Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wedding Ceremony Blues

I attended a wedding this weekend, which is unusual for me because I like attending neither weddings nor funerals. But since it was my niece who was getting married and they were going to serve me food at the reception, I had to attend.

The reception was fun. They did have food and it was a chance to visit with members of the family. The wedding, on the other hand, was excruciating. First of all, let me say that the beautiful bride, my niece, handled herself with poise and dignity when the minster called her Laura. (Her name is Heather.) He also called the groom Justin. (His name is Ricky.) Then he interrupted the ceremony by trying to explain to those in attendance that he had forgotten to change the names on his notes from a previous wedding. If I had been the bride, I think I would have stopped the whole thing and made him start over.

I also would not have hired a minister. Granted, my niece calls herself a Christian, but then so do most other Americans who never attend church but on Easter and Christmas. I don’t know how often she attends, but I’ll have to say I don’t attend at all anymore, and it was almost painful to sit through a wedding that doubled as a Sunday morning worship service. Yes, there was lots of bible reading and praying going on. God’s name was spoken more often than the bride’s and groom’s, especially given that he got them wrong on at least three occasions during the ceremony.

But I’m not writing about the wedding, per se. While I was sitting there during the church service, uh, wedding ceremony I was struck by the realization that most, if not all, the members of the audience who went along with the minister’s calls for prayer and who nodded in agreement every time the minister uttered the phrase, “our lord Jesus,” had all been taken in by one of the world’s greatest hoaxes: Christianity. Did they not realize how silly they all seemed? They were, after all, mostly adults who were intelligent enough to make a decent living but who had succumbed to the propaganda that is their church’s dogma.

When they reached the age of 8 or 9, did they all not question the existence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Did they not all stop believing in the Tooth Fairy at an even earlier age? Yet they keep their belief in an ancient myth about a talking snake that tempted the mother of all mankind with a fruit and now we all must suffer for her sins throughout all our time on Earth? They believe that a perfect and benevolent god created all of us, then allowed us to be tempted by the devil (whom he also created, since he created everything), and then he sends us to eternal torment if we actually give in to the temptation. And when all that doesn’t make sense to them, they make excuses for their god by saying things like, “God works in mysterious ways,” or “It’s all part of God’s divine plan.”

And when asked how they know all this stuff is true, they invariably point to their holy book, the bible. Everything in there is true and right. How do they know that? Because the bible tells them so.

People believe silly nonsense because they are raised to believe silly nonsense. Most people stop believing in silly nonsense like the Easter Bunny because their maturing minds become more curious about how things really work. But because society grew up believing in myths to explain things that were not understood, most people still believe those myths. I guess that means society hasn’t reached the age of reason yet.

At the wedding, the minister lauded Heather for actually choosing which bible verses she wanted him to read. He praised her for knowing enough about the bible to choose wisely. I praise my kids for dumping their belief in the bible. I applaud people who know the bible, too. But I applaud them if they actually know about the bible as well, and how it came to exist. Who wrote it and when? Who decided which of the hundreds or thousands of early writings would be included in the canon? Were there any early challenges to their religion by other sects? Most people don’t know much about the history of the bible or of their religion. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research survey, atheists and agnostics know more about the bible than most Christians. If more Christians knew more about the bible rather than just what’s in it, they probably wouldn’t be Christians anymore.

I long for the day when people will start really questioning their faith in a critical manner. Most Christians have moments of doubt, but they lament these moments as signs of weakness. Instead, they should embrace them as flashes of incite.

We, as a society, don’t have to give up going to church if we give up our faith. We can still be spiritual. We can still congregate. We just won’t congregate under the delusion that some higher power is watching over us. We’ll appreciate that everything we have accomplished is due to our own ability and resourcefulness. And we will be proud of ourselves for doing it, all without the help of a supernatural father figure in the sky.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Growing Up in Fear of Armageddon

I grew up in a Christian family. Mom made my siblings and me attend church on a regular basis. I didn’t much care for it and often went to great links to avoid it, such as turning the clock hand ahead to make her think we were already late. It didn’t work.

She eventually stopped attending church regularly herself, but when I was 10 or 11 I started going to church on my own because all the other kids in my new neighborhood were there. It was a kid-friendly church. We sang lots of cool songs accompanied by hand gestures; we made nice things in Sunday school class, and we even put on a Christmas pageant.

I went to the altar for the first time when I was 12. I remember a lady from the church kneeling down by me and a couple of friends of mine who also made the trip. She shed a tear as she prayed over us. It made me uncomfortable, which is the only emotion I actually remember feeling.

What I remember most about my life as a kid Christian was thinking that my life on Earth would be over soon. I would be alive when the Rapture came. The end of the world was no more than a few years away, and certainly within my lifetime. And I was none too happy about it either. Why should the world end on my watch? I wanted to have a full life, but apparently, I wasn’t going to.

When I matriculated I had to complete a questionnaire. One of the questions was, “Do you believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ?” The college was affiliated with the Baptist Church, although it was a liberal arts school with no Christian curriculum per se. I left the question blank, because I just didn’t want to face that question anymore. I kind of did believe it, but I wanted to live what was left of my life as though it would not happen.

My childhood was filled with deadlines for the end of the world. I remember being horrified by predictions that the world would come to an end on this date or that. Most of the predictions of doom were from those who were expecting Jesus’ return. My mom tried to assuage my fears by telling me that nobody knows when Jesus will return, but the harm was done.

When I was about 13, my best friend was telling me about his belief that Jesus was ready to come. He said it would happen when the bible is fulfilled. I asked him when that would be and he told me it was fulfilled already. His father dabbled in ministry, as a hobby I think.

Even as a young adult I was continually exposed to people claiming that the bible was fulfilled or nearly so and that the end times were upon us. Even TV preachers in suits, whom I supposed were intelligent because they spoke in a seemingly intellectual manner, were telling me to be ready because Christ would be coming any day, and certainly prior to the year 2000.

I remember thinking, “Ok, so that might give me another 20 years or so.” So that must have been in the late 1970s, shortly after I graduated college.

But, and yes it took me until I was an adult, I eventually caught on to the fact that none of the early predictions about the end of time had come true. Maybe, I thought, people are simply wrong all the time when they predict the Second Coming. I knew the bible said that no one would know the day or hour, but it didn’t say anything about being able to narrow it down to the month or year. So I was still apprehensive about predictions of the end that didn’t zero in on a certain date.

But even those kinds of predictions never came to pass. I was beginning to think that prophets of doom were merely wishful thinkers who, for whatever personal reason they had, wanted to be here at the end. So I started looking to history. Had people been predicting the end of time long before my time? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding yes.

The very first prediction of the Second Coming of Christ was made by Christ himself. In a number of places in Matthew and in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that some of them would still be alive when God’s Kingdom came into being on Earth, (See Matthew 23:34). And in 1 Thessalonians Paul writes about the imminent return of Jesus.

Of course, these early predictions didn’t come true, so later Christians had to start interpreting them symbolically if they were to hold on to their cherished belief that the bible is the infallible word of God. But very early Christians were all pretty convinced that their generation would be the last.

Every generation of Christians since Jesus has had its share of prophets of doom. Saint Clement I predicted the Second Coming in 90 CE. In the second century, prophets of the Montanist movement predicted that Jesus would return sometime during their lifetime. In the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers and his protégés predicted various dates for the end sometime before 400 CE.

The year 1000 was a favorite target of end-time predictions by Christians in Europe back then. In fact, they went so far as to dig up the body of Charlemagne because, according to legend, an emperor was to rise from slumber to fight the antichrist. The year 1033 was also rife with end-time predictions because it was supposedly the 1000th anniversary of the Crucifixion.

The 1800s were full of predictions by Christians who thought the end was near. Joseph Smith and William Miller were two well-known prophets of doom who went on to be the founders of modern day churches after their predictions failed. The gullible apparently would rather watch and wait for decades or centuries rather than admit that they had been taken in by charlatans.

Throughout my adult life, the more I read of all the failed prophecies of the end of the world, the more convinced I became that it’s all just gibberish. It’s bizarre and absurd that even in the 21st century people are still very serious about their belief in the end times or the rapture.

The end of the world probably will happen one day. A comet or asteroid could strike and kill us all. A supervolcano could erupt and send humanity back to the Stone Age. Nuclear war could wipe us all out. But I don’t see it happening soon. And a belief in the Rapture or a second return of Jesus is simply unpardonable. It’s just not going to happen, folks. And I can predict that with 100-percent assuredness. That’s right, instead of predicting a date for the Second Coming, I’m going to predict that the Second Coming will never happen simply because the first coming involved just a mortal human like everyone else.

I just hope that fundamentalist parents are not scaring the bejesus out of their offspring by bringing them up in an environment that elicits fear that they may never grow up. But I know that is, indeed, happening. And it’s a shame. It’s a form of child abuse and it shouldn’t be tolerated by a civilized society.