I am a Postchristian

I have discovered that I am a postchristian. Wikipedia defines postchristianity this way:

Postchristianity is the decline of Christianity.

I would accept that definition as long as the decline occurs not only within human societies (as the wikipedia article indicates) but also within my own heart. I read the article and recognized the state of my own heart: I am what you become once you decide the Christianity is bullshit.

I do not say that Jesus is bullshit. Jesus may be the real McCoy. I don’t know. At the very least, Jesus was a terrific guy, at least from what we can tell from the biblical record. Way, way ahead of his time. And a genuine improvement over the other apocalyptic prophets of the time.

My experience has not been so much with Jesus as with his followers. I have become a reluctant critic of the American style of Evangelical Christianity, which I have come to believe is simply a form of capitalism at this point. And the product is essentially a form of entertainment. A religious buzz, nothing more.

Now, having said that, others are apparently figuring this out as well. There is a postchristian church. And it is exploding, largely at the expense of the more traditional Protestant churches.

I encountered one such church last Sunday, and as I write this, my wife and I intend to go there again tomorrow. This is Unity Center of Peace in Chapel Hill. I had a nice conversation with Rosemary, the (oh, I don’t know what to call her: Head Pastor?) at Unity. Seems they welcome all comers. Persons of all faiths or no faith at all. Their statement of faith says that they welcome unbelievers. I replied: “Great! I am an unbeliever. Thanks for welcoming me.”

There does appear to be a mildly delusional, but otherwise quite pleasant, gospel, which I refer to as the “interfaith gospel”. I will blog on that later.

Dark Verses

I recently ran across this blog, which I found quite engaging. The author (named Tracy as I will refer to her in this post) claims to promote a state of being “radically free”, and generally, I would say she is on a good path towards that goal.

But she still continues to engage in one (in my opinion) form of delusion: She continues to maintain that the bible is the Word of God, or “revealed truth” as I like to call it. This particular Christian dogma takes many forms. In its most extreme fundamentalist form (which Tracy obviously rejects), the bible is to be read literally, as a historical document.

While Tracy certainly does not hold to that view, she does tend to quote the bible in support of her position. I call this “bible bashing”.

Bible bashing occurs when a person regards the bible as authoritative for human living, and the expression of divine will. I no longer hold that view, and I believe a careful and systematic study of the bible will reveal what I have discovered: The bible as we know it is a work of human culture. A collection of literature, nothing more.

How do I know this? Easy. First, I look at the 85% of the bible that almost all Christians (and Jews for that matter) tend to ignore. I call these the “dark verses” (hence the title of this post). These are the verses that show the character and nature of the god described in the bible. Which is a pretty poor character in my view, and I think most reasonable folks would agree.

Take a story that Christians love: The story of the flood, Noah, and so forth, which is contained in Genesis 6-9. This is a story which I personally taught to my children as  a bedtime story. My wife and I even decorated our children’s bedrooms with pictures of the ark, animals, and so forth.

Let’s get real. This is a terrible story. In this story, the god of the universe, the creator of all the stars, galaxies, and so forth, decides that he is annoyed with mankind, because they are engaging in all sorts of behavior of which he disapproves. (No explanation is ever given as to why this particular god has an opinion about things like foods, sexuality, what day we should rest, etc.) Anyway, because mankind has failed to measure up to his standard, he has a simple solution: Wipe them all out.

Imagine the young mother at that moment, holding her newborn infant in her arms while god causes the waters to rise. She struggles to keep her baby above the surface of the waters. Eventually, she is overwhelmed, and her baby falls into the water and is drowned as well.

Now, several questions are patently obvious:

  • Would you worship a god who would kill an innocent infant in cold blood for the purported crimes or his or her mother, or other adults in his or her culture? I mean come on here! Supposedly, one of the basic tenets of Christianity is redemption which is a beautiful idea. The gist is that all humans are capable of being fundamentally good, if simply given a chance. Everyone has the potential to be redeemed. Not this baby apparently. At least not in god’s eyes. He or she never gets a chance to prove what kind of life he or she would have had. In my mind that god is a monster, a genocidal maniac who makes Hitler look like an alter boy.
  • What are the crimes of which this culture is guilty, and which is connotated to justify mass genocide? Homosexual practices for one. Does anyone in our current culture maintain that because of homosexuality that our culture deserves to be wiped out? (If so, I would suggest that you are a bit out of step with modern values.)
  • Oh and the other crime: Worshipping the detestable gods of their religion. Which I have pointed out before is simply code: Religious documents of all stripes invariably refer to the practitioners of another religion as wicked idolaters. That’s right before they decide that these folks deserve to be killed.

Many other examples could be chosen. I have pointed out all of the incredibly cruel, misogynistic, bigoted and just plain stupid things in the Old Testament law. And the New Testament (especially the later books like the Pastoral Epistles and the Book of Revelation) are little better. Even the gospels do not escape from the issue of dark verses.

I will not belabor the point further. My real purpose in this blog post is to beseech all of my fellow humans: For the sake of the planet, for the sake of human suffering, please, please, pretty please, drop the silly pretension that your particular religious text (whether it is the bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Gita, or whatever) is the revealed truth. It is simply not possible for all of these books to be faxed from heaven: They are wildly inconsistent, after all. (The bible is even internally inconsistent, which is also true of many of the other texts which claim the status of revealed truth).

As long as there are millions of believers who maintain that their particular book is the revealed truth, and yours is the work of demons, we are all going to remain stuck in a persistent state of being assholes who bash each other over the head with these books. Can we stop doing this now, please?

Sin is the Enemy

I had a bit of a breakthrough today. I now understand who (what) the enemy is. The enemy is not faith. Sorry to disagree with folks like Bill Maher, but the enemy is not religion.

The enemy is sin.

I don’t mean that you should try to live a sinless life, i.e. attempt to eradicate sinful behavior from your lifestyle. Nor should you abandon discretion and common sense and live a dissolute and reckless lifestyle. In other words, give in to sin. No, you should simply abandon the idea of sin, the idea that there is a vindictive, jealous and vengeful God who will wreak judgment upon those He finds displeasing. And that you can somehow please him by living in a particular manner.

Let’s examine that idea closely. Take the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal contained in 1 Kings 18:23-40. As this site indicates, this story is a favorite among Christians. Invariably, Christians spiritualize the story without really examining the events themselves. In the story, Elijah proves that Yahweh was the true God, whereas Baal was a false god. Elijah does so by miraculous means, and the way he does so is quite spectacular and rather amusing, no question. But look what happens afterwards:

And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kings 18:40 KJV)

Now, assuming you believe in God (which I certainly do much of the time), then you must have some internal concept of the nature of God. You probably believe that God is loving and compassionate. Let’s call this a Loving and Compassionate God, or L&CG.

Now, which of these two scenarios is more likely:

  • Elijah called fire down from heaven, which L&CG obligingly sent, thereby proving His existence and power in graphic terms. Elijah then proceeded to massacre a religious minority, with the explicit approval of L&CG.
  • Elijah orchestrated the massacre of a powerful religious minority for political gain. He then exploited his religious culture to justify his war crimes.

I don’t know about you, but I find the first scenario entirely less likely than the second one. Yes, Elijah may have existed. He even may have called down fire from heaven, although I seriously doubt it. What I do not doubt, however, is that the annihilation of a religious minority within ancient Israel (or anywhere else in history for that matter) is not, never has been, and never will be justified and endorsed by L&CG.

I came up with a hypothesis based upon this idea. The gist is that sin-based religion has caused more religious war, persecution, etc., than non-sin-based religion. It turns out that this is certainly true. Of the major world religions, the number one culprit in terms of causing religious war, persecution, etc., is Christianity, with about 15 million deaths. Islam is next, with between 8 and 9 million, except that most Islam-related religious wars also involved Christians. Thus, much of that has to be credited to Christianity as well. Everything else is noise.

Religions where sin is not a major feature (Hinduism and Buddhism being the two major world religions that fall into this category) do not figure in religious wars very much at all. If they appear, it is in a defensive role. Thus, Buddhists or Hindus will defend themselves, violently if necessary, when they are persecuted by another religion (usually Christians and Muslims). Typically, Christians or Muslims attempt to convert Hindus or Buddhists forcibly. This does result in resistance, understandably. Otherwise, the non-sin-based religions simply do not figure in religious wars very much.

Thus, it appears that my hypothesis is correct: It is not religion that dramatically increases human suffering. It is instead the concept of sin, with the associated idea of a vindictive, judgmental and vengeful God.

This gets played out in daily life of ordinary folks as well. Take this scenario. A small child is killed in some senseless and brutal manner. The parents are understandably devastated. A well-meaning but clueless religious person shows up, sees the pathetic scene, and says something like the following:

We just can’t know God’s plan. Although we don’t understand it, we have to accept that God knows best, and somehow this was the best thing for <fill in child’s name>. I mean, who knows, <fill in child’s name> might have turned away from God. By taking her now, God knew for sure that she would be in his loving embrace for all eternity. Maybe this is God’s perfect will.

I am not exaggerating here. I have been to many funerals that sounded just like this. And what has this religious leader just done? He or she has made God to blame for little <fill in child’s name>’s death, and the suffering of these poor parents, who must now try to worship a God who countenanced this obscene event.

In some cases, the opposite occurs. My cousin Monty was the most egregious example of which I ever heard. That happened fairly soon after I had just become a born-again Christian. Monty was a severe alcoholic who was separated from his wife, having multiple affairs, and died in a drunk driving accident in which he was at fault. In the process, he killed an entire innocent family. At his funeral, which I personally attended, the Baptist preacher said the following, more or less:

We can know for sure that Monty is in heaven today in the loving arms of Jesus. That’s because he came down the aisle in this very church at the age of 12 and accepted Jesus into his heart, and was baptized in this very church.

Now, if anyone ever arguably deserved to burn in Hell, Monty would be up there. He was a cad, no question. Not a lot in Monty’s life to admire. However, for me, given a choice of believing that Monty is burning in Hell or in the embrace of Jesus, I will go with neither.

Monty was broken. I am broken. You are broken. We are all in a terrible state. But that does not mean that there is a vengeful and jealous God who will condemn us when we die.

A few Christians are even beginning to embrace this idea. Take for example Rob Bell, a Christian I have thoroughly enjoyed. Rob seriously pissed off the Evangelical establishment when he announced that he no longer believed in Hell. He later recanted when faced with serious persecution, I suppose. The question that got him: If there is no sin, then why did Jesus die?

Why indeed?

Isabella

In my previous post Bad Sin, I talked briefly about Queen Isabella of Spain, and how her religious beliefs ended up directly affecting her policies. In this post I will punch that up a bit.

Queen Isabella was a devout Catholic. She certainly lived what appeared to be a virtuous and admirable life, at least from outward appearances. Most Christians would find little to criticize about Isabella’s personal conduct. In fact, her behavior was so exemplary that she was awarded sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church in 1874.

Problem is, she had a very bad counselor.  Her personal confessor was Tomás de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, which Queen Isabella herself created in 1478. Similarly to Queen Isabella, Torquemada also had a very devout and “sinless” lifestyle, at least from outward appearances. However, he believed something most Christians do not presently accept. Effectively, Torquemada believed that torture was justified, if it could prompt a person to confess their sins, repent, and accept Jesus. Once they were effectively in the kingdom, the killing them was doing them a favor. They might backslide after all! The gist of the idea is that it would be far worse for someone to die in sin, and spend eternity in Hell, than be tortured to death in this life, but receive forgiveness and a heavenly reward.

Obviously, the underlying basis for this idea is sin. Without sin, there would be no Hell, no heavenly reward, and so forth.

Torquemada was also one of the most virulent anti-semites in the dark history of Christianity. He orchestrated the forcible expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It would not be overstating the case to say that one of the main reasons that Spain is a poor country today was because of the stupid, blind, and senseless policies of Queen Isabella and Torquemada. By expelling the Jews, Spain decimated the Spanish middle class, where most of the economic activity was being generated. Up to that point, Spain was the superpower. Afterwards, once the economic impact was felt, Spain declined and the British Empire became pre-eminent.

This theology had serious practical for the entire world. A foolish and silly doctrine resulted in the direct death of thousands, and indirectly affected the lives of millions. Thus, what we believe matters. It affects our behavior dramatically.

I still stubbornly maintain that the concept of sin is pernicious and evil. Like I said previously, allowing another person to tell you what is, and is not, in the divine law is a very dangerous thing. Queen Isabella agreed to allow Torquemada to tell her that. He was the one who guided her in her daily life. He fed her the formula for success. And succeed she did! In the context of her culture, Queen Isabella was a superstar. Too bad her delusion had to be so catastrophic for the entire world.

My advice: If you hear a religious leader telling you what is, and is not, sin for you, do not hesitate. Run. Do not walk. Flee.

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.