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.
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.
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.
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.
Since President Obama’s public announcement of his support for same-sex marriage last week, the response from the right has shown us yet again that the Bible continues to drag our society down. In several stories on radio and television I’ve heard people angrily denouncing the President’s stance saying, “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong!”
That’s it? That’s all you got? “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong.” Is it really that hard to think with a just a little more nuance? And how can we even begin to have a conversation with a mentality like that?
From time to time I have encountered conciliatory progressives who urge patience and moderation when dealing with the fragile psyches of the Bible believers who wish to impose their worldview on everybody else. After all, they will say, religion has a valuable role to play. As an inherently conservative institution, religion acts as a necessary brake or a corrective on those who would change society too quickly. I’ve heard that argument more than a few times. Change is good but it has to be gradual.
Why does all social change have to be gradual? I don’t get it. Who would possibly get hurt if same-sex marriage were suddenly legalized all over the country tomorrow?
The influence of the Bible was a huge reason slavery lasted until the 1860’s in this country. (Actually slavery persisted under the form of sharecropping well into the 1960s.) Why did the Land of the Free tolerate human bondage for so long? Partly because the Bible says slavery is OK. I’d be willing to bet the slaves wished that social change had been a little less gradual in their case.
On issue after issue–slavery, women’s rights, reproductive rights, Prohibition–the legacy of the Bible in American public life has largely been a story of oppression and social regression. The role of the Bible in American life is analogous to the role of the Koran in the Arab world. Any difference between the two situations is merely a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.
(Actually, I’m not saying that the Bible is totally worthless. In a post-Christian, secular society there are actually still good reasons to read the Bible, which I’ll get to in another post. )
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.