Saturday, March 27, 2010

Using Guilt to Fill the Pews

What is sin?

Sin can be an act. It can also just be a thought. It is the deliberate disobedience of the known law of God. Apparently, according to some belief systems, it can also happen without deliberation. Catholics believe in original sin, which is why they baptize babies. It’s not clear to me how someone so innocent can also be a sinner. But there is a lot I don’t understand about religious beliefs.

Take sex, for example. Sex, any kind of sex, is almost always a sin. Only when it takes place between a man and a woman who are legally married is sex not a sin. If two unmarried, though consenting, adults have sex, they are sinning, according to Christian beliefs. If someone resorts to masturbation, it is a sin. If someone lusts in their heart it is a sin.

But sex is a biological drive. It is a drive within every normal adult, whether or not they are married. One would think that God the creator would have built into us a mechanism that would turn on our sex drive only after we get married. Even a cat or a dog refrains from having sex except during the time when the female is in estrus, or “heat.” So God protects the dogs and cats from having sex at the wrong time, but tempts us humans by making us horny all the time? It sounds as though God is either a practical joker or a sadist.

Humans have other drives that do not have to be suppressed, such as the instinct for self preservation, fight or flight, and hunger. So why is our sex drive the only one that gets us into trouble with the Almighty?

It really goes back to the early church. Church leadership understood sex. They also knew that everyone has a sex drive. They knew that infidelity was a common transgression. And they took full advantage of it. If someone commits a sin, and they want to be devout in their faith, they feel guilty about having committed it. When people feel guilty about sinning, they go to church. When they go to church they tithe and the priests or ministers get to continue their indoctrination process. So if you take a universal human instinct and turn it into a sin, you virtually guarantee that everyone will feel guilty a lot, because everyone will commit that sin, eventually. So you get a lot of poor, guilt-ridden sheep returning to the pews week after week. It’s an excellent plan, especially if your flock stays clueless to it.

But wait. Doesn’t the bible itself condemn sex outside of wedlock? How can sex-as-sin have been invented by the early church if it clearly talks about it in the bible? Well, guess who wrote the bible? That’s right, it was written mostly by those who had a vested interest in establishing and maintaining the church. The Apostle Paul allegedly wrote the epistles that appear in the New Testament, but only seven of them were actually written by him. Bible experts don’t know who wrote the others. Some of them are almost certainly forgeries. His mission was to promote the dogma that Jesus was divine, a claim never made by Jesus himself in any Gospel except John. Curiously, the Gospel of John was written last, after the Kingdom of God failed to materialize as expected. The author of John had to make up something to keep the people from vaulting from Christianity in droves.

Oh, and by the way, none of the Gospels was written by the man whose name appears on them. They are all anonymous. And they were all written decades after Jesus died by people who didn’t know him, who didn’t speak his language, and who didn’t even live in the same region of the world as Jesus. This is not a claim of mine; it is a well-established fact. Just ask any theologian.

My point is that whatever the bible says cannot be trusted as being what Jesus actually did. It is not the inspired word of God. It can’t be; there are far too many irreconcilable contradictions among the various books, or even within them. And since none of it is corroborated by other historical accounts, what it says cannot be trusted, especially since the church of the day had a vested interest in making sure the bible reflected their dogma.

This is not to suggest that the church leadership contracted someone to write the bible and have it reflect the church’s orthodoxy. There were a great many manuscripts floating around back then, many claiming to have been written by an apostle of Jesus. None of those claims can be corroborated. The church, while trying to establish a canon, simply picked the manuscripts that it agreed with and that would promote its dogma. And part of that dogma was to make sure that people sinned, so that they would feel guilty about it, so that they would keep coming to church.

It worked very well. People still feel guilty about having sex. It is steeped in taboo. The pleasure aspect of it even gets an odious-sounding name: Hedonism. Some religions and Christian denominations make sex out to be so evil that showing skin is a sin. You can pick out a Pentecostal woman from a mile away with her unattractive long dress, no makeup, and her long hair up in a bun. A Muslim woman is even a better mark.

When you think about it, the whole sex-is-sinful tradition that is built into our American heritage, thanks mostly to the Puritans, is just plain silly. Sex is natural and normal. It is fun and pleasurable. It is useful for both reproduction and for strengthening a relationship. It should be handled in a safe manner, of course. But other than precautions taken for your health and safety, there should be no barriers to having sex with whoever agrees to have sex with you.

There is no longer any place in America for guilt due to natural instincts. There is no reason for laws against sex, such as the sodomy laws that still exist in the law codes of many states. There is no need for blue laws that prohibit liquor sales on Sunday, for example. There is no need for laws against prostitution, which were established early in the twentieth century due to pressure from Christian groups, the same ones who led the drive for prohibition of liquor sales.

Go to church if it makes you feel good. Contribute your hard-earned money to the church’s coffers if you believe it’s all going for a good cause. Sing the hymns. Pray at will. But stop feeling guilty. If you haven’t committed a heinous offense against a fellow human being, there is nothing to feel guilty about. And don’t worry about going to hell; that was invented by the early church, too. Just in case guilt didn’t work to fill the pews, they had fear to fall back on.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seeing (God) is not Always Believing

Why are people religious? That’s a serious question. What makes people decide to have faith in an all-powerful, unseen entity?

There are numerous reasons, and I believe I know some of them. Most people who are religious acquired their religious views from their parents or their social clique. Think about it; when you were born, you were an atheist. Everybody was. Atheism simply means you don’t believe in a god. Before you were indoctrinated into your religion by your parents, you had no religious belief. Therefore, you were an atheist.

Fundamentalists start the indoctrination process at an early age. So if you were born into a fundamentalist family, you acquired your religion early.

Or did you? Kids often go through the motions of believing in God and Noah’s Ark and all those other cute bible stories, but do they really realize what or why they believe? They also believe in Santa Claus, if they were raised to. But they have evidence of Santa: He leaves them presents on Christmas morning. They have no evidence of God; they just believe because there parents or Sunday school teachers tell them to.

But sometimes, people go through childhood and even a lot of their adulthood either not believing or not giving it much thought either way. If asked, they may claim to be a Christian, simply because that’s what most Americans are. But sometimes they start believing because of a personal epiphany or because they believe something miraculous has happened to them. Some people may have witnessed something they believe to be a supernatural occurrence and that’s proof enough for them.

Still others believe because, to them, it makes more sense to believe that all the complexities of the world seem to require a creator. They think Occam’s razor is on their side: Believing in one creator that accounts for everything seems simple enough.

And to reinforce the belief, whatever the original cause, there is always the fear of death and the fact that religion provides a way out. Good little Christians get to spend all eternity in a wonderful, happy place called heaven. But bad little boys and girls, and adults who haven’t embraced reason, have to go to hell, which is a place where God sends you if you don’t worship him. Apparently, the all-powerful, perfect creator of the universe has self-esteem issues.

But let’s take a closer look at the personal experience reason for believing. Pretty much all other reasons for believing can be argued away with simple, rational logic. But it’s hard to argue with someone’s personal experience with God. Sometimes it happens as a specific event. They claim that God has spoken to them or that they felt the Holy Spirit within them. Maybe they actually saw something.

I don’t doubt that most people who claim to have had a religious or spiritual experience actually believe it. Most of them are not lying. What they are doing is misinterpreting the experience.

Consider that everything we know about the outside world enters our consciousness through one or more of our five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. If we pet a kitten, our brain perceives the soft fur in a way that causes us to recognize what it is. We hear the purr of the kitten and recognize what it is, because we’ve heard it before. But our brains are not experiencing the kitten directly. Our peripheral nervous system acts as an intermediary. And the neurons within the brain are second-level intermediaries. Not until the electrical signals get to their final destination within the cerebral cortex where memories are stored do we recognize what we are experiencing.

Once in a while, something goes wrong with the messages that constantly fire in the brain and nervous system. Sometimes people see things that are not there or hear sounds that don’t really exist. People with schizophrenia often see or hear hallucinations that are absolutely real to them. In the movie A Beautiful Mind, based on a true story, the protagonist went for decades talking to, seeing, and visiting with a government agent and his little girl that weren’t really there. But they were absolutely real to him.

Our brains can do strange things sometimes. It’s not that we are mentally ill, but what makes more sense, to believe that our religious experience is the result of a temporary delusional episode that is completely consistent with physical reality and the laws of nature, or that it was really caused by a supernatural entity that violates the laws of nature to reveal itself to us personally?

I know; if it has happened to you, nothing I or anyone else can say is apt to make you think you didn’t really experience it. But setting emotion aside for an instant, it is much more logical for someone who has not had such an experience to believe that it was caused by a hallucination that only seemed real.

Normal, everyday people have hallucinations quite often. Most of the time they happen just before drifting off to sleep or just as you are awakening. You are still technically asleep, but you dream that you are awake and that you see or hear something, like a dead loved one or a ghost or a pony. Occasionally, these hallucinations can happen even when you are awake.

I’m convinced that most, if not all, the God experiences people claim to have had are simply our brains playing tricks on us. A temporarily delusional mind makes much more sense than believing in supernatural forces.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Monkey Could Write the Bible

Could a monkey accidentally type out the entire bible if you sat him down in front of a keyboard for long enough?

The odds, given the number of words in the bible, are so incredibly tiny that for all practical purposes we could say it borders on the impossible. The universe is not old enough for it to have happened even if the monkey started typing at the big bang.

That is the argument that creationists often give as their “disproof” of evolution. But what they fail to realize is that, unlike a typing monkey, evolution is not completely random. There is a random aspect to it, but Natural Selection makes sure that it is guided in a certain direction that is dependent on the environment.

So, going back to the monkey, if we sit him in front of a keyboard which is programmed to automatically erase any letter he types that is not the right letter, then he will, indeed, type out the entire bible. How long will it take him? He will finish up Revelation in two-and-a-half years.

So not only is it possible for a monkey to type out the entire bible, he definitely would type it out in fairly short order. Although the monkey is typing random keys, only those keys that are beneficial (the ones that produce the right next letter) will be saved. The others will be weeded out.

This is a good analogy of Natural Selection. Given how it works, it was not only possible that all life on earth could have evolved, it was virtually mandatory that it would.