Not long after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado the religious community started generating miracle stories bizarrely “proving” God’s providential hand at work in the tragedy. One young woman who was struck in the head will make a full recovery because the bullet fragment lodged just millimeters away from vital areas of the brain without damaging them. Her pastor expressed his amazement that twenty-two years ago when this woman was born God had perfectly designed the structure of her brain knowing the bullet would hit it.
But what about all the dead and maimed? Was God asleep at the wheel when he designed their bodies? How can people so blithely claim divine favor in an event where many others were not so fortunate? This sentiment is deeply engrained in Christian piety. We hear it all the time. Just this week in three different conversations I heard people utter the phrase “There but for the grace of God go I”–which, when you think about it, basically means “God must like me better than that other poor slob with all his/her problems.” Really, there is no other way to take this phrase.
Of course a big part of the search for signs of God’s providence is a desperate need to find some kind of meaning in a world that often seems meaningless. Homo Sapiens is a meaning-seeking machine. Clearly the need to find meaning is so overwhelming that we will settle for almost any explanation even when the explanation doesn’t make any sense at all.
Christians who have a very high view of God’s sovereignty, such as the Neo-Calvinist guru John Piper, even claim that every single death is ordained by God, no matter how the death happens.
“Children of the Heavenly Father” is a very popular hymn in some traditions. People like it for its catchy, singable tune and for it’s reassuring message of God’s love and protection. Over the years, however, the song started to really irk me as I became more and more aware of the lyric’s sinister implications. Here’s the second verse: “God his own doth tend and nourish, In his holy courts they flourish./ From all evil things he spares them. In his mighty arms he bears them.”
“From all evil things he spares them?” OK, that is just manifestly not true. 146 people drowned when an overcrowded ferry capsized in Tanzania last week.
No matter how desperately we may want to believe that the stars are aligned in our favor and God smiles down from heaven on upon us, the reality is, of course, that the universe is indifferent to human suffering. To think otherwise is dangerous.
I think Ingersoll once said something like this: “Only human hands can solve human problems.” The gods aren’t likely to step in and save the day. They certainly haven’t yet. The love we need can only come from other people. It’s up to us.
Some of my friends have been surprised to find out that I’m still reading the Bible. They thought I would be totally done with it after I left religion behind. Actually, I now enjoy reading the Bible more than I ever did as a Christian since I no longer have to defend it. Without the baggage of faith, it’s possible to appreciate the book with a little more objectivity.
Yes, I realize a lot of freethinkers are really put-off by anything having to do with the Bible, and I completely understand that. The book has been a source of much human suffering, and it has often served as a brake on the social evolution of our species. But just because we may reject the metaphysical and magical claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t worth reading. Here are a few reasons to pick it up.
- Knowing some basics about the Bible will make your critique of religion more credible and might enable you to better engage theists in conversation about what they believe and why they believe it. Heck, you’ll probably be able to point out a few things they didn’t know.
- Whether we like it or not, the reality is that biblical allusions and imagery pervade the music, art, and literature of Western civilization. If you don’t know the Bible, you’ll miss a lot.
- The Bible contains a lot of good literature. The cycle of stories in the David narrative are gripping portrayals of the complexities of human nature. I’d be willing to bet they provided at least some inspiration for “The Godfather.” Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is sublime and is also, ironically, entirely non-theistic. (Literary critic and non-theist Harold Bloom counts Paul as one of the one hundred “exemplary creative” literary geniuses of the Western world. Yeah, I know Paul often sounds like a jerk, but it is possible to be a jerk and a genius at the same time. )
- Knowing something about the Bible is often helpful when trying to complete The New York Times crossword puzzle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible has any special authority or any wisdom about life that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact I am totally confused by theists who claim to find some coherent set of “biblical values.” I spent twenty years trying to find coherence in the book. None exists.
But sometimes it’s a heck of a good read. And the portions of the Bible that actually are good literature present us with compelling and nuanced descriptions of human condition. And so I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the Bible any more than I’d want to live in a world without The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, or Paradise Lost.
A few months ago when I had the chance to appear on MSNBC’s “Up W/ Chris Hayes” author Robert Wright asked me if I felt a sense of urgency about recruiting others to the free-thought position. Or is it enough be satisfied with one’s own skepticism and adopt a “live and let live” attitude toward belief? Is it rude and intolerant to challenge the beliefs of others? I didn’t have a great answer at the time he posed the question, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.
From time to time I’ve heard this position expressed: “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you don’t impose your religion on me.” Personally I sometimes resonate with that attitude. Tolerance is often in short supply in our world. It sounds nice to say that belief is purely a private matter, but I’m not sure that is even true. Every single day the news brings us examples of how belief negatively impacts our world. Here are just a few examples:
- Surveys consistently show that people of faith are far more likely to deny the reality of global warming and its anthropogenesis. There is often a connection between religiosity and a hostility to science.
- In my home state of Texas, the religious views of the state Board of Education force publishers to alter the content of textbooks, which are then sold throughout the rest of the country.
- A few weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention vigorously reconfirmed their position that gay rights are not civil rights. On so many issues of social justice theology has acted as a brake on progress.
- Still every day around the the world people kill other people over theologies, beliefs, myths and other unprovable ideas. A super-intelligent alien race studying humanity would surely conclude that we are an insane species.
And of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. I often wonder if belief impacts just about everything in our society. For instance, does belief in a punishing God contribute to a generally pervasive punitive approach to life, as exemplified in our draconian “war on drugs?”
So, I guess I’m leaning toward the position that there is no such thing as benign belief. It ultimately disables critical reasoning.
On the other hand, I also think that skeptics and freethinkers can at times shut down conversation as well. The best way forward would be through conversation not confrontation, to be challenging but also charitable.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
It’s a safe bet that for many church-goers, the myths and doctrines of their particular religion have little bearing on their experience of church life. Really, how many people actually think that the act of splashing water on an infant (or dunking an adult) saves that individual from the fires of hell? How many people receiving communion really believe the wafer becomes– either literally or figuratively–the body of a first-century Jew? Surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Roman Catholics can’t tell you anything at all about Transubstantiation. So what does that say about an organization if most its adherents are unable to explain the significance of the group’s essential and defining ritual?
A few readers of this blog have commented that, while the metaphysical and historical claims of religion might not be true, religious life is still valuable to society. It provides people with community and caring they couldn’t find elsewhere in our culture. And churches often support soup-kitchens for the needy, Twelve-Step groups for the addicted, and other programs beneficial to the community.
True, churches do many nice things for the world. But wouldn’t it be possible to do those nice things without propagating myths, fairy tales, world views not based on reality?
I have many Jewish friends who are, for all intents and purposes, non-theistic. But they still call themselves Jewish and have found a way to live as secular Jews. They might even still celebrate Passover with their family and friends, but they don’t pretend to believe that the Exodus story actually happened.
Now some would say, “Well, it’s different for Jews because being Jewish involves more than doctrine. It’s also an ethnic heritage.” Yes, it might be true that being Jewish is something that transcends theology, but beginning of the Tribe are grounded in some very particular theological claims.
So if many Jews have found a way to live as “secular Jews,” could the same thing happen for Christians–who could frankly acknowledge the mythical nature of Christianity’s theology but still do some of the good things that came out of church life? Or is the term “secular Christian” too much of an oxymoron?
Geckos abound in these parts during the summer. It’s a wonder to observe their ability to walk on virtually any type of surface. Until recently it was one of the mysteries of nature. We didn’t have a very good idea of how they climb like Spiderman. The science section in Tuesday’s edition of The Times contained a brief article highlighting the work of a scientist, Shihao Hu, who has figured out how it works. Apparently the toes of the gecko are covered with microscopic hairs, and each of these tiny hairs splits into hundreds of nanobranches, giving the gecko thousands of points of contact with any surface. Amazing. The mystery has been solved, but that does not diminish our sense of wonder. It’s one more reminder of the power and beauty of natural selection.
Back when I was religious, we in the church used to talk about the “mysteries of faith” A prime example is the doctrine of the Trinity– God is one, yet the godhead contains three distinct but equal “persons.” One can have a lot of fun pondering this “mystery.” Theologians even write lengthy treatises on the distinction between the “economic Trinity” and the ” immanent Trinity” (or “ontological Trinity.”) The problem of course is that the “mystery” of the Trinity is not a mystery at all. None of this means anything. While the mystery of the gecko’s climbing ability is based on something real we observe in nature, the mystery of the Trinity is not based on any observation or empirical evidence of any kind whatsoever. You can’t watch the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit interacting and then describe what you saw. There’s nothing to go on.
Religion misuses the term mystery. You just can’t make stuff up and then, because you have no explanation for what you made up, chalk it up to mystery. In my experience the “mysteries of faith” often become a burden to the faithful who struggle to get their heads around things like the Trinity or the “real presence” of Christ in bread and wine, and then feel like they are sub-standard believers because they can’t fathom the theologians’ supposedly profound insights. It’s nuts.
Leaving the crazy metaphysics behind doesn’t make the world any less wondrous. Quite the contrary. Looking at the world from a naturalistic perspective is far more interesting than anything theology could possibly dream up.
Let me close by quoting one of my favorite passages from Dan Dennett’s book, “Breaking the Spell,” where he talks about developing an “awestruck vision of the world.”
“If you can approach the world’s complexities, both it’s glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” (p.303)
Question from a reader: “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent. How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?
Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing. The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.
On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency; we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere. We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake. A noise in the underbrush could be a predator. Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators. And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not. The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World” expresses this primitive impulse: “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”
Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion. The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe. In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate. It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.
So why do people still believe? Because belief is in our DNA. Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.
In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly. In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining. There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe. Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago. And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination. I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.
My latest TV addiction is The Borgias on Showtime, an historical drama portraying the exploits of the infamous family of Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century. Great writing, great acting, great production values. It’s just fun to watch. With all the church-sponsored wars, torture, heretic-burning, and papal children, this mini-series just might do more to discredit organized religion than the writings of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens) Sure it’s historical fiction, but I don’t think they have really had to embellish the dark side of Christian history all that much. The show should help dispel the myth that the Church has been mystically guided and protected by the Holy Spirit through the centuries.
But while I was watching the show this question came to mind: Is religion the problem or the symptom? What I mean is– would all the crusades, inquisitions, and witch-hunts of history have happened anyway, regardless of what religion was in power? Let’s say Christianity did not become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, but Mithraism or the cult of Osiris instead. Would Galileo still have been declared dangerous for putting forth a view of the cosmos that conflicted with the conventional wisdom?
Homo Sapiens is an intensely and incorrigibly tribal species. We naturally look for ways to define “the other.” And religion has been one of the most potent expressions of our tribal tendencies. I’d be willing to bet that for most believers today, the tribal identity of their religion matters far more than the metaphysical claims. And that, of course, is one reason atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers are so often perceived to be such a threat. Our ancestral past has generally conditioned most people to viscerally condemn and ostracize those who threaten the tribe. Most people don’t want to be sitting in the home team bleachers wearing the colors of the visiting team.
Well, the days of the Borgias are clearly not entirely behind us. There are still plenty of religious folk who would like to impose their ways on others. Last week I read in The Times that Buddhists and Muslims are now fighting in Myanmar. Buddhists?! I thought they were supposed to be peaceful. Go figure.
But the quickly increasing numbers of skeptics and doubters gives me hope. Maybe we as a species are slowly and painfully maturing. Maybe we are gradually shedding the parochial tribalism of the past as we come to understand that the only hope for the future of our fragile planet is to recognize all humans as members of the same tribe.
Thanks for all the comments on the last post. Sorry I’ve been late getting back to you all. I was doing a little traveling last week and got behind on the blog. Today I just want to respond quickly to some of the questions you asked on “What About Jesus?”
Kim wrote: “So if he [Jesus] was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod? Was there something particularly different about him…?”
There were certainly other dynamic religious teachers and preachers who were more or less contemporaries of Jesus. Apollonius of Tyana is one who comes to mind. Hillel the Elder (110 BCE-10 CE) continues to inspire modern Judaism. (Many of the sayings attributed to him sound like teachings also attributed to Jesus.) So why did the Jesus movement triumph and persist? I think the reasons are pretty mundane. Competition between religions is not any different from competition among any other human enterprise, ideology, or product. Why did VHS triumph over Betamax? How did the A&P lose out to Kroger?
The triumph of Christianity was a case of the right message at the right time marketed in an effective way. It was a brilliant fusion of Judaism with elements of popular Roman mystery cults, and for a variety of reasons it struck a chord. For more on this topic I highly recommend The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.
Julia asks: “So what exactly did Paul’s letters say regarding Jesus if he never mentioned the virgin birth or miracles?” Paul mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection a lot. But aside from that he says hardly anything at all about Jesus’ life. It is particularly curious that Paul never quotes Jesus even when it would have been advantageous for him to do so. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that many of Paul’s teachings to the early churches got re-worked later and inserted in the mouth of Jesus. In Romans 12-15, for example, several passages sound very much like what we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.
A big turning point in my journey away from faith in Jesus as the Savior came when I learned that one of my favorite gospel stories, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), actually came from pre-Christian pagan sources and did not originate with Jesus at all. That was a serious wake-up call.
Toby wrote: “Mohammad has had followers for 1,400 years (or so) and Moses has had followers for 3,400 years (or so). Do we make the same conclusions about Moses and Mohammad that we do with about Jesus?”
Good question. And let’s not forget Buddha as well. Yes, the dynamics in each of those cases are similar to what happened with Jesus. In fact, revisionist historians of Islam are now beginning to doubt if Muhammad even existed. Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, and others are reminders that the historical impact of Jesus is not really all that unique. The same thing has happened throughout history around the world.
From time to time I’d like to use this space to respond to questions I’ve received from readers of this blog. Here’s one for today:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the existence of Jesus is not questioned–just maybe some of the details surrounding his life. So if he did exist and if he did inspire people with his teachings then what do we do with that? If we do not see him as the son of God, then was he just some kind of crazy person who was very persuasive?
The consensus among scholars is that, yes, Jesus did in fact exist. He probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher of the apocalyptic variety who attracted some followers. He was executed by the authorities. The movement he inspired lived on after his death and quickly morphed into various groups with vastly differing theologies. Beyond that there is not much we can say with any certainty at all about the life of Jesus.
The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters of Paul, which predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by decades. Paul does not mention the teachings or miracles of Jesus. This is beyond curious. I’ve heard all the usual responses to this strange omission, and they are all very weak. Paul also makes no mention of a “virgin birth.” His account of the resurrection includes none of the details that we associate with the Easter story. In fact Paul seems to describe more of a “spiritual” resurrection of divine visions and appearances in contrast to the emphasis on a bodily resurrection we see in the gospel accounts.
It seems probable that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were actually put in his mouth posthumously. I also think it’s very likely that many of the teachings of Paul that sound like something Jesus would have said were later re-packaged as quotes from Jesus.
Over the centuries, Jesus has become a religious Rorschach test. People tend to project on him the values that are near and dear to their hearts. Conservatives see him espousing traditional conservative virtues. Liberals see him as a champion of social justice, exercising a “preferential option for the poor.” Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites see him as a pacifist. Most Christians, however, subscribe to the “just war” theory, also based on Jesus’ teachings. Years ago Jerry Falwell even said he was sure Jesus would approve of using nuclear weapons when necessary.
In the end, what we say about Jesus most certainly says more about us than it does about him. And in that respect, studying the figure of Jesus is a fascinating window into the complexities of human nature.
Several years ago Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church published a book called, “The Purpose-Driven Life” which sold millions. Clearly the book struck a chord with many people and was the beginning of a whole “Purpose-Driven” empire of products. The “purpose” that Warren wrote about is pretty simple: We are all put here to glorify God by serving humanity. (It’s basically a re-packaging of the opening question from the Westminster Catechism of 1647–Q: What is the chief end of man? A: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.)
This model of human purpose raises a few questions. Is it really possible that all 7-plus billion people on earth have the same fundamental purpose? And if that purpose is for all of us to spend our lives singing the praises of the Great Heavenly Leader–doesn’t that sound just a little totalitarian, like living in a large version of North Korea?
One of the critiques thrown at the freethought movement goes something like this: “But you’re taking away people’s sense of purpose! What is there to live for if you take God’s plan out the equation?”
What is there left to live for? Here are a few possibilities.
- Discovering what your passions and talents are, and pursuing those areas of life that bring you joy.
- Using one’s unique talents for the betterment of life for others.
- Learning more about how the world works. Science is the gift that keeps on giving, a never-ending source of wonder, awe and new insight.
- Relishing the joy of human fellowship, especially family and friends.
Honestly, do you really need any more “purpose” than that? I really don’t see why the myths of religion are necessary to convey virtues like love, forgiveness, humility and service. Isn’t it possible to affirm and celebrate the goodness and beauty of life without requiring people to believe implausible things?
I guess I even question why it’s necessary to believe in some large, over-arching purpose. Can’t our sense of purpose change with different life circumstances. For instance, as I’m writing this post, I am waiting on the delivery of a very yummy pizza. At the end of a long day, that pizza is all the purpose I’ll need for the rest of the evening.