You too can be free

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One of the most liberating aspects of jettisoning Christianity was the realisation that nothing I did had cosmic significance. Nothing anybody does has cosmic significance. Yet to hear the cult’s leaders and spokesman talk, now as then, everything matters.

First and foremost, what you believe determines whether you lived forever in Heaven or not. Can you credit that: what you believe. So better get that doctrine sorted out! Right thought makes all the difference. You only have to read a few Christian blogs to realise how important this still is. Believe something only minimally unorthodox and your eternal life is in jeopardy. Not only that, but what you think in the privacy of your own head about issues like abortion, homosexuality, politics and society is subject to the Lord’s scrutiny. Better get it right – ‘Right’ being the operative term. It means recognising that Trump is God’s Chosen One because the Almighty is really only interested in the USA. He has much less time for other nations, except maybe Israel, so better get your thinking straight on that score, buddy.

God is, or so his self-appointed mouthpieces like to tell you, obsessively interested in how you, as an individual, spend your time, the language you used and whether you’re a faithful steward of the money he supplies (that’s the money you work hard for yourself). He lays it on your heart about how you should spend your time, the only valuable way being in the service of his Kingdom-that-never-comes. You’re made to feel that if your marriage isn’t close to perfection then you’re not really working at it (though god knows the biblical view of marriage is nothing like the one promoted by today’s Christian leaders). You’re made to feel you must share the gospel with everyone else you have relationships with: children, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, complete strangers. Don’t they too deserve to have a chance at eternal life? You don’t want them denied it because you failed to speak up, do you? Well, do you?

And then there’s the guilt when you can’t do all of this. You’re not sure you believe all the right stuff. You think you do but then you’re told about some point of doctrine you hadn’t considered and it is, apparently, really essential you do. So you consult the Holy Spirit who you think lives in your heart and you wonder why he hasn’t spoken up before now. Maybe you have liberal views about abortion. And really, you can’t find it in yourself to condemn all those ‘sodomites’ you’re told about; what difference does it make if you do or don’t? And your marriage is less then perfect. In fact, it’s a little bit messy, like human relationships tend to be, and sometimes you want just to relax, maybe laze a little bit. Not everything you do has to contribute to the Kingdom, after all.

But the guilt won’t let you. What kind of Christian are you, anyway? And as for witnessing at every opportunity, you wonder why you feel like a dog that’s compelled to pee at every lamp-post. Can’t friends just be friends? Can’t you just appreciate others for who they are, not as sinners who need saving? Apparently not.

What a wonderful release it is then, when you finally realise that none of this crap matters. Nothing you do, say or think makes the slightest bit of difference to whether you or others live forever (Spoiler: you won’t, they won’t.) How you act may help others feel a bit better about themselves or provide you with a sense of fulfilment but that’s the extent of it. Outside your immediate context, you’re insignificant, and there’s great significance to that. The pressure is off; God is not watching you to see whether you’re a good and faithful servant. Your time, money and thoughts are yours and yours alone. It’s entirely up to you how you use them, free from the tyranny of religion.

 

Hope v. Miserable Christians

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I am without hope.

Well, I’m not actually, but I am according to many of the Christians who engage me in futile dialogue about how lost I am, how much in need of repentance I am and how not believing in Jesus leaves me entirely adrift in life. ‘Hope of what?’ I invariably ask, and they tell me of being resurrected after I die, of avoiding the judgement of God in the post-mortem state and of spending eternity thereafter with the Lord.

And I have to agree, I am without hope of these things. In return I tell them that evidence shows us that people do not live forever, that because no-one survives death there can be no judgement after it and that no-one therefore gets to spend eternity with the Lord (never mind the fact there’s no Lord to spend it with.) No-one in the entire history of humankind, I tell them, has ever done such things. They say then that they feel sorry for me, because the bible promises they will happen and that only as a Christian (repent! repent!) can I have hope that I will enjoy them for myself.

Just in case you were wondering, all this Christian ‘hope’ in impossible events might sound like it’s indistinguishable from wishful thinking, but it’s not! Here’s how the Desiring God website puts it:

When you read the word “hope” in the Bible (like in 1 Peter 1.13* ‘set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’), hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I hope it happens.” That’s absolutely not what is meant by Christian hope.

Christian hope is when God has promised that something is going to happen and you put your trust in that promise. Christian hope is a confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised it will come to pass.

*written by someone who wasn’t Peter, but we’ll overlook that.

So, you see, Christian ‘hope’ is fixing one’s own wishful thinking onto the wishful thinking of people who lived two thousand years ago, people who believed with certainty that Jesus would be coming to the Earth through the clouds to rescue them at any moment. Having hope today is trusting in this mistaken belief; wishing and hoping that these guys were right, when clearly they were wrong. The hope of today’s wishful thinkers is that the wishful thinking of the past will eventually happen. But these first century wishful thinkers were making it all up; wishing and hoping and praying that Jesus would be back soon, that the resurrection process that they thought he’d begun would continue with them and that they’d inherit the Earth and live forever. As Word of God for Today puts it:

Paul spoke* of the “…hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time… (Titus 1:2). Only in Christianity is there such a promise of glorious life beyond the grave. The hope of eternal life is very important, and even if we Christians have hope only in this life we are of all people most miserable (1 Cor. 15:19).

*Not Paul, but we’ll overlook that too.

I sometimes ask Christians to point me to one person, one ordinary mortal who has ever achieved immortality – not someone from a story or (biblical) myth; not Jesus who wasn’t, according to them, an ordinary man, but an incarnate deity – who has survived death and gone on to live with God forever. They can’t, of course. None of the bible’s scenarios for the end of the age, the return of Jesus, the resurrection of believers and the rest has ever come to pass. Nor will it.

Despite their denials, hope that all these fantasies will come true is wishful thinking, just like the Rastafarians hope that Haile Selassie will return from the dead to rescue the descendants of slaves from Jamaica, or my fantasy that one day I’ll win the lottery when I don’t even buy a ticket. It’s wishing, as countless people from different cultures and religious background have throughout history, that life doesn’t end when we die.

Christian hope is futile wishful thinking in an impossible dream. I for one am glad to be without it.

Christian charity?

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Over at the distastefully named Cripplegate, Jordan Standridge has been considering what Christians should do when a homeless person asks for money. Jordan wants some means of weeding out the fakes (fair enough, though he doesn’t really have any clear strategy for doing this) and also attaches conditions to his giving – the recipient of his largesse has to listen to him ‘sharing the gospel’. Jordan reports that none of those he treats to a free meal object to him doing this – probably because they fear going hungry if they don’t listen to him droning on about Jesus.

Most of the comments following Jordan’s post betray the Christian eagerness not to have to follow the command of Jesus’ to give unstintingly. I felt moved to add one of my own:

It’s good that you’re considering ways you can help the poor and homeless, but Jesus says to ‘give to everyone who asks’ (Luke 6.30). ‘Everyone’ is a pretty inclusive! There’s no mention of ‘weeding out the fakes’; just give to all. Seems to me you’re hedging around this command.

This met with variety of responses, shown below in italics, followed by my replies:

Mike: By that logic, if a homeless person asks you for your home, are you then to sign it over to them? If they simply ask for your car, are you then going to hand them your keys? Of course not. That’s not what Luke 6 has in mind. Otherwise YOU would be left on the street naked and homeless simply because someone ASKED you for everything you owned…

You’re right, Mike – it’s completely absurd and unreasonable. But it’s Jesus’ absurdity and unreasonableness, not mine. If you want to say he’s wrong – as you do when you say ‘that’s not what Luke 6 has in mind’ (you know what it ‘has in mind’, I take it?) – then your dispute is with him, not me.

Jane: I believe your atheism qualifies you as the one having the dispute with Him.

Well, Jane, you’re the one who claims to obey him as Lord and Savior and yet here you are trying to figure out ways not to. It brings to mind another of his sayings from Luke 6: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, lord,” and not do what I tell you?’ Why indeed.

Craig: The passage in Luke 6 is not instructions for the body of Christ. In the gospels Jesus has come to Israel as their Messiah to bring in the kingdom that was promised to them. Jesus is telling them how it will be if they accept Him as Messiah.

It’s not, Craig? How’d you know?

What you’re really saying is ‘we Christians don’t much care for this commandment, so we’ve decided it doesn’t apply to us.’

However, if we were to go along with your argument, that Jesus is not addressing the ‘body of Christ’ here, then it follows neither can he be addressing it anywhere else in the gospels. You can’t simply delete the bits you don’t like.

4CommenceFiring4: “Give to everyone who asks” doesn’t specify what to give, or how much. The other commands–like going the second mile or giving them your cloak when they ask for your shirt–has to do with attitude, not mathematical formulas.

The Jews asked Jesus for a “sign” that He was the Christ. Did violate His own standards by not providing a sign? If you think He did, then it would be fruitless to get into the subject any further.

Really? It’s to do with attitude not action? Who says so? I thought the Bible was the literal word of God, meaning Jesus’ commands here should be taken at face value. Thanks for enlightening me; I’m relieved to learn there’s enough wriggle room not to have to do what Jesus says.

Oh, and according to John’s gospel, Jesus provided numerous ‘signs’ for ‘the Jews’ (which he was himself, of course.)

4CommenceFiring4: “The Bible is the literal Word of God” is the claim of someone–believer or otherwise–who hasn’t thought much about what that even means. There are theological debates by serious people about that, so don’t think for one minute that because “literal” means different things to different people means it doesn’t mean anything and we can go merrily on our way thinking we have nothing to which we owe our attention.

A devotion to strict literalism would lead to ridiculous conclusions, as you well know, so if you intend to use that as a defense for why the Bible isn’t to be taken seriously, try again. Smarter people than either of us have devoted their lives to debunking it, and it’s still standing long after they faded away. So don’t waste your time with that empty pursuit.

The bottom line is, are you ready for what comes next? And are you sure? It’s a bet you can’t afford to get wrong. Examine that, and everything else is secondary.

Great stuff. The ingenuity and effort that goes into avoiding doing what Jesus clearly commands is truly impressive.

Am I ready for what comes next? Sure. Oblivion never hurt anyone.

*****

Meanwhile, the homeless go on being homeless and Christians continue to demonstrate that the people who get the most out of their ‘discipleship’ is primarily they themselves.

Proof of God

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Amateur apologist and C. S. Lewis wannabee, Don Camp, makes the argument that as human beings have always believed in gods (have they?), it must mean that gods exist. They – or at least one of them – must have planted an instinct for worship within us from the outset. Don, of course, feels it is ‘self-evident’ that the god he believes in (the Christianised version of the Jewish tribal god, YHWH) is the One True God and consequently the deity who imbued us with the god instinct. Eventually, after millennia, during which humans misdirected their god-instinct to create thousands of false gods and imaginary supernatural beings, this One True God revealed himself and made known his expectation that he be acknowledged as the only God.

Where to begin?

It is not ‘self-evident’ that the tribal god of ancient Jews is the One True God. It is not ‘self-evident’ that this god exists while all the other gods humans have created (current estimate: 28,000,000) do not. The people who created these other deities were equally convinced they existed. Some had texts setting out the expectations the gods had of their human acolytes; most had rituals and forms of worship that had to be adhered to; they had experts – priesthoods – who knew exactly what the gods required; many encouraged adherents to serve the gods in their daily lives.

These other deities were every bit as ‘real’ as YHWH. There is nothing that singles ‘him’ out from them; nothing that makes him any more real than they were. He is indistinguishable from them in every way. It cannot be argued that they don’t exist, while, ‘self-evidently’, the Christian god – a very late arrival on the scene – is real.

What of the god instinct then? Where does it come from if not from the gods themselves? As others have argued (Dawkins and Harris, for example) it appears to be a misfiring of our need to know. The ancient peoples who devised gods to explain their world were doing their best with what little knowledge they had. Attributing agency to the activities of nature is an understandable mistake to make. Early people had first-hand experience of human agency and it was not an unreasonable assumption that agency must therefore lie behind other phenomena. We know that very early religions did precisely this in respect of animals, weather and the stars (animism; while astrology, in which celestial bodies control human behaviour, survives to this day.)

We now know, however, that such attribution was wrong. Inanimate phenomena do not possess agency. They do not possess it because they are not cognitive beings; any cognition we think we detect is our own, reflected back at us. The entities earlier humans created to explain what they took to be the purposeful activities of nature had no independent existence.

Our imaginary creations have no counterparts in reality; none of the 28,000,000 gods that humans have conjured up have actually existed. Is it reasonable to assume, then, that one of these otherwise imaginary beings really does? That YHWH is the exception; the one god, who, just because we’re more familiar with him than any of the other 27,9999,999 deities, is one hundred percent real?

What do you think?

Try praying

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I was in Edinburgh recently and spotted posters, like the one above, on the backs of buses, advising people to ‘try praying’. There is, naturally, an entire web-site devoted to the campaign, created by Christians with more money than sense.

Here’s a thought: try praying that the bus on which one of these ads appears waits for you as you run for it and it pulls away from the stop. You think that would work? (No more than chance would allow.) Or try praying that if you do catch it, the driver will let you on, even though you’ve left your purse at home and can’t buy a ticket. Try praying that the pain you’ve experienced all day be taken from you as you set off walking home. Try praying for or about anything and see what God’s response is. Prayer, ‘tried’ or not, is no more effectual than wishful thinking or chatting with the fairies at the bottom of your garden.

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(fixed it)

While in Edinburgh, I visited St Giles’ cathedral in the centre of the city. A friend I was with wanted to see a commemorative plaque there and I saw a chance to rest my aching legs. At the entrance was a sign that said the cathedral welcomed a donation of £5 ($6.55) per visitor to help with daily running costs. Evidently the ecclesiastical administrators haven’t realised they could ‘try praying’ and ask God to fund a building, the sole purpose of which is to honour him. Or perhaps they had ‘tried’ prayer and had discovered God wasn’t willing to provide the hundreds of pounds needed every day to keep it going.

Whichever, the only way churches like St Giles can survive is to have those humans who think they serve some meaningful purpose, fund them themselves. God couldn’t care less whether they flourish or not. If he did he’d keep them going from his abundant supply. That he doesn’t demonstrates not only his non-existence but also tells us that the church is an entirely human enterprise. Without human effort, and liberal amounts of filthy mammon, they invariably fail.

Desiderata

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There’s really no secret to what life is about. It’s simple – simplistic even. All the same, it took me most of my life to discover it.

The best way to live your life is to be yourself.

That’s not as easy as it sounds, because you have to have pretty good sense of self to begin with and, for a multitude of reasons, such awareness can elude you.

It’s possible that this is because none of us truly has a self. Current thinking among psychologists and neuroscientists is that the self doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion, created by competing and often conflicting processes in the brain. I picture it like those optical illusions in which carefully arranged shapes make it appear, as in the figure below, that there’s a different shape in their midst, when in fact all that’s there is clear space. Maybe the neuroscientists are right about this, but even so, the self is a damn convincing illusion.

Kanizsa-triangle

Because the brain’s processes are ever active the illusory shape at the centre is subject to constant change – which we perceive as mood swings, changes to our personality, acting ‘out of character’ or being out of sorts with ourselves. Perhaps what I really mean by being yourself, then, is finding a point of equilibrium for the shape at the centre, where it isn’t constantly buffeted by the turbulence of the brain’s activities. However, this is merely to exchange one metaphor for another, so for now I’ll talk about the sense of ‘me-ness’ that we all experience subjectively and intuitively, and know as ‘the self’.

Perhaps you’ve never been in tune with who you are, living, as Plato called it, an unexamined life (he believed such a life wasn’t worth living). Perhaps like me, you drifted through the earlier part of life, allowing unplanned, random experiences to pull you along in their wake until you were left in a place you felt you don’t quite fit. Maybe though, you’ve heard a small inner voice calling you, telling you that this isn’t you. Perhaps, as I experienced for many years, the incongruity between who you are and where you’ve ended up is taking its toll on your mental health.

It’s also possible that you have heard your inner calling but have been told – by society, family or church that who you are is inconvenient, undesirable or unrealistic. ‘Just settle yourself down and conform to what we think is right for you,’ they’ve told you – and you have. They’ve convinced you that you won’t be accepted if you’re truly yourself, so you’ve suppressed or obscured who you know yourself to be.

Alternatively, you’ve assumed a role you know isn’t you. You’re doing a job that allows for no self-expression (because, after all, we all need to make a living), you’re in a relationship that suffocates the real you or you’ve been a church member, striving to conform to everyone’s unrealistic expectations of you. The result is you’re stressed, unhappy and uptight. You’re acting, as the term ‘role’ implies, without any authenticity. We all act from time to time, of course; there are occasions when it is unavoidable. But to live an entire life this way is to invite strife and depressive illness. To be healthy, happy and whole, you need to be authentic – true to yourself.

To adopt a religion is to assume a role. It is to deny your real self (Jesus demands you do: Matthew 16.24) and pretend you’re something you’re not. You can no doubt convince yourself God is doing a great work in you, sanctifying you and making you increasingly Christ-like, but the more you act out the part, the less like your genuine self you become. How can this be right for you, for your happiness and well-being? Adopting any ideology is to add a fake and unnecessary veneer to life that serves only to mask your true identity. Replacing who you are with a predetermined set of religious or political beliefs is mere play acting. Denial is not a solution; embracing your self is.

I hope that like me, you have reached a place where you know and embrace your real self. If not, and at the risk of sounding like a poor man’s Wayne Dyer, I’d ask you to take time to listen to your inner voice. Recognise it for what it is; it will not lead you astray. You know deep within who you are and who you should be, whether that’s an artist, teacher or baker; parent, celibate or gay; writer, performer or mystic; builder, musician or doctor, or a combination of these and other possibilities. You have to be what makes you happy. You owe it to your self.

Interlude: A word from God

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While nothing like Cyclone Idai that hit southern Africa recently, we had some terrible storms here in the north of England last weekend. The thunder woke me just after 2 a.m., each peal shaking the house, and with the flashes of lightning, it felt frighteningly apocalyptic.

And then it hit me: the Lord was sending a sign! He was angry about something we’d done! Maybe same-sex marriage, though as we’ve had that for a while now in the UK, I’d have thought he’d be used to that particular idea by now. So, maybe he was upset about abortion again. That could be it, though again, a bit late in the day. Still, with God a day is as a thousand years (and vice versa), so you never know. Maybe it’s Brexit. Perhaps the Lord’s angry we’re coming out of Europe. Or, perhaps he’s angry we aren’t coming out fast enough. Back in the 1970s, when Britain first joined the European Economic Community (as it was called then), he told his representatives here on Earth it was a Very Bad Thing, because it was like a recreation of the old Roman Empire and a sure sign of the End Times. He disapproved, but told only a few of his Chosen Ones how he felt and completely forgot to mention it to anyone else.

Christ! Don’t you just get fed up with religiously fixated nutjobs coming up with this sort of crap every time there’s a storm or a tsunami or an eclipse? Every natural disaster, every human catastrophe, every phenomenon in the night sky has to be interpreted as a message or warning from a deity who is otherwise as dumb as a rock. Only when weather does what weather is prone to do does he start communicating with us – incoherently and in code. Only a special few, those who’ve appointed themselves as his prophets and mouthpieces, are capable of telling us what he’s really saying. It’s a miracle if two or three of them ever agree about what that is.

If you need evidence there’s no God, then this is it. If he were real, we would have independent knowledge of him; knowledge that isn’t filtered through human messengers or delivered, garbled, by the weather or by a seriously flawed and obviously human book. He would be apparent; he wouldn’t need to be interpreted, explained and represented by people who give every impression of making stuff up as they go along.

What we have instead is a God who is very evidently human. It’s humans who interpret weather conditions, claim to know what God’s saying and declaim his messages and warnings. It is impossible to know anything, either about or from him, other than what humans – very often ones with very little brain and a penchant for self-promotion – tell us.

If there really were a God, I’d ask him to stop communicating with us through extreme weather, disasters and massacres, and instead to miraculously lift the curse of religion from the 7.7 billion of us here on Planet Earth. But there isn’t, so we’re stuck with it – with religion and those who have a vested interest in perpetuating its nonsense.