Love letters to atheists
On Facebook I enjoy engaging atheists and secular humanists. I don’t think atheists and humanists are synonymous. They are two different creatures. But secular humanists can easily masquerade as atheists or otherwise be so taken by people who don’t know better. I think that many of them forget that humanism began largely as a Christian movement, a Christian academic movement.
I’m not trying to piss anyone off so much as trying to engage interesting people in interesting topics, topics about which I care. I know that if I visit the Facebook page of an atheist organization then I am bound to meet people with whom I disagree. And that can only be a good thing, right? I mean, what is the point having conversation with people you agree with? That hardly counts as conversation in the first place, I think. Atheists are fierce. Their replies are quick, often derogatory. They are typically obsessive about the existence of God and requests of the religious to “prove” it, both of which are practically beside the point, I think. But the point of my observation is that God’s existence strangely seems more important to atheists than it does to many religious. Among Christians, for example, the existence of God is less important than the existence of Jesus Christ and the meaning of his life and teachings. For Christians the existence of God springs from the conviction of the divine implications of the Messiah’s message.
What sophisticated theologians and pastors think is irrelevant to what the majority of religious devotees think.
I am less concerned with religion than with faith, which is a distinction I feel atheists don`t make, don’t care to make, or don`t make very often. Rather than seeing faith as a way of living they see it as intellectual acquiescence to a list of beliefs - beliefs they argue are irrational and even dangerous and ultimately evil. So their criticisms - especially those from famous modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - critique the ‘teachings’ of the faith while ignoring the range of belief and practice among followers. In fact, if Christians, Jews or Muslims stand up and proudly declare themselves with the caveat that they are intelligent free thinkers who don`t believe everything that their preachers teach they are accused of being unrepresentative of their respective traditions and therefore dishonest to the debate. If pastors or theologians in the debate claim that they are enlightened, intelligent thinkers who know how to read their scriptures in the light of Science and the Enlightenment without losing religious faith the point is (correctly) made that what sophisticated theologians and pastors think is irrelevant to what the majority of religious devotees think.
Maybe atheists resent what they see as a presumption among the religious that they hold a monopoly on the emotional expression of human experience. Or maybe there is resentment to the perception that the religious seem to think they have a monopoly on Truth, and that stewardship of the Truth conveys special privileges upon them.
I object to atheists’ insistence on the irrationality of religious belief, because I see theological thought as eminently rational and the body of systematic theology a great intellectual achievement. I object to atheists’ tendency to habitually judge the past by the values of the present - reeling feminism, homosexuality, slavery and genocide into their arguments. And, I object that the God that atheists usually reject (often with surpassing eloquence) bears no semblance to the Biblical God I know.
I don’t think atheists or skeptics of any kind are on the right track to pursue theosophy, the problem of evil. If God exists how can He permit suffering and other evils? That’s a wrong strategy. That’s a strategy from human ego.
But I think atheists are certainly entitled to probe the problem of the compatibility of religious doctrine and belief on the one hand with religious practice on the other. If a faith preaches love but practices hate, for example. The Christian Church is ripe with instances of this and properly deserves the malice of the thoughtful.
When it comes to religion I hold three things dear:
1) it has to be voluntary;
2) it has to be bound to one’s free time;
3) it has to be private.
This is but a brief list of some exchanges I’ve had.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015.
In Hebrew the word "adam" is not a forename. It means "humanity." So the Genesis story in the Hebrew Bible is about the origin of humanity, not the origin of a single man (or woman). Furthermore, Genesis is not about HOW God created - in six days, in an unusual sequence, declaring each step "good." It's about WHO created. In translation, though - English, French, German, Latin, whatever - the story is grossly misunderstood. One of the key verses in Genesis comes in 3:9 when God is walking in the garden calling Adam, "Where are you?" The lesson is that God is searching for us at least as much as we are searching for her.
Wednesday, December 23, 2016.
Hell is not a place, it's a state of being. Specifically, a state of separation, or alienation from God. "Burning" in hell is not something imposed on sinners as punishment. It is a metaphorical description of what a state of separation/alienation from God is like. Yeah, Yeah, I know. Burn in hell Grant Piper. Been there.
Similarly, “heaven” is not a place so much as it is a state of being - a state of proximity to God and even union with Her. Descriptions of heaven are metaphorical descriptions of what atonement with God must be like.
Sunday, January 10, 2016.
Science as we currently know it is a relatively new thing - a novelty. It won’t be the last thing in learning and discovery, either. I mean, something beyond science will come after, at which time humans of the future will think us foolish for our science just as contemporary atheists think of religion and the religious - as a collective retarded anachronism. Religion is about learning. For most of our history temples were the places of learning and priests the learned ones, and the religious paradigm is what made sense to people using their full complement of intelligence. Learning has always been the trademark of religion such that, even today, we can confidently say that the best possible education for a religious person is synonymous with the best education, period. Today the university and the laboratory are the new temples, and scientists and doctors the new priests. Humans today are no more intelligent that humans thousands of years ago. Our technologies are different, but our mental equipment is the same, so far as we can tell.
(About Professor Stephen Hawking)
Professor Hawking is correct that Science “wins” because it is correct. That is, correct in the sense of efficacious. Religion is also “correct” within its own paradigm, and has been correct much longer than Science has. We have slowly abandoned a religious or spiritual exposition of the world not so much because it is proved to be false as because it became inconvenient. Religion still works. Well or badly is the debate, but works nonetheless. The Ptolemaic model of the universe is a prime example. The Copernican model was slowly - not suddenly - adopted less because it was correct than because it was better. The Ptolemaic model still works today if your mathematics are creative enough. And since most people forget that all motion of bodies in the universe is relative motion, they quickly over-estimate contemporary models of the cosmos. The scientist Galileo is another good example. He was persecuted by the Catholic Church less because of his science than because of his personality. The Church at the time knew that Galileo’s science was correct. But Galileo was an asshole who cultivated animosity.
Religion did not evolve from ignorance or malice, or malicious ignorance so much as from rationalization of real human experience, using all the reason available. The real experiences religion addresses are still experienced today because they are a part of human psyche. Has religion been abused and abusive? Certainly.
I think that Materialism - the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff - is more a prejudice than a fact.
Or I could be wrong.
Monday, January 11, 2016.
It's cute, of course, but typically ignores the context of Leviticus. The purpose of the ritual purity laws of Leviticus is to emphasize Yahweh's separateness from all other deities in the ancient world - gods the existence of which is admitted. So it's not a question of Yahweh being the only "real" god, because other gods are admitted to be real. It's a question of Yahweh being the only "true" god. It's an important difference. Anyway, proscriptions against homosexuality were meant to protect women in a society where they had no rights. Contemporary critics of the homosexual proscriptions ignore this because they insist on (illegitimately) judging the past by current values. And they hate women. It is criticism by the historically illiterate. Isaiah 56 describes how sexuality is irrelevant to righteousness, only the purity of the heart, but everyone ignores that because Leviticus makes better theater. You cannot read the Bible without considering its various contexts.
Or I could be wrong.
Monday, February 1, 2016.
The Bible didn't get the morality of slavery wrong. The Bible was written in a pre-industrial world where slavery was a fact of life. Deal with it. Slavery, the ownership of human life, buying and selling humans as a commodity only became a primary moral question over the course of time as paradigms shifted. Calling it the “easiest moral question that humanity has every faced” is stupid. Doing that commits the error of judging the past by contemporary values - something atheists are adept at, addicted to, religiously devoted to - and reveals people’s historical illiteracy. In other words, people who talk like that really don’t know what they’re talking about. But their talk sounds catchy.
Condemning the Bible and the Jews and Christians who revere it for its supposed failings on the modern scale of ethical concerns - things like slavery, homosexuality, women’s issues, poverty, war, et. al. - under-rates and even blankly ignores the progressive work done by the religious in these areas. Slavery (which sadly still exists) was largely ended in the modern world through the efforts of Christians.
We may not legitimately judge the past by contemporary values.
But I could be wrong.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016.
I don't like Bible thumping morons. I think religion ought to satisfy three things: voluntarism; privacy; free time. And Bible people ought to be intelligent, balanced, nuanced, flexible and discerning, with patience and a sense of humour.
When I read the book of Philemon I am impressed by only a couple of things: the gentle, forgiving nature of Christian life; and, the fact that Philemon, the owner of the slave Onesimus, worshipped in a “home church.” Now, that’s interesting. There were no institutional churches in the first century, and Christians habitually worshipped either in the open air, or else in each other’s homes, much as millions of Chinese Christians do today. The fact that slavery existed and that Paul did not condemn it doesn’t impress me because I don’t think it’s the point of the message. For atheists to attach themselves to that feature, however, says more about them than it does about the Bible - which is not unsurprising. Artists often say (some regretfully, some enthusiastically) that once they create something then control of the message moves away from the originator towards the audience. Most people today who read the Bible fail to get the message. Most readers of Shakespeare fail to get his message, too. Superman comic books, as well. It’s a feature of human beings. I have often said that the existence of God is far more important to atheists than it is to Christians. The focus of Christian concern is the life and work of the man, Jesus. The existence of God extends from that, afterwards. In addition, the God that atheists critique and reject is not the God of the Bible so must as an ugly pop-culture god slapped together from a variety of entertainment sources. George Carlin, for example, was a comedian, not a theologian, and although he was funny and smart what he said about religion had little value. I liked George Carlin.
But I could be wrong.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016.
In Europe the Christian Church was the solution, not the cause of the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were caused by the pagan barbarian invasions that toppled the Roman Empire. Sure, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon proposed the notion that pacifist Christian virtues weakened the Roman Empire and catalyzed its decline. But that is moot. Throughout the Middle Ages, as with any period in history, people thought and behaved as they did for good reasons. It is neither here nor there if we now think those reasons were just plain wrong - and even bad. We may not legitimately judge the past by contemporary values. But I could be wrong.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016.
Religion is less about God than it is about human beings. God is about faith, love, justice and righteousness. Religion is about people. God and religion might occasionally cross paths, but they are not synonymous.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016.
People don't realize it, but they habitually mis-speak when they speak of equality. They think they are being virtuous, fair and just when, in fact, they are being ridiculous, wrong, and wrong-headed. What they mean is equity, or better yet, equanimity. Proper language seems to be above the heads of most language-users. It's not nit-picky, and I am not speaking of differences that make no difference. I am speaking of real, measurable differences that matter: if you cannot say properly what you mean, then you almost certainly cannot properly mean what you say. Or not.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016.
(About conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke)
The Cardinal does not hate gays and feminists. He strongly and vociferously disagrees with their positions. He believes he acts and thinks out of love for people. Maybe that seems like "hate" to many, but .... He’s a real human being, not just an avatar. So to treat him as if he isn’t a real person with a real mind who says the things he says for a real purpose is not constructive.
But he certainly is an obnoxious fellow nonetheless and I wish he would shut his word hole. But he is an intelligent man, not a fool. He's just wrong. I don't agree with him. If you disagree with people then you are free to disregard them. That goes for religion, too. I don't have to believe what my priest/preacher/pastor says, especially when she says really stupid stuff. I can think for myself, which is what a person of faith ought to do. The Church isn't a prison, you know. It's more like - the world is the prison. Or not.
Friday, February 5, 2016.
Of course, hell is not a punishment and heaven is not a reward so much as states of being. Hell is the metaphorical condition of being separated from God, and heaven is the metaphorical condition of being close to God - even at one with God. That doesn’t mean that heaven and hell are not real. Sure they’re real, but they are not “places” to which we are “sent” by a judging God. They are conditions that we create by ourselves, for ourselves. They are part of the human condition. Similarly, confession is not a duty to perform to achieve atonement so much as a metaphorical description of what approaching deity is inevitably like. Being a religious person means not being an asshole to begin with. Being a religious person means: intelligence; hope; creativity; flexibility; subtlety; humility; patience; a sense of humour; a comic appreciation for irony; and more besides. It does not mean being an angry, patronizing, self-righteous, self-congratulatory, morality-monopolizing, over-confident, red-faced screamer. But I could be wrong.
Saturday, February 6, 2016.
The mistake too many people make (atheists more than the religious) is thinking that hell is a place rather than what it is - a state of being. Being a scientist does not disqualify one from religious faith, and vice versa. Being a rational thinker is a hallmark of and recommendation to faith, not an antiseptic to sterilize a pathology or a contagion. Or not.
Saturday, February 13, 2016.
Well, you can certainly figure some shit out by praying. It depends what you're trying to figure out and what you're praying for. If you're holding a burning firecracker in your teeth and praying that it won't explode and injure you, you're probably out of luck. But praying about it can still teach you about the situation and your place in it. I mean, prayer is a good filter of existential context, refining our understanding of meaning and morality. Proper prayer is not about asking God for stuff. God already knows what we need and want, so boldly asking Him for it is a little insulting. Better for prayer to be extrovert. The object of prayer ought to be others. Ultimately, prayer is not a momentary thing for appointed occasions. It ought to saturate us and become a description of how we live, so that our lives become “living prayers.” Or not.
Friday, February 26, 2016.
I think there is a difference between "should" and "ought." Of course, the latter is firmer than the former. But more than that, "should" implies mere advice - leave it or take it as you will, it bears no moral weight - while "ought" implies a definite, undeniable moral duty. We are free to ignore our moral duty because to be a moral creature and to be fully human require maximum leeway to err. When leeway/freedom to err is trimmed the credibility of our moral behaviour (the virtue of it) is correspondingly compromised. We can ignore moral obligation, but we may not deny it. To repeat, we can, but we may not. Finally, I think that morality is universal and absolute. Ethics are not. Ethics are highly relative. Ethics and morality are two different things, although they are commonly confused. One's ethics depend on the standards of one's community, hence it is possible to have immoral ethics - like a criminal, a terrorist, a Nazi, a Republican. At this point I am often accused of spouting nonsense and gibberish by people who I think are speaking from a host of wrong assumptions - wrong assumptions about me personally, wrong assumptions about the meanings of words. I hesitate to explain my definition of morality because it is a Christian explanation which, in a secular world, is the Achilles heel of my argument.
Friday, March 11, 2016.
Of course, dogma and doctrine are not at all the same thing. Doctrine is practically a self-evident virtue, since it is what gives shape to any belief system, and therefore forges order out of disorder. Any belief system or organization with a paucity of doctrine - of defining principles and operational protocols - is deservedly suspicious. The FFRF has its doctrines, as does the Church, as does the Rotary Club, as do the Girl Guides, as does the bowling league that I belong to. Doctrine as a discipline is both empowering and liberating. Not imprisoning. Religion is about education, knowledge, freedom, compassion, humility, patience, humor and reason. Legitimate religion meets three measures: it is voluntary; it is private; it is a free-time activity. But I could be wrong.