the mythical 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 family member 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 on this front, we are likely several lifetimes away from the day when the miracle-working Jesus is returned to his grave.

The family member 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 he 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.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  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.

    • Avatar
      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.’

    • Avatar
      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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    So there are recovery programs that are secular, that don’t refer to a higher power but instead rely on making choices and using cognitive behavioral therapy skills to cope with urges to use/do one’s particular substance or behavior. SMART (self management and recovery training) offers meetings and community like AA, NA, GA, etc, but teaches people (unlike AA) that they DO have power over the substance or behavior of choice. SMART changes its techniques as the science changes, unlike AA.

    But if having a Jesus keeps someone from abusing a substance, fine. Go for it.

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    dale m.

    I wouldn’t poop upon FAITH. It’s not a scientific term anymore than HAPPINESS is. As atheists, would we reject these terms because they R unscientific?

    Let’s be serious for a moment and call a spade a spade.

    We only know that in which we have intimate knowledge of. We have no knowledge of god-like extraterrestrial civilizations, life on other worlds, Wormholes, the Space-Time continuum, multiple dimensions, the multi-verse, reverse Time-Travel ….. an endless list. Yet many atheists and scientists alike actually believe in these concepts. They’re not proven and could all be wrong.

    The real meaning of FAITH is to sustain oneself until one has reached a general scientific consensus as to what is real and what isn’t. We must always be aware of our constantly changing technological level of organization. FAITH is good! It keeps us in forward momentum as we scientifically investigate things. If it doesn’t turn out, FAITH keeps us going until we exhaust all possibilities.

    Now. The difference between Religion and Science is how FAITH is used. FAITH in Religion becomes the target, the object, the end game in which to wrap oneself in at the expense of scientific inquiry ….. whereas Science can spin around on a dime using FAITH as a temporary platform to teleport it into new scientific inquiries. (If that makes any sense).

    So yah. Bruce is correct. FAITH is powerful. It’s what drives capitalist societies, communist societies, Religion and the Sciences.

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    I agree with Archaeopteryx, up-thread. ” Myths and stories can and do have great power to effect change.” They can provide examples, encouragement, hope, and, yes, faith. The Bible is full of them. Stories don’t have to be true to be helpful. Like prayer–a form of talking to yourself, if you’re atheist or agnostic–they can give shape to your desires and ambitions, and spur you on.

    If belief in something beyond yourself and the rest of humanity helps, I’m all for it–unless it becomes something harmful. The QAnon cult and its belief in what Fred Clark, over at Slacktivist, calls “the Satanic Baby Killers,” needs to be refuted at every turn. But myths and stories that help get your through hard times, whether or not they’re true? I’m fine with those.

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    Placebo effect, we’re someone is given a fake pill but it works because the person believes it will work is a real scientific thing.

    I have no problems with someone being religious, most of the time it’s harmless, even beneficial. I do however believe from experience in dealing with people that faith in Jesus only goes so far. It might help someone to feel better, but the root causes of what causes the addiction, the personality mixture, requires proper advice from psychology.

    For instance the Bible might teach you that having a temper is wrong, but what if someone has PTSD? The Bible does not tell you how to get over your PTSD, therefore overcoming the anger.

    And that’s also one of the many dangers of fundamental Christianity. Bible tells you to avoid angry people… but for drug users, alcohol abusers, people with troubled pasts… that anger is from hurting. So I think yes there are at least temporary benefits to belief in higher power but also further opportunities to have even more harm done by being around legalistic fundamental styles of mindset.

  10. Avatar
    Barbara Jackson

    Some pastors do care about their congregation. I saw a PBS documentary last night about the hospitals which must except everyone whether they can pay or not. Some of the people fighting the “privatization” of these hospitals were pastors so their congregation and other poor people could get healthcare. I, as an agnostic would hope people of my group could cooperate with Christians like these to help our society.

  11. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Good morning, Bruce. I hadn’t read this column until now. I’m sorry you have to be in the position of worrying about your relative and his struggles with meth. One scary thing about meth, from what I hear is if you take it before age 20, it can make one schizophrenic. That happened to my late friend, who was a teen when given meth. By age 20 he was done with it, he feared the effects on his mental state. It wasn’t done with HIM though. It aggravated his already chronic and untreated ADHD. Drinking was the only thing that calmed him down, he thought. Of course, he had an abusive childhood, born to his 16- year old mother, who entered a shotgun marriage to the idiot who was five years older. Neither wanted to marry or have kids, they had goals that were different. The girl might have been a champion ice skater, but abortion was illegal then. So, she took out her rage on all four kids, saving her worst for him, the last ” oops baby.”. Wounded people self- medicate. I don’t know your relative’s background, but if there’s trauma there, going to church won’t treat it. A good rehab that addresses trauma most likely will help him. Nothing wrong with attending church if he likes it, but it’s no substitute for rehab. And therapy for PTSD, if he has it. My state has terrible obstacles to getting help, being a ” liberal” state, you wouldn’t think this is the case. We hit wall after wall, while playing the waiting game ! Many rehab places and mental health clinics are fake, scamming the Feds, in it for profit, so beware ! My friend was eligible for the Indian Health Services, but you have to prove enrollment first. He didn’t have access to those docs. One can DIE while playing that waiting game. Most especially if you are homeless ! You’re vulnerable to being attacked, or extreme weather. In his case, both are involved, and the beer didn’t help. The brain is damaged, and needs healing, and only one place had the food and supplements for brain and body healing, but he didn’t have the insurance for it. I wish this one hospital accepted Medi- Cal, it would have saved my friend. Only Medicare and private insurance could get you in. All rehab places should be having the same program, but also they need to accept Medicaid,it should be the law ! Because most of the patients only have Medicaid. .. This is one reason there’s such a high death rate- people shunted into dumps that don’t treat, or good places that are only private pay. Beacon Health Solutions was kicked out of NY for abusing patients, not helping them, run if you are sent to THEM for anything !! They should be locked out of CA. I don’t want anyone else to go though this nightmare ! So I thought I’d share my experience with a similar situation. I wish you success in trying to get help for your family member, Bruce. As you figured out, church alone won’t work, because they see brain disorders as moral issues. Please keep us updated on the relative’s condition. Well, that’s my rant for today.

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    Yulya’s thoughtful commenting made me wonder … although I’m no longer a believer, people wonder why this man is swearing all of a sudden (no need to not curse now I’m not a man burdened with his own behaviour), getting saved was a huge thing for me, it really changed me internally and I thoroughly believed change starts from within (it’s not what goes into the mouth that defilles but what comes out), I made it my mission to change within. Now I am torn between liberation and the feeling that I stopped allowing myself to be tough enough for life (and life is all about worldly things). I sometimes think I’m using your blog for cathartic purposes as I post.

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    Excuse me. I’ve been sober ten years now. Still go to AA on and off. There’s a whole chapter in the Big book to atheists. GOD can stand for good orderly direction or the group can be the Higher Power. I would have no problem sponsoring an atheist and would not tell them they had to get religion.

    Jada it’s ridiculous they made you go to rehab like that. Psychiatrist weaned me off of them in his office over 20 years ago. Took a few months but it worked. They are evil.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Sure, but the founders of AA were Christians, and generally a “higher power” is interpreted as Jesus or the Christian deity. This is not surprising since the United States is a Christian nation. Jesus is part of our DNA. One of my sons attended numerous AA and NA meetings in northwest Ohio. He was quite irritated and frustrated by the overt Christianity in these meetings, including attempts to evangelize him. Seemed a whole lot like church, to him.

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