172. leeward

Standard

andrews2Several weeks ago I discovered that a friend of mine had never seen the 1964 film version of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. It was rather shocking because A) I grew up with it and can’t imagine anyone else not having seen it; and B) he’s gay… and, well, musicals seem the particular purview of the gays. Hell, it’s one of the qualities that all but gave me away back in the day. (My friend Emily said, “You got way too excited about Sondheim to be straight.”)

My friend and I were talking about the moment that language goes from being merely parroting to true acquisition, when words go from sounds to meaning, and I brought up this iconic scene:

He had a percipient observation about the show: namely, that it’s a picture of imperialism. Eliza Doolittle is taken from the gutter by the chauvinistic Henry Higgins, dressed in the garb of the upper class, and taught how to speak and behave “properly.” In the same way, Native American children were taken from their homes by Christian missionaries and taught how to speak, behave and dress like proper Christians (i.e., Western Caucasian culture).

The reason we were talking about this scene, and this song in particular, is that it illustrates that “light bulb” moment. My college French teacher told my class that her’s took place one semester while studying abroad. She was reading in a tree one day, she said, and all of a sudden everything just snapped into place. She didn’t have to translate from French into English anymore. The words carries meaning.

Writer David Sedaris describes a similar moment in Me Talk Pretty One Day, from the essay collection of the same name:

It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.

Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult. . .

The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.”

These moments came to mind because several weeks ago I finally stopped believing in God. That’s not to say that I haven’t been an atheist these past two years. I still see no evidence or reason now to continue believing in God. The difference is that, a couple of weeks ago, I finally stopped missing God. It’s like that moment when you finally get over someone you’ve held a torch for, and one day, for whatever reason, those feelings stop. The memory of the love and the feeling is still there, but the gravitational pull doesn’t yank you out of your own orbit every time it wheels around.

Walking to work one morning a couple of weeks ago, the part of me that missed having a God to believe in went away. I’m not sure why it happened just then, but it was as if a balloon had popped, or a string were, and I wasn’t tethered to those feelings anymore. I didn’t feel the need to get angry or mean when someone talked about God or faith. I still get upset when hearing about someone being hurt by Christians, but then I get upset when anyone is hurt by anybody, for any reason.

I’m still passionate about the separation of church and state, about promoting secular and humanist values in society and throughout the world, and encouraging people to think for themselves instead of letting their thinking be done for them by those who want to fetter everyone in the world to a 2,000-year-old book. But I’m not doing it out of some revenge fixation, like a jilted lover railing against an ex.

None of us had a choice about being born in the proverbial Christian missionary school and taught the clean, holy Christian ways of the White Man. Neither did any of us have a choice about being attracted to members of the same sex. Eliza Doolittle chose to become the pupil of Henry Higgins, and accept his narrative of being a “proper lady.” But in the process she maintained her sense of self, and at the end of George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, she does indeed go off to marry Freddy and become a teacher of phonetics. Her final words to Higgins in the play show her to be a truly emancipated woman, unlike the chauvinistic ending of Lerner and Lowe’s musical: “Buy them yourself.”

I didn’t have a choice about being raised a Christian and saddled with all the negativity. But I’ll be damned if my parents’ choices are going to steer the course of the rest of my life.

You dear friend who talk so well: you can go to Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire.

Advertisements

154. cacology

Standard

The past couple of days I’ve been getting caught up on the British fantasy-adventure show Merlin. One of my ex-boyfriends and I used to watch it, and it’s kind of cheesy and rompy in the sort of Stargate SG-1 sense, but it’s still a lot of fun. And I have a huge crush on Colin Morgan, which is a valid excuse for liking anything. (A half-naked Cam Gigandet was all the excuse I needed to watch Pandorum.)

Because I’m a history nerd, I’m painfully aware of all the anachronisms that nobody else seems to notice, such as the fact that medieval physicians had no concept of infection or bacteria, or that knights did not use the same hand signals that Marines use to signal attack maneuvers.

I get it. It’s a show for modern audiences that aren’t worried about those things. And, frankly, medieval Europe in its raw form isn’t very entertaining. There wasn’t much swashbuckling, unless “swashbuckling” is a term used to describe what happens when a plançon does when it collided with someone’s head.

So this is why I tend not to enjoy historical romps such as A Knight’s Tale. Even the famous Monty Python scene above sends a little bit of a shiver through me as I’m reminded of the Trial by Ordeal. In the case of the witch scene, the medieval thinking was that if an accused person was thrown in water, because God has a vested interest in human affairs, if they’re innocent God would intervene on their behalf and they would float to the surface.

There was also a much nastier version of this involving boiling water, where the accused would be compelled (or forced) to put their hand in boiling water. The hand would be bound up and after several days it would be inspected by a priest who would determine whether God had intervened in the healing process on their behalf. The term “trial by fire” has its origins in this practice, where the accused would be branded and later examined for signs of a miracle (or no miracle, in which case you were summarily fucked), or forced to walk over coals or fire.

Oh, I could go on and on. This is what happens when you are homeschooled as a child possessed of morbid curiosity and access to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

The frightening thing is that we’re not so far removed from that kind of medieval thinking. Yesterday I was talking with a pastor who believes that natural law proves homosexuality is wrong. “Just look at how men and women fit together like puzzle pieces!” was the thrust of his argument. (Of course, he conveniently sidestepped the issue of what to do about infertile couples and the elderly.) Thomas Aquinas’ Quinque viae follows similar lines: “The universe exists, therefore: [poof] God.” ([Poof] added for emphasis.)

Most notoriously, Christian apologist Ray Comfort claimed bananas are proof the world is designed by God because they fit perfectly in our hands, and are pointed toward our mouths. (I’m really not making that up. Watch the video.) Julia Sweeney parodies this “cosmological” thinking in her show Letting Go of God when she sums up Intelligent Design:

It’s like saying that our hands are miraculous because they fit so perfectly into our gloves. “Look, at that! Four fingers and a thumb! That can’t have been an accident!’

In 1913, the American atheist Emma Goldman wrote: “The Christian religion and morality extols the glory of the Hereafter, and therefore remains indifferent to the horrors of the earth. Indeed, the idea of self-denial and of all that makes for pain and sorrow is its test of human worth, its passport to the entry into heaven.”

This is what prompted inquisitors to torture and murder their victims, whose only crime was not agreeing with them; it’s what prompts Muslim fathers to behead their daughters rather than allow them to become corrupt and worldly (i.e., not wear the hijab); and what motivates fundamentalists to persecute homosexuals and teach them to loathe themselves. At the core of their teaching is the belief that whatever happens to the body doesn’t matter. What matters is getting the soul to heaven, where it can continue its subjugation to the bloody celestial dictator, God.

This is inhuman, it’s anti-human, and it’s deplorable that in the twenty-first century, when we’ve largely put the evils of slavery and torture behind us, that we’re still putting up with medieval thinking of this sort.

One reason why we haven’t seen much forward motion in the gay rights movement is that fundamentalists of the Rick Santorum/Tony Perkins/Maggie Gallagher/Linda Harvey variety are sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming, “No! No!”, and getting their followers to do the same. It’s a bit like being on a tandem bicycle with someone who keeps dragging their feet, and even trying to drag the bicycle back to the shed.

As I’ve said before, you can’t fully understand these people until you understand that they truly believe that God actually gives a fuck where I put my dick, or where my boyfriend puts his. Theirs is a severe God, looking down from heaven scowling at all the people having fun on the earth—because theirs is a God made in their puritanical image. They are murderous men and women who think they have been given special dispensation from God to make this Earth into a heaven for Christians—even though they also supposedly believe “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.”

They think the reason I can’t see this is because I’m spiritually deaf, blind and dumb to Truth.

You can’t understand their fervor until you understand that they truly believe that this is a war between Good and Evil, between God and the Devil, and that my being able to marry the man I love is somehow Satanic and will bring about the end of the world. Or locusts. Or hurricanes. Or a light sprinkling of rain with a little thunder.

100. singularity

Standard

This story begins with a boy, seven or eight years old, crouching outside on a mid-summer day under a clear blue sky. The boy is peering down into a puddle. It had been raining the day before and there were many such muddy puddles all around. He stares down into it, wondering, perhaps, if (like in The Magicians Nephew or Alice Through the Looking Glass) another world lies just beyond the reflection of the sky above; if that reflection is the mirror image of another universe, with another boy, who is also looking down into his puddle beneath his own clear blue sky.

He stares at it a while, and then it hits him like a bolt. He is looking into a puddle, at his own reflection, at a natural mirror. No such worlds lie beyond. This is all there is.

That, I suppose, is one of the formative moments of my cognitive development as a young person. Growing up on the outskirts of a farming town in rural Kansas, there weren’t many opportunities for… entertainment. So my two younger sisters and I had to create our own. We read books. We ran through fields. We acted out our favorite movies. We developed our imaginations.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family was perhaps not the ideal upbringing for a boy with an inquiring mind and insatiable curiosity. I was always the child in Sunday school asking questions, trying to figure out the story or the lesson, and aggravating the hell out of the adults with my persistence. In church during the sermon I would draw as the pastor talked, illustrating what he was saying in a way that made sense to me. In fact, one week one of my drawings was even published in the church bulletin as an example of how young people were “taking part in worship.”

I’ve been asked over the past several months why, after nearly twenty-five years (you can’t really count the first five, can you?), I suddenly became an atheist. My answer is always that there was no “suddenly” about it. Like the slow progress of evolution over billions of years, my own “coming out” as an atheist was a slow journey; with countless small changes and adaptations along the way, being gradually divested of what I wished were true, what everyone was constantly telling me was true, and accepting what is true.

At first I considered beginning with September 11th, 2001, driving in to college with my father and listening to the first reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center on National Public Radio; and then watching in chapel as the first and then the second tower fell, knowing that there were doomed people still inside them; or later that day watching the footage of people leaping from the top floors of the buildings rather than burn to death in the jet fuel inferno.

But that would be too easy.

Perhaps we should start in my living room when I was about eight years old, sitting in an orange arm chair and watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, and the reality of hellfire and damnation sinking in for the first time as he described the eternal suffering of those who died without having Jesus as their savior. There were tears that evening, and it frightened me so badly that I begged God to please spare me from that fate. I searched my soul for some sin that I might confess, sure that I’d done something to offend God at some point in my life.

A while later I ended up praying “the prayer” with my father, largely after my younger sister had done the same with my mom. I didn’t want to be left out, after all. And for a while things seemed good. I had Jesus now. I was “in.” But any changes I experienced didn’t last very long, and I found myself praying over and over again for that same feeling of newness that I’d experienced the first time.

It was never to last.

It wasn’t until my family moved to Minnesota and we found the church that I’d be at for the next fourteen years that my training as an evangelical really began. My fifth and sixth grade Sunday school teacher was an ardent Creationist, and at one point she even arranged for Ken Hamm to come and do a seminar. Those days were exciting.

My church also had several pastors who were great teachers and apologists. These men knew the Bible, and were able to communicate biblical truths in a way that was both relevant and instructive. There was no screaming, finger wagging or podium banging from the pulpit, and to this day I honestly believe that these men love God and love people. One of the pastors in particular deeply engaged my mind and my intellect, and challenged me to think.

And overall it was a positive experience. The people at my church formed a family of believers, both inside the church and out. They mirrored a kind of Christian love and acceptance that still produces warm feelings to this day. Some have experienced unspeakable shame, threats and all manner of psychological trauma at their churches growing up. Me, I recall the little old ladies in their red hats, and evenings in choir practice. (For a time we had a top-notch group, and not your regular warbly church choir—we were an auditioned and solid vocal ensemble.)

But on September 11th, 2001, I watched the towers fall and for the first time God seemed powerless and even uncaring. How could such a thing happen? How could God allow it? Didn’t God care about those people? And I had to assume then that there were many who “died without Jesus,” which meant that they were ushered from one hell directly into another. And it was the will of God.

I remember that morning that we had a speaker in chapel who changed his topic from whatever it was he would’ve been speaking about to Habakkuk, a prophet who I still admire and respect today. Habakkuk was writing on the eve of the arrival of the armies of Babylon, and questioning the wisdom of God in allowing injustice. “How long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save?” It was a particularly pertinent passage for that horrific morning. I don’t remember much of what he said, but the response did ring hollow in my mind. How could a good God allow that? Because we were Calvinists and fundamentalists, we had to assume that this was all part of God’s ineffable plan—but why?

That night, as I watched the image of the falling towers for probably the twentieth time, I said out loud, “There is no God.” And part of me waited for a lightning bolt to strike or an earthquake, but it was just me and the television.

It was then that I began to question my faith—not so much in response to the horror that I’d witnessed, not to mention the nightmares at the end of the 20th Century, of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and even in the Darfur. Rather, it was the passivity of God, and the seeming resignedness of his followers—almost a shoulder-shrugging at the inhumanity going on around them. As a child there was a song we sang in my family: “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. (That’s sung three times.) No more crying there, we are going to see the King…”

I remember watching the film “Quo Vadis,” a 1951 biblical costume epic with Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. In one scene condemned Christians wait to be sent into the Coliseum to be torn apart by wild animals. As they waited, they sang a hymn. And my mom began to sing that old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” But I remember thinking that it seemed such a waste to be killed over a belief, and pondering whether I could hold out under similar duress.

One night years later in my church’s youth group, shortly after the Columbine shootings our youth pastor proposed a similar scenario: A gunman threatening to kill us unless we renounced Christ. What would we do? My initial reaction was to go with the handful of Jesus deniers (after all, you could always ask forgiveness later), but I’m ashamed to admit that I ultimately caved to the pressure and the guilt towards being a dutiful Christian—but that same thought was nagging away at me. “It’s not worth it!”

For me, church was largely a social activity. It was about being with my family and my friends. God was an important part to be sure, but if I had to be honest he was more window dressing than a personal force for me, and theology was the language we spoke—and going to a Christian college for four years, I got pretty good at speaking it too. But as I felt I was growing more certain in my faith, so did the doubts that had steadily been growing in my mind since September 2001—was God even there? He never seemed to intervene.

In high school the husband of our children’s pastor died of brain cancer, and my family went to the viewing. Several years earlier one of the older boys lost part of his leg in a motorcycle accident. And as we stood there with friends, with the casket not far away, I wondered how she could still believe in God, when God allowed all that to happen, for her husband to suffer unimaginably before finally dying. They all believed he was in Heaven, with Jesus. They even went on how he’d been such a witness to the nurses, and to everyone he’d encountered. “That was Jesus in him,” they’d say.

I remember another incident from much earlier in my childhood, when one of the sons of our pastor in Kansas died in a car accident. I don’t remember the details, but the family’s car had hit a patch of ice or something, and the car had rolled, and only he had been killed. The rest of the family sustained injuries, some severe, but they lived. I was puzzled by everyone’s resignedness to this—how it was all part of God’s plan.

Some people have said, “It sounds like you just don’t like how God chooses to work.” And maybe that’s true. I don’t. But every time I’d watch the news or open a paper, someone was being murdered or robbed, and Heaven just seemed silent. And I started to wonder if it wasn’t that God was choosing to be silent, but that God wasn’t there.

On August 24, 2008, I came out as a gay man after over thirteen years of struggling with same-sex attraction and failing to overcome it. Imagine the pained confusion of a twelve-year-old boy, having read all of the books about adolescence, and knowing that I was supposed to be having thoughts about girls and instead having thoughts about… other guys. My friends were starting to talk about girls, having growth spurts, getting more masculine and… well… sexy. It wasn’t until the age of sixteen one autumn afternoon while raking the leaves outside, under a clear blue sky, that the thought finally occurred to me:

I’m gay.

It explained everything. But I couldn’t be gay—not and be a Christian! So I tried to be attracted to girls. I’d masturbate at night and try to force myself to think about being with a girl, and at first I’d try to trick myself into thinking about a guy and a girl, but the girl would always disappear and I’d get off with the image of being with a man sexually. And that led, of course, to more praying and begging for God to please take away those thoughts and feelings. But Heaven was ever silent, and I was left with the guilt.

So in 2008, when I finally came out, I made a sort of deal with God that I was going to figure this out. As Dan Savage said of the Catholic Church as a teenager, “That can’t be right. They must be wrong.” I started researching scripture in depth, stopping just short of studying biblical Greek and Hebrew myself—I was going to find out what the bible really said about homosexuality. And I found some really interesting information, but the more I looked and the deeper I dug, the less satisfied I was with the answers I was finding. And I started to become aware of this voice that had made itself heard that evening in front of the television that hadn’t gone away: “There is no God.”

Years previous to September 11th, I was sitting in the car listening to This American Life, and it happened to be the episode with Julia Sweeney where she tells an abbreviated version of Letting Go of God. In the dénouement of the show (which I’ve quoted on here more than once), she recounts the moment where she first begins to lose her weakening grip on the faith she’s desperately trying to hold on to:

One day I was Cometing out my bathtub, and I thought, “What if it’s true? What if humans are here because of pure, random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no one watching?” I realized I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant that I hadn’t really spent any time thinking about what not-God meant.

A few days later, as I was walking across my backyard into my house, I realized that there was this teeny-weeny thought whispering inside my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. And it whispered, “There is no God.”

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. “There is no God. There is no God.”

And then I felt like I’d cheated on God somehow. And I went in the house, and I prayed. And I asked God to please help me have faith. But already it felt slightly silly and vacant, and I felt like I was just talking to myself.

And then, over the course of several weeks, God disappeared.

My teenage self heard this and felt both a mixture of self-satisfied pity, but also of fear. It seemed to me that Julia had just given up; that she hadn’t tried hard enough. Everyone has doubt, but you’re supposed to soldier on. After all, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). But there was also a part of me that was afraid she was right; and, looking back, knew that I was hearing that same voice too.

On the night of my birthday this year, after I’d just been dumped by Seth, the guy I’d been in the quasi, one-sided relationship with, it finally came crashing down. I’d been so excited about the church he was starting with my friends, and the thought of being in that church with them, and having a whole new community of friends—but mostly of being madly in love with him. And as I vented my rage at him, it was as if the glasses were suddenly taken away and for the first time I could plainly see that I hadn’t really believed any of it; that I hadn’t believed in God, in the theology I was so good at talking about, in Heaven or Hell, or any sort of divine purpose for my life or for anyone else’s life. It was a bit jarring to do it all at once, but I was finally being honest.

For years I’d had clashes with my parents over my “ungodly” behavior: The swearing, the drinking, the overtly self-centered behavior I’ve admittedly exhibited over the years. One night as my dad and I were driving up to Forest Lake to look at a car after my SUV had died, I admitted to him that I really wasn’t a Christian. I could “talk the talk,” but I hadn’t “given my heart to Jesus.” Not really. He said he knew.

This past summer I lived with my parents for a bit before finding a new place to live, and in one of the many discussions I had with them, my mom accused me of never really giving God a chance. “A chance for what?” I shot back. “God has never been real to me. Everyone else seemed to have these experiences with God, these personal encounters, but I’ve never once had any of that. Give God a chance at what?”

I’ve had religious experiences, to be sure, which were more emotional than spiritual. They were always connected to highly charged moments in my life, in periods of deep depression or brokenness, or to music. And there were a few times when I could almost sense the presence of God near me, when I was attempting to pray, but it was always fleeting, like seeing something out of the corner of your eye.

In the weeks following the debacle with Seth, I considered my decision to reject God. Was I leaving God, or leaving the Church? Was I just mad at Seth and this was my way of lashing out at him—or was there something more to it? As I thought and read and listened and discussed, the more I, like Julia, had to admit that there wasn’t enough evidence to continue to believe in God. Neuroscience is able to duplicate many of the experiences of transcendence that I had; and if I looked back over my entire life so far, God was always part of the window trappings, part of the paraphernalia of the Christian community I’d grown up in. And that wasn’t reason enough to continue. I could try to fake it, to go to church anyway, sing the songs, sit through the sermons (even though I didn’t believe any of it), and enjoy the company. But that’s not me.

I’ve had overall positive experiences in the church; and despite my family’s dysfunction (and the fact that all three of us kids are incredibly neurotic, can’t really trust anyone, never felt loved, and never feel like we’re good enough), a good home life too—but I never had a choice about what I believed or what I was taught, and we lived in an insular community where exposure to outside ideas was limited. It was God’s way, or Hell, and who wants eternal damnation (especially as an incredibly imaginative nine-year-old)? And I could’ve just as easily grown up in a home with bigoted non-Christian parents who didn’t want a gay son, but I grew up believing I was broken, disgusting and the worst sinner for being a homosexual or not trying hard enough to overcome it, and that God was going to send me to Hell if I didn’t literally straighten up.

Since coming out as an atheist, I’ve had much more peace of mind. I no longer fear Hell, or God. My thoughts are my own, and I’m free to think and believe whatever I want. And life without God isn’t as hopeless as we were always taught it was! It actually means more now than it did as a Christian. We live in an amazing universe, as a race of highly evolved primates who for whatever reason are able to think and reason and know and love and appreciate the beauty and wonder of our world. And the fact that this is the end result of billions of years of evolution makes it seem even more remarkable—and there’s still more evolving to come!

I don’t regret all of my life as a Christian. I made wonderful friends, and did some pretty cool things that were a part of that experience. And it’s made me who I am today. However, I’m left wondering who I’d be had I left religion sooner, or come out as gay sooner. But of course it doesn’t do any good wondering what might’ve been. That only leaves you crazy, bitter and stuck in the past. Things went the way they did, there’s no changing any of it, and here I am.

And all of those things have led me here, to realizing that who I am is who I always have been: the skeptical post-theist. I’ll always be the kid asking questions, aggravating the hell out of everybody else because I can’t just stop at the answer, and looking up from the puddle and at the clear blue sky and realizing that this is all there is and that there are no worlds on the other side—but also realizing that true wonder and magic are all around us.

And that that’s okay.

86. smoke

Standard

Note: This was written after a rough day and I didn’t feel like doing any carefully articulated writing. Please consider that when reading. Thanks.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lip. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

“Where is God? Where is He” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

The march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive . . .

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows . . .”

– Elie Wiesel, NIGHT.

This was the beginning of the end of my faith and belief in God.

The past couple of days I have had a number of conversations with theists of various persuasions and backgrounds. There is no conversation in particular that stands out— rather, it’s the whole thing. People who hold to belief in a benevolent and loving Creator God—who insist at the end of the day that God is good. All the time (as the song goes).

I used to say that. The thing is, I don’t even know if I believed it then. Did I believe it before I saw planes turned into bombs laced with human beings? Before I saw people jumping out of the Twin Towers rather than slowly burn to death in flames? Before we all saw pictures of the Rwandan genocides? Of the Darfur? Of the charred corpses of school children chained to metal posts and set ablaze?

God is not good.

God is far from good.

God is, at best, a swaggering, apathetic deity who shows up when it’s convenient, or (like a politician kissing babies or volunteering at the soup kitchen when the cameras are on) when it will make Him look good.

The rest of the time He can’t be bothered with the human race He allegedly created and then loosed on this earth—unless, of course, those human beings are picking up straw on the Sabbath, or using His name as a swear word, or loving (in every sense of the word “love”) someone of the same sex.

The best thing to do as concerns God is to stay as far away from Him as possible, and try and not get caught up in the destructive path of that divine tornado. The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that God doesn’t care about you or anyone other than Himself. Why should He be bothered if you are six months unemployed and running out of money, or your mother or grandmother has cancer, or you’re struggling to believe that He even exist— as long as His great Name is spread throughout the world?

God is a God who lets a child grow up in a home dominated by Christian fundamentalist colonialism, to be twisted by obnoxious doctrines such as that God loves sinners but hates sin, and is willing to throw you into an eternity in Hell if you don’t pray a magic prayer to Jesus (who He trussed up and killed as a figurative burnt offering to Himself).

Amongst other things, I learned that God can only accept you if you’re a heterosexual just like everyone else, and that homosexuals are sinners and therefore going to Hell unless they turn around, stop being gay, marry some women and start popping out Christian babies to twist and pervert.

So why am I so angry at Christians who continue to believe in God, or go to Church even though they don’t believe those things? Because they believe in a God who gave me the parents that I had; who doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the Creation; and who remains silent when someone psychologically beaten and bloody begs for just a sign He’s there. And all of the apologies from compassionate progressive Christians who insist that not all Christians believe or behave in the way that I and many other experienced Christianity growing up won’t make up for twenty-eight years of mental abuse I lived through.

Does this make me a “wounded apostate”? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as having my eyes opened. At a certain age most of us drop our beliefs in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and other imaginary friends once we no longer need them and once our child brain is capable of evaluating evidence. Because I take His silence as a clear indicator of his non-existence.

So go ahead. Tell me I should believe in God. Tell me how much He loves me. Tell me that He’s good. All the time.

Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load—little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it—saw it with my own eyes . . . those children in the flames.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

– Elie Wiesel, NIGHT.

75. votive

Standard

On the way home this afternoon, I was listening to this passage from The Selfish Gene:

A lamppost in woods at night“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such a high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.”

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p.192-193

In my last post and in posts previous (in particular, one from a few weeks ago), I’ve been discussing and considering the idea of the existence of, and belief or non-belief in, God. I’ve pondered various theories, from theism being an evolutionary advantage for our early ancestors that we just never got rid of, to it being a “mind virus” that infects a person until a good dose of rational thinking cures him or her of it. But this idea of God being a meme (that is, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (source: Merriam-Webster)) finally put into words what I’d been trying to articulate. Considering how fast Internet videos and catch phrases spread now, and that some are more or less enduring than others, puts the whole thing in better perspective. God is an idea—and ideas, as Alan Moore once wrote, are bulletproof.

Or is God an idea?

Along with this I’ve considered the possibility that I’ve made God what I want God to be—or not to be—to suit my notions of the world and how I think it works. It certainly is more convenient for there to be no God, since it eliminates the “problem of pain.” This world is all there is, and there is no benevolent God in the afterlife waiting to wipe away all our tears and put all things to right. We don’t have to work out how or why God might allow terrible things to happen because there is no God to allow it. Things just happen. Children die. Planes fly into buildings. We’re just another animal on the Serengeti plains, eating or trying to avoid being eaten.

But I keep wondering if we’re simply asking the wrong questions. Supposing that there is a God (and my sense is that there is). Why would such an all-powerful being expect us to erect this monolithic ideology around the idea that people are intrinsically evil (tainted through no fault of their own, simply by virtue of the fact that they’re born and without any choice given to them, by this supposed Sin Nature that was imputed to them when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden however long ago it was) and that Jesus had to be born as a human in order to be tortured to death for our sins (which we seemingly have no choice about committing since it’s inevitable that we’re going to do something “sinful”)?

If we look not to the Bible but to the world around us, we see a common theme: it’s broken and a mess, but we do the best we can and life goes on. Why instead do we spend all this time flagellating ourselves (literally or metaphorically) about what awful sinners we are in God’s eyes? What a colossal waste of time and energy considering how brief and wonderful life is! It would be like going to the Louvre and instead of marveling at the incredible works of art, we’re outraged about how other people aren’t appropriately appreciating the artwork, or aren’t looking at it in the right way, or littering, or talking too loudly—and completely missing the point.

This afternoon one of my good friends at work and I were discussing her son and his three neighborhood friends, and how she wonders which one of them might turn out to be gay. She and her husband are trying to raise him in as affirmative a way as possible so that he feels free to be who and whatever he is. Her neighbors are of the same mind.

Then she talked about a friend of hers from college whose friends finally made him come out for his own good, because they didn’t care if he was gay—they just wanted him to be authentically himself and to be happy with that. Hearing stories like this—about parents who love and encourage their children, and friends who do the same—both inspires and kills me. One of our art directors at the agency has a gay son who is currently studying to be a dancer at Julliard. They knew he was gay early on, and when he finally realized it they basically told him what any parent tells their straight son or daughter—we love you, and be safe. No complications. No hand wringing. No soul searching. As if it was normal.

Because (pardon my Finnish) it fucking is normal—se on vitun normaali.

What if I’d grown up in a family where my parents didn’t care whether I was gay or not? How much unnecessary mental anguish could I have escaped? And, thinking beyond just myself, I wonder what kind of a world we might have if all parents did that. If kids didn’t worry about being bullied at school because they were or are perceived to be gay.

It comes back to this cultural god meme.

I’m going to backtrack for just a bit and lay some groundwork—and I’m going to focus for now on homophobia, which happens to be on my brain and is currently (and no doubt will be) a major moral and political issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Now it’s telling to me that the only places where homophobia still has a strong foothold is in the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Let me focus briefly on the latter two:

  • Asian culture (and forgive me for generalizing here) is one steeped heavily in tradition and honor to family, though the up and coming generation is becoming increasingly Westernized and progressive, and less tradition-bound. To an outsider, it appears almost militaristic in its demand of unquestioning obedience and conformity to social mores.
  • Africa—and here I’m trying hard not to be conscious of making generalizations or value judgements—is a continent that seems largely dominated by violence, ignorance, poverty and fear. That’s also true of many societies, but I look with sadness at the genocides and ethnic cleansings of even the recent past in Rwanda and the Darfur, and the apparent utter disregard for human life in the ongoing slave trade. That AIDS continues to ravage the continent because men largely refuse to practice safe sex, or believe that the rape of a virgin will cure them, is another symptom of a continent in desperate need of enlightenment.

Africa and Asia are two continents where any of the monotheistic religions haven’t had much historical presence, which is why I singled them out, and why I’m not surprised that the cultures would be strongly homophobic. For hundreds of years, the Americas have had a strong Christian dominance, and the Middle East is home to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam. Both began as largely tribal societies and religions, their religions reflecting the dominantly patriarchal hegemony of the culture.

Okay—brief excursus on sexual politics in the ancient world (which is very relevant to the discussion here) and we’ll get back on topic. Gender roles were rigidly enforced in the ancient world as social stability required that everyone know their place—and free males (those who held military or monetary power and property) were masters of that world, all others (women, children, slaves, foreigners) subservient to their wills. Consequently, because males were at the top of the social ladder, it was logical that their God was male too since he must be a bigger, stronger and invisible version of human males. And so God, like a freeman, becomes a homophobe.

Sex was often the politics of the ancient world, and a freeman’s social dominance often expressed itself through sexual dominance as well. A freeman could have sex with anyone—so long as he wasn’t violating the property of another freeman. Penetration is the key word here. A freeman could penetrate (i.e., dominate) anyone of a lower social rank—women and girls (all females were considered property of males), boys and male slaves. It was shameful for one freeman to penetrate (i.e., dominate) another since that other male was either taking on the role of a non-dominant (i.e., a woman or slave) or proving himself unworthy as a freeman by being soft or weak. Inevitably theology was woven into all of that, and it became a sin for two men to have sex since God, the überman, like any freeman, doesn’t like the idea of one man penetrating another.

Sorry, this is a huge idea to tackle in one blog post, and I must sound absolutely batshit insane and sex-obsessed, but bear with me. Fast forward a couple thousand years. At the core of every Christian pastor and politician’s polemic against gays and calling for the protection of “family values” is that same ancient meme, passed down like a collective virus that shapes and defines the culture around it.

And now I’m getting to Europe, which we purposefully haven’t talked about yet.

For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant reigning power in known Western world. It dictated the thoughts and beliefs of everyone with an iron fist, from kings to serfs, holding the threat of damnation and often torture and death for heresy and unbelief—but it too was infected with that same cultural god meme that had come up through the same tribal Hebrew culture from which Christianity sprang.

Douglas Adams wrote, “There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.”

It was around the middle of the 18th century that people started having brilliant new thoughts, and the new meme of rationality began to take hold like a anti-virus in what came to be known as the Enlightenment. Suddenly it wasn’t okay to just blindly accept whatever you’d been taught or held to be true. We could understand the world and life through logic and rational thinking. And it took several hundred years, but eventually someone questioned whether our belief that it was unnatural for “man to lie with man” or “woman with woman” was right.

And that happened in Europe—just as the Enlightenment happened in Europe.

So if you’re still tracking, I don’t think it’s by accident that Europe is less homophobic, or that it thrives in places where rationality doesn’t. It is by employing reason that we move forward (in what I believe Dawkins considers a next stage in human evolution), for it was by employing reason that we abolished slavery in the Western world, developed science and medicine, recognized basic human rights and that women were the equals of men, and first got a glimpse of our place in this vast and incredible universe.

And now back to the idea of God.

… remember God?

Supposing there is a God, but we’ve created an idea of him in our image—male to boot, in all his jealous, raging, egotistical glory (and I don’t think it’s coincidence either that most theologians were males)—and built an entire civilization around that ancient meme. What must that God think of the amazingly ape-like creatures who go around stuffing each other or themselves into artificial moralistic boxes, or even going around killing each other, based on how they think he wants them to live.

What if God is like the curator of the Louvre, seeing all the silly Puritanical visitors obsessing about how furniture is arranged instead of enjoying the artwork?

74. dragons

Standard

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about . . . Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense . . . there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense.

There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do—we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles . . .  just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’

We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering 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.

— Douglas Adams, impromptu speech delivered at Digital Biota 2, Magdelene College, Cambridge, September 1998


I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and writing lately about the veracity of Christianity and how it’s mostly a complete crock based on the extreme lack of evidence and support for believing in God (and, if you don’t believe in God, well, the whole rest of religion sort of falls apart around you).

The other night while shelving my books, I was listening to Douglas Adams’ posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of his published and unpublished writings from the nested subfolders of his Macintosh computer. The excerpt from the speech above is from a talk he gave at a science conference titled “Is There an Artificial God?“, which starts off by admitting to being rather cowed at first to be “in a room full of such luminaries,” but after a couple of days realizing that “you’re just a bunch of guys!”

I was particularly struck by those last few paragraphs of the speech, up until which he’d spent the majority of the time building up the case for a God-less world and discussing the definition of “life” (in a Douglas-like roundabout manner); but I guess his words spoke to the part of me that still holds onto belief in God, however irrational it seems at times. I’ll freely admit that there is about as much evidence for God as there is against, although the atheists do seem to have the stronger argument—after all, the invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.

Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from.

Imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in – mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest – it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water – water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth – mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic.

But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? – you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god.

Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

I love the puddle analogy. And he makes a strong point—we have a natural tendency to want to believe in God or a deity of some sort. Try as we might, we never entirely grow up, and the thought of having a “heavenly father” is rather nice. Someone to look out for you and so on.

Lately I’ve been having discussions about God along the lines of, “What does it matter if it’s literally true so long as you believe it?” I think it matters quite a lot, personally. A recent NPR article on Evangelicals questioning belief in a historical Adam and Eve had quotes from two scholars—one is Fazale Rana, vice president of Reasons To Believe, who said that “if the parts of Scripture that you are claiming to be false, in effect, are responsible for creating the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, then you’ve got a problem.”

The article continued with a quote from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, who said that “without Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.”

Alternatively, you have Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University saying, “There is nothing to be alarmed about. It’s actually an opportunity to have an increasingly accurate understanding of the world — and from a Christian perspective, that’s an increasingly accurate understanding of how God brought us into existence.”

Nothing to be alarmed about? Even when Paul wrote that “death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14), or “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is a literal, non-metaphorical Adam that Paul is talking about.

We could say that, okay, Paul was studied in Jewish theology so his perspective reflects his theology. Of course he assumed Adam and Eve were real. Standards and expectations of scholarship were different back then—they would have never questioned the veracity of the story. The entire Jewish culture was based on it!

Besides—who’s to say that Paul had any more authority than any other early Christian writer (e.g., Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, etc) just because he was the first to tackle theology? Aren’t our attempts at describing God just stabs in the dark anyway? And most every post-first century Christian writer based their theology on the work that Paul did in those early years of the Church.

Okay. What if Adam and Eve are merely metaphors for humanity’s “sinful” condition, and the rest is still true? That Christ came to earth to die and redeem us? After all, we don’t necessarily need a Garden of Eden for people to kill, cheat, lie, steal, etc. However, if there was no Tree of Life and no “original sin” to offend God in the first place, why did Jesus end up on the cross? What was he “saving” us from?

This is where everything starts to fall apart for me. The idea that it could be a fiction and still “true” in the psychological sense is very attractive because it offers you the option of having your proverbial cake and eating it too. Again, of all people I should have the least problem with gleaning “truth” from fiction. But somehow, it just doesn’t add up. You can’t base an entire belief system on what amounts to a fairy story. Either it’s true and it happened, or it isn’t and it’s irrelevant, which pretty much makes the rest of Christianity irrelevant. It just turns into this self-help religion, and there are plenty of those around that do a better job and don’t teach you that you’re a horrible person and God loves you, but unless you believe this, this and this, he’s going to throw you into Hell forever.

Now, as to Adams’ proposal of an “artificial god,” a fiction which has been around for thousands of years because it works as a psychological construct, I’m on board to an extent. Yes, there are tenets and principles of Christianity that are good. Love your neighbor. Do as you would be done to. Don’t steal. Those are good things. And just like the dragons of Feng Shui make complex architectural principles simpler, if believing in God makes your life simpler, then you should believe in God.

I guess what I really don’t like about Christianity is its denigration of both humans and human intellect. It ultimately teaches that you’re a horrible, disgusting person who, for no direct fault of your own, was saddled at birth with this collective guilt that Jesus had to die for 2,000 years ago by being nailed to a tree. What’s so wonderful about that?

72. blessing

Standard

This morning I was listening to This American Life from 29 July, a show in two acts about thugs and various kinds of thuggery. In the first act, a man in Egypt is subjected to the nightmare of beatings, torture, false imprisonment and then charged with being a thug, all because he wasn’t going along with the military coup before and during the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.

In the second act, a social worker fights to redeem a young man who enters the criminal justice system who she is determined to save and believes in against all evidence to the contrary. As the story goes, he is eventually connected to a horrific murder, goes to prison, escapes, and kills two more people before he is finally caught and sentence to death row. Through it all, the woman maintains his innocence—until he finally confesses to the murder he was originally accused of, as well as another murder that he was never suspected of, because “he found God . . . and needed to atone for what he’d done.”

Later on, she goes to visit him in the maximum security prison where he will eventually face execution. He began to change, the story went, one day while flipping through the trial documents.

He looked at the photo of his victim, the girl he killed, alive and beautiful. Then he held it side-by-side with her autopsy photo and thought, I did that. He pauses and puts a hand over his face, as if he’s collecting himself enough to continue. But watching Kenneth relive this is like watching a bad play. The words are disconnected from his gestures. He makes a show of weeping, lowering his eyes, shaking his head, and covering his face with his arms. When he looks up again, I don’t see any tears.

The crime for which he went to prison involved robbing two female university students, then later kidnapping them, taking them out into the middle of nowhere and shooting both of them. One girl died; another survived and managed to get to help. “He went back, he said, let them beg for their lives, and shot them, over and over.”

Then the victims of his prison break. A farmer, the one with the truck, was trying to run away when Kenneth gunned him down. And finally, this. After the car chase in Missouri, state troopers made Kenneth walk over and look at the lifeless body of the delivery driver, thinking Kenneth would be remorseful. Instead, Kenneth says all he saw was the man who got in the way of his escape, and he spit on the body.

In one of the earlier episodes of the fourth season of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a child molester and murderer (Bill Pullman in a fantastic change of role for him) is executed by lethal injection, but due to The Blessing (the event by which everyone in the world stops dying) occurring just before his execution is carried out, he survives and is released since he cannot be tried or executed for the same crime twice. In the second episode, he is confronted during a TV interview à la 60 Minutes with the image of the girl he brutally killed. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says, weeping, tears welling up in his eyes.

“What good is ‘sorry,’ Mr Danes?” the interviewer scoffs. “Is it going to do anything for Mrs Cabina every morning when she wakes up?”

What is it about “finding God” that is supposed to engender sympathy or forgiveness for even the most savage of criminals? As if praying a prayer erases a multitude of wrongs – if not on earth then in heaven. This is one of my primary objections to Christianity: that you could savagely murder a room full of people and then have a pang of conscience, ask for God’s forgiveness, be rightly executed for your crime, and go straight to heaven to be with Jesus for all eternity without a blemish on your soul. Because Jesus paid it all.

Quick primer in atonement theology. There are two main schools of thought here:

  • The Christus Victor, or ransom, theory: Humanity is enslaved to Satan on account of the Fall, wherein Adam and Eve imputed Original Sin to all their descendants. The best analogy here is in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Edmund betrays his brother and sisters to the White Witch (the Satan figure in Narnia) and becomes her slave since every traitor is her lawful prey. To save him from death, Aslan (the Christ figure) dies in his place, but because of the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time, “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [i.e., the Cross] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
  • The Penal substitution, or satisfaction, theory: Same premise as Christus victor; but here, God is the Righteous Judge and humanity is the Wretched Criminal. “Sin” is the inexorable debt to be repaid to God for Man’s rebellion against him, and Man is automatically found guilty by God, the only perfect being in existence; and so he is condemned to be separated from God for all eternity in Hell (e.g., life in prison). But Jesus, the perfect sinless Son of God (don’t get me started on trinitarian theology), is sent to serve that sentence and is born the God-man and executed, thus fulfilling the conditions of the sentence. And God declares the debt as having been paid in full.

Richard Dawkins responded to the theology of atonement, how Abraham and Isaac prefigures the Crucifixion, and Original Sin in an interview with Howard Conder this past March. Dawkins said: “The idea that God could only forgive our sins by having his Son tortured to death as a scapegoat is, surely from an objective point of view, a deeply unpleasant idea. If God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn’t he just forgive them?

“If there’s something I can’t stand about Christianity, it’s this obnoxious doctrine of Original Sin, which I think is actually a hideous, and demeaning and a vengeful doctrine. It’s the idea that one can be absolved; that a sin by somebody else has to be paid for by a different person, which is a horrible idea.

“It would be persuasive if the judge said, you’re forgiven. That would be great. That would the kind of thing one could empathize with. But that’s not what he said. He said, ‘Okay, we’re going to hang somebody else for your crime’.

“I think it’s a horrible idea that – given that the judge is all-powerful; given that the judge has the power to forgive if he wants to – the only way he can do it is to sacrifice his son. I mean, what an incredibly unpleasant way to do it, given that you have the power to forgive, that you are all-powerful!”

So what’s so wrong with a murderer (or anyone else for that matter—liar, adulterer, thief, homosexual, or whatever else you call a “sin”) being forgiven and getting off scot-free? Or with Jesus paying your sin-debt for you? It’s precisely that—you get off scot-free. And let’s say that the people you killed weren’t Christians. Let’s say you tortured them—horribly—before you then murdered them, had that pang of conscience later after you realized what you did, prayed “the prayer” and were “saved.” The problem is that you sent however many into an eternity in hell (because they weren’t “saved”) while you yourself skip out of jail into a blissful eternity in heaven and Jesus pays the $200.

What kind of a theology is this? To borrow from Julia Sweeney Letting Go of God, it would be as though Hitler had a “come to Jesus” moment right before he died. According to atonement theology, if he was truly sincere, no one would sit him down and say, “You fucked up, buddy! Now you’re going to spend an eternity in hell!” Quite the opposite. His sin of having murdered millions of people (among other things) would be expunged, paid for on the Cross by Jesus.

Supposing an inmate who suffocated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz ran into the man responsible for their death in heaven? Or Susie Cabina running into Oswald Danes who raped and murdered her as a 12-year-old? Or Cecil Boren or Dominique Hurd meeting Kenneth Williams (the kid from the This American Life story earlier)? Or conversely, any of them going to hell and learning that their murderer had been pardoned by God?

Now, it may be fair to say that I just don’t like this arrangement because I don’t think it’s just. God sees all sins as equal, and if a sinner truly repents, who are we to begrudge God for granting pardon since we are just as guilty as the murderer? Does that make me the Unmerciful Servant whose debt the king forgave? Or a grumbling vineyard worker who resented the owner for paying those who showed up at the last shift the same as those who had worked all day? Possibly—to both.

However, as to the question of whether a murderer who “found God” should be worthy of our forgiveness, I say the only person who can truly forgive the wrong is the victim him or herself.

In Tony Kushner’s play Perestroika, Ethel Rosenberg returns to haunt Roy Cohn, who effectively killed her by pulling strings with the presiding judge to get a death sentence. As Roy lies dying of AIDS, Ethel stands at his bedside.

I decided to come here so I could see could I forgive you. You who I have hated so terribly I have born my hatred for you up into the heavens and made a needle-sharp little star in the sky out of it. It’s the star of Ethel Rosenberg’s Hatred, and it burns every year for one night only, June Nineteen. It burns acid green.

I came to forgive but all I can do is take pleasure in your misery. Hoping I’d get to see you die more terrible than I did. And you are, ’cause you’re dying in shit, Roy, defeated. And you could kill me, but you couldn’t ever defeat me. You never won. And when you die all anyone will say is: Better he had never lived at all.

In the scene that follows, Roy feigns reverting to a childlike state, calling for his mother, begging her to sing to him. At first, Ethel is bitter, angry, and refuses, but finally relents when he persists. She sings him an old Yiddish song, “Shteit a bocher.” Then, once she thinks he’s dead and turns to go, he suddenly sits up and exclaims, “I can’t believe you fell for that ma stuff, I just wanted to see if I could finally, finally make Ethel Rosenberg sing! I WIN!” After which he actually dies.

Towards the end of the play, Ethel returns in a final gesture of forgiveness to help Louis say Kaddish over Roy. They end with the blessing, “Oseh sholom bimromov, hu ya-aseh sholom olenu v’al col Yisroel v’imru omain. You sonofabitch.” The Hebrew translates to, “He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel; and say, ‘Amen’.”

So in the end, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, a God who pardons the unpardonable and allows his son to be tortured to death for our sins is utterly offensive. On the other hand, what are the limits of forgiveness in light of eternity? What is the extent of forgiveness? And what is the extent of retribution?

Many friends of mine say that the criminal justice system should be restorative instead of merely punitive—that the purpose should be to eventually restore an individual to right standing in society (provided that there is no danger posed to society). But to what extent can a debt be considered “paid”? Does such a person deserve to walk free, or receive our collective forgiveness?