Bad Sin

Sin is bad. I know what you are thinking: No kidding. Like I didn’t know that!

But that’s not what I mean. I need to be a bit more clear here.

What I am saying is that the concept of sin, i.e. the idea of a vengeful, legalistic God, who puts concrete requirements on human behavior, and punishes disobedience, is a pernicious, evil concept which leads to terrible consequences. Thus, it is the idea of sin that is bad, not any specific sin itself.

I have been living in the “no sin” state for a while. Bear in mind, I am not saying that I live a life of sinless perfection. (That would be delusional!) No, I am merely saying that I have abandoned the sin-based way of thinking. I no longer believe that there is a divine law which I am required to obey, or face divine justice.

In the process of abandoning the concept of sin, I have become aware of the effect that consciousness of sin had on me. If you believe in sin, you believe in a divine law. Thus, there is an objective, non-cultural standard for right and wrong, good and evil, etc. Here’s the rub: How do you decide what is the content of the law of God? In other words, who decides what is and is not legal?

Typically, in our history, that has been left to religious leaders to decide. And I was no exception. I bought what religious leaders taught me was right and wrong. I attempted to live a relatively sinless life, as that term was defined by my cultural context, in that case Evangelical Christianity. Other religions which assume the existence of a legalistic God are no different, though. Islam, from what I can tell, leads to a very similar place.

Giving someone else the power to decide what is and is not in compliance with the divine law is a very dangerous thing indeed. Especially if the law you are attempting to follow is from a completely different culture, geographic region, historical era, etc. Inevitably, you end up attempting to adapt the putative divine law from those conditions onto your current conditions, with often disastrous results.

Take slavery. Slavery is a well-understood anthropological phenomenon. Once neolithic cultures arose from pre-historical, paleolithic environments, then there was a huge increase in the number of available calories. That meant that part of the human society no longer needed to work on gathering food. This led to the development of government, religion, and the military. Early neolithic empires used soldiers armed with metal weapons to conquer and enslave the surrounding paleolithic humans (whom they regarded as “barbarians”). In the process, neolithic empires obtained access to a large number of captive humans.

What can you do with a captive human? You can kill him/her. But that has limited utility. How much better to force them to hang around and do stuff! Thus, slavery arose almost immediately in human history, following the neolithic revolution.

Once slavery took hold, it became a required part of life. The Roman Empire famously ran on slaves. Once all of the available surrounding cultures were conquered, and the supply of excess slaves dried up, Rome began to collapse. With slavery being the dominant way of organizing human activity in the ancient world, making it illegal under the “divine law” would be unthinkable.

Sure enough, various religious cultures have used their version of the divine law to justify the conquest and enslavement of surrounding primitive cultures. The Western European colonial expansion into the New World was depressingly typical. The annihilation of numerous primitive cultures was justified with the idea of winning new converts to Christ. Columbus’s voyage, for example, was underwritten by Queen Isabella of Spain, a devout Catholic. The explicit goal of the voyage was to find new converts to Christ, thereby increasing the glory of God, and of His faithful servant, i.e. Queen Isabella herself.

Further, the enslavement of Africans during the colonial period was justified using a silly and ridiculous reading of the book of Genesis. In Genesis 9:20-27 Noah prophesies a curse against his grandson Canaan, which includes these statements:

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The Christian European invaders regarded the Africans as the descendants of Canaan, and thus naturally slaves to the other sons of Noah (notably themselves).

So there you have it: Giving the power to a religious leader to decide what is and is not in the law of God directly led to the institution of slavery, and the resulting enslavement of millions of primitive humans.

If that ain’t bad, I don’t know what is.

Richard L.

I had a moment of clarity today while talking to my wife. I realized that I have had the same experience multiple times with various Christians.

The title of my post was typical: We will call him Richard L. Richard and I were buds. He lived in Raleigh, and I lived in Chapel Hill, but that didn’t let that keep us apart. I would come to Raleigh regularly to help Rich with the storage shed he was building, ride bikes together, etc. We even went on several business trips together, as we were both members of the same professional trade organization.

My wife had a bad feeling though. She kept warning me that Rich was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rich was the “leading brother” of the particular brand of Christianity that we were involved in at that point in our lives. I must admit that in that role, I found Rich to be a bit difficult. He was authoritarian, for sure. But I stuck with Rich stubbornly. He seemed genuinely interested in having a relationship with me. And, as usual, I had the emotional need for a relationship with another man.

Eventually, Rich completely and spectacularly rejected me. The circumstances around this are strange. One day Rich and I were best friends. The next day he simply stopped talking to me. I later found out, via gossip (which I normally try to avoid, but I was desperate) that Rich had had an affair, and his marriage was in trouble.

At that point, I called Rich and really pressed in. If he was having a tough time in his marriage, didn’t he need someone to talk to? Couldn’t I still help him? Couldn’t I still be his friend? I mean, how else was he going to process what had happened to him?

But, no, Rich would not talk to me. Most of all, he would not talk to me, because by doing so, he would have to confront his feelings. And we can’t have that, can we? Oh, no! In the Christian circles we ran in, if a man came home from a drunken brawl and confessed to an affair, his wife was expected to clean him up, put him to bed, and then continue to love and forgive him after that. All the while, never, ever talking about it. Oh, no! We don’t want to give any glory to Satan. Talking about our sin? How would that help?

Rich was only one example though. I have developed what I called last night a “flinch”. Basically, when I start to become intimate with someone, I want to spew out all of my stuff all at once, warts and all. I am saying: “Are you going to reject me? Go ahead, then. Please, get it over with. Put me out of my misery quickly, please. I don’t want to emotionally invest only to be disappointed again one more time.”

I need to work on that, I suppose.

Larry

I met an interesting man recently, named Larry. We were total strangers when we met, but circumstances threw us together, and we ended up having dinner. In the course of dinner, we shared our views on spiritual matters. This discussion was very fascinating to me.

Larry is a putative Christian at the moment, but I suspect that is in flux. I sensed from Larry a bit of dissatisfaction with his current state, which I generally heard as this:

  • The existence of God is required due to the existence of the physical universe. I have previously talked about the anthropic argument (that is, arguing for the existence of God based upon the evidence of nature). I find this position fairly satisfying, actually. I am continually struck by the wonders of nature, and how they seem to speak loudly about the existence of God. Certainly, a person of faith receives a strong jolt of confidence when he or she considers nature.
  • If God does exist (see above), then He / She would naturally want to communicate with His / Her creations. That is a very common argument, but it does not necessarily hold water in my view. I call this belief the Personal God. That is, the creator of the universe, with all of the trillions of galaxies, etc., wants to have a personal relationship with me, which includes monitoring my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. Several issues:
    • Many philosophers conclude that if God does exist, it would be utterly impossible for Him / Her to communicate with us. This view of God is referred to as the Divine Watchmaker. Deism holds this view, for example. Many founding fathers of the US, including Thomas Jefferson, for example, were famously deists. Thus, the idea that God is personal does not necessarily follow.
    • Even according to early Christian doctrine, it is not actually possible for God to “want” anything, due to His / Her eternal nature. This was the view of Augustine, for example, who famously stated that a special place in Hell was reserved for those who asked silly questions about such things. Augustine believed that God existed outside of the physical universe, and thus was not bound by space or time. Since He (we’ll stick with the masculine for the moment) does not exist within time, He is in the Eternal Now. Thus, He is perfectly wise, perfectly happy, perfectly at peace, etc. In that state, according to Augustine, God has no unmet desires and thus it is not possible for Him to “want” to be in relationship with His creation, or anything else for that matter.
  • And here is the clincher: Assuming God exists and wants to have a relationship with His creatures, then the Bible represents his attempt to do so. Bingo! And therein lies the rub. That simply does not follow logically, period. The collection of ancient documents we refer to as the Bible is simple one of dozens of alternative religious texts that exist on this planet, each of which is regarded as sacred. For example, the Buddhist scriptures represent the accumulated wisdom of the religion we know as Buddhism. Similarly the Hindu religion has several texts including the Gita, the Vedas, etc. And, finally, Islam has the Quran. One thing I did when I lost my faith in Christianity was to read many of these texts, and consider the claims made by each of them. I concluded that:
    • The competing claims of each religion cannot be reconciled.
    • There is no compelling reason to accept the writings of one religion (including the Bible) over any other. All religions have a similar basis for existence. Christianity is not unique in this regard, despite the claims of those within Christianity. Each set of writings of a given religion is a work of human culture, nothing more. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they can be transformational. But that does not make them divine, even if God exists.

The only reason that Larry accepted Christianity was because of his cultural context. If he had been born in Saudi Arabia, he would make a similar argument for Islam. Ditto for Bangalore with Hinduism, Tibet with Buddhism, etc.

Now, assuming that the Bible is not the Word of God, where does this leave me (and Larry)? Figuring it out on our own, I suppose. Based upon recent life experiences, I conclude that I am much better off doing that than trying to adhere to the teachings of an ancient religion based upon the assumptions of a different culture.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice

I have been thinking about the idea that religious people are somehow nicer or more compassionate than non-religious people. This seems to be a prevailing concept in our culture, especially among Christians. But is it true?

This website, which is by a Christian, points out that according to a large variety of measurements of morality, ethics, compassion, etc., Christians fare no better than non-Christians.

In my own life, I have experienced the “not-niceness” of Christian religion. Being a fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian kind of made me an asshole. There were several things about this mindset that did not sit well with my personality at all:

  • As a Christian I was taught that the world was divided into two groups of people: Folks like me who have been saved by the blood of Jesus, and are therefore going to heaven, and other folks who are lost, and are therefore going to Hell.
  • I was also taught that there is one Revealed Truth of the heart of God: The Holy Bible. Other so-called religious books were works of the devil.
  • Even where the Christian teachings were moral, I always complied with a reluctant heart, out of obligation and fear. Thus, I was not very loving and giving, oddly

Now that I am in what I call a “post-Christian” state, I seem to be nicer. At least that is what the folks around me (notably my wife) tell me. One thing I have noticed, especially with respect to my wife, is that my attitude about her dramatically shifted after I let go of the sin thing. Prior to that point, I loved my wife dearly, and wanted to be married to her. But there was something galling about the religious obligation. It was almost like I was doing something that I should do, according to the religious traditions, and that took some of the joy out of doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to be with my wife, and I want her to be with me. But now I basically woo her continuously. I don’t assume that she will stay with me out of religious obligation. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. I actually want her to choose to be with me, continuously. The only way to achieve that is to truly love her, out of my heart, not out of duty. Thus, letting go of the idea of religious duty gave me something more in that very important relationship.

The first two points, though, caused me to have great hubris. When I was a Christian, I was utterly convinced of my own righteousness, and the correctness of my position. I had no doubt at all about that! And that made me completely obnoxious to many people, especially non-Christians. I looked down upon these poor lost souls. I prayed for them, but only in a hope that they would become like me. It never occurred to me that I might have something to learn from them.

Since I let go of religion, I have been having a lot more interesting relationships with random perfect strangers. I seem to be able to relate better. Since I am now equally convinced that I know absolutely nothing, I am more teachable.

Not saying I have arrived here, but I seem to be on the right track.

Lie to Me

You know the show Lie to Me? The main character (played beautifully by Tim Roth) is Dr. Cal Lightman, a famous scientist who has created a foolproof way to tell if someone is lying.

Now, imagine with me, please, that Dr. Lightman is standing in front of you, and he is holding a gun. Also, that gun is pointed at the person who is the most precious to you. If that is yourself, then that gun it pointed at you. Otherwise, it is pointed at your wife, daughter, mother, etc. Got it?

OK, Dr. Lightman speaks. He says: “I will ask you a question, and you must answer me honestly. I mean truly honestly. Remember that I will know if you lie. And if you lie, even just a little, I will pull this trigger.”

And here’s the question:

Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?

Ouch! A classic hobson’s choice: If you say yes (I have written previously that the virgin birth is highly unlikely, although certainly not impossible), then you are probably lying. Even most Christians have a dark corner of their soul where they doubt the virgin birth a bit. And so, the person you love the most is going to die.

On the other hand, if you state truthfully that you doubt the virgin birth, even a teensie bit, you stand a chance of losing your salvation. Salvation is by faith after all, according to many, many verses in the NT. For example, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew 10:37 – 39

If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.

Suffice it to say, that the standard held up in the Fox’s Book of Martyrs is pretty high: You have to be willing to die for your faith. Thus, the standard of faith is absolute, unwavering, unquestioning belief, even in the face if imminent death to yourself or your loved ones.

After all, the folks who were persecuted by Nero in Fox’s Book of Martyrs were willing to die rather than simply place a pinch of incense at the foot of a pagan idol. The pagans did not even demand that the Christians cease to worship Jesus. No, their beef was that the Christians insisted that their pagan gods were not gods at all, but rather demons and such.

At the time I first read Fox’s Book of Martyrs, I found these folks admirable. Now I simply find them stupid. Don’t get me wrong: I do not endorse or approve of the tactics of the Romans in the persecution of Christianity during the early centuries of our current era. (Neither do I endorse or approve of the actions of the Catholic Church during the period following Constantine.) But the pagans did have a good point, if a poor way of demonstrating it: Christianity is a pretty exclusive club. You are either in or you are out. And near as I can tell, the difference between in and out is in what you believe. Specifically, what you believe in terms of hard, specific historical facts like the virgin birth.

I did it myself when I was a Christian. I insisted to everyone I knew that the choice they faced was the Dr. Lightman choice. Jesus is the way, and the only way, to God. If you would be saved, you must surrender everything. You must buy it all, hook, line and sinker. You must be willing to die, or even to see your most beloved one die, rather than deny your faith. Otherwise, you are not a Christian at all. You are simply an imposter: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A tear, waiting to be rooted up on the day of judgement and burned in the fire.

If that’s true (and I will admit that I sincerely hope not), I am royally screwed at this point.

Yeah, no kidding. I will burn in Hell. No doubt about it. If the Christian gospel is true, then I am damned.

Bummer.

The reason I say this is because I have looked at the hard, specific, historical facts that I am required to believe in order to be a Christian. In fact, I have made it one of my life’s tasks to understand the evidence (or lack thereof) for the truth of these facts. I have spent hundreds of hours of study in doing so. Certainly, there is no one that I have met who has studied this stuff as hard as I have, and few who have done nearly as much.

My conclusion? There is no way to know for sure. But the virgin birth is highly doubtful in my mind. Thus, I would be forced to answer Dr. Lightman truthfully: I do not believe that the virgin birth is necessarily true.

Now here is my final question, and the point of this blog: Because I have made a serious study of the culture, history, and language of the ancient world, so that I could better understand all of this, and because I have earnestly, and with all my heart, sought to understand this, and because I have concluded that I do not believe in the absolute truth of the things that religion claims, shall I then be damned by God?

I mean, what about the poor, dumb bastard who drifts through life with a vague idea of what is going on, but never bothers to question what he is told from the pulpit. Shall he go to heaven because of his laziness, while I burn in Hell because of my diligence?

Shall I believe six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland? Is that the price of heaven?

I mean come on! Is that fair? You tell me.

AND??????

One of my dear old friends submitted a comment to my blog post I Am Not A Sinner which ended with:

AND???

In other words, what happened next? Good question. That’s the purpose of this blog post, to talk about the aftermath of my spiritual tsunami. I described the event itself in my earlier blog post (also annoyingly entitled I am not a Sinner, go figure).

Anyway, as I described earlier, I eventually came to the conclusion that the entire concept of religion is rather preposterous. The idea that the Creator of the universe with all of its wonder has an intimate relationship with me, in which He (She? It?) monitors my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. I mean, really.

After all, every spiritual experience I have ever had has been completely subjective. Can I really trust my own experience? I knew all too well how thoroughly I am capable of deceiving myself. I therefore decided to chuck the entire question of God as a meaningless, silly question with ultimately no answer at all.

Fundamentally, I finally understood that I am alone in the universe. That life actually has no purpose, meaning or significance. That I am, as the old song says, merely Dust in the Wind.

Now, that sounds depressing. Let me tell you: For me it was incredibly liberating.

An interesting side effect: I became much more humble. I know what you are thinking: There you go bragging about being humble.

No, not really.

You see, I now understand how truly broken I am. And how fundamentally I really know nothing. Nothing at all.

That’s the thing about doubt: Once I understood, I mean really understood at a gut level, that I really don’t know anything for sure, then my faith collapsed, and I became humbled.

Interestingly, faith made me kind of an asshole. I heard a piece on NPR once about a woman who wrote a novel in which the main character was someone she described as:

A white, wealthy, middle aged, conservative, Christian man who thinks he’s good but he’s not.

And why was he not good:

Because he had empathy for people like him, but no one else. People of his gender, race, religion, culture, social status, sexual orientation and political views. God forbid that he would ever talk to or treat a homosexual, feminist, Democrat, or such like a human being.

That was me. For me, faith was a form of hubris: I was completely and totally convinced that I was right, that there was an ultimate truth, and that I could know it. That I had the line on the truth, straight from the mouth of God.

That hubris has collapsed. In the process, I began to do things very differently.

Like a couple of weeks ago, when I was in San Francisco, I found myself sitting down on a park bench with homeless guys, and hanging with them for a while. I had some incredibly sweet conversations with really decent men, who were simply homeless. I have been homeless too. My momentary success, and apparent financial wealth, have simply served as a barrier between me and the homeless. Once I remembered how much we struggled when we were living in Texas during the 80s, I knew: I am not different from them. I am the same. Only our circumstances are different.

The barriers fell away. I became open to people I have never even considered talking to. Like a young, black, homosexual hairdresser from Vallejo who I met on the Muni. We became fast friends, exchanged emails and are still communicating. Before my tsunami, there is no way that I would ever become friends with someone that different from me. No problem now.

And of course there is my most important relationship: My marriage. At first, my wife resisted my spiritual journey. She wanted me to remain a Christian! However, I persisted. Now she constantly tells me that I am, by far, more loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, and sensitive than I have ever been. She would not go back to the old Jeff, that’s for sure!

The key, at least for me, was understanding that there actually is no purpose. That life has no ultimate meaning. That the quest for understanding and significance is another form of delusion. That all we have is this present moment, the very breath that I am taking as I write this.

This moment. Now. There is nothing else.

So, how shall I then live? Optimize the moment. Which for me is simple: Be as loving, empathetic, sensitive, and such as humanly possible. Allow my feelings to express themselves. If I am sad, allow the sadness to wash over me. Understand that it is simply a feeling. Like the weather, it will pass. And then there will be another feeling in that moment. And so on and so forth in a constant progression of moments.

Will I survive in some way when I die? I have no idea. The issue does not bother me though. I suspect that the software just stops running. That won’t be so bad. I certainly won’t be there to care about it.

Ultimately, in a few thousand years at most, I will be utterly forgotten. And then a few billion years after that, the Earth will be destroyed (by the Sun if nothing gets it first). If our species has not escaped from this rock by then, every single thing that every human being has ever known will be lost forever. And that includes me.

Shall I then by any action of mine affect the lifespan of the universe? Shall I somehow change the fate of all mankind? Doubtful.

I can then be free. I am free of religious delusions. I understand now at last who I am and what this life is all about. And that pleases me.

More later.