IGTHEISM

One of the things about getting older is that your thinking becomes more and more refined. Not always for the better, I suppose, when one looks around themselves and considers the beliefs and actions of some others here lately. I imagine you all have your own righteous take on that. One of the things that has gone through wholesale change in my life is belief in the Other, that which various people describe as god, karma, or otherwise metaphysical. From youthful days of Protestant monotheism to atheism, my stance has traversed a large spectrum. Today that stance is a bit different than anything that has preceded before, which is igtheism.

A couple of years ago David Silverman, president of American Atheists, came to Nashville to talk at NaNoCon (Nashville Nones, or those who say they don’t hold to any religion). David, being more of a firebrand, chastised members of the audience from shying away from the term atheist for more “user friendly” monikers like “freethinker” or “agnostic.” Why? Because a fewer percentage of Americans recognize the meaning of those terms, whereas upwards to 90% or more get “atheist,” thus leaving less ambiguity about what is meant. He would be even less satisfied with igtheism, which likely registers in the single percent digits.

But it may be a term gaining some ground, as the speaker of the following year’s NaNoCon, Matt Dillahunty, a frequent host on the The Atheist Experience that airs from Austin, TX on Sundays and one of my favored speakers, recently rebutted the concept in a recent YouTube video. Apparently Matt was confronted by a self-proclaimed igtheist who became angry when Matt pointed out the view, as pointed out by whoever, was too simplistic or faulty. If, as Matt says, all they could say is that the statement “I believe in God” is “incoherent” and that is some kind of debate winner, then I would agree. I don’t believe that people of faith are incoherent in this sense.

So what is igtheism, or ignosticism? Rational Wiki summarizes it as “We have no clear concept of anything labeled ‘God’ and/or how to test it, nor do we have any reason to suspect that anyone else does either.” Without some kind of testable consensus on what qualifies as “god” it is a pointless debate. However, unlike Matt’s antagonist igtheist interlocuter, I don’t say that people of faith are incoherent or that debating the point is meaningless if, for no other reason than that even given these points are true, people still act on them. These are abstract notions that must be engaged.

But because the statement “I believe in God” coming from a particular believer is a coherent and comprehensible sentence doesn’t mean that the underlying concept of God is coherent. Still I don’t say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course I have some inkling. But as far as I can tell for most it is a vague notion, a feeling, and otherwise abstract. I won’t just end the conversation with “that’s meaningless.” I’m going to ask some follow up questions. What do you mean by that? What is God? How do you know better than, say, that person who believes in a different god down the street? And so on. I have yet to discover a sufficient, understandable answer, but I’m willing to jump into the fray given one. As an addendum, from the igtheist perspective I would point out that the inverse is also true. Atheists who say, “I don’t believe in God” don’t really know what they’re talking about either. What exactly is it you don’t believe in? Define it. But, of course, I get where they are coming from too. The point is that arguing either for or against something that has no testable parameters upon which people might agree outside the mental conjectures of the mind is somewhat pointless.

David Silverman and Matt Dillahunty both suggest that we who prefer to adhere to such alternative terms just want to avoid the social stigma that can be tied to the term atheist. That we are softening the blow. And for some, this is no doubt true. But not in every instance, and not in mine. Some of us are really looking for terms that better describe our position or say more about us as a person. Both Silverman and Dillahunty seem to forget that, if we were just looking for an alternative to the term atheist one already exists that is widely understood and is socially acceptable–skeptic. We don’t have to go looking for obscure polysyllabic words just to avoid the term atheist. And not only does it express our doubts about the divine, but everything from ghosts to homeopathy.

So, I remain a skeptical igtheist.

Lunar Apocalypse

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning I could have sworn it was judgement day. The sky was all purple there were people running everywhere. Tryin’ to run from the destruction and you know I didn’t even care. ~Prince, 1999

The lunar eclipse is nearly upon us, and thousands of Americans are armed with their special glasses to witness this once in a life time event. That is, if those pesky clouds don’t get in their way. But, you can’t have an astronomical event like this without some doom and gloom, too. The grand misanthropic ancient tradition of interpreting the workings of the universe as impending human peril for their trespasses and sins is alive and well to this day.

As Anne Graham Lotz writes, referencing Joel 2:31, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America!” Anne says she felt compelled to repeat this warning she had given earlier due to the upcoming eclipse. You see, in the bible Babylonian King Belshazzar was partying the night before the Persians sneaked in and overthrew the empire. Well, a lot of people are throwing eclipse parties and, well, you can see the obvious connection here. Anne finishes hoping that “in the midst of His coming wrath, God would remember mercy.” Because, given his advanced age, we all know he’s been known to be the forgetful sort.

And I just don’t understand this kind of constant fear mongering, whether it’s a lunar eclipse, a Mayan calendar, or whatever happened last week in the Middle East. When people didn’t comprehend how or why things like earthquakes, comets, and solar eclipses happened, sure. But most of these things today are understood, and when it comes to something like an eclipse we can predict with precise calculations, not only far into the future but eons into the past. Which means that, if we are to use Anne’s interpretation of an eclipse as a “warning from God,” we have a pretty good idea of when he’s going to be pissed on our calendars for years to come. And the thing is, even if we all repented right away, the eclipse is still going to happen no matter what. It would seem a more attention grabbing tactic for God would be if the eclipse didn’t happen. Like if the moon took a detour and went around the sun instead of passing over it like we all know is supposed to happen.

Taking an event like this seems to me no different than when my pastor’s told me God had a plan for my life. There’s no way to show there is a plan, but you just interpret the events in your life as if there is one. Likewise, if something terrible does happen, people like Anne can tell us that “God warned us with that eclipse” that was totally going to happen anyway.  Or if nothing happens then God has suspended his judgement (but he’s probably still stewing over how awful we are).

Anne is tame, though, compared to some others. Christian numerologist Dave Meade claims the August 21st eclipse is a harbinger of the planet Nibiru (aka Planet X) colliding with Earth around September 23rd. Of course, this isn’t the first time Nibiru conspiracy theorists predicted this collision.

Party on, friends.

Molding Minions

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. ~Robert Fulghum

Every year now there is an online event called the International Day of Protest Against Child Religious Grooming. Not only is it a horrendous freight train of a title, it doesn’t even shorten to a meaningful acronym. This is what serves as a protest against hereditary religion, which the atheists who host the event consider to be child abuse. They argue some children suffer emotional scarring being brought up in a fundamentalist religion and wave research studies about to prove it. So far it remains a cyber event, which may explain why you’ve never heard anything about it.

To some it may seem atheists believe they have the market locked on logic and reason by virtue of position, not believing in the mystical big guy with a beard up in the clouds. There is, after all, a great deal to be said for requiring some measure of evidence rather than accepting  centuries outdated stories that give us warm fuzzies about our place in the universe. But many atheists can come off as intellectual snobs and, given some frictional topic of discord, sound close to being unhinged, behave overly emotional,  are often viewed as driven by anger, and at moments don’t act rational at all. Which is only to say they are like any other  group falling under the larger umbrella of creatures called Homo sapiens, subject to all the human frailties that go with it. (A study by the Yale Cultural Cognition Project shows we all use reason to convince ourselves we are right, even in the face of evidence that says otherwise.) That’s not to say this dichotomy is on equal footing, not by a long shot, but only to point out we’re all people. So, lets see…who else likes to tell people how to live their lives because they have the corner locked on morality and truth, and also wave about research to back it up? Sounds like the Religious Right to me.

Regardless of where on the “sounds reasonable to me” spectrum you fall,  how is any ideological group going to enforce their unilateral vision of we-know-what’s-best-for-everyone’s-kids? This is where the libertarian in me comes out, because what a nightmarish totalitarian state that will be,  trying to control what parents teach their prodigy. Lets not forget there are plenty of abused kids out there without the benefit of God’s guiding rod. And don’t get cozy and smug, because a government with that kind of power will be coming after some ridiculous activity you engage (or avoid) soon enough. The very act of raising a child involves indoctrinating them into certain behaviors and beliefs. Not only religious, but cultural and political ones as well. Somebody is bound to think you’re screwing it up. Maybe you’re not feeding them right, you let them ride their bike without a helmet, or, our overlords forbid, they formed their hand into the shape of a gun and “shot” someone. These absurdities already exist and happen in institutions where somebody has too much power (and likely too much time) in their hands. Like the North Carolina food inspector who said a little girl’s lunch (a turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice) wasn’t healthy enough and sent it home. And what did the school substitute for this horrible lunch? Chicken nuggets. Or the 5-year-old in kindergarten who dropped his pants (under another child’s threat), and was made to sign a sexual misconduct form. Thank you so much, Dysart Unified School District, for protecting us from this potential onslaught of prepubescent deviance. When “policy” and rules outweigh common sense, it’s a good sign we have begun to take ourselves far too serious. Somebody needs to get a cluestick and beat the people who engage in this behavior repeatedly about the head.

The anti-religious grooming protesters are not without their nemesis. The Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF, http://www.cefonline.com) mission is not only to bring their kids to Christ, but yours, too. Their ministry vision is “to reach Every Child, Every Nation, Every Day.”  Their purpose “is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to establish (disciple) them in the local church for Christian living.” The CEF, vigorous in its holy mission,  is not without its bit of controversy, either, and has been accused of stealth proselytizing missions violating the separation of church and state in schools across the country, and tactlessly informing children of other religions they are going to hell. Never mind a child much under the age of twelve can’t think abstractly enough to truly understand the concept of God. It might as well be Santa Claus. Not much mention of parental wishes or desires here, either. Because as believers, they know what’s best for your kid and want to save their immortal souls, even if they can’t prove such a thing exists.

Each organization at its core serves its own noble purpose when understood through its worldview. One wants to save kids from out-dated superstition used to frighten and narrow their thinking, and the other wants to save them from hell. And children make such beatific, noble, innocent pawns in the battle for ideology. But despite personal reservations I might have about one’s religious beliefs or their political accord, I’m not going to be the one trying to stop you from raising a particular brand of idiot. Not unless you’re sticking them in the oven to bake or feeding them cock-a-roaches. Though roaches might be better for them than the chicken nuggets.

The protestors argue “the concept of children as the property of their parents comes from antiquity and is part of the legacy of patriarchy. Modern children are conceived as persons in their own right because the notion of one person owning another person amounts to slavery” (www.endhereditaryreligion.com). Children may not be property per se, but you try to take a child away from a mother and tell her it’s not hers, just  because you don’t like the hereditary stories she’s passing along. Children may be “persons in their own right” but they’re very dependent persons. The end hereditary religion peeps argue, in reasonable enough fashion, that any decision to pick a religion should be left until the child has become a “mature adult”–whatever constitutes that. I’m thinking age 30, maybe. George Barna says, “Whatever a child believes by age 13 is in most cases what he will die believing.” (Guess I’m swimming against the tide on that count.) Perhaps the end hereditary religion people believe this as well, which would then tie in neatly to reducing religious pledges in incidental fashion. The CEF believes it, because they had it plastered across the top of a mailer I received once begging for money before it’s too late. I don’t know about the efficacy of Barna’s statement, but I imagine that somebody now is more likely to leave religion after being raised beneath it than to enter it after a secular upbringing. In the public square of debate, where this argument belongs, science and logic have been gaining the upper hand for centuries. It just isn’t going fast enough for some tastes (and is unlikely to ever be fully won).

We seem to suffer under the illusion that if we just pass enough laws, or if we just make government big enough, or implement our holy rules throughout the land–if we could just get those twits over there to cooperate with our righteous vision–then we could solve so much of our bad karma. Like the anti-abortion crowd, there isn’t much word on exactly what would be done with all the religiously abused displaced children. It’s hands in the air and, “Hey, hey! I just said I’d save the kid, not take care of them!” I suppose that would fall to some government function. Joy.

Nietzche said, “At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” And Fundamentalism thrives best when it is persecuted. Metaphysical beliefs will never be totally annihilated, that’s the way people are wired, but will adapt and renew in different ways due to discovery and cultural change. Just as it has always done. For the atheist, there is the underlying, unspoken assumption that if religion were gone things would be so much better. In so far as we no longer believe in archaic poetry as literal, sure. Outside of that, we are fully capable of sinking the ship of civilization without the iceberg of religion. The Just So secular society is as much a mythological creature as are the gods. It’s called “heaven,” and there is no individuality there.

Many atheists are also quick to ignore studies that show the benefits of religious faith. Because they can’t throw religion a bone, it’s the enemy. What benefits? As a group, religious people tend to be happier (ignorance is bliss) and live longer lives. They suffer less physical pain. They are more giving, and are less likely to panic under pressure. They are less prone to depression, anxiety, stress, and similar types of associated mental conundrums. Small price to pay, Richard Dawkins would say, to get away from superstition. But according to Nobel laureate physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg “‘it’s hard to live in a world in which one’s highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only ‘a lot of little truths’ and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, ‘I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells us lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time.’ To which (Richard) Dawkins retorted, ‘I won’t miss her at all.'” (quoted from a Newsweek article Losing Our Religion, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2006/11/09/losing-our-religion.html). But science does leave a void. The discoveries of science are amazing and the universe is beautiful (if harsh), and it provides a greater revelation than any predisposed centuries old theological imaginings. But it is a cold mother. Only our poetic vision and longing can make it anything else.

Least you of religious fervor take the benefits above as vindication of your faith, bear in mind it doesn’t matter the particular flavor of belief to get the joy-joy benefits. Those pagans and people who live down the street and believe in some other god are happier too.  Happiness is not a truth meter. And there is plenty of bad that comes from religion in a diverse society, from fear and hatred of certain groups of ‘other’ people, tribalism, fear (of hell, damnation, disapproval), conditional love, and lack of access to outside information and education, all which research is showing to leave lasting ill psychological effects. This is most pronounced in cults/sects, but can also be symptomatic of harsh fundamentalism. I understand  that many good things have transpired from religious faith but, along with Dawkins, I seriously doubt that it outweighs the bad. You can’t paint over life with a happy brush and make that old oil disappear. It seeps through.

The majority of my family, friends, and people I grew up with are dyed-in-the-wool believers but otherwise normal, everyday people who love their family, children, and friends like anybody else. Sure, many of us now disagree on this tale to make us feel better about our mortality, but that doesn’t make them bad people, or bad parents. I don’t know what my parents believe anymore, if anything, but I do know they love me. Tales of Noah’s ark, Adam & Eve and such as literal realities may be a disservice in this age, but not abuse. Those kids grow up to be like the people who believe Elvis is still alive. But we all live with some degree of personal delusion. We’re all on personal journeys of discovery and wonderment, and our views are bound to get spun around a few times on the trip. Religion doesn’t inherently scar children–terrible people scar children, and they don’t require religion to accomplish the task. Are there children that get abused by religious parenting? The threat of an eternal, burning fire if they don’t behave? Certainly. For some pitiful kids, a “fear of the Lord” is a very palpable, unfortunate affair. And if you happen to be beating your child with a cane to dispense some holy judgment, then likely you deserve a bit of hellfire yourself.  But that isn’t an inevitable result of faith, any more than a well-balanced child is the inevitable result of secular upbringing.

So where should we turn? How should we raise our kids? Rationally we can’t turn to religion, especially those with roots in the Levant because they take themselves as serious as that North Carolina food inspector and the Dysart Unified School District. I’ll give religion the props it has earned, but talking snakes and arks full of animals need to join Zeus and Athena in a Rick Riordan young reader novel. Those are the stories now filling the creative void. Stories that set us free rather than stifling us–Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and so many others. Stories that speak to the human condition without trying to so much condition us. Why else do you think these new and revisionary mythic works have become so popular? We have always understood ourselves through stories, music, and the arts.

The rational, scholarly and scientific part of me loathes seeing those old poetic stretches of our grasp for meaning turned into literal dogma. But from my youth I have loved myth, fantasy, and horror.  Because the stories aren’t real doesn’t mean there isn’t truth behind them, as in any good fable. Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor.” That I find to be true. The problem isn’t that we tell our children fantastic stories to guide their development, but that once they are older the church still keeps their claws in them, teaching these stories as literal truth and historic fact. And then demand an extra 10% tithe to top it off (at least that is less than what the government takes). So unlike the hereditary religion group who say we need to wait until the child is old enough to pick a religion for themselves, to me that is just when “religion” should be letting them go. Just as we let them release Santa Claus, tooth fairies, and other nonsense. But the power of the stories, of who we are and what we aspire to be, of sacrifice, giving and moral character, can remain. Eat the fish and spit out the bones, as the saying goes. Dogmatism destroys those truths when one can’t accept the story as literal, though. That’s when society must, and will, find a new symbolism to cling. And before you enslave your child to a particular “righteous” view, remember how many times your faith and views have been wrong and forced to change in the past, whether that was in regard to science or some End Time failed prophesy. And maybe give them the room to explore that on their own without spoon feeding them your own answers as absolute. 

 

Word Borgs

 

In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

 

Language isn’t a static thing, it’s constantly evolving. At times that can be annoying. For instance Merriam-Webster says irregardless is a word, even with the qualification of “nonstandard.”

Some words take on new meaning over time. So when somebody says they are gay or refers to a fag today, it’s a safe bet they don’t mean they’re happy or are referencing a bundle of sticks. Most changes in language happen with little hubbub, but others result in cultural uproar. And that is where we find ourselves today with words that keep bobbing to the surface of the cultural headstream. Not only with respect to what those words mean, but who can say and use them.

Some might say I support gay marriage due to my status as a self-proclaimed freethinker, and that I only wish to oppose religion at every turn. This would be a severe error. My support has nothing to do with my disbelief in any particular cooked up mythological sky god. It’s about liberty. And to me, as long as that person isn’t doing any harm or foul to another person’s life, liberty or property and irregardless of my personal opinion of their life choices, who am I to stand in the way? Most religions just aren’t very Hoorah! when it comes to personal liberty, although their proponents might like to think they are.

See, marriage is just a concept, a union between things. Typically that’s the legal arrangement between two people who want to enjoy misery together for years to come. And in America, it has nothing to do with religion. Religion is incidental. Marriage in America more closely resembles classic Roman monogamy than what is in the bible. Amongst my more tolerant Christian friends who really don’t believe morality can be legislated the word is still a stumbling block, though. “Do whatever you want, get whatever benefits and whatnot, but you don’t get to use the M word. That’s the compromise.” Because apparently Christianity seems to think they have a lock on the rightful use of the term “marriage.” Even though it’s a ritual performed by countless cultures through centuries across the globe of varying faiths (or no faith) with no regard at all for Christianity. For Christians it’s an affront to the sacrament of marriage as outlined by God. But by this logic every marriage performed outside of Christendom is an affront. Surely weddings performed under another god’s name, or no god, is as vile an affront to heaven as gay marriage. I don’t recall any passage that singles out same-sex marriage being worse than any of that. Now I know there are those wishful faithful out there who want to believe God thinks gay marriage is A-Okay, but the OT God clearly condemns it, along with a bunch of other thou-shall-nots. The laundry list of nots in the OT is hefty, and by and large Christians ignore almost all of them. And marriage has changed plenty, too, from OT polygamy to mom and dad arranging it for you to this modern-day notion of marrying the person you love, or some such nonsense.

Others claim this is all an “attack” on Christianity and its values. But Christians weren’t pushed in front of this bus, they leapt there on their own. It runs something like this:

Homosexual: We want to get married like other people.

Believer: Not if we have anything to say about it.

And so we have this cultural battle, as we have had many cultural battles. Dancing and rock-n-roll anyone? Society moves forward. At no point do I recall the gay community coming forth and saying Christians had to change their belief. Some other inane things, yes, but not that. If Christians had just said, “We don’t approve, and it’s likely you’re going to burn in hell just like those strip joint operators, and that’s not a real marriage  whatever you say but fine, go ahead”…do you really think there would be a problem? And who isn’t really minding their own business here?

But Christians are in the trenches still. And really, if you run a bakery and you don’t want to bake a gay wedding cake, peachy. I’m fine with that. The vast majority of people are going to be fine with that. Your business. We shouldn’t need a special law for you to turn business down. That’s just a business opportunity for someone else. But in stomping down with your big outraged moral boots, may I suggest you take it a step further, if but for consistency. Hook up your business to public records and refuse business to sex offenders, drug offenders, and anyone convicted of DUI. Also anyone who has been divorced or remarried, as these are also generally no-nos in biblical parlance. You should probably check their FB page as well. Remember, God is always watching, and you don’t want to serve anyone outside His will. But really, people, WTH? There are so many grounds on this issue that Christians have not answered in a meaningful way. What seems clear is that Christians see this as bruising the vision they have of what America should be–a theocracy, and liberty only in so far as it adheres to their God’s laws. Or at least the ones they think count.

You might as well wake up to this, True Believers. The only person you can put under God’s law is yourself. Even if the courts and law ruled in your favor this remains true. Thankfully we don’t live in a theocracy and the courts, including the SCOTUS,  have decided to respect the liberty of others in many cases. I know many fear that might change. For my part, I don’t believe marriage is a “constitutional” right, straight or gay. The idea of the state being in the business of determining what is and isn’t a relationship doesn’t sit well with me. Then there is Erik Erickson of RedState.com who says gay marriage and religious freedom are not compatible. Say what? Because I can think of a few legal things with which Christianity (varying depending on denomination and so forth) isn’t “compatible” but in no way infringe religious freedom including drinking, gambling, titty bars, and premarital sex…just as a running start at this. What makes same-sex marriage the deal breaker? Don’t forget that Christianity has been less than conducive to burgeoning legalities in the past as well, regarding such things as divorce, women’s rights, and interracial marriage. Bible verses were used to keep women under heel in submissive and sometimes abusive relationships and were used to engender racial bigotry, not to mention to support slavery. But society and culture changed, and so did Christianity. It survived. Now women can talk in church and even preach! Holy Bat Hell!  And where is the loss of religious freedom? Unless, you know, religious freedom to you is keeping people under heel and enslaved.

What Erikson fears is “within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay…churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings…private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan.” Never-minding why a so-called Christian school would essentially punish a child and not teach them because they didn’t like their parents, or the fact that maybe churches shouldn’t be tax exempt to begin with, does he really believe private businesses will be legally forced to shut down because they disagree with a portion of society’s lifestyle? And again, this is where the line is drawn? Are Christian mechanics going to refuse to fix gay couple’s cars? Christian schools are going to kick out students of gay parents? Christian barbers are going to refuse to cut a homosexual’s hair? Really? Seriously?? Because I’ll just go to a gay barber, who’s probably going to give me a better haircut anyway. Does this seem absurd? It’s the Christians drawing the argument. So real big Clue Stick to the head here. You’re not going to be legally shut down, it won’t be necessary. You’re going to shut down because nobody fucking likes you. You don’t have to approve of or be in moral alignment with people to do business with them. Erikson moans that such Christians will be “labeled bigots and criminals.” I don’t know about criminal, but bigots, yes. Tribalistic bigots.  And there is still no infringement of religious freedom. Refusing to provide a service for a paying customer is not religious freedom. At best it’s a personal freedom and matter of free association and at worst bad business. But for Erikson, who is afraid that under a nation that allows gay marriage Christian businesses won’t be able to express their deeply held conviction that homosexuals are going to rot in hell by refusing them service, this is the crux of the matter.

That’s not to say there isn’t blame to go around on both sides of this argument. There are plenty of over-the-top gay activists with fingers dangling over keyboards ready to pop a blood vessel when, say, Dan Kathy says Chik-Fil-A supports the biblical notion of marriage–like that was a huge freakin’ revelation. But ultimately I blame you, Christian Nation, for making me endure all of this. Because face it, you picked this fight. It’s a fight as lost as was the Confederacy. It’s just a matter of what kind of ideological, screeching divide you’re going to tear between people on your way out. And all of this could have been avoided. It should have been no different from not expecting a Jewish restaurant to serve me pork. I wouldn’t walk into a Christian bakery and expect them to whip me up a penis cake. I’d expect them to say they’re not comfortable with that, and many other family oriented bakeries to say same. Likewise, I see no reason why people should expect them to sell a gay wedding cake. Less so than the penis cake, unless maybe it was a gay penis wedding cake…but I digress. We just say fine and move onto the next baker who isn’t so uptight. The only place it might be problematic is small, backwater town America where maybe there isn’t more than one baker. It doesn’t seem to me it should be necessary to have to go to the next town over because somebody doesn’t approve of how you’re going to use a cake or whatnot. It just seems petty. But nor do I think churches should have to perform gay weddings against their wishes. Marriage is a legal institution in this country, not a religious one, and no particular brand of godhood is required. Look hard enough, you’ll find someone to perform the ceremony you want. We’re diverse like that. (However, for you believers, should you want a purely religious wedding without the blessing/acknowledgement of the state and the benefits/tax burdens it bestows, go for it! Live it. Nothing stopping you. God will know, right? Otherwise, you can keep sharing the privilege with others.)

So here we are, where dissension of view is often no longer tolerable. Say something others don’t like–well, then, there must be sanctions against that. They must be forced to comply with *insert offended group here* ‘s world view and condone it as valid. And then there must be laws, rules and regulations, and committees and research and more bureaucracy to determine if somebody’s feelings somewhere, somehow, were hurt. When, if we just didn’t give a frak about how everybody else lived their life and weren’t looking to be offended at every turn, we’d be much closer to copacetic.

The End Cometh Not

 

“The End is Nigh!” the man shouted.
“Is there still time for hot chocolate?” Riley asked.
The-End-is-Nigh guy blinked. “Ah, maybe, I don’t know.”
― Jana Oliver, Forbidden

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve just learned to live with the disappointment. The End didn’t come. Again. I post this because it is such a constant recurring subject, and it’s good to get it out of the way up front. Take for example Harold Camping’s prediction The End would come October 21st, 2011  (after a previous prediction the Rapture would come in May of that same year failed), which received more ridicule than not. That is, when it received attention at all. He’s far from alone in his failure. And when it comes to failed prophesy, contrary to what one might expect, the end result tends to be strengthened belief as reasons for the failure are explained away. Unfortunately Camping won’t be teasing us anymore with his eschatological buggery, since his own end came on December 15, 2013.

But most End Timers are a bit more circumspect in their approach. There’s a plethora of Christians who are savvy enough not to peg The End with a specific date other than “real soon.” Events in the Middle East are oft presented as Exhibit A, with last week’s natural disaster being Exhibit B, C, D, and so on. These folks aren’t quite brave enough to peg a date, or even year, but the impression is that it’s right around the corner. Often, depending on the age of the given individual, within their life time. They’re really hoping for that Rapture Get-Out-Of-Death-Free card.

Popular Christian end times eschatology today is primarily driven by dispensational premillenialism. Its roots are most often attributed to one John Darby in 1830 (making the position as a coherent whole less than 200 years old) who made sharp distinctions between grace and the law, earthly and heavenly people of God (Israel and the church), and went by “literal” interpretation of the fulfillment of prophecy. Under dispensationalism, history is divided into a number of epochs, or dispensations, in which God works out his plan and exercises his authority and relationship to man in distinctive ways, like a restaurant changing up its menu to keep it fresh. This is not what the position is known for, however, and not too many people seem to care about this aspect. It is the End Times scenario that captures and fires the imagination, with a pretribulational rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and seven torturous years of tribulation (often especially bad for the Jews). Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s prolific Left Behind fictional series are based upon this theological framework. LaHaye is one of those who has been cagey enough not to peg a date, either, but in considering how “close” we may be it’s worth noting the authors found it not untimely to include the now deceased Mother Teresa, who is raptured in the first book ( published 1995). Even though she was Catholic and all.

All predictions that the world will end, regardless of faith or origination, share one thing in common: failure. A small fact the Chosen don’t like to be reminded about. This may be said of them: they are very forward-looking. Just because the flavor of the month/year didn’t turn out doesn’t mean it won’t be a hit the next. More facts will line up, and there will be more reasons to believe than ever before. And thus they’ll say, “The chances now are greater than ever before.” Which goes without saying, given the failure of all previous predictions. Any chance is greater than no chance. The very life blood of modern prophecy is “adapt your view and move on.”

It’s natural for people to want to live at the conclusion of things. To be in the movie’s climax. Some segment of every generation has believed they were living in The End. Not only are we living at the end, things are always Worse Than They’ve Ever Been, contrary to evidence against. And the world keeps spinning.

I was still just a pup when Hal Lindsay’s (some say the godfather of modern prophecy) book The Late Great Planet Earth was released, followed in 1980 by The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  The later book warned of something called the “Jupiter Effect,” which amounted to all the planets lining up in 1982 in a straight line perpendicular to the sun (in itself an inaccurate description). This alignment would cause the earth to slow ever so slightly, causing stress to fault lines which would result in tumultuous earthquakes. There would be fiery storms on the sun’s surface, calamity and chaos, dogs and cats living together…typical end of the world stuff. Even after the scientists who had postulated this stretch of imagination said “no way,” Lindsay continued to push it. Yeah, none of that happened. 1982 came and went like most any other year. That does not end the Hal Lindsay story.

The Late Great Planet Earth had made it clear, if not precise, that Christ was to return in 1988. The reason being that a biblical generation is often equated to 40 years, and that Israel had been reestablished as a state in 1948 (the restoration of Israel is a critical component for fulfillment of prophecy in most dispensational circles). The whole “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34) is crucial here (ignoring the obvious context that the verse was talking about way back when). 48 + 40…you get the math. Meaning believers (subtracting 7 years for the tribulation) should have been raptured in 1981, leaving the unbelievers and misguided Jews behind to suffer. And while 1988 was quite enjoyable to me on a personal level, it also came and went like most any other year. And again, not the end of the Hal Lindsay story.

Lindsay adjusted his obviously wrong predictions in the 1990s to start in 1967 with the capture of Jerusalem by the Jews. That would put Jesus back…mental math…hey, around 2007. Ooops. But Lindsay’s constant revisionism, of which you might guess there has been a lot, has not dampened his popularity. In a 2007 video he said he would “look at the prophetic trends of 2007…Those events are now occurring at breakneck speed and the pages are flying off God’s prophetic calendar” followed closely by “I am not a prophet. I am, however, a careful interpreter of what God’s word predicts will be happening in the world just before Christ’s return to earth.” Honestly, I don’t know why anybody would think this about him.

And remember the Y2K crisis? When thousands of people were sure they’d be living in the dark and planes would fall from the sky at the tic of midnight? It was a tempting doomsday scenario that sucked in many bible pundits, whether they believed it or saw a quick buck. Grant Jeffries was sucked in by it (but poor Jeffries is sucked into just about every new cock-eyed thing that comes along, after which he promptly writes a misinformed book–or, assuming the worse, he just takes advantage). Jeffries, being not only a bible pundit but also a financial type of guy, was not only predicting doom and gloom, but was also willing to offer his financial cunning to help you through it. But a blurb at the beginning of the book reads “The author and publisher cannot be held responsible for any loss incurred as a result of applying any of the information in this book.” Which is the hallmark of every great Prophet–listen to me, but don’t expect me to take any responsibility for being wrong! Hal Lindsay was right there with them, slinging out a video titled Facing Millennial Midnight: The Y2K Crisis Confronting America and the World. The back read “Y2K is a logic bomb that could do to our civilization what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Are you safe? Is anybody safe? What are the experts saying? Are you ready for Millennial Midnight?” And Christians wonder why they are called naive.

It’s interesting to have a collection of prophesy books spanning time just to see how they change. Some prove amusing after the years have passed. My favorite by far, and the only one I make sure to keep, I found in a bargain bin in 2001 or early 2002. It was entitled 50 Remarkable Events Pointing to the End: Why Jesus Could Return by A.D. 2000 by one Ed Dobson. It has a yellow sticker in the upper right hand corner that reads “Sale $7.97 (reg. $12.99),” and right above the sale price it says “Slightly Imperfect.” That was, of course, referring to the condition of the book, but it gave me enough of a cynical giggle to buy it for 99 cents.

Certainly Christians aren’t the only ones to fail miserably at predicting The End, but they do seem to make an ungodly amount of money perpetuating said fears. It was pushed to new publishing heights with the Left Behind series, and every news-making headline in the Middle East seems to warrant another book (often a “revised and updated” one). Saddam Hussein graced many of the apocalyptic book covers for a time, but he was found hiding in a hole and is dead now. Scratch that. And I think it is the constant rearranging and bargaining that bothers me the most. I don’t really care if people want to predict when The End will be, but you should only get one crack at it. After that, you have to shut the hell up. We’ll shuffle you off to some nice quiet job where you can genuflect on your bad timing.

I’m sure the years to come will be just as entertaining from The End standpoint, and the History Channel (remember when they used to talk about history?) is sure to keep me informed on all Nostradamus has to say…again. Perhaps not as exciting as the anti-climaticism of those interpreting the Mayan calendar in 2012, but like bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, The End follows us around wherever we go. The aggressive actions of Russia of late are sure to spark the Gog and Magog interpretation (again). Maybe even as a nation the United States is grinding to an end. We are, after all, past the expiration date for a civilization based on our freedoms. But nations come and go. The world keeps spinning.

Beware Those Other Christians

It has happened that all the answers which I have seen to the former part of the Age of Reason have been written by priests; and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and pretend to understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not. ~Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Part Two

So if you’re an atheist, freethinker, skeptic, secularist, or igtheist such as myself and think Christians judge you harshly, don’t feel bad. They judge each other too. In fact, the vibe is some of them probably shouldn’t even be calling themselves Christians, the way they treat God’s infallible Word. Kind of a “no true Scotsman” argument. I keep a diverse range of friends and acquaintances because I don’t want to live a closed off existence, and therefore ideas are not closed off either. And so pearls such as this sometimes hit my media walls:

Beware!

That doesn’t seem full of hubris nor a begging the question fallacy at all, right? And you know, those Christians, dem dere are the ones you have to look out for. Those with their own ideas and feelings, because we all know how dangerous ideas and feelings can be (presumably the person who posted is serving only as a God conduit with no thought or feeling of their own put into this). So even though I am no longer one of “those Christians” or any other faith bearer, that didn’t stop me from jumping in. It was a short conversation and went something like this:

Me: Interesting. Can you objectively demonstrate your interpretation of scripture is not based on your ideas and feelings as opposed to other Christians?

Xn: I believe one can.

Me: Based on your own ideas and feelings?

Xn: No…

Xn: I believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD. Scripture does not need anyone to add or take away from it.

Me: Okay.  If your belief isn’t based on your own ideas and feelings, where does it come from?

Xn: From the word of God. Do you believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD? [Notice the shift in trying to place the burden on me?]

Me: I have no evidence to support such a claim, but if you have objective evidence to the contrary, I’m happy to listen. So you believe your thoughts and feelings on this matter are imported into you from an outside source? How does one reliably differentiate your word of God from the word of God of those thinking/feeling Christians your meme warns us about?

Xn: If you don’t believe the bible is the infallible word of GOD then we really have no foundation to continue this discussion. The bible is clear on casting pearls. It is something you just don’t do.

For those of you not so familiar with the bible, that’s a reference to Matthew 7:6, which reads “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” So, basically, the conversation ended with this Christian calling me a pig, which is probably not the best diplomatic approach to reaching an unbelieving world. In fact, it is quite at odds with what the bible says elsewhere: “Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But respond with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander you will be put to shame by your good behavior in Christ.…” (1 Peter 3:15 -16). Not so much in this case.

A point of disagreement seems a good starting point for a discussion to me. And the infallibility of the bible was irrelevant to the question at hand. Even if one grants that for the moment, the real question in this matter would be, “Is your interpretation of the bible infallible?” So much so that you can say those Christians who disagree with you are wrong and should be avoided? That was something this Christian wouldn’t face. And with good reason it seems to me, as I know no way to objectively show that one’s reasoning bypasses one’s own ideas and/or feelings. Perhaps this Christian should have paid more attention to the verses immediately preceding the one he quoted, Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” No doubt this Christian believes their vision to be log free. But, again, how does one know that with objective certainty? Just as Thomas Paine says, “each understands it differently, but each understands it best.”

Not every Christian uses such undiplomatic tact, and others try to be genuinely helpful, even if while doing it they are looking at you as a potential convert. This bothers some unbelievers, but not myself, as I don’t see a way to talk to somebody about their faith and them not try to be persuasive about it. And, truly, I can be persuaded, given evidence. But faith doesn’t operate on evidence, or at least not so far as I have been shown. As Joseph Campbell once quipped in a lecture, “They call it ‘make believe’ for a reason.”

I’ve been told that faith operates on more than intellectualism and, indeed, Proverbs 3:5 urges the faithful “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” and other verses also exhort followers to not trust in the wisdom of man. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, everybody uses their intellect and reasoning to come to conclusions. Experience and emotion all have to pass through the brain before one can interpret it into cogent ideas and feelings to be passed along. It is impossible to “lean on the Lord” with anything but your own understanding. Of course, our beliefs can be greatly influenced by society and familial influence, which all exert tremendous pressure to conform. It’s not surprising that most of the kids I grew up with in small town America are today Christians and not, say, Hindus. Almost all of them that are of faith, hands down, would reject accepting the message the nice Mormon boys, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Islamists (if they went door to door) have to deliver if told they shouldn’t “lean on their own understanding” but just trust in this other religion. Just, you know, all those people telling you what to believe growing up couldn’t possibly be wrong, right? And they’ve had their own life experiences interpreted through this indoctrinated lens, so that blessings are attributed to Jesus instead of, say, Vishnu.

I’ve also been told to just pray to the Holy Spirit about it. If I pretend hard enough, I’ll come to think God is real I guess is the angle? That is, unless you’re a Calvinist. Then it’s all on God. But here’s the deal on that either way: an omnipotent, omniscient God knows exactly what it would take to make me believe, and if he hasn’t done that he’s not trying very hard. Such a god should have no trouble convincing me they exist. Christians often say atheists don’t want to believe in God so they can do what they want. This is a non sequitur. There’s no reason why belief would necessarily entail obedience. After all, that Lucifer fellow totally believed and he rebelled, right? Thus I can’t believe this God is all that interested in saving me from his own eternal torment that’s been percolating lo these many millenia. What makes belief in something that can’t be demonstrated to be true such a virtue that God (who wants to save us really, really bad) doesn’t just reveal himself? Show me another area in life where such belief would be considered virtuous.

Then I’ll be told that the bible is self-authenticating. This is like Crest telling us it’s the best toothpaste ever. That’s exactly what we’d expect Crest to say. This leads unavoidably to circular reasoning. The bible is the claim. A claim can’t authenticate itself. We run into the same situation when Christians tell us God can’t lie. How do they know God can’t lie? Because the book that same God wrote says so! D’oh! Or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Meaningless statement. How would you show something is not part of God’s plan? And, by the way, when the vast majority of the creation it is claimed God loves so much is going to a fiery hell, that seems like a real crappy plan.

Failing all else, I will be given lists of books as appeals to authority or, more likely, due to the fact many people feel inadequate in their ability to convince others by their own testimony. Or they’re just lazy–“Go read this book by so-and-so and if that won’t convince you, too bad, but my personal effort ends here. I can’t be bothered with your pesky nay-saying.” For starters, and what most don’t realize, is that I worked in Christian retail for a number of years. Even if I haven’t read the particular book suggested, I’ve certainly read one similar to it. I was especially fond of books presenting multiple points of view: Four Views on Revelation, Five Views on the Law and the Gospels.  Many are at complete loggerheads with each other; for example, preterism and dispensationalism, the former of which proclaims most (and in the case of full preterism, all) prophecy in the bible has been fulfilled, and the later that the Second Coming is yet to happen.

Ah, well, those Christians, I suppose.

 

Free Will

Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. ~Mark Twain

One of the timeless questions of religion and philosophy is whether man has free will. Indeed, the topic has been cause for great divides in the church, with Calvinism/predestination on one hand and Arminianism/free will on the other. Both will pull out this and that biblical verse to support their case. But what about God? This topic is not debated as often. While the debate over man’s free will, which now spills over even into science, has been going on for centuries, nobody much poses the question about the righteous dude in the sky. I believe the first inclination would be, at least for those who fancy such lofty sky lords, yes. God must have free will. He’s God, after all.

But wait. God can do only good. In most Christian circles there is no chance of him performing an evil act. Ever. Even though by default he was the one who allowed evil to exist in the first place. So how can he have free will? As all-powerful as he might be, by the virtue of this definition of being incapable of an evil act (much as Christians say of man that he is incapable of any good on his own), God can not have free will. Just as it is said man is born to sin and in bondage to it, incapable of doing right since the Fall, so in like respect God must be a slave to “good.” What’s the problem with that, you might ask? Nothing, I guess. I reckon you could say that is a good thing, if true. But it’s not free will. It will be argued then that God has free will, but just lacks the desire to do evil. But it’s also hard to see how one can call God good in this sense. People are called ‘good’ when they do right when they could have done otherwise. Let me illustrate for further clarification: we don’t consider animals that kill and eat other animals to be either good or evil, that’s just their nature and what they do to survive. But that’s not the case when it comes to people killing people. If God is no different from those animals, that it’s just his nature, then likewise there is no reason to call him either good or evil.

But more to the point, if God can have free will and not be evil, he should be able to create us the same way–with free will but incapable of performing an evil act. After all, isn’t that what heaven is supposed to be like? At that point, your seat is secure, right? Because you’re not going from bondage to sin to bondage to God, right? So why all the drama and tortured souls to get there? If God can do only good, and is all-powerful, how can there be the possibility of evil, even in a passive sense? It thus seems to follow that the existence of evil, of an eternal place of torture and torment called hell, must be good, or such things wouldn’t exist under such a luminous being.

One of the common arguments against these questions and angle of reasoning is, “God doesn’t want robots. He wants people to freely choose Him.” As humans we can relate very well to this sentiment. We want our friends and loved ones, our children and spouses, to love us for who we are. But this reasoning simply cannot work with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God that Christians espouse. An all-powerful, all-knowing God, by virtue of being what He is, can create nothing but robots. There is no mystery, no lack of knowledge, in which a person’s choice of God would be giving him warm fuzzies. Christians will tell us that God loves us more than anything, that he is “long suffering…not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). That humanity is the crown of his creation. Despite this, we are to understand that God has known from all eternity that his favored creation would fall and that the majority of it (and, for an all-powerful God, I believe we can safely say that this, no matter your view on free will versus predestination, serves as a resounding fail) would be thrown into an eternal torment he created. But gosh, He loves us. At no point did this all-powerful, all-seeing God go, “maybe I should approach this differently, because gee, I’d like to save more than a handful of these cute guys.” No, it is quite clear that this God does not love everybody. This can only be the brutal God of Calvinism, the one who says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). At least the New Testament Paul seemed to get it. Calvinists are okay with this, because it’s not like they are getting pitched into hell. They are the special elect. Sucks for you, though. Of course, a God that finds fault with a creation that He created to be damned is, of itself, problematic and Arminians interpret the verse a different way by jumping through a different hoop. It is complications such as this that have led some believers to what is called open theism, which posits a God that, in some sense, puts his power in his hip pocket or otherwise turns it off and that the future is not so predetermined. Ergo, it is open. Hardline fundamentalists regard this as heresy.

And what makes something Good? Another option is that an act of God is good by virtue of God being God, regardless of what the act may be–because God declares it to be so, and so by virtue it can be nothing less. Whether it is snuffing a race of people because he is angry with them or hardening pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power, it is all good, because God is the doer. That’s more problematic than it sounds, for either God creates good by virtue of what he decrees, or good exists extraneous from God. If something is good only because God says it is–ergo he creates good–then murder, rape, theft, it can all be good. God only need give the nod. And in Old Testament times, he did. If, however, good exists extraneous from God, if certain things hold true regardless and by which God himself is restricted, then it must be said something higher than God exists. And if God can only do good because that is so much a part of his nature he can do nothing else, then good is more powerful than God. If the former is true, all God has to do is declare everything good. Problem solved, we all go to heaven. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. God is bound, he can’t just say what is good and what is not anymore. There is a code that governs and which God must follow, even if we don’t fully understand that code. In defense one might say God IS the code. Which would also be to say, of course, God has no free will. He’s a program, a robot. And, again, a robot can be considered neither good nor evil, but only follow its programming. In this sense, God is no different from the robots he doesn’t want.

So it’s not a question of if God doesn’t, for instance, lie to us just because he’s such a great guy, but if God even has the capacity to lie. Consequently, if there is no capacity, there is no chance for temptation or desire. And how could a being with no capacity of choice possibly relate to the humans who face temptation and by whose choices they are judged? The concept of choice, of temptation, would be an alien concept. Some argue that is why God became man, to better relate to the human experience. But, generally speaking and definitely in fundamentalist circles, that’s not the reason given. That whole death and resurrection was also part of the program.

Which leads one to wonder exactly what heaven will be for those who make the cut. Heaven is most oft portrayed as a place of no suffering, no tears, no pain, and, of course, no evil. There is simply the adoration and bliss of being with and serving God (though I’m not sure what that service would entail). The Bible seems to make it clear there will be gradation or levels attained based on service/performance during your earthly existence, with the saints certainly being right at the top on Cloud Nine. But maybe you only make Cloud Five. Still, it’s heaven, and you’re perfectly happy right where you’re at, because there is no regret or envy, and certainly no sniveling. Given that you’re going to be perfectly happy no matter what cloud you land on, as the actor asks, “Exactly what is my motivation here?” Just get your foot in the door. To be honest, given one looses all desire to do anything but praise God, it sounds like a brainwashing program to me. And, to paraphrase a point made by Matt Dillahunty, I know such a heaven cannot exist, because it would make my beloved family who do believe sad to know I was not there. There is no way my grandmother is happy in heaven if she sees that I’m going to hell. If she is, or the memory of me has been wiped or altered or whatever it is God does against her will (because I can’t imagine someone wanting to forget their loved ones), then quite simply she is no longer my grandmother.

Such are the conundrums when your god is  elevated from a pleabian god amongst many to Master of the Universe.