Thursday, March 29, 2012

You Can't Just Choose Your Beliefs

If you put all the thousands of different, and in some cases incompatible, doctrines of Christianity in a crucible so that every single disagreement among the various sects and denomination is vaporized, what you're left with is a handful of basic core beliefs that all Christians, whether fundamentalist or liberal, believe in. They believe that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah, Son of God); they believe that accepting Jesus as your Savior is your ticket to heaven, and of course, they believe that God actually exists as an all-powerful, omniscient and personal being. But in writing these things, it occurs to me that some of the fringe Christians even have trouble with some of these. Universalists believe that all will go to heaven, at least eventually. Some ancient sects of Christians believed that Jesus was just a great teacher and was not divine. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that at least the vast majority of modern Christians believe at least these three things.

All Christians also believe, to some degree, in the the authority of the bible. Some believe that it is literally true and universal; others believe that it is mostly allegorical, but the reason they all share their core beliefs is because those beliefs are prescribed in the bible.

As a nonbeliever I take issue with all these core beliefs that Christians share, but I'm most concerned about the second one in the list above. Christians say that you must believe that Jesus is the Son of God and accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. It sounds simple enough. All the other commands that are found in the New Testament are descriptive (such as in Acts), or prescriptive to a particular church that has gone astray in some way, such as in Paul's epistles. But the act that makes you a Christian is not how you behave but what you believe. The theory is that if you truly believe in Christ then the Holy Spirit will enter you and guide your behavior as well as provide you comfort. But first comes the believing - faith.

There is one major flaw in this logic: What if someone can't believe. For the most part, what you believe is not so much chosen by you as it is thrust upon you. Mostly it depends on the culture you were raised in. If you were born and raised in the American South, odds are very high that you will be an observant Christian and will have no problem at all believing in Jesus as the Son of God. If you were born and raised in New England to parents who are professors at Harvard, odds are that you will have a tougher time of believing anything the bible says about Jesus' divinity. If you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia you would most likely believe that Jesus was just a minor profit. And regardless of where you were born, if you can step back and look at all the religions of the world from a neutral position, you might decide that all of them are bogus, relics of a superstitious era that no longer exists. In this case you would view the bible as a quaint, yet potentially very dangerous, holdover of an earlier age.

In essence, then, what you believe is shaped over time by your environment and is not a matter of instantaneous choice. How can you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior if you already believe that there is no personal god, or that Mohammad is the savior of mankind, or that Vishnu is one of the gods you need to follow? That's not to say that people can't change their minds, but in most cases, a mind change of that magnitude normally requires that a good reason be provided. But different people are compelled to act based on differing degrees of evidence. Those who lack critical thinking skills can be swayed much more easily than those who take the time to think things through more thoroughly.

If a friend told you a story of how he was abducted by space aliens and given a code of ethics that, if followed, would guarantee an eternal life of bliss would you believe him without an enormous amount of evidence? What if this friend wanted to persuade you to follow his alien code of ethics, which included a rejection of all earthly religions and an oath to affirm a belief in the alien society, would you choose to follow his advice? A rational, thoughtful person would tend to believe the friend may have been high on drugs or was having some sort of psychotic breakdown. A dullard from Podunk, Arkansas might be tempted to join up, except that he, like most other Podunkians, already have a delusion to follow - Christianity. The upshot is, most people, no matter what their current religious affiliation, would reject the friend's effort to convert them. That's because most people can't simply choose what to believe without compelling evidence. And some people's belief systems are so ingrained that even evidence to the contrary is useless.

I understand the concept of Christianity; I was born into a Christian family and raised as such. I have been baptized, as an adult, and lived most of my adult life with an open mind about Christian beliefs. But in looking back, most of what I admitted to believing was simply lip service. I wanted to believe in an eternal life in heaven. It still is very appealing to me. I would like to have the joy and peace of mind that most claim come with believing is Jesus Christ as Savior. But, alas, I know too much. I know that there are too many people in the world who belong to a host of other religions that make the same claims about their beliefs as Christians claim about Christianity. I can step outside the bubble of the religion I was raised in and see that all religions are basically equal. None of them have evidence to back up their claims. All of them expect a belief in a supernatural entity. And all ascribe things to this entity that can more readily be explained by science, using only nature. No matter how much I would like to believe in a benevolent god who offers everlasting life, I can't actually believe it because I know better. There are hundreds of really, good, solid reasons why I can't believe in the Christian doctrine. The only reason I have FOR believing is a promise of an eternal life of joy. But it's a hollow promise with no evidence to back it up.

So when Christians come up to me and tell me that they will pray for me so that my eyes will be opened to the truth, I tell them it was the truth that turned me away from a belief in superstition in the first place. It is not up to me to choose to believe. If it were, I would choose that option. But in the same way that you can't simply choose to believe in Santa Claus (because you know he's not real) I can't choose to believe in the Christian god, or any god for that matter. And it is unreasonable for A Christian to assume that a nonbeliever, or someone who has a different religious delusion, can simply choose to believe in their god. And if there were a god, he would already know how unfruitful it would be to ask someone to just believe.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

No Reason for Moms to Worry

My mom surely will be going to Heaven, if such a place were to exist, because she is a good, observant Christian who tries her best to be Christ-like. But she is fearful for my soul because I'm an atheist. I am not convinced that a god exists at all, but I am 100-percent sure that if a god does exist it is nothing at all like the god character of bible fame. The standard-model Christian God is a fallacy, a myth, a fairy tale. As such, the bible-god's son, Jesus, is also a fairy tale. That is not to say that a man named Jesus, who was a rebellious, though caring and kindhearted Jew of the first century, did not exist. There is sufficient external evidence that he did exist in body. But he most certainly was not divine and he was never resurrected from the dead, even if he may have been crucified.

So my beliefs have my mom convinced that I should be worried about my immortal soul. But her concerns, to me, are just one more reason why the Christian god cannot possibly exist. Here are some attributes of God as he is perceived by most Christians: all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal, eminently loving, perfectly just, and just an all-round super guy in the sky. But here are some of the things God has done or allowed to happen: genocide including the destruction of whole nations, rape, incest, child abuse, infanticide, and misogyny. Of course, Christians have their explanations - God gave us free will; God was only doing a little ethnic cleansing, etc. - and so they give him a pass on all that. But beyond all that, what about the fact that we, as goodhearted, caring humans, would be severely pained if we knew that our loved ones were suffering immensely. My mom is concerned for my soul. But how despondent would she be if she knew that I had died and was now existing in everlasting torment in the pits of hell? To be fair, there are some Christian denominations that believe that all will eventually end up in heaven. But I want to focus on mainstream Christian doctrine, and especially the more conservative or fundamentalist dogma that is rampant across America. How do those people reconcile their coming despair at the loss of some of their loved ones to hell-fire with the knowledge that they are safe in Heaven?

Some claim that God will prepare our bodies for an existence in Heaven - "...and fit us for Heaven to be with Thee there." - so the Christmas song goes. But does that mean we will have no memory of our loved ones once we get to Heaven? Will we remember anything from this life? If not, we are not really ourselves. I am a collection of all my memories and everything I know, and that includes the people I've known and loved. Am I to believe that if I get to heaven that all my memories of this life will be wiped clean? Will it be as if I had simply been born there? If so, then why does God even bother about giving us an earthly existence? Why not simply create us in Heaven in the first place? It can't be to test us, to see if we can earn our way to Heaven. That would mean that Grace is a sham. It also would mean that God is not all-knowing, because he would already know that most of us could not earn our way in, and he would know exactly which ones of us would fail the task. It can't be because he wanted us to have free will, because he could still give us free will in Heaven. Of course, if we have free will in Heaven, isn't it likely that we will screw things up when we get there just like we did here on Earth?

What it boils down to is this: Either when we die and go to Heaven we will remember our loved ones and still care for them, in which case we will be in deep sorrow for the ones who wound up in hell, or we will not remember anything about them at all, in which case we will be brand new people, making our life on Earth irrelevant. And since we are not supposed to feel pain and sorrow in Heaven, according to Christian doctrine, it must be the latter, with all the logical errors that scenario presents as described above.

So if Mom would allow herself to reason it through, she might come to the same conclusion. Based on nothing more than a little deductive reasoning and applying it to Christian dogma, there is no way the God of the bible can possibly exist. Therefore, there is no reason to worry about my soul, even if I had one.

Monday, March 19, 2012

More Humane than God

Look carefully near the end of the closing credits of any movie that uses animals and you will see a disclaimer that no animals were harmed in the making of the motion picture. If you've watched enough late-night cable TV, you have surely seen ads that promote paying a monthly fee for the "adoption" of a puppy, much as the ads for a children's charity want you to adopt a child in some third-world country by sending a monthly check. There are animal rights groups like the ASPCA, PETA, and ALF. Many people are vegetarians or even vegans because they care so much about the well-being of animals.

The point is, many of us humans care very deeply for animals and nobody is in favor of being cruel to them. Even the vast majority of us who consume meat and use animal products would much rather that the animals we consume be treated humanely while they are alive. It's one of the things that makes us human. We care and we have empathy.

It's just too bad that the Judeo-Christian god who supposedly created us is not so empathetic and caring about His creatures. Can you imagine what it would be like to be eaten, bite by bite, while you're still alive? Think about it a second. A few people have been in that predicament before: Some have been mauled and bitten by bears; others have had their legs bitten off in shark attacks. But those incidents are few and far between. But what a horrible way to die that would be - to have your guts literally eaten out while you witnessed the event.

That's just everyday life for the vast majority of the animals on this planet. A lion catches, then eats, a gazelle. A rabbit is caught by a wolf and then devoured alive. These are all pain-feeling animals that we humans are so fond of that some of us protest for their fair treatment. But we don't seem to mind that these same animals get tortured as a matter of course in their daily lives in nature, the nature that God supposedly created for them.

We are told that God has endless love and that he is all-powerful and all-knowing. But think about it for a minute. If YOU were a god capable of creating entire ecosystems, would you create them so that one creature could only live by brutally killing another? Would it not be possible for you, as an all-powerful deity, to create animals that eat only plants? Better yet, why not give animals the ability to produce their food by photosynthesis like plants do?

Yes, as a biology teacher, I realize that herbivorous creatures are limited in terms of energy usage and that if all animals had forever remained herbivores, humans may have never evolved intelligence, which requires ample energy. But as an all-powerful being, I'm sure God could have found a way to do it. He could have made the sun brighter or the process of photosynthesis more efficient. The point is, if God is the creator, he made it so that some animals had to eat other animals to survive. He also created the parasites that slowly eat away at the insides of their hosts, making them ill until finally killing them. He created the bacteria and viruses that make us all sick and sometimes kill us. He sits back in his heavenly palace and watches as millions of prey animals are slaughtered, tortured, and then eaten alive by predators on a daily basis.

When it comes to caring about fellow creatures humans are far superior to our god. We tend to care. We feel sorry for the animals with whom we share the earth. Some people make themselves feel better about how God can allow so much human suffering by blaming that suffering on sin. It doesn't work with animal life, though. Animals have never sinned. Yet they still get punished for it.

I want to challenge every person who has ever donated any money to an animal rights organization, who has ever adopted a stray cat or dog, who has ever complained about how animals are poorly treated, who refuses to eat flesh because doing so would involve killing an animal to go ahead and think about what it would be like to treat an animal the same way that God allows them to be treated. Eat them, maul them, attack them, hurt them. You can't do it, can you? I'm not a vegetarian or vegan, but I couldn't bring myself to torture any animal. But that's how animals are treated routinely, every day, in nature, because that's how God decided it should be.

In reality, of course, the way animals behave in nature is completely explained if we assume they are all the result of natural selection and the slow process of evolution. There is no good or bad to decide things. Whatever allows an animal to survive better than other members of his species is preserved by nature. It's that simple. We don't have to scratch our heads in wonder as to why God would allow so much animal cruelty. But, of course, for those who insist that the Christian god is real and that he created everything there is a problem. They are stuck with having to explain how we humans can be so much more humane than God.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Bishops Lose the Spotlight after Limbaugh Fiasco

A recent story in USA Today commented on how Catholic bishops have lost their stage since Rush Limbaugh's slander of Georgetown student Susan Fluke last week. The bishops had been wallowing in their 15 minutes of fame ever since Pres. Obama compromised on a plan to require Catholic institutions that hire non-Catholics, such as hospitals, to offer health insurance that covers contraception. Churches were always exempt from the requirement. Obama's compromise would not require religious institutions to offer coverage for contraception but the insurance companies themselves would have to.

But that wasn't good enough for the bishops. They want no contraception at all. Obviously, they know there is no way to get what they want, a world free of any kind of contraception. But for now, they would settle for the cancellation of the contraceptive mandate in Obama's health care plan.

The bishops were successful for awhile, along with the Republican presidential candidates, in labeling the controversy as a freedom of religion issue. But thanks to Limbuagh's three-day tirade against Fluke, the topic has focused on women's health care rights. The bishops can't seem to buy a headline this week. And that's good news for rational, thinking people who don't give a rat's ass what the good-old-boy bishops have to say. Mainstream, rank-and-file Catholic women seldom paid them much attention anyway. About 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control despite a prohibition on it by the Church. And framing the contraceptive issue in terms of religious freedom didn't seem to change any minds on the matter.

The fact is, Catholic bishops are a group of albatrosses who are way out of touch with their flock. The vast majority of Catholics don't really care what the bishops, or even the pope has to say on social issues. Mainstream Catholics are more in touch with the modern world than any part of the Church Hierarchy. In fact, isn't it about time the Catholic Church lightened up a little? It really doesn't have a clue about the social effects caused by most of the stringent rules it applies. Many of them are not grounded in biblical dogma anyway. The cardinals and bishops of an earlier age simply made up much of the doctrine that they now pass off as what Jesus would have wanted and force it on the modern-day rank-and-file members.

Perhaps it is time for the bishops to get real and ease up a little. They are a bunch of stodgy old men who understand and care very little about modern society. They care less about women and women's issues. They, along with priests and nuns are not allowed to take mates, which might explain why so many of them like to molest little boys. Maybe if they could get a little now and then the giant stick that's been stuck up their collective asses would be easier to remove. But no, the pope will have none of that kind of reform. So, I guess the best thing the bishops can do under the circumstances is just to go fuck themselves.