This time it’s personal

Desperately searching for another reason to dismiss recent critiques of Christianity, Don has suggested that my views and those of commenters here are somehow invalid because they’re ‘personal’. (I declined to publish Don’s latest comment in which he elaborated on this theme; not only was he already on enforced rest but he also decided to have a rant about ‘sexual depravity’. This would appear to have been directed  at my own happy same-sex relationship, as well as all other forms of consensual sex that God Don disapproves of.)

So what’s wrong with ‘personal’? My faith, when I had it was personal. I’d prayed the sinner’s prayer in which I confessed I was a sinner and I received Jesus into my heart (or so I thought) and began to live my life in accordance with what he required of me. This personal relationship with Jesus, as it was usually described in evangelical circles, was reinforced by the preaching I heard in church, by prayer meetings and Bible studies, by the devotional books I read, C. S. Lewis’s writing and the notes I used alongside my personal Bible reading.

I’ve written before how I abandoned all of this when, in a time of crisis, God wasn’t there, and I eventually came to realise, in what I can only describe as a moment of personal revelation, that this was because he didn’t exist.

I then set about discovering what it was I had believed for the previous 30 years; what were these beliefs that had shaped my life, determining what I did, who I married, my morality, my sense of guilt and failure… essentially all that I was. That quest, which began with my broadening my reading well beyond the bounds of devotional Christian books (how treacherous I felt when I first picked them up!) was personal. It was fuelled by the reaction of some Christian friends who attacked me personally when, still later, I came out not only as an atheist but as gay too. My dealings with one particular zealous and homophobic friend led to my first book and ultimately, over 12 years ago, to this blog.

RejectingJesus is a personal working out of my love-hate relationship with Christianity. It is, I hope, informed by my reading but it is first and foremost personal. The posts are my analysis of Christianity as it is practised and my own dissection of the Bible. I’m not a historian nor a theologian (thank god); my Masters is in English Literary Research and it is these skills, together with my knowledge of the Bible from my Christian days, that I apply in my sometimes irreverent analyses. Nothing is sacred, though I’m aware of the importance of providing evidence for my claims and, where relevant, in citing appropriate sources, which is why I provide links and reference relevant verses from the Bible. Perversely, Don also accuses me of being in thrall to the scholars I cite; the opposite of his complaint that posts are ‘personal’.

Do I then, as Don implies, try to discredit the Bible because I’m gay? Am I, as Don suggests, motivated by the ‘constraints’ the Bible places on my sexuality? I don’t believe so. Once I recognised that God didn’t exist, it followed that he could not have any opinion about homosexuality or indeed anything else. Like any other fictional character, his views were created by those who presumed to speak for him: ‘I am so mysterious and my ways unknowable. Oh, but by the way, I really don’t like those depraved gays. Feel at liberty to stone them.’ God’s self-appointed homophobes have to be challenged because of the damage they do.

Am I as an atheist predisposed to being critical of both faith and the Bible, as Christian readers sometimes say? Undoubtedly, but I’m no more predisposed than as a Christian I was predisposed to see God everywhere. As Nan put it in a recent comment:

Any individual who allows him/herself to put aside the centuries-long teachings of Christianity … and read the scriptures without bias and/or preconception … cannot fail to see the multitude of inconsistencies.

Nor can they fail to see the Bible’s flights of fancy, its reliance on dreams and visions, its make-believe and pretend fulfilment of prophecy, its forgeries and false promises, its disconnect from reality and magical thinking, its supernaturalism and sheer cultishness. Critically evaluating scriptures at face value, without making excuses for them or trying to guessing what the original writers might have ‘intended’ or deciding that unpalatable parts are ‘really’ symbolic/metaphorical is, however ‘personal’, by far the more honest approach.

To insinuate with a personal slur that having ‘personal’ reasons for criticising Christianity is a weak ad hominem. It does not address the arguments in question nor the issues at hand. Anyone who wants to demonstrate that what I say about the Bible, Christian belief and practice is wrong needs to provide evidence of their own. Insult, screeds of Bible quotation and ‘a legion of “work arounds”’ (Nan again) is not how to go about it.

 

God’s Megaphone?

from his book, The Problem Of Pain

Does the Christian God use pain to draw people to himself? Assuming for a moment that such a God exists, does he use human suffering to make followers for himself?

There is no evidence in the Bible to suggest he does. To be sure, the Bible has a fair amount to say about pain. It claims that suffering is a means by which God either chastens Christians (Hebrews 12.7) or strengthens them (Romans 5.3-5), but this is exclusively for people who already believe. The Bible does not say non-believers are afflicted as a means of drawing them closer to God; the idea is unbiblical.

Let’s assume then that while this notion finds no support in the bible, Christians have learnt over the centuries, perhaps though extra-biblical revelation, that God does use pain in this way. What does this tell us about God? That he’s a being whose principal way of making human beings pay attention to him is by causing (or allowing) them to suffer frequently unbearable pain and anguish.

What sort of God is this? Not one who loves the world and cares for humans far more than he does mere sparrows (Matthew 6.26). He’s more an unpleasant, sadistic bully: the jock who backs you up against the wall, grips your balls and squeezes hard.

Maybe that’s how it is. The God who created the universe is just such a being; a moral monster, as commenter koseighty puts it. It’s easy to see how he might be: human beings suffer, yet there’s (supposedly) a God who loves them; therefore pain and suffering must at the very least be sanctioned by God, or, more likely, delivered by him. This, after all, is the story of the Old Testament. The God so arrived at though is a thoroughly human creation, a means of minimising cognitive dissonance by reconciling human suffering and a God who supposedly cares.

One more assumption is needed. Let’s assume this time that despite the odds, this character really exists. Does his strategy work? Does inflicting pain and anguish on people make them, as Lewis suggests, cry out to the One doing (or allowing) the inflicting and compel them to love him? It seems unlikely; I can’t find any evidence online of anyone claiming that pain or anguish brought them to God. From a personal perspective, I can honestly say that in times of distress or suffering I have never, post-deconversion, called out to God or any supernatural entity for help. I’ve never interpreted my suffering as his calling me closer and have never, since escaping Christianity, succumbed to his malicious charms. (What I did do occasionally, following my deconversion, was to convince myself that my suffering was a punishment from God – for leaving him behind, being gay or something I’d done. These feelings disappeared when I embraced fully the fact that the Christian God isn’t real.)

Where does this leave the Christian with, as Lewis puts it, ‘the problem of pain’? How do they reconcile a loving God who allows or even causes human beings to suffer? They can’t. Instead they spout empty platitudes that they think let their indifferent, imaginary God off the hook. Just look at the meaningless theo-babble religious leaders came up with in 2004 after a tsunami hit Indonesia, killing 227,898 people.

Leave God out of the equation, however, and there are far better explanations for why humans suffer. ‘Shit happens’ is far more convincing than anything the religious have to offer. Physical pain is the body’s reaction to damage. It is an imperfect system that frequently overreacts or fires up even after damage is repaired (I know this having fibromyalgia). That’s what it is to have, to be, a physical body. Anguish comes from random acts of nature, the violence and cruelty we inflict on each other and the death of loved ones, much of which is beyond human control. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are useless in ameliorating this kind of suffering. Measures to restrict people’s access to weapons undoubtedly helps, as it has in countries with politicians with sufficient strength and intelligence to enact gun-control legislation. Without it, as in Ulvalde recently, more children will die, more parents will experience terrible anguish and another massacre is inevitable. God won’t stop it.

Suffering is not symbolic of something else; it is not ‘God’s megaphone’ or an opportunity for others to point those afflicted to Christ’s light (or any other bullshit that involves the supernatural.) Pain simply is. It is our lot as physical bodies to endure or alleviate it as best we can.

Proof of God

Blog364

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?