Can you be a Christian and… a rational thinker?

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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.

Crawling from the Wreckage

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I’m occasionally accused of criticising only evangelical Christianity. It’s an easy target, I’m told, and I should spend some time investigating the more sophisticated and respectable version of Faith: intellectual, liberal Christianity. In fact I already have, and have written about it before. This ‘respectable’ version of the Faith is every bit as dishonest and intellectually lazy as its more excitable counterpart.

It has always seemed to me that evangelicalism and fundamentalism do at least take the most indefensible parts of the bible seriously. They may ignore them when it comes to applying them (loving enemies and giving to all who ask, for example) but at least they accept them, if only metaphorically, as part of ‘God’s inerrant and infallible Word’. Intellectual Christians on the other hand sidestep what they find uncomfortable, selecting only that which fits with what they think the Faith should be:

A Loving Father? Then we’ll disregard the parts where God is clearly anything but.

A wise and compassionate Jesus? We’ll pretend the bits where he’s cruel, ignorant and just plain wrong aren’t really there (or are later additions to the gospels; the mistaken beliefs of the early church.)

Church as inclusive community? We’ll have some of that and ignore all the unhelpful nonsense about most of humankind being destined for eternal torture. (That, after all, is just Paul, or whoever, getting carried away.)

I know they do this, because when my own faith was in its death throes, I did too.

Back in the early ’90s. I’d given up on evangelicalism but desperately wanted to salvage something of the Faith that had once meant so much to me (even as it completely messed up my life.) I wanted a God of Love, so persuaded myself there was one – disregarding what I knew of the hateful, unsavoury aspects of the God of the bible. I also really wanted Jesus to have some meaning; if not as personal saviour then as one who exemplified a purposeful and compassionate life. To do this I had to overlook Paul’s theology of a vengeful God, hell bent on punishing everyone.

In the end, however, I had to be honest with myself and accept that the nice God I was trying to believe in was no more real than the nasty one. What I wanted had no bearing on the nature of God, nor on whether he existed. Similarly with the nice Jesus, who could be unpleasant and unreasonably demanding as well. I was being entirely selective, as most Christians are, about how I constructed my own personal Jesus.

Hanging on to fragments of faith was futile. I could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the parts of Christianity that made me feel good, inspired me or made me kinder, while ignoring the downright nasty bits. If I was experiencing the good things (and I was) I had to accept they were coming from somewhere other than Christianity; if I was to go on experiencing them I had to acknowledge that and cultivate them by other means.

It seemed at first that this would be difficult outside of a church but in fact there are numerous groups committed to helping and inspiring others, without the superfluous and irrelevant presence of religion. It simply isn’t necessary to hang on to selected scraps from a discredited belief system; life lies, in abundance, elsewhere.

This is why I have no more respect for intellectualised, liberal Christianity than I have for evangelicalism. There is nothing intellectual about the cognitive dissonance needed to be an ‘intellectual’ Christian. It is, in the end, a largely content free version of Faith, the spiritual equivalent of a homeopathic remedy. I mean, really: why bother?

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.

Pearl of Great Price

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Once Born Again™, I became involved with a local church, where my friend Simon took it upon himself to play Cupid, fixing me up with Jane. I was more than a little surprised a girl could be interested in me, but figured, in my flight from myself, that as she was interested, I should make the most of it. Sex wasn’t much of a problem: as good Christians we may’ve played about a little, but we stayed away from what the church liked to call ‘pre-marital intercourse’.

It wasn’t long, though, before Jane wanted to marry – she really wanted to get married. I wasn’t so sure and told her about my escapades with Sam, adding of course that I had since renounced such sin. She said that as long as it never happened again, she had no problem with my past transgressions. I felt pretty sure it wouldn’t happen again. After all, Jesus and his Holy Spirit were taking care of my old nature.

So Jane and I married and over time had three children. While I was very much involved with their upbringing, I would often feel I was ‘letting the Lord down’. When, as happened on holiday once, a group of younger men came round a corner minus their shirts, I found myself instinctually admiring them. What self-crucifying shame I would feel after occasions like these. I would even confess such ‘sins’ to a senior work colleague, a devout and very genuine older lady. I’d spare her the details of how exactly I’d ‘let the Lord down’, of course; I could never have brought myself to say I’d been turned on by naked male torsos. But somewhere deep within me I longed for intimacy and closeness with another man. I knew this was strictly forbidden so buried my desires deeper and deeper, suppressing and subjugating something vital about myself. I was on course, though I didn’t recognise it, to making myself ill. I was convinced that I was doing the right thing – for myself, for my marriage and for God.

My marriage, however, was in trouble. Jane seemed to have lost interest in our children, which hurt me greatly (and didn’t do them a lot of good either.) This and pressures at work, where my boss’ affair with a female colleague was creating some serious problems, made me question whether God really cared. When I needed him most, petitioning him for the wisdom to deal with these problems, the heavens, as the scripture almost says, were as brass. God, it seemed, just wasn’t interested. Perhaps, I started to wonder, he wasn’t even there. Added to this was the internal pressure I was still subjecting myself to; the tension and stress of sublimating my true nature. I was deeply unhappy. While the situation at work was eventually ‘resolved’ (by my finding a better job) I had become chronically depressed and remained so for several years.

Ultimately, once I had reached my fifties and the children were grown, Jane and I separated. I knew I couldn’t go on suffocating my feelings; the mind is not designed to be a pressure cooker – something has to give. I started to accept, though not yet embrace, my innermost nature. The relief was immediate and tremendous. I felt I had found myself and I didn’t care that society might not particularly like what I had I found. I had to be me, and not the uptight, miserable person I had become by denying my essential self. I squared up to the exciting yet daunting prospect of starting over, and acknowledged that if I were to have a new relationship it would be with another man. And so it was.

Over time I came to like myself – imagine that! All I’d felt for most of my life, since the time at the YMCA, was self-hatred. That was what Christianity, what Jesus, had done for me. Arguably, it had also ensured, by keeping me firmly in the closet, that I hadn’t died prematurely during the AIDs crisis of the 1980s. Perhaps though I’m giving it too much credit.

I’m ‘out’ now, in every sense: to my wonderfully supportive children, to you who read this blog (obviously) and to friends. Match-maker Simon, he who suggested going to the YMCA all those years ago, cut me off about a decade ago. As a born-again Christian, he regarded homosexuality as beyond the pale. His ‘principles’ meant more to him than our long-standing friendship. I still miss him, very much.

I don’t miss God. He has gone entirely and I’ve long recognise that he was never there to begin with. Instead, I have a sense of authenticity and my energy goes into living, not denial. I’ve become involved with the local LGBT Centre and I’m seeing a very nice man who I’m going to call Thomas, to spare his blushes. I’m very happy and feel, at long last, I really know what life’s about.

If you can stand it, I’ll tell you more next time.

Get your false Messiahs here…

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There was this guy who said he was the Son of God and the Messiah of his people. God appeared to him in a vision that enveloped him and changed him completely. Afterwards he discovered he had a knowledge of scripture that he previously hadn’t possessed and a invigorated sense of mission: God had appointed him to redeem his people. He changed his name and began to teach his people with power and a knowledge that all of them testified they had never experienced before. He brought them close to God and showed them how the world was coming to an end and how God would soon establish his Kingdom on Earth. He prophesied too, however, that he himself would die at the hands of the authorities, but that his followers should have no fear, because God would not forsake them: they would be part of the coming Kingdom.

And so it came to pass. At the age of 33, the Messiah died at the hands of the state.

And the name of this guy? Jesus, maybe? Well, it could be, but it wasn’t. Saul/Paul perhaps? Again, possibly… but no.

This guy’s name was David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), leader of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. You may remember him from such massacres as the 1993 seige at Waco, where his church was based. He made all the claims above, just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Paul before him. None of his followers, it’s true, claimed to see him after his death, but some of those who survived the seige believe still that he will be resurrected and will return to lead them personally into the Kingdom of God.

I was watching a programme about him recently, a Storyville documentary originally broadcast in the States last year, which showed how easily we create our Messiahs and Saviours. The recipe, it turns out, is easy:

Take one charismatic individual who thinks he’s speaking for God;

Mix in an obsession with scripture;

Add some absurd self-promotion, and

Bake for a few years in the over-heated adulation of some desperate sycophants.

So – Jesus, Paul, Koresh. What’s the difference?

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*Actually, the quote in the picture up top is not Jesus at all; its Koresh, from an interview with the FBI (see first link above.) John 14.6 says ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me,’ which is much the same.

Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.

So it begins…

Jesus Lazes

A true story:

They didn’t see it coming. No-one did. It couldn’t have been predicted. He came into their lives unexpectedly one summer evening and none of them would ever be the same again.

He met Maddy first, then Andrew and soon after that the rest of the group. He was quiet, diffident even, but from the start his personality shone, his smile captivating them all. Some fell in love with him immediately, others later but either way, there was no escape. His zest for life was infectious, his gentle, thoughtful ways drew in all who encountered him. He didn’t demand change or presume to tell them how they should live, but his unaffected presence changed them all and added immeasurably to each of their lives.

And so the cult of Salvatore began, in the way that all cults begin, with a charismatic personality. When that individual seeks to manipulate and control others, particularly if he or she has Messianic aspirations, then before long an agenda emerges: unquestioning obedience; the belief that only this leader has the Truth; the demand that acolytes abandon family, friends and society for the cause; the proselytising to increase followers; the expectation that others acknowledge the leader’s power and glory; the rejection of those who fail to do so. This is how it was with Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy Baker and so many others

The Salvatore cult won’t come to this; the man himself is neither controlling nor manipulative, though there are those who would do anything for him. Myself included.