The Gods of Christianity

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Christians who argue that only their God is real and that life is futile without him, are like the person who jumps up and down on thin ice insisting the ground beneath him is solid.

The various forms of Yahweh belief have rarely been monotheistic. While Isaiah declares there is only one God, the Jewish scriptures also refer to ‘him’ as ‘Elohim’ and ‘Adonai’, plurals meaning ‘deities’ and ‘my lords’ respectively. Other gods abound, with Psalm 82.1 relating how Yahweh presides over an assembly of other deities. From the beginning – certainly the beginning of the bible – a belief in other supernatural agents has been a requirement; Satan and angels are both present in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. There are also the cherubim and seraphim of Genesis 3.24 and Isaiah 6:1-8 who do Yahweh’s dirty work for him. All of these beings are supernatural entities of immense power; gods in everything but name.

And this is before we get to the New Testament where several new superhuman characters are introduced. Most notable, of course, is the Christ, the invention of cultist Paul. This eternal being is capable of rescuing human beings from the wrath of God and has the power to resurrect them after death. He is, in Paul’s eyes, on an equal footing with Yahweh himself, a god in his own right (Philippians 2.6-11). While the Christ himself has resided in heaven for the past two thousand years (or for eternity, give or take thirty years), his spirit haunts the Earth to this day, possessing members of the Christ cult. The three of them together – the Christ, the Spirit and Yahweh (re-imagined as ‘The Father’) – are the chief gods of Christianity. The church has spent almost two millennia trying to explain how there is only one god who is simultaneously three distinct deities. The Vatican declares the Trinity to be the greatest mystery of all, though of course it is only a mystery in the same way something that makes no sense whatever can be considered a mystery.

According to the gospels, Jesus himself believed in yet another collection of supernatural agents; demons who caused all manner of illness and mischief, opposing Jesus wherever he went. According to the writer of Ephesians (6.12), these ‘wicked spirits’ and ‘principalities’ rival God in terms of power, and are, together with their overlord, Satan, the real rulers of this world

For Catholics, this pantheon of three-in-one gods, angels, devils and demons is supplemented by another layer of super-beings. These are humans who have attained the status of divine immortality, and who are prayed to and worshipped by acolytes on Earth. Mary, the supposed ‘mother of God’ is the most significant, followed by ‘saints’ who have been translated to Heaven and now have free access to the chief gods, ‘interceding’ with them on behalf of ordinary mortals. While no doubt Catholics would dispute that these figures are themselves gods, it’s difficult to see how they are not: they’re immortal, eternal, possessed of great power and in direct communication with the Big Three. They are the equivalent of the Titans’ offspring in Greek mythology.

There is nothing monotheistic about Christianity (nor Judaism) despite the protestations of those who claim to follow the one true God. Christianity has, like most of its predecessors, a pantheon of gods. This not surprising when history repeatedly demonstrates the extent to which humans are inclined towards ensemble theistic imaginings.

So, beware those who tells us they know what the one true God wants, what he approves of and what he condemns: that ice is exceedingly thin and already cracked. It has been from the very beginning.

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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.

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.

Heaven’s Above

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I was struggling for inspiration this week with the homework assignment from my writing group. The title was ‘Heaven’s Above’ (or maybe ‘Heavens Above’, without the apostrophe) and possibly I was having difficulty with it because I don’t believe in a Heaven above, on account of there not being one.

The other night, in a local bar, this young guy came over to talk to my friends and me. He was a doctor from a nearby practice, and he started by asking how, when the time comes, we’d like to die. While perhaps not be the best way to start a consultation, his question provoked some interesting responses.

Then, having somehow detected that my friends and I had reached a certain level of maturity (we’re in our 60s), the young doctor asked what we felt was the point of life. He had, he said, a real need to know this, because having achieved all he wanted at 28, he was left wondering if there was any purpose beyond 30. I like to think we all gave him good answers. There’s life in these old dogs yet! For me, it was falling in love (yes, it happens to old people too) together with friends, lovers and other relationships, particularly those with my grown-up children and beautiful grandchildren. There’s also – though I didn’t bore him with the details – achieving authenticity, accepting yourself and living true to that self. Then there’s all the other things that make life worthwhile; being open to change, having new experiences, learning, helping others, reading, writing, conversation, music, walking… You will, I’m sure, have your own list.

I know that Sartre claimed that ‘Hell is other people’ and Lee Marvin thought much the same thing when he rumbled in Wand’rin’ Star that ‘Hell is in hello’, but Heaven is in these same things; in friendship and our other relationships. There may be some who think it’s easy for me to say all this. ‘After all,’ they say, without knowing me, ‘you have a good life. It’s pretty easy to feel positive about something that’s already going well,’ which is true. Except my life has had its share of traumas, problems and pains, and still does. But life is good and worthwhile in spite of these, and it’s purposeful too without recourse to God or Jesus. Who needs these two old frauds? We make our own Heaven here, now, in our own lives.

Am I saying count your blessings? Yes, I suppose I am, but not, I hope, in a glib way. There are so many good things in most of our lives; all we have to do is make them our own. ‘Lay hold on life,’ as the old hymn says, ‘and it shall be, thy joy and crown eternally.’ Maybe not eternally, but certainly beyond the age of 30.