An Atheist thoughts on reading the Gospel of St Matthew

I’ve actually read most of the bible and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in particular.

But I decided to re-read Matthew just as a refresher.

3 Parts to the Gospel
It really breaks into 3 different part.
1) Historical information
2) Magic/Miracle work
3) Christian Philosophy

The 1st part is only moderately interesting. I suspect the Bible is more historically accurate than most non-religious people believe. I think many of the places and people existed and many of the events happened in some form or another.

The 2nd part is interesting, but only in the same way that other fables and legends are interesting. Unfortunately I think they mostly work as a mechanism for people to justify why they can’t possibly be as good as Jesus or to solidify the status of the special character. “Hey, Jesus turned water into wine… if I can’t do that how can I possibly love my enemies.”

The 3rd part is the one I find the most important as it is fundamentally actionable.

General Summary
Reading through it again I’m left with 2 overwhelming conclusions:
1) In 2,000 years I really wish we would have made more moral progress than we have.
2) There are incredibly few Christians in the world… by that I mean people who actually try to follow Jesus in their actions. If you put the bar at the execution level there’s probably like 100 Christians in the last 2000 years, but I think that bar is just way too high… so we’ll settle for people who TRY.

What does Jesus expect from us?

I am consistently amazed by the simplicity of Jesus’ message. While it is iterated and stated many different ways it really comes down to the “golden rule” which is of course “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I think MOST of Christian teaching is right there in the sermon on the mount. Jesus is very clear about fulfilling rather than abolishing the existing law. That is, Jesus is iterating on the past moral directives which were lacking. This is why I believe that Jesus’ teachings sort of replace things like the 10 commandments. They are morally superior versions in that they move away from vengeance, retribution, and punishment and move to compassion, empathy and self-sacrifice.

Who is blessed?
1) those poor in spirit
2) the mourners
3) the meek
4) those who hunger for righteousness
5) the Merciful
6) the clean of heart
7) the peacemakers
8) those persecuted for the sake of righteousness

This pretty much locks out people who are angry, vengeful and judgmental. It takes out people who support war and violence. It takes out people who are arrogant and selfish and proud.

What do we do about Anger?
Ok, we all get pissed off at things, people, events. What does Jesus say?
“But what I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

That’s right, even THINKING angry thoughts risks damnation… and if you have them you need to go to the person they are about, reconcile and then move forward with your life. Makes a lot of sense… and if people did that I think they’d be much more at peace with themselves and each other.

So think about someone you are angry at right now, go tell them; try and rectify it and see how you feel. Personally I think this is super simple and super hard.

What about making oaths and promises?
Turns out all that “swearing to God” or “swearing on the Bible” is totally wrong. At first I thought this was a bit silly, but the reasoning is so good.
“But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. and do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Basically this is a commentary on how powerless we are to make fundamental changes and when we reinforce our yesses and noes with backup that we can’t control we’re just over reaching. Instead just say yes and no and mean it. This is about understanding the limits of our power… that is it’s pretty small. We can control our own decisions in a limited scope and should do so decisively and honestly without the backing of cosmic forces we can’t control.

What about all these bad people around us? Rapists, murderers, liars.
Retaliation is a big force in people’s lives. Let’s see what Jesus says we should do:
I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

That’s just brutally hard. Not only to you have to NOT retaliate, but you have to invite MORE suffering from those who would put it on you. What kind of masochistic message is this?
On the surface this may make little sense, but in the history of peaceful resistance it does. Gandhi used this to great effect as he said when people inflict pain on you and you don’t strike back it eventually hurts them as well; and is a mechanism for bringing out their humanity. It requires the person to REALLY believe in causes beyond themselves… that is if you behave this way you may very well get killed but your death will be a strong message that will accumulate with other strong messages.

It sees “evil” as a giant pile outside of the individual and if you respond to evil with evil you simply make the pile larger. All you can do is try to make the pile smaller. Life and death of an individual are far less important than the overall size of the evil pile. This is an extreme version of self sacrifice and it’s really tough because most people who risk self sacrifice do, in fact, die anonymously and don’t go on to win noble peace prizes or have books written about them.

There’s also a universal rule there because of course if EVERYONE acted this way there would be no violence or poverty or cruelty. There is violence and poverty and cruelty because people think OTHER people won’t act this way and they are just defending themselves. It’s a completely rational position, just really hard to execute as an individual.

It’s common to take the position “well, I’ll stop being violent when everyone else does” but it is precisely this attitude that leads to accumulated evil. In fact you have to stop being violent most when others are directing it towards you.

That’s expected behavior and a pretty high bar. I certainly don’t meet it.

What about giving and helping. I heard all these poor people are either secretly well off or on drugs.
The good news is it’s pretty simple. The bad news is, it’s pretty hard:
Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

That pretty much sums it up. If someone needs something and asks you for help, give them help. There’s no special 10% rule. There’s no “but what if they are a drug addict” clause. There’s no modifications or exceptions of any kind. It’s just really simple.

In truth we can not know the individual circumstances of everyone. So when you do not give money to a beggar because he might be on drugs or lying; but you buy a coffee or a pair of shoes without knowing if someone in the chain who is on drugs or lying will benefit you are bending your morality to suit your purpose. Jesus is pretty consistent in his teachings and I suspect if he were alive today to clarify, he’d just say the same thing:

“If you see someone who needs something and you can help them, help them. What’s so damn hard about that to understand? Why are you people trying to make my simple message so damn complicated… just fucking help each other and shit will get better, OK?”

What about people that hate and harm us? Not just the evil rapist or terrorist but the person who is directly targeting US?
There’s bad people out there who we’re not attacking. They strike first, they do bad things to us and say bad things about us, what about them?
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing from others? do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Yup. You’re expected to be as good as God. Love everyone exactly the same amount. Pretty simple.

This pretty much is an anti-social media echo chamber message as well. If you surround yourself with people who agree with you and group up to attack people who don’t… you’re doing it wrong.

This is another common thread in the Gospels. Jesus is pretty egalitarian. He references how the Father or God pretty much grants the same environment for people regardless of their behavior (i.e. sun shines on the just and the unjust, etc.). This is a powerful message because it requires complete inner peace. It is exactly when the attack is the most painful and the most personal that you must love that person and pray for them.

It’s scary to think of the implications. Imagine someone who burns down your house or murders your children. Could you love them? Could you meet this bar? Or are you just someone who loves those who love you already? I don’t think I could, but it seems like the right direction.

What about money?
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

I’m guessing Jesus wouldn’t have been a very rich person in any time period with that attitude. Despite the spin that I hear and read, the pure Christian message on money is pretty simple… and if you believe it along with the other parts of Jesus’ message, you won’t have a lot. So my conclusion is… there aren’t any rich Christians. I’ve seem people justify vast wealth rectified with Christianity by using all kinds of Bible verses, but I think this message is REALLY clear and consistent. Besides if you are giving your money away to people who need it more than you and there’s tons of poor people in the world, that’s pretty much the balance right there. Again, I don’t meet this bar. Not even close.
But isn’t salvation just accepting Jesus into your heart?
No. I hear this all the time, but Jesus is super clear on it:
Not every one who says to me ‘Lord. Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”

That’s right, Jesus expects you to do things as well as say things. So if you just say the words and think the thoughts, it doesn’t do much good. You are primarily evaluated based on your actions.

Implicitly if you do behave in this way but don’t say “Lord, Lord” you are still building your house on that rock. Deeds matter MORE than belief. You can dream about that perfect house but you gotta build it.

I didn’t cover everything. It’s amazing that so much is compressed into a fairly small amount of text. Of course the interpretation of that sermon has filled many thousands of pages in many thousands of books.

It’s a bit sad that in 2000 years humanity has advanced technology to incredible degrees but a simple moral message is just as difficult to execute today as it was back then. I think humanity in general is improved but the evolution of morality is quite a bit more difficult than the evolution of technology, it seems.

Is it better to focus on what you want or what you would be willing to give up?

Ok. I know what you’re thinking:

“What does Super Mario Kart have to do with focusing on what you want vs. what you would give.”

Well, bear with me for a few minutes and if you still feel that way, please flame away in the comments below.


As a species, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want. Maybe it’s a better job, a new relationship, a fancy car, a dream vacation, more (or less) time with kids, friendlier in-laws; you get the picture.

All this thinking takes a lot of time and energy and often at the end of it we just feel less fulfilled than we did before.

“Ok Hermann, thanks for telling me what I already know.”

Sure thing! I think we all know that this is a giant waste of time and what we should be doing is acting on all those constructive things we know we want to do: grow a garden, learn calculus, take our kids out for a walk, eat healthier and exercise.


…not that we don’t know what we’re SUPPOSED to do; but rather that we can’t seem to do it; at least not consistently. So we beat ourselves up over and over again.

Now we’re double wasting energy. We’re wasting energy thinking about stuff we want AND we’re wasting energy beating ourselves up over it. Imagine if we could just harness that energy into constructive activities.

As a species we’d probably we mining asteroids and colonizing space by now!

But we’re not.

“Wait a minute, I’ve been reading for a bit now and you still haven’t said shit about Mario Kart.”

Ok, Mario Kart.

As a game it can teach us a lot about this problem.


Well Mario Kart requires you to focus on what you are doing, where you are going and being able to respond to rapid changes. It punishes lack of focus. But the designers put a fun little mechanic in the game to unknowing thwart your efforts here. It’s that little  box at the top that contains special items you pick up on the road and that can, hopefully, help you win.

The problem is you can only have one at a time.

So while you’re racing away (or fighting away) part of your brain is thinking about which item you need next. Worse, if you HAVE an item part of your brain is also trying to figure out if the item you have is better than one you might see in the world somewhere. So you’re doing all this comparing and evaluating and thinking instead of paying attention to the road and the things on it.

Now in Mario Kart the options are the same over and over again and so you gain mastery through repetition. Real life is a bit messier unfortunately… and also way less cool and colorful.


So I think a great way to approach this is to focus on what you are willing to give up rather than on what you want. This helps in a number of ways:

1) The list is shorter.
2) You have a lot more control over what you will give up.
3) It’s way easier to commit to NOT doing things than to doing them :P.
4) Over time you will put much more energy into fewer things rather than less energy into more things.

Let’s assume you think this might be a neat idea, how can you try it?


Once you’ve finished reading this post, break out a piece of paper or type “notepad” on your computer or use some app. It doesn’t matter… some way you can write.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about what to write on for God’s sake or we’ll never get anywhere!

Then write down all the things you are currently doing in your life. Maybe you’re writing a book, learning how to cook, taking tennis lessons, learning how to invest, etc etc. When I did this at first it was kind of hard because it wasn’t obvious that I was doing much. That’s the point. Don’t think about projects that you are regularly doing and making huge progress on. Include ALL those projects you thought about, kind of started, think about doing again, but they don’t really go anywhere. Especially if you think about them at night or in the bathroom when you tell yourself “I should really write more of that novel tomorrow.” That’s the meat we’re after.

Once you have that list, start removing things from it. Commit to stopping those things.
That new garden. Forbidden from doing it.
Learning Spanish? Not anymore.
Becoming a master pizza maker? Nope.

Then allow yourself to pick one thing from the list that will survive. That’s the new thing you’re going to do.

But we’re going to make it easy on ourselves. We only have to commit for a month and we only have to commit a small amount of time. Try 30 minutes a day. Or maybe an hour 3 times a week. It doesn’t matter. Something that feels easy so that there’s little chance of failure to commit. Then schedule that time.

STEP 5: MAKE A SPECIFIC COMMITMENTDon’t say “I’ll write my book this year.”

Instead say, “every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:00-9:30PM I will do nothing other than write. I’m not allowed to pursue any other things on my want list. If I have time to pursue other things, I’ll write.” 

Then hang up that list of things that you aren’t doing; that’s your forbidden list of things you said you wanted but you never acted on. If you feel yourself wanting to do those things, look at that list and instead work on the thing that survived the giving up exercise. Don’t fret! In a few months those things will get their time if you like.

STEP 6: REPEATThen at the end of the month take a look and re-evaluate. I bet you’ll have achieved more than you thought and you’ll be much more hesitant to switch your focus.


If you can find a “buddy” or someone to do this with, it’s even better. A spouse can be great, but also bad. I suggest someone who is interested in your growth as a person, but doesn’t have a relationship that will be directly effected by your choice. Back when I was trying to lost the “last 15 lbs” I used dietbet and it worked very well for this.


I SUCK at this. I am an incredibly scatter brained and unfocused person. I love random things and I can spend vast amounts of time on obscure things and then completely switch at a moment’s notice. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m trying to improve it all the time. I’ve found by having a list of things I am forbidden from doing it helps me focus my time and energy a little bit better and, over time, hopefully form better habits.

What about you? Do you have this problem? What do you do to make progress on things you want?