Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faith is Nonsense PART V- Stories for Boys.

In part five of our look at what objections an atheist might throw at people who believe, we arrive at the idea that Christianity is full of stories that are as believable as the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.

Although I DO want to mention that there WAS a Santa Claus or a St. Nicholas, but that is beside the point.

Anyhow, if I was an atheist I would point to the fact the Bible isn't just filled with stories - but biased and prejudiced stories.  These were not stories from objective reporters - they were people who had a stake in the whole affair . . . and particularly a stake in the positive outcome of a Messiah who rises from the dead.

Of course this is true, we cannot pretend that the 1st century writers were anything like the objective and completely unbiased reporters that we have today that give us all the news without any slant . . .

Okay, let me try that again - forget that last sentence.  

Of course this is true, we cannot pretend that the 1st century writers held anything close to the idea that we hold (that very rarely gets practiced) of unvarnished truth - the God's eye perspective of history without any human bias.  They were open about their desire to have people put their faith in Jesus.  Luke states it within the first few chapters and so does John - repeatedly, that people would put their faith in Christ.

Remember, though, they lived in an era of myth - story that conveyed truth through sacred narrative.  Whereas we might try to get an objective account from a detached and unbiased source, this was not part of the ancient ethic.  

And just how is this helpful for those who put their faith in all of it?  So far all we have concluded is that the Bible is a collection of biased accounts from an era of myth . . . can't wait to sign up for that!  What we forget is the KIND of story that was reported - not the MANNER in which it is reported.  N.T. Wright has offered an interesting perspective on the issue by saying that the Christian story had a ripple effect on the history of ideas that is bigger than its own biased account.

See, up until the time of Jesus, there is no concept in the Western tradition of theology of a person who dies and then rises physically from the dead and re-enters the land of the living as a normal body.  There are many who come back as specters or ghosts, and there are some that talk about a god or spirit taking on the form of a body, but no stories of people who return to the land of the living.  The word for his in Greek is anistimi - one that Jesus uses over and over foretelling His own death and resurrection.  The Jews, however, would have no theological category for this.  This is precisely why the disciples were ignorant about His resurrection when it happened.  So for the ancient mind, Jesus keeps talking about this physical return from the dead and everyone interprets it to mean something spiritual perhaps at some time in the future.

What is interesting is that the event of the resurrection, though preached for decades, doesn't show up in written form until the mid part of the century.  Strangely, that is when Wright discovers a spike in references to this idea of 'anistimi' or bodily resurrection - especially in popular Greek stories of the day.  Wright is cautious to make the connection, but it is fascinating that this idea of resurrection seeps into the popular culture and into the minds and hearts of the common person.  

For some reason, in reaction to something, a switch is flipped on and centuries of silence on a particular theological idea comes to an end as we see the use of 'anistimi' multiply in culture.  And these new sources of the idea were not connected with the disciples or the vision of Jesus so we have no fear of bias.  They simply react to something they heard and resonated with.

If they heard the idea, it had to have been preached or taught.

If it was preached or taught, it had to come from conviction (those who taught that Jesus raised from the dead were dealt with severely).

Most convictions come from experiences that change us.

And here is one of many 'ground zeros' that exist outside the internal bias of the Gospel writers . . . a lot more powerful than the Easter Bunny.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Faith is Nonsense Part IV: Obey your thirst (part two)

 . . . so we finished last time with the idea that sin is an emotional crow bar that followers of Jesus use to get people to act in accordance with the ideas they receive from the institution of the church and a book over 2,000 years old.

Well, yeah, if I was an atheist, this would probably be one of my more solid arguments trying to dislodge people’s faith in Christianity:  sin is not something that leads us to lives of guilt and shame, it is the idea of sin that has been socialized into us via the people of Christianity and the text of scripture that makes us feel shameful about normal urges and desires.  Those outside of the Christian footprint have lead lives unobservant of the morals of Christianity and felt no shame at all.

What I would be forgetting in launching this attack on believers is that this is not a new critique – it was Jesus who first railed against the way that humans take something like sin and make people feel ashamed of their sin so that they can impose a moral conformity and feel better about themselves. 

There was a clear difference in the way that the religious people of Jesus’ day saw sin and the way that Jesus talked about it.  The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus took great pride in how they were morally superior to their Roman counterparts.  Religious Jews thought that they were really making God happy by following a moral code – even to the point of thinking that they could manipulate His divine favor by their actions.  In ancient Judaism the “Holy of the Land” thought that if everyone in Israel kept the Sabbath for two consecutive weeks that Messiah would come. 

Jesus comes at it from a completely different angle.  Jesus describes sin as the departure from the will of God . . . and since God is what brings about life, the departure from God’s will winds up in death.  Since so much of Jesus’ mission was invested in overturning disease, decay and death, it was obvious that Jesus would be preaching for people to repent.  Funny, though, He was preaching to the religious folks that they should repent.

Read that again – it was the religious that needed to repent just as much as the sinners.

But think about it, how do you call people to repent who place a high priority on following a strict moral code?  Wasn’t it redundant for Jesus to call them to obedience of God’s law?  Why were the religious Jews of Jesus’ day so upset with Him is that was what His message was?

Because when we make following God into a religious game concocted to assuage guilt you have stopped following God.  Instead you have formed a club where all the people follow behavioral norms in order to keep their lives serene – and everyone else in check.  Jesus knew that following God is more than psycho-social balance, it meant following the rhythms of the author of life. 

So the atheist is right – guilt comes from the social pressure of religious people, not from the acts themselves.  A person could be practicing all kinds of what religious people would call sin and not feel a thing.  Even Jesus was annoyed at religious people that load people up with pseudo-spiritual baggage.

But the point of following God was never to feel better about yourself – it was to ‘obey your thirst’ for things beyond the urges of your body.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Faith is Nonsense Part IV: Obey your thirst.

Carrying on with our series on things that skeptics have honest questions about, we come to today's idea:

"Is it really sin?  Or is it just the way that the world works?"

Now if I were an atheist, I would look at the Christian faith and ask some honest questions in the area of sin.  Christianity argues that sin is that which separates us from God and introduces shame, fear and anxiety.  But is it sin that introduces that or is it Christianity that has socialized us to see these things as sin and that is what brings the shame, fear and anxiety?

For example, a young Christian woman might hear for much of her life that you should save sexual intimacy for marriage.  This is a powerful message that makes a person feel like God is happy when they wait until marriage.  So imagine the guilt and remorse that a person might feel if they fall in love with someone and become involved physically.  The Christian response is that it is sin that separates us from God and makes us feel shame.

But is it sin or is it the idea that intimacy before marriage is shameful that brings about the guilt?  If I were an atheist I would argue that the institution of the Church, the authority of the Bible and the presence of other believers in her life have made her feel horrible about something that is a natural instinct.  As humans we have instincts that lead us to reproduce and the only thing unnatural about the story is someone stopping these instincts in favor of pursuing a set of ethics committed to a book from a series of human authors thousands of years ago.

This can be said of any moral teaching in the scriptures.  What the Bible calls a sin is what gives 'sin' the power it has on people's lives.  If the same young lady had never known about the idea of 'sin' then she would never have had any guilt or shame in the first place.

To break it down, as humans we reach our greatest fulfillment when we obey our thirsts - it is when we interrupt these urges that problems begin.   Even worse, when we abstain from things because we think God will be upset is when we start having mental distress about which things are shameful and which things are not.  The difference between the two becomes a way for other people to have power over our lives and influence our behavior.  This eventually works to the benefit of the institutional church - the more people that are under their spell equals the more money in their pocket.  Religion is a sham - an emotional crow-bar religious people use on people's sense of right and wrong to get them to do what they want.

All of this is very true.

And you know who said it first?  Some famous atheist?  Nope.

It was Jesus.

I'll explain next time.  This is a good one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Part III: Morals

And so the last part of our four part series on people of faith see what they want to see when they put their faith in God:

"People have faith in God because the idea of God brings about order - a sense of right and wrong - and people want to find that balance between right and wrong because it is soothing."

Or is that true?  Remember, good skeptics doubt their doubt.

Humans by nature notice patterns and by noticing patterns we ascribe meaning to those patterns.  There must a be purpose to a particular pattern that we see and so we are awakened to the world of art and music and all those things that involve the soul.  It is also our great undoing as a species as it unleashes selfishness, ambition and pointless TV shows like Glee.

In sixth grade, the girl that I loved with all my adolescent heart was sitting up near the front of the classroom and had looked back six times to the rear of the classroom.  I noticed this and quickly concluded that she was checking me out.  I gave meaning to something that I noticed.  It was what I wanted to notice.  I was oblivious that after lunch her bladder was full and she wanted the clock at the rear of the classroom to move quicker so she could hit the bathroom.  It became crystal clear when she bolted for the bathroom after class.  What I thought I saw was only what I hoped for.

Some would argue that this is the case with God.  That deep down we want someone like God in this world and so we invent Him unknowingly by our sheer desire.  Since we want approval we look for and eventually find a God that loves us.  Since we want to see departed loved ones again, we look for and eventually find a God that has them up in heaven.

This is the same with morals, some would argue.  Life is like a big board game with no rules if there were no God.  Since we are staring at the board and can't find the rules (but really want to play), we invent rules so that it feels like there is something we can take part in and play along.  We look for a God who gives us these rules in the game of life and so it is no wonder that we 'find' Him in faith because it is in the search that we see what we want to see.

It is a rather interesting argument and I completely agree.  Of course we are looking for a God that prescribes behaviors - but it doesn't mean we have invented Him just be our desire to find Him.  No, in fact the discovery is inherent not in the finding, but in the search.  We find God not in what we have come up with, but in the fact that we are looking to begin with.

If we are just animals, we should never have realized the point that we need law.  Regardless of the idea of a "Social Contract", community should never have been on our minds.  The fact that we pursue something external to the way we behave is . . . odd.  Do dogs try to supress their canine-ness?  Cats their feline-ness?  It is an extraordinary drive that all of us have and it goes beyond nurture, it is in our nature to seek something greater than ourselves.

So it is not in the arrival at morality that we have invented God - it is in the pursuit of it that we have discovered God's thumbprint.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Part III: The God who Cares

The skeptic may look at Christianity and say that it is "Grade-A" bologna because it is only what the person wants to see.  We tend to see the things that we are looking for. Since we grow up in a family that is filled with nurture and support (most people, at least - allowing for unhealthy families) we construct a God that cares.  Freud said as much when he inferred that God is a projection of the infantile need for a 'daddy.'

So do we concede that because we have loving parents t hat we must have projected this onto a God somewhere in order to bring harmony and order to our lives?

And what about the person who just got back from Christmas gatherings with their families and concluded that their family of origin is insane and in need of massive amounts of therapy?  That does kind of throw a wrench in the skeptic's argument.  If we really project our experience with parents onto God, we should envision a divine figure with too much perfume, wears very busy sweaters, and is always asking when we will get a real job.  But that is another blog.  

Now seriously, think of the logic that questions our self-concept of God.  We are suspicious of a God who happens to agree with our need for approval and acceptance.  So what is it that makes this so far-fetched?  Is it because we are suspicious of a God who lines up with what we would want in a God?  Do we think that because the two agree that it must have been manufactured?

If that is the case, then aren't we at least entitled to reverse polarity on that argument and ask, "why wouldn't you expect God to be the sum total of everything you want/need?"  Wouldn't that be the most obvious connection . . . that God would be everything you imagined?  Would we have the same suspicious questions about other, more mundane things?  For example, would we question whether there is something strange about the relationship between us and the sun?  The sun happens to set temperature levels for the seas which powers the wind systems across the globe, provides the necessary process for plants to convert fuel and grow and helps us as humans process key vitamins as well as stay warm.  This contingent relationship is never questioned - no one ever says, "interesting how the sun just HAPPENS to be the perfect complement for the eco-system on earth - I wonder if someone just made it up, it just HAPPENS to be so perfect!"

No, in fact, if we could say anything we might argue that the contingent relationship speaks of something or someone beyond it orchestrating (or creating) it.  

Interesting . . .

What is we looked at the psycho-social needs of humans and the idea of God and in seeing the two as contingent might ask the question . . . " is the complementary nature of God something that makes us suspicious of God or suspicious of God's absence?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Part III: Eternity???

Alright, a few weeks ago, we began looking at how a skeptic or an atheist might have problems with belief.  The third idea we came to was that people come to a point of faith because they see what they want to.  Last time we looked at how believers find meaning in faith because they want to have a purpose to their lives.  Christians find meaning because they want meaning.

However, the idea falls short from the skeptic’s side because you have to apply the same idea to the idea of the skeptic.  If believers find meaning because they are looking for meaning, what does that say for the person who finds nothing that leads them to believe?  Are they looking for nothing?  Or perhaps is it the fact that the idea of no God agrees a lot more with their sense of ‘fairness’ or ‘justice’ or whatever other word you can use that would describe how God should act.  In other words, since the Christian God doesn’t act in the way that a skeptic likes, it is easier to not believe in this God and so they find exactly what they are looking for as well.

So today, lets look at the second thing that believers see because they want to – an afterlife.

First, its not just Christians who want an afterlife – I think everyone is pretty amped about the idea that this is not all there is.  Lets face it, the termination of the self is kind of . . . depressing.  That great black void at the end of your days (which could happen tonight or 40 years from now).  We’d love to keep things going, so heaven is something that exists across most religions that acts as a pacifier for the intimidating idea of death.

It also helps with the inconsistencies here on earth as well.  All the people in the world who do wrong and get away with it – they will get ‘justice’ (whatever that means).  The little kid who gets her life abruptly cut short by an accident – the fact that heaven awaits them and we will one day be reunited is a soothing thought.  And since these ideas agree with our sense of what should happen, we put our faith in it. 

But where do we get this idea of forever? 

If I were a skeptic, I think this is one area that would bring me one step closer to some sort of belief system.  Where does the idea of ‘never-ending’ come from?  Of course, at its most simple, the idea comes from the question, “what if it just kept going on and on and on?”

In fact, in most religious traditions, the idea of eternity is loosely developed.  The Egyptians had an idea that the gods resided in a place where time was inconsequential and their behaviors were part of a larger cycle of good/bad; light/dark; winter/summer and on and on.  Eastern religions have the same sense married with the idea of ‘nothingness’ and the ridding of the illusion of permanence.  Essentially, freedom from life’s cycles means that you get your candle blown out and you join the great and impersonal, eternal one. 

Then, from out of left field, we have the idea of permanence over extinction.  Jesus enters the field talking about time in new and different ways.  He mentions things before His birth as if He was there.  At one point, Jesus mixes tenses and gives us this nugget:

“before Abraham was, Iam”

Now Abraham was a few thousand years before Jesus and he presents Himself in the present tense without regard to the factor of time.  Some theologians have termed this the “eternal now” meaning that God is not so much in the past or the future, but right now.  His now sees creation and destruction in one sweep as a person might see two pages of a book at once.

So we find a reality that is presented that could not have been cooked up from a ‘felt need’ for fairness or a sense of harmony.  It simply is – without much explanation. 

God is. 
I am. 

Like God is saying, “I don’t need to explain it to you and you wouldn’t get it anyhow – it’s a God thing.”

So kudos to the skeptic that sniffs out the apparent duplicity in the believer – looking for something that is soothing to him or her.  But Christianity’s idea of eternity comes from something outside of the traditional channels of religious expression and is not especially soothing to anyone.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Part III – We see what we are looking for: Meaning.

We spent last time looking at what people of faith are looking for and why that influences what they see.  Last post, I told you about how a leader of the seminar I was taking had to tell us to look for the white rabbit before we saw it.  Once he told us what we are looking for, we found it.

This happens to us in the everyday.  When you spend the evening watching a movie that plays on your fears, you tend to see things on your way to bed that make your heart race.  Because you have spent the last two hours in a heightened sense of alert, ridiculous things like children’s dolls or portraits on the wall leave you creeped out.

We all come to crises in our lives - whether they are in childhood (attachment), adolescence (identity) or midlife (the worth of our lives).  In those crises, we look for meaning and purpose.

So a young lady that is going through a rough early adolescence feels threatened.  Her body, her mind, even her friends are changing.  This crisis yearns for some kind of stability.  At the same time in her life, she starts attending a youth group with some friends where the pastor talks about peace, love and understanding.  Is it any wonder that she is going to ‘see’ what she is looking for as she claims a belief in God?

If I were an atheist, this is where I would challenge the faithful.  You find meaning because you are looking for meaning.  It could be a young girl or someone nearing the end of their life who is looking for resolution to whether their life means anything.  You find what you are looking for – even when it is not there.  Is it just a coincidence that people ‘find’ Christ at times of crisis?  Is it just because that is the time that they are looking for meaning and they aren’t at other times?  Or is it rather because the crisis in their lives makes them look for and project that desire onto things that are not really there.

Of course, as a skeptic, I would have to go one step further (which most atheists do not do).  It is true that we tend to look for the thing that we want and often times we project them onto things that are really not there.  But if that is true for the believer, it is also true for the skeptic.  If it is a human trait to find what we are looking for – to project onto mundane objects the very thing we are seeking – then the atheist is guilty of the very same thing.

Now of course you might be asking, “how could a person possibly be looking for nothing?”  No, I am not saying that the atheist is looking for nothing and therefore finds it.  What I am saying is that as humans, we seek stasis – a place of calm.  We seek to get rid of discordance or disharmony.  For the young lady we looked at, the crisis in her life caused a stress that left things out of harmony.  Her pursuit of harmony left her searching for a particular ‘note’ to bring it all into balance. 

But if that is the atheistic argument for the existence of religion, then it has to be the same valid argument for the existence of atheism. 

Consider a young man who goes to college and sees a lot of his value system turned completely upside down.  Raised to believe in God and make friends with people of good character, he finds that most of his life he has been sheltered.  Intelligent professors deconstruct the faith that he held dear.  Students engage in activities that run completely counter to his moral code . . . and they are nicer than the ‘religious’ ones (that he discovers are doing the same thing anyhow).  In the midst of this, his own search for meaning brings him to a point where the easiest conclusion is that there is nothing to find. 

When we reach crisis points in our lives, we find what we are searching for.  And we may even go so far as to search for the God that we think should be there – so much so that when we don’t find Him (in the manner that we have created Him), we come to conclusion that He is not there.

The strict scientist who doesn’t ‘see’ or ‘sense’ God in the logical sense is perhaps the greatest example of seeing what you are searching for.  Using only the senses (which has a very limited bandwidth) and the reason that rises from the senses (which is similarly limited) to search for God, she sees nothing.  She sees nothing, however, because she is looking for nothing.  The conclusion has been stated before the investigation begins.  Scientia – ‘to know through the senses’ – there is nothing beyond what we normally experience.  Is it any wonder that the atheist scientist only sees what they are looking for?

I sat down with a person this week who had the same question two days ago – “if God is really there, why is there so much evil in the world?”  Translation: “the God that I have in mind wouldn’t allow evil in the world.  I have searched for this God and I found what I looked for – there is no God.”  By becoming atheist, the person remains true to what they are searching for.  They were never looking for God; they were looking for their God.  And since it doesn’t match what they see in the world, instead of looking for a God beyond their idea they stay true to their idea and claim there is no God.

So beware of the idea that somehow atheists have passed through the subjective experience of religion and have reached the objective conclusion that there is nothing ‘out there.’  No one is objective.  Everyone sees what they want to see.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Faith is Nonsense Part III: We see what we look for.

I was at a communications workshop about 10 years ago and I will never forget the lesson that I learned about what you are looking for and what you find.

The teacher explained that we would be learning the secrets to communicating effectively but before getting started he was going to show us a couple of pictures as examples.  So as he talked he went through a few photos on the screen - one of a snowy cabin, one of a creekside and another of a fireplace.  He was talking about how he likes to hunt and often will retreat to this cozy cabin in the woods.

When he finished he asked us if we saw the rabbit.

Rabbit?  What rabbit?  All I saw were cozy images of the place he was describing.  That was his point exactly - he was taking us down a road without us even knowing it.  He went back to the first photo explaining that we ought to be looking for a rabbit.  He even showed us a picture of a rabbit before exposing us to the photo for the second time.

There it was - it was laughable how all 300 of us missed it.  Literally it was 2/3 the size of the screen.  The first photo was of a snow rabbit hidden by the snow, but once he described what we were looking for it was impossible to miss.

That is because we see what we are led to see.  We are led by the things that we desire.  In essence, we see what we want to see.

The same is true of faith - we see what we want to see, no mistake about it.  If I were an atheist, this is the one point I would hammer home - we only see what we want to.

We want meaning (so that our lives have some sort of worth)
We want an afterlife (not just to continue the self after death, but to explain the inconsistencies on earth)
We want a God who cares (because we grew attached to caregivers growing up)
We want a right and a wrong (because it insures our personal safety and progress through life)

These are a few of the things that people of faith are looking for . . . so it is no wonder that they find it in the places of faith.  If I were an atheist, that is what I would argue - that these things are projections of what you really want and you find them in the places that you look for them.

But again, what does that say about the atheist who has discovered this?  What is the atheist looking for?  Remember that your skepticism must be 360 degrees - doubting your doubt.  So in the days to come we will look at these areas and see what we discover about true faith.  It's not what you think . . .

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Comments are enabled

Just a quick post to say that I have enabled comments.  You can submit comments now!