Sunday, May 31, 2009

Faith is Stupid

I’m writing this on a Sunday morning while millions of Americans are getting ready to go to church. Some go because they feel obligated. Others go because it’s just a Sunday morning habit. There are those who go because they are afraid not to; hell is a scary place for those who believe it exists. Still others go because they actually enjoy going for whatever reason. And a few go just because it is spiritually uplifting.

I’ve gone to church quite a lot in my life. I was dragged to church when I was a child and I hated every minute of it. I went to church voluntarily when I was between 10 and 13 years old because all my friends went, and we sang some cool camp songs about Jesus. I didn’t go most of my adult life, but I did go almost every Sunday during the 1990s. I felt the need to be close to family after my dad died.

I probably went for the wrong reasons, though. I enjoyed going to church because the family was there, but also because they usually had a social gathering after the service where cookies and coffee were served. I went because I loved the beautiful architecture of the building. I went because I loved some of the music. We sang standard hymns. Some of the world’s best music is wasted on Christianity. And I went because the preacher was a good speaker and he stayed completely away from the fire-and-brimstone drivel that I used to hear as a child.

I got baptized when I was in my 40s while attending our church. It was the First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ. I must admit, when I got dunked, I felt nothing but wet.

I also prayed when I went to church, along with the preacher and everybody else. At least I assumed they were all praying. I also prayed right before bed almost every night, if I thought about it. Down deep, I knew I was wasting my time, even though I went to great pains to make sure I was praying correctly, according to what I had learned in church. Even as a kid, I wondered what good prayer would actually do.

A preacher at one of the churches I attended when I was younger said that God knows your needs even before you ask. Even then my question was, “Well then why should I bother asking?” If God’s will is always done, then praying for something that is not his will is futile and praying for something that is his will is unnecessary.

I stopped going to church about seven years ago. We got a new preacher whom I didn’t much care for. Some family members had stopped attending that church because they went elsewhere. But most importantly, they almost never served cookies and coffee after the sermon anymore. Plus, in all the years I attended, I never really felt the presence of God. And I tried to.

I had always believed in God’s existence. I believed that Jesus was God’s son. I wasn’t too sure of the miracles of the bible. I always knew that the stories of Creation, Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the big fish, and all the other Old Testament stories were just fables. But I thought that most of the New Testament stories were probably accurate.

But when the minister of the Christian Church told us one Sunday that believing in the miracles of Jesus was optional to our salvation, except for the miracle of his resurrection, I discovered a problem. If you have to believe in the resurrection, which is a miracle, then why not believe in all the miracles? It’s in for a penny, in for a pound, as the old adage goes.

But if you don’t believe in every one of them, then why believe in the resurrection? There were a lot of miracles that bothered me. I knew that most of the stories about people being possessed were really stories about epileptics. I came to realize that many of the Jesus miracles were allegorical. So it was only logical to draw the same conclusion about the resurrection.

My conclusion, based on years of thought and research, is that almost every story in the bible, both Old and New Testament, are allegories. They are fables. They never actually happened. And as a science teacher, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I once believed some of them.

I never really thought much about religion after I stopped going to church as a kid. Everything I learned about religion as a kid scared me. I didn’t want to believe that the End of Days was upon us. It frightened me that the biblical prophecies were being fulfilled in my lifetime. I tried not to think about it.

Thankfully, I got over my fear as I realized I had been misled as a child. I was being taught by people who didn’t know. They only believed. And there’s a difference.

One of my relatives recently admitted that he was having a crisis of faith. He wanted me to help him decide what to have faith in. I told him that faith was stupid. He looked horrified at my remark. “You have to have faith in something,” he told me.

But why? Faith is the act of treating something as factual whenever it is not backed up by any facts or empirical evidence. I told him that believing in something without evidence is childlike, as a child would believe in Santa Claus. Having faith isn’t something to be proud of. It means you have left reason behind. It means that believing in something because you would like it to be true is more important than believing in the truth.

There is one truth out there when it comes to life’s meaning. But nobody knows what that truth is. If you have faith, you go around thinking you know, and you’re never afraid to tell others about the truth you know about. But you don’t really know any more than I do. Having faith is stupid because it means you have abdicated your responsibility for yourself. You have put your life into the hands of whatever deity you believe in, whether he’s real or not. It’s a cop out on life.

The thing is, when you place yourself in God’s hands, you’re really placing your life in the hands of the earthly entity that you believe is the conduit to God, and that’s your church. Throughout history, churches have been proven to be corrupt. Plus, it means you no longer have to think too much for yourself because your life is now being guided by God, aka, your church.

I have four brothers. Three of them are willing to discuss faith and religion. One of the three is more religious than the others, who tend to be fence sitters. The other brother is highly religious and refuses to discuss it with the rest of us. He just says, “I’ll believe what my church tells me.” He is a smart guy, but he has given up his rational thought processes; he let’s his church think and speak for him. The rest of us wonder if he believes down deep that if he engages in our conversation that it might weaken his faith. Is he afraid he might be convinced through logic that his faith is stupid?

What do we really know about God? Well, the short answer to that question is nothing. In terms of empirical evidence, nobody can prove or disprove his existence. If he does exist, nobody knows anything at all about him/her/it. Is God a male, a female, or none of the above? Did God create the universe and establish all the laws of physics in the beginning and then sit back and watch it unfold, or did he create everything in its place to be virtually unchanging? Does God want us to worship him or is he above needing to be acknowledged by mere mortals?

Every church will have some answer to these questions, but they will all be different answers depending on whom you ask. So that means you have to pick one. And since your immortal soul is in jeopardy if you pick the wrong one, good luck. That’s the dilemma you face if you are Christian.

Do you pick a Holy Roller church whose members get off on speaking gibberish and bouncing off the walls like pin balls? Do you pick a more dignified church that tends to bore you to tears? Do you choose to be Catholic or maybe Eastern Orthodox because they’ve been around the longest? And what if you’re wrong about your choice?

Don’t bother asking God. He won’t give you even a hint. You’re on your own. And if God were a fatherly being who loved and cared about each and every one of us, he wouldn’t let us flounder in the dark.

Maybe God does exist. I can’t say otherwise. But I can say with almost complete certainty that the god of the Christian bible is a fairy tale. People tend to believe in him because they are afraid not to. Their church stokes that fear. But personally, I don’t believe in fairy tales anymore. Can you say the same thing?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Year of Whose Bible?

When the 2010 congressional elections are held, the more intelligent people of Georgia might want to consider replacing Rep. Paul Broun with someone who won’t make that state a laughingstock. Just as the Kansas board of education made that state a laughingstock eight years ago when it kicked evolution out of the school curriculum, Broun isn’t doing his state any favors with his idiotic suggestion that the year 2010 be proclaimed the Year of the Bible.

Does that mean the year 2009 isn’t the year of the bible? Broun must be horrified. And maybe he would be even more horrified if some of the Jews in Congress pushed through a resolution making 2011 the Year of the Torah. Maybe we can celebrate 2012 as the Year of the Koran. And maybe we could set aside 2013 as the year of the We-Don’t-Need-No-Stinking-Religion bible, like maybe one of the books by Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris.

Broun says he wants to recognize the Good Book because it played such a pivotal role in shaping the laws of our nation. The bible had almost nothing to do with the formulation of our laws. Only two of the Ten Commandments were made into laws. If for no other reason than that Broun obviously doesn’t know his history very well should the good people of Georgia give him the boot. He is one of those who claims in error that this country was founded on Christianity, and we should honor that heritage by proclaiming 2010 as the Year of the Bible.

In a TV interview, Broun was reminded that the writer of the Declaration of Independence and signer of the Constitution of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, was not a Christian. Jefferson firmly believed that government had no place in religion and religion had no place in government. Jefferson even wrote his own bible which redacted every miracle from the New Testament.

Jefferson wasn’t the only one of the Founding Fathers who was not a Christian. Although most had a belief in God, many were deists, believing that God existed but was not personally involved with any mere human.

Most of the founders are probably spinning in their graves at the idea that a member of Congress is suggesting that we all celebrate the Christian bible next year. If Congress makes such a proclamation, it would fly in the face of the First Amendment. It would definitely be an act by government preferring one religion over all the others.

But Republicans in Congress who have lost their credibility, thanks to eight years of Bush and Cheney, are apparently reduced to introducing meaningless resolutions that do nothing to help the economy, remedy the health care crisis, or promote education in this country. They have no new ideas so why not just pass a resolution asking everyone to read their bibles?

Depending on which poll numbers you believe, somewhere between 16 and 20 percent of all Americans say they do not subscribe to any religion at all. And although that is certainly a minority, it is a sizable one. It is also the fastest-growing minority in America. We have apparently reached a tipping point regarding religion, where millions of atheist, agnostic, and freethinking Americans are starting to come out of the closet.

The introduction of such a resolution in our Congress is a slap in the face to the growing number of us who are not Christian. Thankfully, it has a slim chance of actually passing. Surely Congressman Broun can find something more meaningful to do with his time than to piss off those who don’t share his religious convictions.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

All Bubbles are Equal

Wars are fought for many reasons, including territory, politics, oppression, and religious differences. Throughout history religious differences have been a major excuse for declaring war. More people have lost their lives in the name of God than for almost any other reason.

Our war against terrorism is really rooted in religious differences. The terrorists are religious fanatics who use their religion as an excuse to attack innocent people.

The fanatics we’re dealing with now are Muslims. They follow a very strict and oppressive form of Islam, but they twist its meaning to suit their own selfish agendas.

But Islam is not the only religion that has fanatics, either now or in the past. Christianity has also had its share of them, and some have been just as treacherous and deadly.

Fanatical Muslims talk about jihad, meaning holy war. Some are willing, even proud, to die for the cause of their religion. That is why the terrorist groups have no trouble in recruiting suicide bombers. They believe to die in a jihad secures their place in the afterlife.

But, although early Christians were persecuted, once Emperor Constantine converted himself to Christianity for political reasons, it was the Christians who did the persecuting, the plundering, and the oppressing.

If the term jihad makes Christians feel uneasy, the term crusade must send chills down the spine of Muslims. The Crusades were campaigns fought by Christians against the Islamic nations. The Crusades were a series of five wars fought over a 200-year period beginning in the 11th century after Pope Urban II exhorted all Christians to take up arms against the infidel Muslims.

Then there was the Inquisition, which brought imprisonment or torture to those Christians who were judged to have committed heresy, or to converted Jews and Muslims who were not Christian enough in their new way of life.

Christians have invaded new lands, such as Scandinavia and the Americas, and have sought to spread their Gospel to the infidels. The ones they could not convert, they enslaved or slaughtered.

Even within Christendom itself there have been fighting factions. Witness the unrest that once plagued Northern Ireland for decades. It was unrest fueled by the religious intolerances of Catholics and Protestants in that region.

One must be very careful not to judge a person solely on what religion he chooses to believe in. Just as all Muslims are not terrorists, all Christians throughout history have not been crusaders, oppressors, and marauders.

It is interesting to note, however, that what compels the religious fanatics to take up arms and riot in the streets is the same motive that compels some fundamentalist mainstream Christians to proselytize. They have a staunch, deep-seated conviction that their religion is the right one, and that their god is the true one. Other gods are false; other ways are evil.

Modern Christian fundamentalists don’t take up arms. They are stealthier and more clandestine in their attempts to win converts. They lure kids into the fold with games and ice cream cones and then tell them fables from the bible. They scare them into believing in their version of Christianity by telling them if they don’t believe they will go to hell. Then they send their young recruits out to gather their friends into the flock. And much of the time, all this is taking place in the tax-supported public schools by groups such as the Good News Club.

The people of this planet, if they belong to a religion at all, belong to one of about four or five major belief systems. Among those are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.

One can view each major religion as a giant bubble on the surface of the earth, unable to combine into a single larger bubble. The occupants of one bubble realize that the other bubbles exist, but they do not really understand what it’s like to be inside any bubble but their own. They can’t see the whole picture. Their own bubble is right and righteous; the other bubbles are flawed or imperfect. And woe be to those who live outside any bubble, for they are surely lost sheep.

Sometimes, the residents of one bubble try to expand their own by devouring neighboring bubbles or by seducing another bubble’s residents to come over to the good side. That attitude either leads to war, or at the very least causes ill will between bubbles.

We might all do well to step outside our own little bubbles and look at the world from a different perspective. View it from a perspective outside of any bubble. View it from the perspective of an alien who knows nothing of religion.

One might then come to the conclusion that all bubbles are equal. And if all bubbles are equal, what would be the point of having bubbles at all? Perhaps the worldview taken by a religion, any religion, is just as flimsy as the film of a soap bubble.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Biology Teachers should Stick to Real Science

Did you take biology in high school? If so, were you taught about the theory of evolution? Were you also taught creationism or intelligent design? It might surprise some of us but according to recent research about a quarter of high school biology students were taught creationism as a valid alternative theory to evolution.

That is having an effect on the way college biology students think about evolution. Those who were exposed to creationism in their high school biology classes were much more likely to believe that creationism could be validated as a real alternative to evolution. Of those who were taught only evolution in high school biology, 75 percent accepted it as scientifically valid.

The problem lies with high school biology teachers. According to the research reported in ScienceDaily, one-fourth of high school biology teachers do not know that it is against the law to teach creationism in science class. And whether they know the legalities or not, it should be clear to them that teaching their own religious beliefs does not equate to teaching a valid scientific alternative.

Some teachers avoid any controversy surrounding evolution and creationism by not teaching either one. Nearly 10 percent of high school science teachers choose not to teach either. Unfortunately, that is cheating students out of the best science education they can get. It is leaving out the most fundamental theory in all of biology. Evolution is the foundation upon which is built most other biological principles, not to mention well-accepted principles of geology and cosmology.

When I was in high school, I did not believe in evolution. I was taught the Creation story in Sunday school and that is what I believed. I was brainwashed as a child and was literally told not to believe what they teach us in high school about evolution.

But when I took biology as a sophomore, my science teacher made a lot of sense. He did mention the bible’s story of Creation, but explained that it did not necessarily contradict evolution theory; it just explained it in different terms.

More importantly, though, the lesson on evolution included an explanation of the evidence for it as well as the mechanisms of how it works. It all seemed very logical to me. I became an evolution convert. I still believed in God and the bible, but I came to realize that perhaps God simply used evolution as his tool of creation.

Since then, I have been on a crusade against the teaching of creationism or its offspring, intelligent design, in the classroom. In the ensuing years since my graduation, state and federal judges across the country, including the Supreme Court, have ruled against teaching creationism as science. Yet some science teachers continue to include it in their lesson plans.

No state has science standards that mandate the teaching of creationism, or even allow for it. Indiana’s state science standards mandate coverage of evolution at almost every level. So why do some teachers ignore the science standards adopted by their state by not including evolution? And why do some continue to include the religious dogma of creationism as though it were an alternative scientific theory?

These teachers are doing a grave disservice to their students who carry their now-skewed understanding of evolution into college. Even biology majors are not immune. The research indicated that many biology majors who were taught creationism in high school still found it an acceptable alternative to evolution when they were freshmen in college.

Science teachers are not scientists. More than 99 percent of biologists agree that evolution is the foundational theory of biology and that it is the best explanation of the diversity of life on earth. But a third of high school biology teachers never studied evolution in college and many of them are not even science majors.

If science students in the United States are to receive a science education equivalent to that in other countries, we must do a better job of educating our science teachers. We need to work with biology teachers and science majors to make sure they have sufficient knowledge about evolution. School administrators must make it clear that teaching religious views in science class is unconstitutional. And teachers need to stick to the standards and the textbooks when teaching students about evolution.

There is already too much encroachment by creationist organizations into the classroom. They build their museums and send literature to science teachers. They are well organized and unrelenting. It doesn’t help that actual science teachers are helping these groups spread their phony science to unwitting high school students.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Can We All be Wrong about Religion?

Most of my family and friends differ markedly from me on their religious views. Most of them are Christians; some go to evangelical churches. I, on the other hand, am not a Christian and I hold religion in complete and utter contempt. I believe religion through the ages has been the bane of society and has held back scientific and social progress. I believe religion remains a danger to society, especially fundamentalist religions.

What I am is agnostic. The word literally means, “without knowledge.” When it comes to God, I know nothing. But, unlike most of the other people in my life, I can also say with complete surety that nobody else knows anything about God, either, though most of them are quite comfortable telling me all about what God is, wants, or would like for me to do.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked, “What if you’re wrong?” Well, I don’t know that either. But what they are suggesting is that if my views about God and religion do not match theirs, then I am doomed to exist for all eternity in abject torment.

Their thinking is this: If they are wrong about the existence of a Christian God, then when they die, they’ve lost nothing. They would have spent their lives living for God and that would have made them better people. And maybe they are correct, although I would say some of them are more annoying people because of their faith.

As a corollary, if I am wrong, then I will exist in eternal torment. So I might as well be like them and believe. After all, there’s nothing to lose by believing.

But perhaps there is. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Christian God exists, then I have to ask which one? The God of the bible seems to have multiple personalities, depending on which book of the bible you read. And what about Christianity itself? There are dozens, maybe hundreds of Christian denominations. What if each believer has picked the wrong one?

Pentecostals generally believe that only Pentecostals will be going to heaven. They stress that women must wear their hair long, wear only dresses below the knees, wear no jewelry, and refrain from watching TV. Mormons believe that only they hold the key to the Promised Land. Catholics believe in baptism by sprinkling, while Pentecostals believe in baptism by emersion. If you do it wrong, you go to hell, although some denominations believe either way will work.

Some churches believe in the trilogy as three separate entities; others believe that Jesus is the entity that matters and the other two are just manifestations of him. Some churches believe in the strict literally interpretation of the bible; others believe the bible is for spiritual guidance only and most, if not all, the stories told within are allegorical.

If the God of the bible does exist, it’s a pity he couldn’t make his existence a bit clearer for those, like me, who like looking at the big picture and not just a single brush stroke.

So my question back to those who ask me what if I’m wrong is to ask them what if they have picked the wrong denomination, or even the wrong religion. What if the Muslims have it right? Then are all Christians and Jews going to hell? What if the Jews are correct and Jesus was not the Messiah? What if the Pentecostals are correct? Does that mean the Baptists are going to hell? Or what if the Presbyterians are the ones who got it right? What does that bode for the Methodists?

Some will say that it doesn’t matter which denomination you belong to, as long as you believe in Jesus as the Son of God. But that is only their belief. What if they are wrong and it really does matter which religion or denomination you choose. They are only assuming that ecumenicalism is what God prefers.

The point is, if there is a Christian God, he has done a miserable job of making it clear what he wants of us. It is only clear to the believers, who know for certain that their faith is the truth. All Christians might agree generally that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. But they differ markedly on how to worship and how to behave while on Earth. If these differences matter to God, then most believers are in big trouble. But nobody really knows which ones.

So, in my opinion, my lack of faith doesn’t put me in any more danger than those who believe strongly in a single brand of Christianity. If God exists, and if he cares what we believe, then pretty much everyone is doomed, because I can’t imagine that anyone, anywhere, has gotten it exactly right.