80. crowns

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“Religion can endanger the life of the pious individual, as well as the lives of others. Thousands of people have been tortured for their loyalty to a religion, persecuted by zealots for what is in many cases a scarcely distinguishable alternative faith. Religion devours resources, sometimes on a massive scale. A medieval cathedral could consume a hundred mancenturies in its construction, yet was never used as a dwelling, or for any recognizably useful purpose. Was it some kind of architectural peacock’s tail? If so, at whom was the advertisement aimed? Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Devout people have died for their gods and killed for them; whipped blood from their backs, sworn themselves to a lifetime of celibacy or to lonely silence, all in the service of religion. What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion?”

– Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”

Last night I was at Starbucks, finishing work on a large proofing project for work. Dawkins’ words had a particularly congruous ring to them at that point, as I was spending time outside of work on something that was for work instead of on the rather pressing writing projects I need to be plugging away at. (Hmmm. Maybe that does make me a writer.) Researchers estimate that we spend over a third of our lives at work, and I’ve written in the past about the necessity of being invested in a career or line of work or activity that is driven by deep passion. Life is too short to waste it on so paltry a thing as a job.

Oh god, I sound like a Hippie.

Oh well.

The other day I was asked about the themes that I write about, and my off-the-cuff answer was something about the pursuit of truth in whatever circumstance you find yourself in; but the next morning in the shower I realized that religion is a dominating theme in my writing, and specifically, people living in its awful and haunting shadow. To be clear, religion has done positive things for the world and for society. It provides comfort, direction and meaning to billions of people throughout the world. Some of the greatest relief organizations have been founded and steered by Christians and people of faith. Without Christianity, we might not be as compassionate or charitable a culture as we are now, though other cultures and worldviews have developed both attributes independent of Christianity, which happens to have been the historical vehicle of transmission in the West.

I’ve been devoting a lot of time on this blog to attacking religion, which I guess makes me sound like one of those angry, bitter, cantankerous atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. If that’s so, I’m flattered and consider myself in good company. In the opinion of myself and many others, religion is one of the most serious problems still plaguing the world today, and it would be great to see the end of pernicious blind faith in my lifetime, though I won’t hold my breath. As long as gay teens are brutalized with toxic theologies about their innate and beautiful sexuality; Muslim women swelter in burqas on hot summer days because their patriarchal culture denigrates their bodies; or gullible churchgoers are duped into throwing their hard-earned money away; and as long as the Rick Perrys, Michele Bachmanns and Rick Santorums of the world are taken with any degree of seriousness, I will rail against religion and the evil that it is doing in the world, and the deeply distasteful, unpleasant and vindictive God looming over all of it.

My friend Adam is one of several people I know who are starting a church together. (I’ve mentioned it on here before in the past, SafeHouse Church.) This morning he posted about “Justice and the love of God,” a call-to-arms of sorts of putting your money where your mouth’s been running in terms of putting your resources to use where they’ll do the most good. Adam is passionate about social justice as an essential Christian virtue, something I find admirable and exemplary. He also rejects the absurd and destructive eschatology at the heart of American Evangelical Christianity; that teaches that the “End Times” are at hand and that God has orchestrated a final showdown between Good and Evil, and all that really matters is “saving souls for Jesus.” Were that more Christians shared Adam’s attitude, the church might not have as great a need for missionaries and it might be the compassionate and world-changing faith it was meant to be.

The other night I was over visiting two friends of mine, Joe and Jenny, who are also on the ground level of starting up SafeHouse. (Joe is one of the pastors, along with Adam.) In the discussion that took place that evening, I was trying to understand his theological and philosophical positions. I’m reminded of a line from an episode of the show Mad Men that I watched last night while finishing up the proofing work, where a Beatnik girl whines, “How come every time we have a party the ladies have to listen to the men talk?” (I imagine it’s what Jenny might have been thinking while Joe and I were talking.) Talking philosophy can be very dry going, but it was really a much more interesting discussion than that. Joe’s an intelligent guy and fun to talk to, but the question I kept coming back around to was, “Why bother with Christ at all? Can’t you do the things you do without dragging God into it?” These are the questions I’m pressing Adam with as well.

Joe is a post-modern (whatever that means anymore), doesn’t believe in absolute truth (at least as far as I understood him), and accepts evolution as the most likely explanation for life on earth. As best I could discern from him, Christianity is the narrative that works best for him and for his church, and that they feel the most connection to. Douglas Adams likens religion to feng shui, an ancient architectural philosophy built around making spaces to suit dragons. “It’s worth remembering,” he said in a speech delivered at Cambridge, “that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.”

Or, as William James said, “It doesn’t work because it’s true: it’s true because it works.”

But still I’m wondering, “Why bother with Jesus or God at all?” If you don’t really believe it’s fundamentally true (and I do think it matters a great deal whether it’s true or not), why not take the positive tenets of religion – altruism, kindness, generosity, love – and jettison the rest? Instead of superimposing a theistic narrative onto everything, throwing your money away on a church building and its ecclesiastical-ish trappings, wasting hours on Sunday morning singing communal songs to God (which is really more of a themed rock show anyway), and fretting about filling seats every week; why not go out and campaign for free speech (or marriage equality and gay rights – take your pick), raise money to go dig wells or medical relief in third world countries, or feed the poor and sick and take care of widows? Those are the things that the Jesus of the bible seemed concerned about.

Just as it’s a waste to spend life working a job, religion ultimately robs humanity of valuable time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to other more worthy pursuits. When I think of the priests who have spent their lives in devoted, celibate service to God; of the men and women who have beat themselves up trying to conform to the bizarre Evangelical Judeo-Christian sexual mores; and of all the people who have gone willingly to a gruesome martyr’s death (to cite just a few examples), it makes me sick with sorrow for humanity. Let’s say what we really mean, not what sounds nice, comforting or convenient. We don’t need to be good for God. I doubt God would be concerned with that anyway.

As the popular Christmas song goes, “be good for goodness sake.”

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7 thoughts on “80. crowns

  1. I agree with your assessment. Christianity today is divided into two groups – those who actually believe what their Bible says and those who pretend to so they can have the label “Christian” without most of its benighted beliefs. Both offend me for different reasons. The former because it is so stupid, and the later because it is shallow, dishonest and cowardly.

    • David

      And because both are fundamentally acts of intellectual high treason. Nice set of adjectives too, and aptly chosen. I’m not sure which is worse, the blind faith of the fundamentalists, or that which insists that we can coexist peacefully in some sort of universalist utopia where it doesn’t matter what anyone believes — Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam. Not that we can’t live together civilly, of course, but as I quoted Dawkins as saying in a previous post, the blind, quasi-militaristic faith of the Evangelicals certainly presents the more insidious and direct threat to civilization.

  2. I identify myself as a Christian, as I am a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ. That does not mean that I believe every word of the Bible. In fact, I think that the arrogance and ignorance of actually considering any of the multiple translations of the Bible infallible or even accurately translated is pretty stupid. If you go back and study what the earliest texts available actually say, there is a lot that is lost – or blatantly rewritten – in translation. Nor does it mean that I want anything to do with religion – organized or disorganized. It means that I believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ and follow them. Nothing more… nothing less.

    The religion that is labeled “Christianity” in the United States is a mockery of the actual teachings of Christ, and blatantly violate them and misrepresent Him, in my eyes. Two of my brothers are atheists, and they have more love for people and honor and integrity in them than most of the so-called “Christians” that I know. I tend to agree with Gandhi, who said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    Christian is supposed to mean Christ-like, which would mean that to accurately label one’s self a Christian, one would by very definition need to be someone who actually lived a life that reflected the same character as that of Jesus, and did not contradict those teachings with one’s choices, constantly. I don’t see that in 99.9% of those who profess to be Christians, so I disregard their claim to be Christians and basically write them off as inaccurate and misguided at best, whether they are well meaning or not. Many are people who lack intellectual integrity and moral fortitude and simply use religion as a tool to manipulate and control and use and abuse other people.

    There are a lot of people whose claim to be Christian has nothing to do with actual beliefs and more to do with some notion that Christianity is the American and patriotic religion, so that is what they are going to call themselves. If you actually start questioning what they actually believe, it is nothing like the teachings of Christ, and in most cases actually contradicts or violates His teachings. And if you start challenging them as to why they are a theist – because I am convinced that most Americans who call themselves Christians merely mean that they are theists, not that they actually believe the teachings of Jesus Christ – they don’t have logical answers. I see no worth in that.

    My brother and I were talking several years ago about the differences between our convictions, and he said that too many wars have been fought for religion and too many people’s lives damaged by it. I agreed, wholeheartedly. I told him that I had thought about it a lot and disregarded a majority of the Bible because it simply is not applicable, to me, among other reasons. (Inaccuracy and contradictions, etc.) But, for me, I think that actually living the teachings of Jesus is a logical and good way to live. In the same way that many of my convictions line up with those professed and taught by others throughout history (Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Junior, Shane Claiborne, etc…) my beliefs are most closely in line with the teachings of Jesus.

    Those who have fought wars in the name of religion could not do so, if they were simply following the teachings of Christ. Those who have damaged other human beings with their judgments and condemnations and hypocrisy could not do so, if they were simply following the teachings of Christ. To me, the essence of true Christianity is simply: Love one another. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. In those teachings, I find no fault. If one stripped away the label “Christian” my convictions would remain the same.

    I believe in the existence of a creator for many reasons, both scientific and spiritual. But, I do not believe in the God that is described by religious people. Nor do I feel the need to try to convert others to share my own convictions. If God exists, then I believe that He is more than capable of making His presence known to someone. I doubt that He needs me as His mouthpiece. And, the reality is that I can no more “prove” that God exists than my brothers can “prove” that he does not. So, I don’t see any sense in arguing over it. My faith is not blind. It is a logical choice that I have made, for academic reasons as well as spiritual ones. I don’t claim to be the bearer of absolute truth, nor do I feel the need to defend my convictions. They are my own. Faith is just that… faith; not infallible certainty.

    My beliefs are consistent with the teachings of Christ and they make sense to me as a logical and good way to live, so I identify myself as a follower of the teachings of Christ. Beyond that, I consider religion and all that it breeds corrupt and worthless… especially the Americanized anti-Christianity that masquerades as Christianity in this country, and those who have hijacked the message of Jesus Christ and warped it into something that is so ugly and reprehensible and blatantly contradictory to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the character that He had.

    Consequently, it makes perfect sense to me that the only instances of Jesus displaying any anger were directed at those who were religious leaders, and those who were preying upon others and using or abusing them. To me, that is righteous and justified anger… and it is logical to me that He would confront those people for wronging others, especially when they are doing so in God’s name. Thus, I don’t identify people as actual Christians, unless their lives actually reflect that… no matter what they profess to be. I just identify them as religious.

    • David

      Margaret,

      Thanks so much for reading and for the comment! You wrote a lot and I’m going to attempt to respond to as much of it as possible. Firstly, I appreciate your non-fundamentalist perspective and your willingness to share your experience. You’re right to point out that there’s a lot of good to Christianity, and that so much of what’s wrong with it is what humans have added over the centuries to the teachings of Christ.

      However, I’m curious if you yourself have returned to the original texts to investigate what they actually say. For a long time that was my personal position on the Bible: that much of theology today hinges on interpretations of translations of translations; and English is probably one of the worst languages with which to try and express a deeply nuanced ancient text. Unlike some non-theists (i.e., Dawkins or Hitchens), I have a unique perspective here since I actually attended a Christian liberal arts college and received a certificate in theology in addition to a bachelor of music degree in composition. Even my pre-college days were deeply immersed in the study of reformed theology, so I used to be a theist, and a fundamentalist at that! In order for there to be any degree of harmony you have to suspend a certain amount of your intellect because you’re taking a number of things for granted—on faith, if you will. There’s a very good reason why they call it “systematic theology,” and you might just as well call it theological gymnastics for the amount of idea wrangling that has to be done to make it all work.

      For one, there’s so much history and context that is dropped from the narrative. The fundamentalists try and foist off the explanation that you don’t necessarily need historical context to interpret Scripture since we have the Holy Spirit, which is why the Bible is true and infallible for all time and for all peoples (regardless of culture). It’s intellectual high treason since religious people would never apply the same standard with which they hold their sacred texts to any other field of study. You wouldn’t allow a doctor who applied mediæval medical practices to treat you; and yet faith-based groups are trying to enact legislation that reflects first century and sometimes even Bronze-age thinking. This is what happens when you allow eschatology to over-ride your reason.

      To a degree, we find a similar problem in differing interpretations of the United States Constitution, amongst those who take a “living document” approach and those who hold to a literal, “original intent” view. This is analogous to liberal and fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture, but the problem is largely the same. Those who view the Constitution as set in stone refuse to take into account the changes in society, technology and global culture since 1776. “It was good enough for the Founders, and it’s good enough for today!” some might say. There’s probably a more intellectually mature class of those who hold this view; who, like some fundamentalists, look to the Constitution as a constant for direction and guidance in a changing world.

      It’s the argument I still get into with my parents since for some reason they still appeal to the Bible as a source of authority in discussions that we have, even though they know that I am no longer a believer. One of the beliefs in Evangelical eschatology is that Jesus can’t return until the Word has been preached to everyone so that there can be no excuse for not having accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. We see support for this in Romans 1:20—“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (ESV).

      Frankly, I find the main problem with Christianity to be that of irreducible complexity. Say what you will, but if you remove one of several key points, the whole of it falls apart. Many of the braver theologians will even acknowledge this. I’ve written about the renewed discussion over the historicity of Adam and Eve, and this was my ultimate point of departure from Christianity in 2008. This is one of those lynchpin points, and if you take it away, the whole weight and force of atonement falls away, sin becomes moot (since there was no first man or woman to even commit an “original sin”), and there’s really no point for Christ to come and die in the first place. Granted, Christ could have still been divine, God attempting to reach out to his creation, and his followers later introduced or connected to him the concept of sin annulment. That does end up making Christianity a bit of a conspiracy, but it wouldn’t be the first time that people bought into a mass delusion and were even willing to die for it.

      What I’m curious about is why you find significance in Christianity at all. It’s admirable that you’re willing to stick it out and look for the good in it; but aren’t you really just picking and choosing what you like out of all there is to find objectionable? You may admire Yeshua as a teacher and as a man (he did lead a good life, regardless of whether he was a “real” historical figure), but if you don’t find “infallible certainty” in it or live your life accordingly, why bother calling yourself a Christian if you don’t believe in the core creedal elements?

  3. Christopher Hitchens explains that C.S. Lewis had it right – Jesus was liar, lunatic or lord (or legend). Jesus did not lead a “good life” in the philosophical tradition that we accept. He was weird.

    David, I think you are being too generous. There is little good in Christianity; there is a lot of good in many Christians despite Christianity. As I learned the history of the church, I had a similar reaction to Maggie’s – I was disgusted with the corruption, greed and control of people claiming to follow Christ, whom I viewed as the source of all that was good. I shed much of the American civic religion, and grew to admire the early church, Shane Claiborne and other “hippie Christians”. I was satisfied for a year or two that I could just follow Jesus.

    The problem with that position was twofold: First, as David mentioned, Jesus’ life and teaching only makes sense within the context of the Old Testament. Remove it and Jesus makes little sense. Second, Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels is not a great guy. He behaved violently, encouraged castration, made salvation dependent on cannibalism and vampirism, and he believed the world was going to end before the second century. There is enough within the Gospels themselves to condemn Jesus as a loony.

    Eventually I realized that while I wanted to like Jesus, I was still picking and choosing my own personal loving, cuddly Jesus but ignoring the raving apocalyptic preacher Jesus. I had given up most of the core credal elements of Christianity, and letting go of my fake Jesus was the last step

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