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.
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.
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.
Recently I’ve been participating in various freethought gatherings around town. Having been active in churches my whole life, it’s been fun to compare and contrast the fellowship events of believers with those of skeptics. The biggest difference I’ve observed so far is the nature of the conversation. At freethought gatherings, the conversation frequently involves philosophy, religion, science, the Bible, and current events. The crowd tends to be fairly well-read. When I first started attending fellowship gatherings for non-believers, I expected to hear a lot of religion-bashing. And there has been some of that, but by and large it’s not the main focus of conversation.
Ironically, the conversation at freethougtht gatherings tends to be more theological, if you will, than the banter at Christian fellowship events. I’ve heard nuanced discussion about the history of religion, scriptural interpretation, and the role of religion in public life. At these events I’ve met people who have described themselves as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and deists. However these are not different “denominations” of freethought–just different places on a continuum of disbelief.
When Christians gather for their fellowship events, generally the conversation does not include discussion about Augustine, Aquinas, or other theologians. They don’t talk about church history. And they don’t talk about the Bible. What do they talk about? Life–the kids, work, vacations, gossip. Quotidian topics. Let me be clear; this is not a criticism. I’m not saying that freethinkers are “better” than believers because they tend to talk about headier stuff. But I do think that the nature of the conversation at Christian gatherings demonstrates that metaphysical concerns are definitely not the driving force in the day-to-day life of believers in American today.
Homo Sapiens is an intensely tribal species. And religion is one of the most potent expressions of tribalism that humans have ever devised. Generally speaking religious people do not gather to ponder the meaning of life or the nature of the Atonement or the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity. Rather, they gather for the same reasons members of the genus homo have gathered for hundreds of thousands of years: for mutual support, for solidarity, to assuage feelings of loneliness. The particular God under whose name they gather really doesn’t matter. It could be Dionysus, Isis, Vishnu, Yahweh, whoever. The function of religion is pretty much always the same: the primal need to band together for safety and security in a hostile world.
Several years ago I was having an early breakfast with a friend who is a Catholic priest. We were in the middle of a good chat when he suddenly looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got to go! It’s time to go kill Jesus.” And he headed off for the daily morning mass. Well, at least he was honest about it. After all, Christianity is, at its heart, a cult of human sacrifice. All orthodox Christian denominations teach that the execution of a First-Century Jew somehow atoned for all the sins ever committed by human race. Although nobody can agree on exactly how the atonement works. And apparently you can still go to hell for your sins, even though they’ve been paid for. Go figure.
Apparently the Mass/Communion/Lord’s Supper did not start out as a meal commemorating human sacrifice. One of the earliest descriptions of the Christian communion ceremony comes from an ancient document called The Didache or The Teaching of Twelve Apostles. This early description of communion makes no reference at all to Jesus’ body and blood being consumed in the meal; nor is there any reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. How could they have forgotten to put in something that important? Well the obvious answer is, they didn’t forget. Those aspects of the sacrament were added later.
And that actually makes some sense because it would have been very strange for First Century Jews to consume the blood of any creature. The Torah contains strong prohibitions against ingesting blood: “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal…” (Leviticus 7:26) So that seems to nix rare prime rib. Why is it that Yahweh is always against yummy food?
Long story short–several popular Roman mystery cults back in the day had communal meals which celebrated the death and resurrection of a god. The cult of Dionysus and Mithraism are two examples. In a stroke of marketing genius Paul and others most likely grafted elements of these ceremonies onto the Jewish Passover meal, and that’s how Christians ended up with the Mass. It was a big hit.
Does anybody taking communion nowadays really believe they are ingesting the body and blood of a First Century Jew–either physically or symbolically? Probably not many. Polls show that more than half of Roman Catholics can’t tell you anything about transubstantiation. But communion still seems to have some kind of powerful attraction for believers. What is the draw of the ceremony? My hunch is that the act of gathering together for a communal meal speaks to something deep within our psyches that was there long before the advent of Christianity or Judaism. Evolutionary psychologists and paleo-anthropologists, among others, have suggested that humans really took off as a species when our distant ancestors began cooking and started sharing meals together around campfires. That’s where language began to develop, along with advanced social behavior. The power of communal meal sharing as a source of social bonding is so primal, and that probably explains the attraction of rites such as the Mass, Passover, and Eid Al-Fitr.
I think there are perfectly good and rational explanations for the origins of most religious behavior. It’s just that those answers don’t have anything at all to do with the metaphysical claims of religion.