Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

Blog390

This is the first in a series of posts that pose the question, ‘Can you be a Christian and..?’ It seems to me that certain ways of being are incompatible with religious belief. Any religious belief, that is, though here I’ll limit myself to the Christian faith as that’s the belief system I know best and the one on which I wasted a great deal of my life.

Conversion is, I’ve become convinced, an emotional response to being told God loves you (who doesn’t want to be loved?) and that Jesus sacrificed himself so that you – yes, you – can enter into a full and meaningful relationship with God. It’s an intuitive, gut-reaction to the ‘promise’ that once you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, he will  be with you always, guiding you through life and guaranting you’ll survive death.

What is rational about this? Nothing; it’s muddled supernaturalism, magic based on others’ dreams and visions, that appeals to your need to be wanted, to matter and your hope that your life means something and will go on beyond death.

The rationalisation comes after you’ve made this response and after your commitment. It’s rather like buying something incredibly expensive you’re not sure you actually need but which makes you feel good momentarily as you hand over your cash. On the way home, as doubts start to assail you, you start trying convince yourself that you were right to buy it, on the basis you deserve it, so that by the time you’re home you feel completely justified. Psychologists tell us we do this often: act first and then come up with the rationalisation for why we’ve behaved the way we have.

So it is that once you’ve made the emotional response to what Christianity purports to offer, you start justifying your decision to yourself. You know there’s really no evidence for what you’ve started to believe. All there is is the bible and other people’s enthusiasm for what it teaches, but still, there must be some sort of justification for it; all those others, including the guys who wrote the bible, can’t all be wrong. You’re helped in your rationalisation of the irrational by sermons in which a respected pastor explains what certain teachings mean, the warm and fuzzy feelings you get from fellowship with other Christians and from reading the bible with the aid of a study guide that smooths out its many inconsistencies and contradictions. You start reading too those devotional books that have been recommended to you, which give your new-found faith a respectable gloss. All after the event.

And before you know it you are fully invested in an entirely new belief system. Not only have you accepted the central mystery (magic) of salvation but you find yourself entertaining the notion that there exist all manner of supernatural beings; angels, demons, devils, spirits all engaged in spiritual warfare in higher places. You convince yourself, even when your intellect is telling you to exercise caution, of the existence of Heaven and Hell. You become persuaded that talking to yourself inside your head is communicating with the God of the Universe and that your very thoughts can change his mind. You assume what you are told is biblical morality and alter your world view so that it conforms to the bible’s: sin everywhere, yet miracles happen; God creating humans and not just (or even) evolution; Jesus returning at any time soon to change the word so it is more to your liking.

Yet there is no evidence for any of this. A book written by Iron Age tribesmen and first century religious zealots is not evidence. Nor is any of it rational. You know this, but you hold fast to your belief that God’s ways are not our ways. He likes, it says somewhere in the bible, to conceal his plans from the worldly wise. Like many other believers you are not stupid but you’ve happily sublimated your intellect to assume irrational, unsupported beliefs. You’ve subjugated your capacity for rationalisation in deference to these beliefs. If and when a rational objection forms itself in your mind, you dismiss it as a doubt, or worse still, a Satanic attempt to snatch you away from your salvation.

How do I know? Because I did so myself.

So, can you be a Christian and rational thinker? No. Because once you’ve tethered your intellect to ancient superstition you’ve denied yourself the possibility of independent thought. Rational thinking can go then in only one direction, towards the conclusions already established by the Faith. It isn’t possible to be an independent thinker and to adopt a worldview based on others’ emotions, dreams and visions. It isn’t possible to believe irrational things and be a rational thinker.

Bible Truths

Blog387

If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bar collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God? Why could he not, for example,

Declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

God’s Very Good Creation

Blog385

I’m recovering from a viral condition that’s affecting people in these parts. It’s set me thinking about how many diseases and conditions humans are susceptible to. An online search suggests the figure is unquantifiable. There are, for example, over 5,000 viruses known to affect human health, including the 200 that cause various versions of the so-called common cold. Of these 5000, we understand only a few hundred. There are also some 6,000 diseases caused by single-gene defects, and even more by other genetic disorders. In case that’s not enough, there are also hundreds of infectious diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and parasites. While some of these cause only minor discomfort, it remains the case that almost every one of us will die, or has already died, from one or other of these diseases, conditions or illnesses.

How does Christianity account for all of these horrors? Here’s the cerebrally challenged Ken Ham to explain:

We need to start with the fact that God created everything perfect, and this perfect creation was then marred by sin. This is the only way the gospel makes sense. You need the foundation of the history in Genesis in order to fully understand the gospel!

Yup, God made everything perfect and a pair of mythical humans messed it up by ‘sinning’. Everything that’s bad about the world is the result of Adam and Eve’s one-off disobedience. That single act opened the floodgates not only to all of the illnesses to which we and the animal kingdom are prone, but also to natural disasters and the brutality we inflict on one another.

But don’t worry, God has a cunning plan! Ken wants us to teach our children about it:

Teach them about God’s original “very good” creation. Instruct them that mankind’s sin broke God’s creation and brought death and suffering into it. Teach them that we needed someone to pay the penalty for our sin, and that’s why Jesus stepped into history… and now offers the free gift of eternal life to all who will put their faith and trust in him.

You see, as Ken likes to say, only this explanation makes sense of our susceptibility to disease and illness. Only this explanation makes sense of the gospel too; the good news that Jesus sacrificial death will put everything right.

                   Eventually.

                            No rush.

                                   Whenever…

It also demonstrates what a complete and utter bastard the biblical God is, that he condemns his ‘very good’ creation to a disease ridden, disaster stricken existence, simply because he himself made the first humans as fallible as he did.

But no. Neither this explanation nor its concommitant ‘gospel’ makes any sense, whichever perspective you look at them from. The development of innumerable diseases, and the viruses, bacteria, parasites and genetic conditions that cause them, are clear evidence of evolution; of an unsupervised arms-race in which the best-adapted invader or host survives to reproduce/replicate. Having then had the chance to transmit their DNA/chemical data, their purpose is served. They die. They stay dead.

The men who created Genesis 1 & 2 did not know about evolution, microbes or viruses. They did, however, see the deficiencies of the world in which they lived, the struggle for existence, illness and death, and found these impossible to square with the benign creator God they imagined existed. And so were formed the Genesis myths of a perfect creation spoilt by the only agent whom these men believed capable of causing such havoc; they themselves. There is no denying their accounts have been remarkably influential, and also completely wrong.

No gospel is needed to put right a fallen creation. It isn’t fallen, it is what we should expect if life evolved; if each species, organism and virus that exists today has spent millions of years constantly adapting in order to survive. Jesus’ supposed sacrifice has no bearing on any of this; it is superfluous, unnecessary and entirely irrelevant. The salvation myth is a virus in its own right, existing, like the meme it is, merely to perpetuate itself.

Jesus can’t save you from the common cold, let alone death.

The Voice in my Head is my Only Friend

Blog372b

I hear it clearly, the voice in my head. It speaks to me all the time; telling me I am marked out for greatness. I am the Chosen One. I shall make this country and these people great again too. It all falls to me.

The voice speaks sure and true; it does not mislead me. It is of the Lord. Others tell me they have a voice within, but they are misled; the hear merely their own thoughts. I know this, for once, long before, I listened to that same voice, the endless annoying sound of the self, undermining, planting only doubt, questioning my true destiny. It was Satan’s voice, whispering sweet and low. But his is not the voice I hear now. It is God who speaks clearly to me now, strengthening me, reassuring me, directing my path. His voice sounds for me and me alone. It is my constant companion and there is no need of any other. I listen only to him.

He directs me to gather around me those I need to realise my mission. There are others who do not share my vision; the vision he gives me. It matters not; they matter not. Those who do not do my bidding fall by the wayside. Others take their place, true believers in the work I am doing. God himself tells me so, God alone guides me.

For I am the Chosen One; this he has made clear. I am his Son, his appointed Savior for this dissolute age. All else will pass away but what I do will never pass away. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

The Chosen One

Blog377

Donald Trump is chosen by God. His powerful friends in The Family have decided. Other influential Christians, like the odious Franklin Graham, have endorsed it. Trump himself made reference to it in a speech recently. He claims this was a joke, but we know what’s said about words spoken in jest; the Donald believes what his Christian chums have told him.

Evidently Trump cannot have been chosen by God when there is no God to do the choosing. Nor does Trump’s behaviour indicate that he’s God’s man. He is ignorant, self-obsessed, spiteful, vindictive, boorish, narcissistic and cruel. Not only is he ignorant generally, he is ignorant about the bible, has no idea about what being a Christian entails and is unable to answer any questions about his supposed faith.

Why then do Christians of all stripes claim he is specifically chosen by God to be president? How do they know? Allowing for a moment that there is a God, the notion that he chooses his agents here on Earth is fraught with insurmountable problems. That he predetermines who will serve him or even who is saved is an insoluble paradox that I’ve written about before, here and here.

No, Christians who say Trump is God’s Chosen are convinced of this only because he supports and implements their agenda; he is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-immigrant. He favours guns, white people, Israel, the wealthy and evangelicals. This is why Christians like him, why The Family says he is chosen by God, because these are their priorities and therefore, they conclude, they must be God’s priorities too.

Blog377a

For any Christians reading, particularly in the U.S., the process goes something like this:

1. You decide what is important to you.

2. You find support for your priorities in the bible (because support for just about anything can be found somewhere in the bible. Alternatively, you can just say what you believe is in the bible. Nobody’s checking.);

3. You disregard any apparent contradiction in the words attributed to Jesus;

4. You tell yourself that because God supports your agenda somewhere in the bible, this must therefore be his agenda also;

5. You exercise cognitive dissonance, a.k.a. dishonesty, to enable you to conclude that any influential agent who is prepared to support your priorities must therefore be chosen by God.

Naturally your agent need not demonstrate any other traits that might reasonably be expected of a God-follower (humility, love, hospitality, treating others like they themselves like to be treated and so on.) These things are unimportant so long as the agent is carrying out your agenda.

6. You tell others only of point 5, thus furnishing the entire process with a high-sheen spiritual gloss;

7. You accuse anyone who doesn’t support your agenda and your Chosen One of betraying God.

A good deal of self-deception and deceiving of others is required to pull this off, but Christians are more than up to the job. That’s why Trump is in the White House and why his Christian fixers are never far from his side.

Jesus, plus nothing

Blog376

‘Jesus, plus nothing’ is the motto – the slogan – of ‘The Family’, a secretive, clandestine Christian group that for 60+ years has influenced, and been part of, the government of the USA. Yes, poor persecuted Christians, who find their rights eroded on a daily basis (or so they like to tell us) actually exercise a disproportionate amount of control over those in power. Controlled for many years by ‘the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of’, Doug Coe, this group disregards any notion of separation of church and state. The new Netflix series, The Family, based on Jeff Sharlet’s books The Family and C Street, documents their activities, which include affecting policy both at home and abroad, and taking the gospel of ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ to the mighty and powerful across the globe, often on the taxpayer’s dime.

But what does ‘Jesus, plus nothing’ really mean? There’s no doubt it’s intended to convey a stark honesty: this version of Christianity, it says, is without all the clutter that has accrued since Jesus walked the Earth, including all of Paul’s complicated theology. The Family’s holy book is not the bible in its entirety but a slim volume simply entitled Jesus that contains only the four gospels and Acts. The Jesus story, pure and simple.

Except there really isn’t anything simple about the Jesus story. It isn’t even a single story. Nor is there one, single Jesus. (As you’ll see at the links, I’ve written about both of these problems before.) The Jesus that The Family promotes is one of its own making. Of course, every version of Jesus is a construct, loosely based, at best, on bits and pieces from the bible, but manufactured entirely by what different groups and individuals would like him to be. It’s probable that the gospels themselves are constructs built on Old Testament ‘prophecies’ and references, and that the Jesuses they portray are no more than literary creations. Even so, the Jesuses held dear by modern believers, and The Family in particular, bear little resemblance to the constructs of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John on which he is supposedly based.

He is, as one of The Family’s Christian critics points out, a talisman, a magic word that opens doors for speaking ‘truth’ to dictators and tyrants. A Jesus synonymous with power; the power to control nations’ policies, direction and morality. A Jesus who chooses his men (always men) to wield this power; a Jesus who chooses ‘weak vessels’ to do his bidding; a Jesus who, The Family is convinced, chose Donald Trump to be president. And when Jesus chooses you – or when his agents on Earth do – then you are chosen indeed. They make sure of it.

To be continued.

Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?

Blog375a

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7.12: New International Version)

In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfils the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7.12: NET Bible)

I went to see a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe on Saturday. Actor David Benson presented a one-man show about the Cato Street Plot, which was an 1820 plan to assassinate the British Prime Minister and government (or possibly not.

During the show, Benson riffed on some of Jesus’ sayings, including the one above, about how we should treat one another in a country that claims to be Christian (as Britain did in 1820). ‘Do unto others’ has become known as The Golden Rule and like most rules it is largely ignored, even (or especially) by many who profess to be disciples of the man said to have formulated it. The principle is of course much older than the gospels.

When I returned home I caught up with some of my favourite blogs and read about:

A military organisation that promotes the separation of church and state in the U.S. on the receiving end of Christian hate mail.

A preacher who thinks the comedian Sarah Silverman should have her teeth smashed before dying prematurely and being sent to Hell.

The same preacher promising that the Jews, who he says are not God’s Chosen People, will be made to bow down before male Christians, who are.

A different pastor who recited Bible verses while allegedly assaulting an under-aged girl.

The cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors by the Jehovah’s Witness cult.

A Baptist Preacher charged with sexual assault.

Thousands of hateful messages, many from Christians, sent to Montreal Pride organisers.

They just don’t get it, do they? Being a Christian means doing what Jesus says (doesn’t it?) and he says that in everything we should to treat others as we ourselves like to be treated. Note how all encompassing that is: in everything, meaning ‘in every circumstance, with no exception’.

My guess is that the majority of Christians like to be treated fairly, with kindness and respect. I know they do because they whine endlessly when they think they’re not being. Yet so many of them won’t extend the same fairness, kindness and respect – in every circumstance – to other people.

I recently saw a slogan that said ‘Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when you could just be quiet’; too many Christians can’t even manage that. They feel compelled to hurl vitriolic insults and threats in defence of the most powerful being ever imagined (and he is imagined). Others think that people more vulnerable than themselves, children included, exist only for their own sexual gratification. These Christians have no interest in ‘In everything, treat others as you like to be treated’. It just doesn’t apply to them.

Strike up another failure for their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.