Saturday, 28 April 2012

What God Wants

This post will be something of a loose sequel to my previous thoughts, on Joyce Meyer, which generated some interesting conversation.

I've noticed an additional quirk, of Joyce's, that certainly isn't unique to her.  She quite frequently speaks of what "God wants" (or desires/commands etc.).  Often she'll preface the comment in question by also saying something like "I believe", "I really believe", or "I really believe, with all of my heart"; after which point she proceeds to speak, quite confidently and comfortably, on God's behalf.  Are people more likely to buy into what Meyer is saying, if she "really believes" it?  What's the point of even mentioning this?  Of course you believe what you're about to assert; if you didn't, you wouldn't be saying it in the first place.  Then again, perhaps it's true that parishioners more eagerly embrace things that their pastors and, in this case, celebrity speakers "really believe, with all of (their) heart".  Somehow it seems "extra" true if the person, delivering the message, feels and believes it deep down in the pits of their soul.  Even still, I find that phrasing a little odd, and bordering on the illogical, especially considering how often she employs it.  Does "really believing" something make it any more likely to be true?  Hardly.

Recently, as these thoughts were still floating around in the back on my mind somewhere, I stumbled into a book called "God Wants You to Be Happy".  My first inclination was to dismiss it, as nothing more than a fringe title, perhaps authored by someone who held to some mildly unorthodox Protestant views.  But then I noticed an endorsement, on the front cover, from none other than Ruth Graham (the Rev. Billy Graham's daughter).  She says, "If you want to know happiness as God intends it, read this book!".  (Side note: A few years ago I met and conversed with Ruth and, although she's been through a lot in her life, many Christians I know personally speak highly of her current ministry.)  I flipped to the inside cover and, lo and behold, more endorsements from people that I would consider to be very much in the mainstream of evangelical thought (ie. Dr. Kevin Leman & Pete Wilson).

What strikes me about this, once again, is the whole notion of speaking for God.  Christians do it routinely.  It's another one of those weird dynamics that I didn't pick up on, while I was still a believer, since I guess it just seemed so normal at the time.  Some Christians, of course, will disagree with the specific notion that God wants you to be happy and, perhaps, they will even be able to muster up a few Bible verses to "contradict" it.  I would have been inclined to do so myself, in fact, only just a few short years ago.  But I now think this approach entirely misses the forest for the trees.

Here's the problem...the Bible says all sorts of things and, on occasion, even contradictory things on the exact same topic.  So it just doesn't work, when arguing about theology, to use the Bible as though it were a weapon.  This is the deeper conundrum that Christians face, without even realizing it, as they continue daily in their misguided attempts to speak "for" God to one another. Years ago, for example, I remember trying to sort through Calvinism & Arminianism.  These two doctrines are very clearly at odds, and I really wanted to know which one was correct.  Can a believer lose their salvation (as Arminianism would suggest), or can't they (as Calvinism would suggest)?  Does everyone have an equal shot at salvation (as Arminianism would suggest) or does God elect (either some or all) believers ahead of time (as Calvinism would suggest)? Believe it or not the conclusion I came to, after much investigation, is that the Bible actually teaches both doctrines.  That's right!  Both sides can be justified Biblically, and quite amply I might add.  At the time I chalked it up to God's ways being mysterious, and I never worried myself with the issue again.

This is just one example.  There are hundreds more I could have used.  So, believer, before you come against one of your own, who claims to be speaking on God's behalf, just remember that they likely have Biblical justification for what they are saying.  And there are probably also Biblical arguments against certain of your Christian beliefs.  I'm willing to grant that it's "possible" one of you is simply wrong, and the other right, but I want you to think about that the most likely scenario?  Or is it, dare I say it, more likely that the Bible simply contradicts itself?  Are you willing to consider that possibility?  (I'm not even asking you to assent to it, only to consider it. Will you?)  Perhaps the Bible itself is partly to blame for the fact that there are 38, 000 Christian denominations in the world today.  As John Loftus says, in chapter 7 of "The Christian Delusion", "What We've Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate" (on God's behalf).

If you're indeed willing to entertain the latter thought, and most Christians won't, let me follow it up by asking you this...supposing it were true that the Bible has legitimate contradictions, in what sense would it then be "the word of God"?  Wouldn't genuine contradictions, even one, demonstrate that it wasn't a perfect book?  If not, how many real contradictions would be required to demonstrate this?  10?  100?  1000?  10, 000?  And, if it's not a perfect book, why do you believe that God had anything to do with it at all?  The onus of proof is now firmly on you, as the believer, to demonstrate to the rest of us that the Bible is somehow of divine origin.  All signs point in the other direction.  

So the next time you hear a preacher say "God wants" this or that I want you to take notice. Stop, and wonder to yourself how it is that they know what God wants.  A Bible verse, even one that seems to back up their particular claim, won't cut it.  Unless God has ordained the very words of each and every individual Biblical author (as many Christians in fact believe) the whole premise of speaking for God falls totally to pieces.  Simply "believing", that you're somehow in the loop on God's desires, is not enough.  You have to ground those beliefs with actual evidence.

Monday, 23 April 2012

On Being Ignorant

I've noticed a common theme among de-conversion stories.  Well, actually, there are several common themes; but the one I am speaking of here is becoming acutely (and even painfully) aware of your own ignorance.  Christianity has a way of making its adherents feel as if they already grasp the really "big stuff".  As an unintended result many Christians slowly lose curiosity and, over an extended period of time, become unintentionally ignorant of their own burgeoning ignorance.

Now, please don't misunderstand me.  I'm sincerely not trying to throw rocks.  This isn't an atheist's way of trash talking believers.  It's just that I used to be something of a "go to" Christian myself; believed, by churchgoing friends & associates, to be very well informed.  They still think of me this way.  And in some ways I was (and am) well informed, on Biblical/theological arguments & issues; y'know, the "big stuff".  

However, looking back, I now realize that I used to be remarkably uninformed re: a large number of other areas that are quite relevant to Christian belief; for example, I knew next to nothing about recent findings in biblical criticism, archaeology, evolution, or cosmology.  These fields, and many others I haven't named, are inexorably connected, to the claims made by Christianity, yet I knew very little about any of them. I think this is common in Christian circles.  

It's a subtle thread of anti-intellectualism that lies essentially hidden, but runs through to the very heart of Christian culture, seeping out in a variety of ways.  I've been mentally noting some examples, over these past few months, as they come quite organically to my attention (remember, as an "in the closet" atheist, I am still surrounded by Christians day in and day out in the workplace).  

Here is my top 5:

5) "All you need is this book"

Christians believe the Bible is the ultimate guidebook to EVERYTHING.  It's not that they don't read other books (although some of them don't); it's just that they assume the Bible speaks more wisely, to every topic it touches, than a "regular" book possibly ever could.  If you doubt this, just go to your local Christian bookstore and read the back cover of a few dozen Christian books.  It doesn't matter the subject; sex, love, marriage, dating, parenting, you name is simply assumed that the Bible contains greater wisdom, on the issue at hand, than literally any other book on the face of the planet. Why would someone who believes this bother reading a large number of non-Christian books, by so called "experts", on topics the Bible already speaks clearly to?  They can't possibly match up.

4) "It's too long to read" (just tell me the conclusion so I can judge it immediately)

I work with a very bright (and talented) Christian girl, in her twenties, who generally refuses to read anything that is more than a few paragraphs long.  She frequently deletes e-mails, or even bows out of staff conversations, simply because they would require her to read too much background material.  I'm not kidding.  At the same time, this girl is extremely confident in her beliefs on spiritual matters.  She knows that she knows that she knows that Jesus is the only way, and the Bible is the word of God.  I have never seen her display so much as a whiff of doubt re: her Christian beliefs.  Has she ever read a skeptical book?  Nope.  I don't believe so.  Does she properly understand the theory of evolution?  Absolutely not.  But yet she knows she's right!  About all of it!  How does she "know" this exactly??  

You can't learn if you don't read.  A lot.  For certain personality types reading feels like work, yes, but it's worth the investment.  And the more you read the more you learn. Popular culture won't teach you what books can teach you.  Sorry. 

3) "Just trust"

I've spoken before, about the manner in which Christians conflate the ideas of belief and trust (as if they were precisely the same thing).  In fact, I consider it to be one of the most important posts that I've done on this blog to date.  So I won't repeat myself.  I'll just add that when Christians urge unbelievers to "just trust" they are, in so doing, asking the atheist to dumb things down.  It's like saying "those are all really great questions, many of which we can't actually answer, but if you'll 'just trust' it will all be o.k."

And as I've posited previously, on numerous occasions, what sort of God would condemn people to eternal punishment because of honest intellectual doubt?  

Only a monster would do such a thing.  Please think honestly about that.

2) "I'm offended!"

There has been much talk, in the atheist community, about how to best handle it when believers play the "I am offended!" card; and some of them play it often.  My own view is that people should be treated with respect (unless/until they prove themselves unworthy of that respect).  Having said that I also agree with the observation, made most notably by Richard Dawkins, that religion has been unfairly accorded a special place in our society.  A person's religious beliefs should not be viewed as untouchable, as in free from critique, anymore so than their beliefs on politics or literally any other topic.

I've also noticed that when Christians say "I'm offended!", it's often just their slick way of trying to shut the current conversation down.  You can see this, for example, in the q&a section of this debate.  Several believers made their way to the microphone, deeply emotional, with the express purpose of registering their offense at Richard Carrier's well thought out ideas.  Never mind the evidence he presented.  Who cares about that? Doggone it they just wanted him to know how "offended!" they were!  

And in so doing it became crystal clear, to the rest of us, that they didn't truly understand the arguments that were being made to begin with.  How unfortunate. 

1) "We need more humility"

I've also spoken before about how I consider humility to be one of the single greatest virtues.  I really do.  So why am I throwing an appeal for humility in with a list of things that supposedly promote ignorance?  I think it comes down to what is meant by the word humility.  What I'm objecting to is the use of the word "humility" as a stand in for "ignorance".  For example, I have sometimes heard Christians say things like "well, the truth is none of us know how it all began so I just think we need more humility".  What are the implications of this comment?  It might as well read, "well, the truth is none of us know how it all began so why bother trying to figure it out."  See the problem there? To be perfectly clear I think it's good for us to acknowledge that we haven't figured everything out.  Not even close.  In fact, there are probably things that we'll never be able to figure out.  All scientists realize this.  But it shouldn't stop us from pursuing the really tough questions with vigor.  What's ironic is that it's Christians themselves who hold the less humble worldview generally (see the Sam Harris quote in the second to last paragraph of this post).

As I said, off the top, my goal in this post is not just to rag on Christians.  I'm trying to make a point.  And, of course, it goes without saying that there are some believers who are well versed in areas outside of Christian theology.  But I believe these Christians are the exception, not the rule, especially in evangelical circles.   

By this point I've probably read a few hundred de-conversion stories, and awareness of one's own ignorance is perhaps the single most common theme.  I now know how little I know.  And I know a whole heck of a lot more than I used to.  But I make it a point to learn a little more each day.  It's one of the main differences between the man I was, as a Christian, and the person I strive to be today.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A Bad Weekend For Our Sins

Recently I re-watched a DVD that was of tremendous encouragement to me, during my de-conversion a few years ago.  I'm normally not a fan of monologues, but Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" is a noteworthy exception. She somehow manages to turn life's most serious topics (religion, sickness, death, doubt etc.) into things we can all laugh about together.  As reviewer Ira Glass put it, "...against all common sense, Julia is making something funny that has no business being funny".

This one woman play tells the story of Julia's own personal quest for truth (she was raised Catholic, but I won't spoil the ending for you).  She manages to make numerous piercing insights throughout, all the while maintaining a lighthearted tone.  Honestly, I don't know how she does it but, she pulls it off in spades.  There is nary so much as a hint of bitterness in Julia's delivery and, for this reason, I would even feel comfortable in recommending the DVD to Christians.  In fact my wife was still a strong believer, when we first watched it together, although I was in the early stages of doubt.

Near the beginning, Julia recounts a hilarious "pitch", given by a couple of Mormon boys who came to her home.  She follows it up this way...

"I initially felt really superior to these boys...and smug in my more conventional faith...but then the more I thought about it the more I had to be honest with myself...if someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, 'we believe that God impregnated a very young girl, without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she had a baby and that's the son of God', I mean I would think that was equally ridiculous.  I'm just so used to to that story."

Even though Julia doesn't buy any of the tales, told by these Mormon boys, she admires their dedication.  So, shortly after this visit, she joins a Bible study which ultimately leaves her with more questions than answers.  Early on in the play she recalls the experience, describing in remarkable clarity her burgeoning thoughts on everything from the Noah story, to Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham & Isaac, Jephthah, The Ten Commandments, Jesus' parables, his "family values", the letters of Paul, the book of Revelation, and so on and so on.

Julia recounts her mother's reaction, to all of these nagging questions about the Bible, this way...

"My mother said, 'Julie, I just ignore what I don't like.  Why would you do something Honey like go read the Bible cover to cover if you weren't just looking for reasons to get upset.  You make your life so much harder than it has to be Honey.'"

This really hit home with me since it was my own attempt to read through the Bible, literally cover to cover, that kickstarted my doubts.  Her mother's comments also typify what my wife & I have now termed "the ostrich approach" to faith.  Don't bother with the hard questions; just "choose" to believe and then stick your head in the sand when you're presented with information that appears to counter those beliefs.

I won't attempt to provide a full review of Julia's play here.  The content is much too varied, and richly presented, so more than anything I really just want you to watch it yourself (you can hear the audio for free, starting right here, or you can purchase it on Amazon).

I find myself reflecting, here at Easter time, on Julia's thoughts surrounding the death of Jesus. By this point in the story she had already begun to have serious doubts about the historicity of some of the Bible's accounts.  It is then that she discovers the work of Karen Armstrong, and is introduced to the idea that the Bible may be "psychologically true".  Her comments next are excellent...

"So when I went to Mass on Easter Sunday that year, I felt I had this new positive attitude.  I knew the correct way to look at the stories.  Historical accuracy was not important...what was important was that they triggered us somehow, very deep in our psyche, because they were psychologically true.  But as I sat there in Mass I thought...what does that really mean? Psychologically true.  I mean, Jesus' death and resurrection; death and re-birth.  O.k., I get it, psychologically true enough.  But what about other stories on the same theme?  I mean, what about Persephone going down into the under world...that's psychologically true too then, I suppose.  Or what about stories from the Iliad, or Darth Vader, or the Little Engine That Could...those are 'psychologically true' stories; aren't they??

And what's so psychologically true about atonement?  We were taught that Jesus died for our sins, based on this idea of atonement, or that somebody else can pay for the sins of other people. For the first time after going to church, basically my entire life, I considered the idea that God sent his son to earth, to suffer and die for our sins.  Why?  I mean, first of all, you can say that Jesus suffered but y'know he didn't suffer any more than a lot of people have suffered.  I could think of examples in my own brother Mike, who had cancer.  He suffered unspeakably for a very long time...eyelids freezing open and his eyes drying up.  Canker sores all over his throat and he couldn't swallow.  Weeks, and then months, of gut wrenching vomiting and nausea before he finally died."

The first time I heard this presentation I was bowled over by Julia's (very memorable) phrase that Jesus, in effect, had a really "bad weekend" for our sins.  That couldn't be true...could it?  It had never occurred to me before that perhaps there were people on earth who had actually suffered more than Jesus.  Also, if I had been God, and I knew that all of humanity would be condemned to eternal punishment (because their sin had offended my perfection), would I have sent my own son to die for them?  YES!  I would have; especially if it were "the only way".  If any one of us would have done the same, simply as an outgrowth of our compassion, what's the big deal?  And why do people need to accept the historicity of this event in order to get to heaven; and on such questionable evidence?!?

These are the sorts of thoughts that were running through my head, at about that time.  They only compounded the doubts that I was already having.  Of course, later, I would come to believe that Jesus was only a man.  He hadn't died for our sins, to begin with, and he wasn't God.

But all of this presents an interesting quandary, for us former Christians, most notably around Easter (and Christmas) time.  How can we still feel like participants in the celebration?  As Julia points out, the initial temptation is to grab and hold tightly, even as it slips through your very fingers...

"So, I tried to concentrate on what I did like about the church.  The stained glass windows are pretty.  The light in the church, the religious art.  The songs...not the words to the songs exactly...but the melodies are nice..."

Will I be going to church this Easter?  No.  I suppose I would, if I lived closer to my parents.  Or if my wife was still a believer.  At the end of the day I think it is that sense of community, even extended church "family", that makes me miss church just a little at times like this.  I can no longer bring myself to give intellectual assent, to the creeds that underlie the occasion, but I still understand the appeal on an emotional level.  I believe it was Bart Ehrman who pointed out that one of the more uncomfortable aspects, of no longer being a Christian, is having no one to thank.

I can relate to that.

So let's love on those around our own table, this Easter, and remind them how much they mean to us.  Soak in those good moments because, unfortunately, they won't last forever.  And, to my fellow unbelievers, remember that although there may not be any meaning to life, there is certainly meaning in life."  But it's up to us.  Let's create some of that meaning, for those and the ones we love this weekend.

Happy Easter everyone.