Suspension of Disbelief

You can read in the Bible where it says ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God.’ There is another kind of fool that says, ‘There is a God, and it’s the one I worship.’

~Joseph Campbell, Lecture Series I.5.4 – History of the Gods

 

We practice something when we watch a movie called suspension of disbelief. We accept the storyteller’s concocted premise–mutants, superheroes, aliens–and sit back to enjoy the ride. Rules of logic and physics, generally speaking, need not apply. I contend in many respects that is what faith is–suspension of disbelief. For, while in practice one doesn’t, generally speaking, believe in talking animals or a staff turning into a snake, throw a talking ass or such into an ancient tome and then it becomes quite real. Where one would be inclined to scoff and doubt, and often use their reasoning capacity to demolish other faiths and miracles outside their preferred book, when it comes to their own it’s the exception. A miracle. A more creative person might claim some of that other stuff happened, but it was of the devil or evil spirits, not a  holy godly miracle. Each person has their personal line of incredulity.

Of course believers would never blindly accept their faith. They may not have *proof* in a scientific sense, but they do often have intricately woven theses to support their belief, and there’s just no way their book, the universe, and all just came together in this perfect way without their belief being true. Where once the movie is over, and perhaps we’ve taken away a poignant point or understanding if it was particularly moving, we return to our reality, faith keeps going. The church isn’t content to teach a metaphorical lesson. No, it grabs you from cradle to grave, its own nanny state (and please pay your 10%–or more if the spirit moves you). It is dogma. Thus Christians have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to harmonize the four irreconcilable gospels accounts, Mormons get a pre-Jesus “lost” tribe of Israel over to the Americas (where also lies the Garden of Eden, in my home state of MO as a matter of fact. I never knew I was so close to paradise), Muslims insist the Quaran predicts and “verifies” modern science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses just have to keep on explaining why the world didn’t end with their previous predictions.
Life wasn’t always this hard for these institutions. Before this age of information explosion, before the printing press, the supplicant was left at the mercy of the priest/shaman/witch doctor. It was a hell of a lot easier on the spiritual leaders to keep people in accordance when most everybody couldn’t read and they were the only ones with insight into the mystery. Ah, yes, the good ‘ol days.
No, a simple “because I said so” just doesn’t go as far in the metaphysical as it did back when. Religious leaders must be more circumspect than ever. But religion has never been a purely logical thing, and church services intuitively know this. Logic has little to do with one’s initial acceptance of the divine. They’ll serve a pitch framed within a reasonable sounding hypothesis, but there is always, always, an emotional reach around. They are going to tap into something, be it guilt, hate, regret–something. Else why follow? I’ve seen this change culturally from my youth, as many Christian services have grown from relatively simplistic affairs to full blown productions and “mega” churches.
One of the last church services I attended was Andy Stanley’s North Point Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s aimed at a younger, thirty-something crowd in general terms, because marketing to the elder generation isn’t what keeps churches alive. This church beams its service into downtown Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead area by satellite, and those attending who were unfamiliar with the production sometimes wouldn’t even realize Andy wasn’t in the building. Its warm-up service is a praise and worship band worthy of recording (and was). They use video from modern movies on huge screens and other thematic elements to try and connect a 2000 year old book with today’s audience. Andy dressed casually in jeans and shirt. Energy is high. And while the speaker was not always Andy, they all shared this in common: they were excellent at delivering their lines. It is a production. It’s about hitting your marks to make an impact, just like an actor in a movie. (At a John Maxwell conference once, I heard some of his staff talk during one of John’s speeches about “and hear comes the tears.”) It is entertaining. Hell, I’d go back. I don’t see any religious epiphany coming my way, but I love it when my theology is entertaining, too. And after you’ve been made to feel good, or feel whatever it is you may need, it’s a lot easier to suspend that disbelief. I’m not saying that all of these people like Andy are insincere, but I am saying it is contrived. It’s designed and rehearsed. They’re going to tug at the heart strings, and failing that, some may resort to fear (once upon a time fear was the go to tactic, but less so in this modern era). Because church isn’t about logic and reason, it’s about feelings.
That’s a high dollar, slick production North Point has going. Or had. It’s been years since I was there, but I assume it proceeds apace. But the basic principles don’t change at your smaller churches. It was no different for me as a child in my small town Southern Baptist church. Most every service ends with a call to come forward and give yourself to Jesus and I guarantee the music they play during this final come-to-god moment is not anything upbeat. As I recall a church favorite in my church was “Just As I Am.” You know, one of those songs that makes you feel sad, pathetic and embattled with the world as you listen but hey, god still loves you. Without this emotional musical lift, most people would just stand there and not move. Music is a powerful, wonderful tool. What you listen to changes the way you think. It can throw you into another state. The point being that logic and reason has less to do with it than this emotional grab. The trick is maintaining that grab. That’s hard and getting harder. And while I speak about Christianity, because those are my roots and familiarity, the tool works across the board. We’re all people, after all. The emotional grab may not always use music. I imagine in some cultures what they utilize is quite angry and brutal. The believer is then faced with the continual struggle of maintaining that emotional commitment, and the arduous road of rationalizing and keeping the loose strings tied together in the face of self doubt and criticism. That’s when reason steps in attempt to justify belief. It’s a solid axiom and true: belief precedes reason.
The explosion of information and education has resulted in another phenomenon–lots of individual ‘experts.’ What the church at large once feared became even more of a reality. Any twit can take an idea or concept from the Bible and have a heyday with it. Somebody is bound to fall in line with you if you’re charismatic enough. People look for answers, and belief is how many reconcile their existence with the universe. We are pattern seeking, looking for that something that will fit with us and make sense of the chaos. Generally speaking, that’s going to be the religion of the culture in which you were raised. For instance, not too many Buddhists or Islamists came out of my small, rural MO home town. Belief, getting to the heart of it, the absolute core, is not, can not, be based on anything substantial or real. It’s based on what feels good/right to the person, what’s pressed upon them from family and friends to conform, with circumstantial evidence at best used to weave a background no more real than the backgrounds that get inserted onto a blue screen for your kid’s school pic. It’s suspension of disbelief in favor of something perceived to be better, to give meaning and purpose. There’s nothing mysterious at all about it. But because it feels “true in the heart” doesn’t mean it’s true outside the heart. Happiness and feelings aren’t truth meters. It’s just what people often respond to the most.

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The Power of Evil

 

How come you never see a headline like “Psychic Wins Lottery?” ~Jay Leno

When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic. ~John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy

Here we are back again to continue the examination of some common Christian beliefs, using Paul Hale’s An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God: Is Anybody Really Listening? as a sounding board. Here we’ll look at the monsters in the closet.

You see, like many not only is Paul a big God believer, he’s also a genuine believer in the powers of darkness to use mediums, spiritists and so forth. This tends to be a less explored area when it comes to critiques of the Christian religion, but such thinking is not uncommon. For many believers unseen dark forces are all around us, tempting us, and fighting over our very souls. In his book, one of the Hale’s first orders of business upon buying a house was exorcising it with prayer and praise songs, “claiming it for God.” People had been killed in it and stashed in the basement even while they were in the process of purchase, which is one of the more interesting tales in Paul’s book. So it’s understandable that the young couple had a case of the heebie-jeebies going in and wanted to “cleanse” the house. Alas, that is where that tale tapers off, so we’ll move on to Paul’s other tales of the occult.

Paul describes being asked by a co-worker to write what ails him on a card, in his own handwriting, to hand over to some readers at a psychic fair. Paul says he wouldn’t normally play along, but he decides to be ever so gracious and let the all-powerful God of the universe show his hand and work this out for His own purposes, because apparently God needs lots of help and can’t decide to do that on his own. So Paul prays over his card that it will be unreadable or otherwise blocked from the forces of Evil. This serves as a de facto admission by Paul that he believes psychics can tap into forces to perform supernatural acts. Paul did not attend the event where the people tried to ‘sense’ his card, but recounts his co-worker friend phones and says that two people shook while reading it, and declared the person “must be on drugs” or something. Is that evidence of divine protection? Paul, of course, thinks so. Again, as with other tales, Paul is passing along hearsay. He did not witness his card being read, nor can he report on how the readers reacted to any other cards. Was his the only one they shook at? Were all the other card readings 100% dead-bang accurate? Was his coworker friend so cagey not to tip off the psychic “readers?”  Would the readers have reacted differently if Paul had been there? Paul has no way of knowing.

Here’s what we do know: psychic powers and tarot readings and related shenanigans have never been shown to be reliable or scientifically validated. Paul can appreciate science at least some, because he’s tried to use it to corroborate the Genesis account. But, apparently, he doesn’t need it to evaluate what goes on at a psychic fair.

Tarot cards, Ouija boards, and other so-called occult practices are a lot like religion–you get out of it what you put into it. It’s quid pro quo. Want to piss off a professed psychic? Walk in and ask them, “What’s my name?” See, that’s not how the game is played. And like Paul’s rationalization for his God, psychics have their own mumbo jumbo for why this is so. Astrology didn’t work on Paul for the same reasons it won’t work on me. Neither of us are willing to play along, albeit for different reasons. What’s for certain is that you don’t need prayer for psychic powers to not work.

The Dark Powers would never subject themselves to scientific scrutiny, though, now would they? But why not? Because then we would know “evil” was real? Or dangerous? Why would one think that? Given that the goal of Evil/Satan is to pull as many people into hell as possible, wouldn’t subjecting itself to show that it scientifically works–meaning it repeatedly yields positive results in testing–draw even more people into it? It’s a cunning plan that cannot fail. But thus far Evil Powers have been strangely mute under scientific rigor.

Ah….but maybe God suppresses it so it can’t work. Well, wait. Then you’re saying evil only works when God permits it to work, as if God has his finger on the Evil Power light switch turning it on/off. But then that’s really God doing the evil, right? If I have a poisonous spider in a box, then I open the box so it can crawl out and bite you, knowing with perfect certainty that it will bite you, then I’m as culpable as the spider which, after all, is just being a spider.

Paul wasn’t finished with tales of the astrological merry-go-round. Another co-worker, Susan, who rode into work with him was always trying to get him to play along with the Zodiac game, too. But Paul always refused to give her his birthday so she could do a reading. Paul tells her if she can correctly guess his Zodiac sign, he’ll tell her when his birthday is (all the while silently praying she will guess wrong). She tells him, “One thing’s for sure, you’re not a Scorpio!” based on his personality not matching what astrology has to say about this sign. Naturally, that is exactly what Paul is. The co-worker continues to insist that it works, to which Paul replies, “Susan, the question isn’t whether or not it works, the question is why it works.”

Well, hold on here a sec. Why would anyone come out of that encounter thinking astrology works? Weren’t we just offered a first hand account that what astrology has to say about Paul’s personality, according to Susan at least, is way off base? Why is failure to guess Paul’s birth sign left to be assumed as God’s protection, rather than a sign that psychic predictions and other reading is, at best, unreliable? Because that’s not the story Paul wants to tell. He just expects the reader to suspend their disbelief and assume God did it. But Susan didn’t need to tap into any powers to take a stab at Paul’s sign that prayer could shield her from. It was based on the knowledge she already possessed based on her previous astrological study.

If you’d like to learn more about how so-called psychics ply their trade, I recommend reading Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium by Mark Edward, who was one of the top “psychics” in the business. It’s a good read.

Asking For Proof

 

In science, an observer states his results along with the “probable error”; but who ever heard of a theologian or a politician stating the probable error in his dogmas, or even admitting that any error is conceivable? That is because in science, where we approach nearest to real knowledge, a man can safely rely on the strength of his case, whereas, where nothing is known, blatant assertion and hypnotism are the usual ways of causing others to share our beliefs. If the fundamentalist thought they had a good case against evolution, they would not make the teaching of it illegal. ~Bertrand Russell

This blog entry is the continuation of a series using Paul C. Hale’s book An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God as something of a sounding board. Some may wonder why utilize a book written by an obscure, uncredentialed author. For in all probability readers have never heard of Paul Hale, much less read his book. Why not single out the stodgy William Lane Craig or that crazed Kirk Cameron? Those are interesting people, to be sure, but they aren’t the kind of people I encounter on a daily basis. At work, at the store, on Facebook, it’s the Paul C. Hale’s of the world that surround me.

Skeptics often ask for proof, or evidence, and the newbie Christian version of Paul Hale wanted that, too. But his brother was there to steer him right. Paul quotes his brother as saying, “We are not to be as Doubting Thomas, who insisted, ‘I will only believe if I see myself!’ Rather, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans, ‘Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.'” Paul then concludes, “I understood that my faith would not and could not depend on what I saw.” But never fear, for Paul’s book is nonetheless chock full of experiences to share which he believes validate his faith despite his insistence that it can’t depend on that. (Plus then there really would be no reason to write the book.) Because it’s only after he “no longer needed a sign to know God is real” that God stops hiding in the bushes to come out and play. God is cagey that way. Kind of like that clichéd story of the rich person pretending to be poor so they get someone who loves them for who they are and not their money. Sure God loves you, but he wants you to fall in line first before he just starts doling out miracles seems to  be Paul’s position. But is this what the Bible teaches? Not surprisingly, you don’t have to go very far to find where the Bible contradicts Paul’s take on the matter.

Perhaps the most oft quoted verse when it comes to skeptics asking for evidence is Matthew 16:4, where Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” When it came to the Jewish leaders, that Jesus fella just wasn’t very cooperative. But, after all, if he’d convinced them, then there might not have been a crucifixion, and God would have to come up with a whole new plan. But moving away from those wicked and adulterous leaders, Jesus goes out of his way to provide signs for unbelievers. In the book of John, Jesus hears about Lazarus and lets him die and rot for four days for the express purpose of raising him from the dead so that the people standing around would believe God sent him. At the end of Mark 16, Jesus says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes; if they should drink anything deadly, it will never harm them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will get well.” Mark concludes, “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the accompanying signs.”

In Acts 14:3, Paul and Barnabas testified with signs and wonders. Hebrews 2:4 says God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distribution of the Holy Spirit. And, least it be forgotten, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead without a trace, he showed himself. So, really, expecting a sign prior to belief doesn’t seem all that much of an unreasonable expectation.

Now, if God really wanted to save the max number of people, why hide? Has this all-powerful, all-knowing,  long-suffering loving God really done all he can do to ensure that “none might perish?” No, according to Paul, faith has to come first. Only after refusing to trust in what you can see will God grant his favor. Let him into your heart and, once you agree with Paul’s view, that should be proof enough to know you’re right. Does it go without saying that if you already believe in UFOs you are more likely to believe the fuzzy picture is really an alien spacecraft, or that alien visitors helped build ancient civilizations? And isn’t an exhortation that one should not require proof to believe exactly what one would expect to hear from someone who has no proof?

 

It’s a solid axiom that belief precedes reason. The result is a perilous, subjective approach prone to personal bias and prejudicial confirmation; instead of following where the evidence leads, one tries to take the evidence where they want to go. I did it for years. By Paul’s standard–belief independent of what is seen and testable–one can validate any position. It makes for an unfalsifiable claim and, thus, is worthless. And I seriously doubt Paul would lend credit to such a statement coming from, say, a Mormon. And yet they’re just as sincere in their belief. So why would he think such should be a valid position for him? But the more you talk with people, the more you realize how much they rationalize their position, and what little credence they give to contrary ideas. I subtitled my blog “no one is ever as reasonable as we imagine ourselves to be” for this very reason. It’s a reminder to myself that I can be wrong. But truly, truly, I say unto you: an omniscient God who thinks that unverifiable miracles delivered through a superstitious people thousands of years ago by questionable transmission should serve as a sufficient tool to convince people of His existence hasn’t put a lot of thought into the matter. Or just really doesn’t want to reach that many people.

Is Anybody Listening?

 

Skepticism is my nature, freethought is my methodology, agnosticism is my conclusion after 25 years of being in the ministry, and atheism is my opinion. ~Jerry DeWitt, CNN interview July 22, 2013

Is anybody really listening is the subtitle for Paul C. Hale’s book An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God, published in 2013 by Westbow Press. The book chronicles the story of Paul and his wife Sharon from young newbie Christians, through work and raising nine kids, to their life today near Atlanta, GA. In his prologue Paul writes “much like Job, my wife, our nine children, and I lost everything we hold dear–our home, our neighborhood, our friends and family. All that we had known our whole lives.” So one might be expecting quite a tale. Job, after all, received a hell of a beating both mentally and physically after God gave the nod. Were all of Paul’s kids killed in a drive-by shooting? No. Were all his servants and sheep, or whatever passes for such these days, slaughtered? Nope. Family die in a plane crash? Nah. House burn down? Still standing. Was Paul covered with boils from head to foot? Negatory.

So what did happen? Well, he lost his job, was offered a new one in another state and decided to move. Not so different from the story of hundreds of average Americans, with ups and downs, struggles and triumphs. Were there complexities? Of course. But, ultimately, the loss Paul speaks about is as much the result of personal choice than anything being taken away. It does, perhaps, give a bit of insight into how Paul frames events and should be kept in mind while reading his tales. His story, while not lacking challenges, is not worthy of a Job-like comparison. All Job had was demolished by God. Paul just packed his bags and left.

The book is an easy read, and most of the chapters are only 3-4 pages long. Paul is also a quote whore, and they are peppered throughout the book to the point of distraction. If they were all removed the book would be a hundred pages slimmer. I don’t mind a good quote to head a chapter or to help make a salient point, but good grief! I eventually stopped reading them just because they interrupted the narrative so much it wasn’t flowing smooth. This is by far the book’s largest technical failing. Most of the quotes are bible verses, but there are some from other sources, from C. S. Lewis to Mother Teresa. I’m not sure if the purpose of all the quotes is to make the book read more like a devotional, an attempt to add authority to the author, or simply serve as filler. In any case, if you have to quote other material that much to deliver your point, there’s likely some rewriting that needs to be done.

Paul seems to have been convinced of the validity of Christianity by reading Hal Lindsey and experiencing a Billy Graham television moment while in a patient’s hospital room, while his wife Sharon sounds to be convinced by a variation on Pascal’s Wager. They mark January 1, 1973 as beginning their walk together with God. Paul’s brother had given him a copy of The Late Great Planet Earth written by Hal Lindsey (1971). The book seems to have gone a long ways toward convincing Paul of the Bible’s accuracy, which is a bit odd given how inaccurate Hal Lindsey’s interpretation of the bible and coming End for the 70s, 80s, or any other time have been proven to be.

The answer to “Is anybody really listening?” is pretty simple: there is if you pretend hard enough. If you want to find God’s guiding hand in your life, you won’t have to look very far to find it. Or Vishnu’s. Or Allah’s. Or Satan’s. Or whatever spiritual gurus populate your worldview. When you look at the world through pink colored glasses, the world is tinged in pink. That doesn’t mean the glasses are reliable for conveying truth, however. Paul’s tales, which are anecdotal at best and frivolous at worst, are a case in point. There is no critical examination, research, or much reflection. This is a book by a believer for believers. However, he touches on many themes that are perpetuated by faith. (I recommend taking Peter Boghossian’s advice and substitute the words “pretending to know things you don’t know” whenever the word faith is used.) In the next few entries we will touch on some of these themes, from miracles to prayer to the powers of darkness, using Paul’s book as the springboard.

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. What benefits? Some studies show that, 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 some 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 in conjunction with 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? Turning 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, seems a bad idea. 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.