Category Archives: Take Aways

Take Aways: Misquoting Jesus

Today’s review is on Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.  Ehrman is one of my favorite authors on the subject of religion and I was happy to find this book at the local library.  Ehrman is considered one of the leading authorities on the New Testament (NT), and his wealth of knowledge and experience comes through in all his books. In Misquoting Jesus, we take a close look at the history of the NT, who wrote the individual books, how and why they were edited over time, and how the 27 books that now make up the NT came to be canonized.  As the title suggests, the crux of the book is on the many, many changes that were made to the books of the NT throughout the centuries, why they were made, and how they influenced Christian doctrine.

A couple important points to start with.  You will often hear believers talking about various Bible translations being better than others because of how close the are to “The original Greek and Hebrew” texts.  This is misleading because there are no original Greek or Hebrew texts in existence.  All that we have are copies of copies of copies.  And speaking of copies; apologists will often claim that the large number of copies we have of the NT are evidence to the Bible’s reliability.  While, it’s true that there are thousands of copies of NT books, virtually no two copies are the same.  In fact, there are more discrepancies between the different copies of the NT then there are words in the entire NT.  Regarding these discrepancies:

Of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, or not any real importance  other than showing that scribes could not spell of keep focused any better than the rest of us.  It would be wrong however to say -as people sometime do – that the changes in our text have no real bearing on what the texts means or on the theological conclusions one draws from them.

Because of all the mistakes and alterations, and due to the fact that we do not have the original manuscripts, it is virtually impossible for us to know what the original authors’ true words were.  This poses a big problem for those who claim that the Bible is the “inspired word of God”.  Even if God had inspired the writers of the original text, we have no way of knowing what that text actually said.  If God was so concerned about preserving his words, why not ensure that they were passed down, unaltered, throughout the generations?

It would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place.  If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he could have given them to them (and possibly even given them the words in a language they could understand, rather than Greek and Hebrew).

Some have argued that the people making the copies took great diligence to ensure that the manuscripts were as unaltered as possible.  This is also false; the scribes copying were largely not religious scholars, but people outside the religious community:

Texts were typically copied either by professional scribes or by literate slaves who were assigned to do the work within a household.  That means, among other things, that the people reproducing the texts throughout the empire were not, as a rule, the people who wanted the text.

We need always remember that the copyists of the early Christian writings were reproducing their texts in a world in which there were not only no printing presses or publishing houses, but also no such thing as copyright laws.  How could the authors guarantee that their texts were not modified one put into circulation?

As mentioned above, most of the mistakes found throughout the various copies are relatively insignificant.  However, sometimes the changes were more drastic.  Many manuscripts have whole sections that have been altered, added to, or taken out all together.  A couple of well-known examples are Mark 16:9-20 and the story of the adulterous women found in John 7:53-8:12.  Both of these accounts are not found in the earliest copies that we have, and were added later.  Sometimes only a single word was changed, but these deliberate changes could have significant impact on the overall message of the text, as we will see shortly.  Often the texts were changed to suit the views of whichever scribe happened to be copying to better fit the prevailing “orthodox” view at the time.

We see this in regards to how women were viewed, and their role in the church.  For example, I Cor 14:26-33 directly contradicts what Paul says in chapter 11:5 regarding women prophesying, and was likely added later on.  It also contradicts the many times that Paul recognizes female prophets, including Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Priscilla (Rom 16:3), and Junia (Rom 16:7).  In regard to the last example, many texts purposeful changing of the word Junia to Junias.  This is problematic however, as Junia was a common women’s name, but there is no evidence in the ancient world for “Junias” as a man’s name.  Many modern English translations of the Bible still carry this error.

The alteration was no doubt made by a scribe who was concerned to emphasize that women should have no public role in the churches, that they should be silent and subservient to their husbands.

During the second century, hostilities between Jews and Christians were rising, and many Christian leaders wanted to put a real emphasis on the fact that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and God would not forgive them for it.  Some manuscripts are missing Luke 23:34, most likely because certain scribes didn’t like the idea of Jesus forgiving the Jews.  Also, in one of the earliest complete manuscripts, the Codex Sinaitus, Luke 23:25 reads that Pilot “handing him over to them [i.e. to the Jews] in order that they might crucify him”, thus emphasizing who was really responsible for crucifixion of Jesus.

One of the most controversial subjects in early Christianity was the nature and divinity of Jesus.  Texts were often altered to match the particular Christology of whoever happened to be copying the manuscripts.  For example, John Wettstein noticed that the Codex Alexandrinus had been altered in I Timothy 3:16.  The original manuscript had been altered from saying Christ “who was made manifest in the flesh” to say “God made manifest in the flesh”.  Also, we can see in the books of Luke and Acts that there seems to be a discrepancy regarding when Jesus became divine.  The author states Jesus as Son or God, but did he become the Christs (Luke 2:11), at baptism (Acts 10:37-38), or at resurrection (Acts 2:38)?

So how did the Bible come to be as it is?  It was well-known early on that there were a great amount of discrepancies amongst the early manuscripts.  As Ehrman notes:

 Already in the second century, the pagan critic Celsus had argued that Christians changed the texts… his opponent Origen speaks of the “great” number of differences among the manuscripts of the Gospels; more than a century later Pope Damascus was so concerned about the varieties of Latin manuscripts that he commissioned Jerome to produce a standardized translation; and Jerome himself had to compare numerous copies of the text, both Greek and Latin, to decide on the text that he thought was originally penned by its author.

The simple answer is this: “The group that established itself as ‘orthodox’ then determined what future Christian generations would believe and read as scripture.”  As time went on, and certain groups rose to power, they decided how the Bible was to be read and understood.  They altered the texts to match their particular theology, and much of that theology has been passed on to present day.

The Bible is a collection of the work of men, with all the biases, mistakes, and corruptions that we would expect from a work that has been touched by countless hands.  It’s time people start treating the Bible for what it is, rather than what they want it to be, and stop basing their beliefs on what ancient men wrote down, and future men edited.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Aways: The God Argument

(Because of my love for books and the profound insights I gain from them, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)

My latest read was A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  A synopsis is not really needed, as the subtitle pretty much says it all.  The book spends the first half arguing against organized religion and the second half discussing why humanism is a better option.

I mainly grabbed this book as I was interested in the second half; what Grayling had to say about humanism as a personal philosophy.  I’ve heard of most of Grayling’s arguments against religion before, but he still offered some insights and new ways (for me anyways) of looking at things.

There’s an old saying when it comes to religion – “They can’t all be right.”  Grayling expresses that same sentiment towards the beginning of the book when describing the term “God” and what it means to people:

Even more significantly for religious people, the word [God] typically invokes to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat, and wear… The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religion, not their own.

Grayling also devotes a good amount of his book to science and how it differs from religious truths, particularly when it comes to the idea of Intelligent Design:

ID theorists know in advance the answer, and are seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it; they know what they wish to prove, and are suborning evidence which, when applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions.  They subscribe for non-rational reasons to one of the many creation myths from the infancy of mankind… and are looking for justification in support of it.  This is far from science, rationality and intellectual honesty as one can get, and it is the essence of the Creationism-ID project.

Also:

A central plank of the scientific method is the open invitation to others to test, probe and question the work that any scientist or group of scientists does.  The generalized version of this is the invitation to submit oneself – one’s ideas and proposals, one’s efforts – to challenge by and disagree with others.

One of my favorite subjects of the book was the idea of probability.  In talking with believers about the concept of God and his intervention in this world, the idea of possibility inevitably gets thrown out as a sort of last-ditch effort to get you to consider their position.  Statements like, “Isn’t it possible that God made things appear old, but they’re really not?”, “But isn’t it possible that God caused the Big Bang?”, “Isn’t it a good idea to bet on the possibility of hell really existing?”  Yes, these are all possible – just like it’s possible that there is a Chinese teapot circling the sun.  But, it’s not very probable.  Everything humans believe in is (or at least should) be based not on whether it is possible, but to the degree of which it is probable:

One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree.  The degree in question can be represented as a probability value.  A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available.  People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder.  In what is known as Bayesian probability theory this is taken to underlie all acquisition and evaluation of beliefs.

In the beginning of second half of book, Grayling gives a concise description of humanism:

In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.  Humanism recognizes the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the right that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.

Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demands to the informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the later.

Humanism is the concern to draw the best from, and make the best of, human life in the span of a lifetime, in the real world, and in the sensible accord with the facts of humanity as these are shaped and constrained by the world.

Humanism is an attitude towards ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.

Throughout the book, Grayling distinguishes between humanism and religion.  As one example:

Religious ethics is based on the putative wishes – more accurately: commands of a supernatural being.  For the humanist, the source of moral imperatives lies in human sympathy.  If I see two men do good, one because he takes himself to be commanded to it by a supernatural agency, and the other solely because he cares about his fellow man, I honor the latter infinitely more.

Grayling also points out something that I have been saying for years- you can’t claim to live your life according to the Bible and still live in a modern society; the two notions are mutually exclusive.  One has to pick and choose what they believe and leave the stuff that is no longer culturally relevant (as much as some would wish it was):

When people submit to systems, they are handing over to them (to those who devised them) the right to do their thinking and choosing for them.  Given that almost all the major systems are religious, which moreover originated in a remote past to which most of their teachings apply, they can only be adapted to contemporary conditions by much reinterpretation and temporizing, and alas – by straightforward hypocrisy.

Grayling spends a great deal of time focusing on human interactions on both a small and large scale.  I do wish he would have devoted a little more time to how the philosophy of humanism relates to the earth as a whole – how we treat animals, take care our environment, etc.

Overall, The God Argument was a good read.  I would recommend it to anybody who is on the fence about religion.  For those who have already made up their minds, I would say that you would be safe skipping to the middle of the book.  I’ll leave you with one final quote that is in the book, this one from Leibniz:

In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory.  For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary? 

Thanks for reading.

If You Believe In Hell…

In my previous post, I gave an overview of Kersey Grave’s The Biography of Satan which discussed the origins of the myth of the Devil and Hell.  The last chapter of the book is titled, “One Hundred and Sixty-Three Questions for Believers in Post Mortem Punishment”.  The purpose of these questions, he states at the end is, “simply to present the absurdities of the doctrine of future endless punishment in its true and strongest light”.

I’m not going to list all of them here.  Some of the questions are repetitive, some are rather weak arguments, and some are just plain silly.  Graves, does however, ask some pertinent questions that I feel anyone who believes in Hell as a real place and Satan as a real entity, need to think about.  I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing and changing the language where I felt it was necessary.

So, if you believe in Hell, you must ask yourself:

  • If the Devil is able to read your thoughts, see your every move, and be everywhere and anywhere, and has power over the earth and all its inhabitants, doesn’t it then follow that he also is an omnipotent, omnipresent and Almighty Being?  
  • If God was the first Omnipresent Being and filled all space, by what process was room found for another omnipresent being?
  • How is it that there are two infinite, almighty, and omnipotent beings holding at the same time the reins of the universal government?
  • If Satan is not omnipotent, how does he manage to “decoy millions of souls to endless ruin” when “God wills that all should be saved?”
  • Why does God allow the Devil to exist if he hates evil and possesses the power to destroy him?
  • If the Devil is a “fallen angel” as the Bible teaches, who tempted him and caused him to fall as there was yet no “Wicked One” to deceive him?
  • Did God foresee that Satan would rebel?  If not, doesn’t that contradict God being All Wise and All Knowing?
  • How could this primarily perfect archangel fall in a place that is itself perfect; Heaven?
  • When was Hell first created?
  • Since we learn that God has decreed that the wicked shall be punished in Hell and the Devil is his agent in performing this work, isn’t it reasonable to assume that Satan is actually a faithful servant of the Lord, and a co-worker with Him?
  • If punishment is the Devil’s work exclusively, yet God permits him to exist and carry out this work, then is he not acting in conformity with God’s will, and hence performing his duty?
  • Does it not follow then that it is God, and not the Devil, who punishes the wicked, and the later is simply the agent?
  • If God opposes Hell, then why doesn’t He have the powers to shut it down?
  • How is it that Satan is able to win over so many more souls than God?
  • The Bible says the wicked shall be punished forever, yet Satan will be overthrown in the Last Days.  Who will be running Hell and dealing out punishment?
  • How is it possible for a soul (an immaterial substance) to be consumer by fire (a material thing)?
  • Doesn’t it make God a thousand times worse and more fiendish than the wickedest of His creatures that he would punish someone for eternity in such a terrible way?
  • Can we honestly consider God to be just and merciful for punishing his creation for all eternity?
  • Would there be any sense in punishing a being for any other purpose than to reform him, or make an example for others?  Isn’t it impossible for postmortem punishment to serve either of these ends?
  • Could a just God punish one of his creatures for acting out the impulses of that nature which He himself endowed all humans with? 
  • If an all-knowing God saw that the majority of humanity would reject Him and prove such a failure, why not simply hit the “reset” button on the whole thing and start over?  Why did He allow humanity to continue?  Isn’t it cruel to bring humanity into existence and continue to allow suffering not only in this world, but the next?
  • If a parent with a disease willingly brought children into this world knowing that most of them would die an agonizing death, wouldn’t we find him to be immoral and cruel?
  • Isn’t it strange that and almighty and omnipotent God who “wills that all men should be saved”, could not come up with a better plan for ensuring that they would be saved”
  • How can God punish any soul eternally when it says in the Bible that For no one is cast off by the Lord forever? (Lam 3:31) 
  • Can there be any real sense of justice, when all men are punished equally, considering the vast nature of crimes in this world?
  • Are we not warranted in concluding that it would be morally impossible for a God of justice to inflict infinite punishment upon a mere finite being for any crime whatsoever, as it would be impossible for eternal consequences to grow out of any finite action, either good or bad, without overthrowing the last principle of moral equity and common justice, and even common sense?
  • Doesn’t it make God egregiously inconsistent that he commands us to “love our enemies” yet he punishes his for all eternity, especially seeing as how he has “the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself”? (Phil 3:21)
  • How can Jesus really be the “Savior of all man” when the vast majority are “lost”?
  • Can a man be considered truly moral if his only motivation for doing good is fear of Hell?
  • Can a man be said to have “free will” if he is chased into Heaven as a refugee from the Devil?
  • Could we then conclude that Christianity really needs two omnipotent powers to be saved – the all-loving Father to coax his children towards him and the Devil to be in hot pursuit, nipping at their heals?
  • Has not the practice of believing in a God that damns a portion of the human race, had the evil effect of also causing men to damn each other, leading to centuries of atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity? 

Thanks for reading.

Take Aways: The Biography of Satan

Every good story requires an antagonist – a character(s) that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend or an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome.  In the stories that make up the Judeo-Christian religions, the ultimate antagonist is Satan, also commonly known as the Devil.

I’ve talked before about the origins of the God myth and how the god(s) of the monotheistic religions came about from earlier religions and those that were active around the time of Judaism’s birth.  In Kersey Graves The  Biography of Satan, we explore the origins of Yahweh’s great antagonist, the Devil, and how he became so deep-seated in Christian dogma.  And, of course, no good story about Satan would be complete without his foreboding lair – Hell.

This book was originally published in 1865, with the 4th edition coming out in 1924.  I can only imagine the stir this book would have caused back then.  As the forward in the edition I read states, “This book goes straight to the root of the stories, Biblical and otherwise, to expose the origins of the Devil.  You may not like what you read, but after reading it it becomes difficult, in many places, to argue against Graves’ thesis.  And that thesis is that the Devil is nothing more than a fabricated ‘bad guy’ created by the early Christians priesthood to keep people in line.”

Graves starts by pointing out that it was God, not the Devil, who was originally thought to be the primary author of evil.  As he states in the beginning of chapter five, “The earliest ancestors of the Jewish race recognized God as being the author of evil by virtue of being the source of everything… God could not be the author of all things without being the author of evil.”  Examples of this can be found throughout the Old Testament:

  • In Isaiah 45:7, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.”  
  • Also in Amos, “Does evil happen to a city, and Yahweh hasn’t done it?” (3:6).
  • After loosing his health, Job replies to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10)
  • Proverbs (16:4) declares that, “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”  
  • Rather than Satan being the “great deceiver” we see Jehovah being responsible for lies: “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” (1 Kings 22:22)
  • Jeremiah accuses God of lying to him, “Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?”(15:18).

Graves takes note that modern concepts of Heaven and Hell were not part of early Judaism, “The doctrine of future rewards and punishments constituted no part of the ancient Jewish creed, simply because, as we would naturally infer, all human actions, both good and bad, were regarded as proceeding from their God, Jehovah, or as being ‘inspired by the great Breath’, as they express it (in the Talmud).”

Jewish beliefs about God had much to do with their views of the natural world and the changing of the seasons, as well as natural disasters – “For a long period the attention of mankind seems to have been wholly directed to the phenomena of the physical external world, and for a long time they rested in the opinion that the same being, the same God who had created, also destroyed – the same being who sent down the genial solar rays of vernal spring, also sent down the chilling, desolating blasts of winter; the same God who poured down the genial, gentle showers to revive the drooping flowers, the withered grass, and the parched up dying cereals, also darted forth the forked lightning and blasting thunderbolt.”

Throughout the book, Graves demonstrates that most of what ancient Jews and early Christians thought of the Devil/Hell was borrowed from surrounding cultures. (This is hardly surprising, as very little of the Biblical narrative is truly original; comprised almost entirely of a patchwork of common myths and traditions from the surrounding areas)  One such example is the story of the woman being pursued by the Dragon (Satan) in the Book of Revelation.  This story relates to the celestial calendar, and versions of it can be found in Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian, and even Native American cultures.

The “lake of fire” mentioned in Revelation is also borrowed from Egyptian mythology.  This “lake” is a reference to an actual lake, Serbonis, in Egypt.  When the Nile overflowed its banks, it would reach lake Serbonis and submerge it with putrid water.  As the water receded, it left a great amounts of debris and putrefied vegetation and animals – “Upon its stagnant waters, there accumulated a scum bearing a strong analogy in taste, color and smell to that of brimstone or sulfur. […] Travelers and historians tell us that when the sun shone upon this brilliant mirror-like floating substance, it presented the appearance of being on fire, and from that circumstance was called ‘the lake of fire and brimstone,’ while the gas, steam, vapor, and miasma… formed the imaginary smoke of the imaginary place of endless torment…”  

Also in Egypt, we get the source for the “worm that dieth not” mentioned in Mark 9:44.  As Grave explains, it “started from the circumstances of a gnawing, stinging worm which infest that country, being never known to die, simply because, as later researches show, it burrows down into the soil before it dies; hence not being seen after its death, it was supposed to be immortal.”

The story of Satan being thrown out of Heaven after an epic battle with Michael and his angles (Rev 12:7-9) is certainly not original.  Graves notes that, “There is scarcely an Oriental nation whose religion [doesn’t have] the story of a celestial battle or ‘war in Heaven’ similar to that referred to in the above text.”  Examples include:

  • In Roman legend, Titan rebelling against Jupiter and being cast out of heaven and imprisoned under mountains.
  • The battle of the Titans (children of Heaven) against the gods of Olympus in the other world is found in the mythology of ancient Greece.
  • Egyptian tradition tells of Typhon (the Devil) rebelling and making war against Osyrus.
  • The Chinese relate a battle between the inhabitants of the cloud and stars, The Lamb leads the starry hosts and conquered.
  • The Persians have one of the oldest such stories and tells of a war that broke out between the Summer God and the Winter God.  The Winter God was hurled out of paradise and became a fallen angel.

Chapter 12 is devoted to showing “that the conception of the Devil and a hell long existed before the remotest idea was entertained that either had anything to do with or any connection with punishment in a future life.  Both had a fabled existence in the external world among the physical elements long before the Devil was made an agent of punishment, or Hell a place of punishment for the wicked after death in the imaginations of people.”  These ideas developed over time among early Christian leaders as a means of controlling the masses – “Mythological history is exuberant with the evidence that the traditional scheme of punishment for human beings or human souls in another world for actions committed in this world, was invented by the priesthood as one of their auxiliary means of promoting the interests of their craft.  And, according to Grecian writers, the agents of Government… joined with priests, and likewise adopted the system as a more effectual manner of controlling the populace, and keeping them in subjection to the government.  To state the thing in brief, priests and politicians ‘colleagued together’, and invented the Devil and his domicile, as scarecrows to frighten the ignorant superstitious masses into quiet, submissive allegiance to the ecclesiastical tribunals, namely the ‘powers that be’.”  This practice, unfortunately, continues to this day.

The last chapter of the book lists a series of questions that should be asked of anyone who takes the mythology of Satan/Hell as fact.  It’s an extensive list (163 questions!)and I don’t wish to list them all here.  However, I do think they make some good points and will list some of them in my next post.

It’s frustrating to me that such clear-cut fairytales, like that of Satan and Hell, are still taken as literal fact by millions of Christians.  You would have thought that these ideas would have died off after the Enlightenment, but they persist today because the Church needs them in order to survive.  Without their scary boogeyman, how are Christianity’s leaders going to keep the masses in line?  How are they going to persuade gullible “lost souls” to buy their product without threats of eternal punishment?  Who are they going to make their scapegoat whenever life doesn’t go their way?  The concept of Hell is one of the most illogical and barbaric doctrines of Christianity.  The sooner it is dismissed by believers and non-believers alike, the better off society will be.

In all fairness, I’m a little skeptical regarding Grave’s credentials. There’s little information about him and some of his other works have received criticism, even from fellow atheist.  Part of the problem is that Grave’s often omits important sources and evidence.  I’ll grant that the standards for these kinds of scholarly works was likely different in the 19th century compared to today.  Graves also tends to blend his opinion and the facts pretty fluidly, as well as stretching his conclusions beyond what the evidence shows.  This is not to say we should discredit all his work; just take it with a grain of salt.  I would like to see a contemporary scholar or historian, such as Bart Ehrman or Karen Armstrong, write a modern and more thoroughly researched book on the history of Satan.

In closing, I wanted to include a bit from the forward in which Graves explains why books like this are important, and why people like him, myself included, continue to speak out against toxic religion and the harmful myths they perpetuate:

Every step the race has taken in the direction of intellectual progress has been taken in defiance of religious authority; because the whole range of the scientific culture of our time regarding man and the universe is a challenge to, and is challenged by, the religious notions that have been handed down to us from the distant past. […] The mission of education, of modern science and historical criticism, is to win the world for enlightenment, and the goal will be reached eventually, in spite of the puerile preaching of priests and the fulminations of the Fundamentalists.

Take Aways: The “God” Part of the Brain

In previous posts I’ve discussed the role that studying neuroscience and psychology has in my de-conversion from religion.  From Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thompson to The Belief Instinct by Jesse Bering; all offer great insight into the propensity of people to believe in the supernatural, and give rational, scientific, evidence-based reasons why.  I just finished reading what I consider to be the best book on the subject – Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of the Human Spirituality and God.

This book chronicles Apler’s own personal journey of seeking God.  First, he was trying to determine if there was a God by studying the various religions and philosophies on the subject.  He then turned to many disciplines of science looking specifically at the origins of the universe.  When these failed to produce sufficient answers, Alper’s turned inward, seeking to understand why people believe in god(s).

The overall premise of the book is that since every culture in recorded history has believed on some sort of god, gods, or spiritual realm, humans are genetically predisposed towards a belief system.  He talks a lot about sociobiology – any trait we universally posses that are unique to a species, must have a genetic component.  That same rule also applies to a species behaviors.  For instance, all cats meow.  Even a cat that is separated at birth from other cats and kept in isolation will meow.  This is because cats have a “meow” part of the brain.  When looking at humans we see examples of these universal traits in such things as language and music.  All cultures, regardless of how isolated, will posses some form of language, because humans posses a “language” area of the brain.  The same principle applies to spiritually and religion.  There are regions in the brain that are generating these behaviors, so therefore there must be genes that create these regions in the brain.  The bulk of the book is spend on answering the central question – why would human have evolved such a behavior of believing in supernatural agents?

Alper leaves no stone upturned on his quest for answers.  He looks into the science behind such things as pain, anxiety, prayer, near-death experiences, drug-induced visions, religious conversions, speaking in tongues, etc.  This is important, as believers will often try and use such personal (and to them, very real) experiences as “proof” that their is a god.  Using science, Alper explains how and why people have these experiences and shows that there are natural, as opposed to supernatural, explanations for them.

 I was a little skeptical at first when I found out that Alper himself is not a scientist or psychologist.  However, those fears were laid to rest once I got into the book and saw the reference notes to credible science journals.  The book has also been widely praised by Pulitzer Prize-winners, scholars and scientists.  However, Alper is considered one of the founders of a new branch of science that deals with the ideas presented in the book – Neurotheology.

As, I mentioned earlier, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of natural explanations for religion and spiritual beliefs.  This is going to be the book that I give to people who are having doubts and are on the fence with religion.  It’s approachable, easy to read and comprehend, and doesn’t focus on any one religion.  He also doesn’t spend any time “bashing religion” which can be a turn-off for some people.  Alper’s approach is methodical, objective, and evidence-based.

Rather than insert excerpts from the book throughout the post like I usually do, I instead want to leave you with part of the last chapter of the book, titled: What, If Anything, is to be Gained From a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God?   Honestly, the book is worth reading just for this last chapter.  I went back and re-read it myself three times as it was just so packed with great insight.  Unlike some other notable atheists, Alper is not on a quest to rid the world of religion.  Understanding that humans have a genetic predisposition towards faith, Alper understands that religion and beliefs in the supernatural are here to stay for at least the immediate future.  But, Alper has another idea for how to deal with all the tribalism, hatred, and violence that often stems as a direct result of religious beliefs:

So what if it should turn out that human spirituality and religiosity are nothing more than the consequence of an inherited biological impulse?  IF indeed this is the case, shouldn’t we at least inquire into the underlying nature of such an essential part of us?

As stated previously, no trait is perfect,  Though each physical characteristic we posses provides us with some adaptive utility, each comes with its drawbacks.  Consequently, if spirituality and religiosity constitute inherent physical characteristics of our species, what might be some of the drawbacks?  Only once we determine this will we be able to maximize this impulses positive aspects while minimizing its negative.  Once we begin to view spirituality and religious consciousness as evolutionary adaptations, only then will we be able to objectively determine the negative impact they might have on us and, from there, begin working on turning them into strengths.

Generally speaking, humankind’s spiritual propensities are pretty harmless, just a means by which humans can temporarily abate some of the psychoemotional strains that comes as an inherent part of the human condition.  It’s really only when our spiritual sensibilities become bound up by some restrictive and dogmatic religious creed that problems arise.    

For all the advantages of possessing a religious instinct, for all the social cohesion it brings, the sense of community it fosters, and the alleged purpose and meaning it provides, religion has proven itself time and again, to be a potentially hazardous impulse in us… Religion continues to act as a divisive force, promoting discrimination and intolerance, inciting enmity, aggression, and war. […]

Perhaps if we could learn to view religiosity as nothing more than a genetically inherited impulse, we’d be better able to contain its more destructive influences.  If we could come to understand the underlying nature of this instinct, perhaps we could learn to temper the inevitable antagonism that each religion inherently feels for each other. […] Only once the human animal comes to terms with the fact that it has been born into a mental matrix – a neurological web of deceit – will we have a chance of offsetting this potential destructive impulse in us.  Knowledge is power, and it is high time that the science to spirituality and religiosity be made available to the world so that our species might see that there is another way.  It is time the study of spirituality and religiosity be taken out of the hands of philosophers, metaphysicians, and theologians and “biologized”.

Not to suggest we should seek to eradicate religiosity altogether, but rather that we try to put it into a scientific perspective.  In itself, there is nothing wrong with the religious impulse in that it bonds us with our communities and, through faith, helps us reduce stress levels and bolster general health.  It is rather the excess of nearly any impulse – be it food, love, sex, or materials – can be potentially dangerous, if not lethal. […]

As we find ourselves living in what is an increasingly global community, maintaining a diversity of belief systems may no longer represent a viable option for our species.  Instead, we may have to learn to adopt one unified set of religious and spiritual principles through which to achieve global harmony.  Perhaps if we could learn to embrace a single humanistic ideology based on such principles as equality, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness, we might be able to optimize our potential for happiness, while minimizing our potential for fostering pain and suffering in the world.  […]

Until we stop teaching our young to honor and respect those with whom we share the same religious ideology, we are only encouraging the type of discriminatory values and behaviors that can only lead to our eventual mutual destruction.  What else can come from generation after generation being brainwashed to believe that the lives of those outside their religious fold are less sacred than their own?  The boundaries of respect for others must be extended beyond the narrow margins of any one religious paradigm and applied to the whole of humanity… United, our species may have a chance of standing; divided, however, we are sure to eventually fall.  As stated by Einstein in an impassioned plea to the nations of the world after our last world war, “Only a few short years remain in which to discover some spiritual basis for world brotherhood, or civilization as we now know will certainly destroy itself.”

Thanks for reading.

Take Aways: The Bible Unearthed

(Because of my love for books and the profound insight I gain from them, I thought I would share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book)

In my last post I discussed some of the major turning points for my de-conversion from Christianity – resources that made me aware of facts and ideas previously unknown to me.  One such fact was learning that history, anthropology, and archaeology have all given us a very different understanding of the Middle East during the Bronze and Iron Ages than what is portrayed in the Bible.  To put it more bluntly – most of the accounts of the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, never happened as historical events, but are the stuff of myth, folklore, legend, and propaganda. 

I recently came across The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Text, which discusses this issue in great detail, explaining the history of the Israel and Judah from a scientific perspective.  The authors of the book, Israel Finkelstein (director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University) and Neil Asher Silberman (director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center fro Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium), “draw on the most recent archaeological research to present a dramatically revised portrait of ancient Israel and its neighbors.”  There overarching conclusion is that most of the stories in the Bible – the wondering patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, and David and Solomon’s vast empire – reflect the world of later authors rather than actual history.

Since the Bible’s inception most people have simply taken for granted that the Bible contained factual history and saw no reason to question it.  Even as recently as the 20th century, this was largely assumed in many circles.  However, during the Enlightenment, this view began to change.  As they explain at the end of the book:

“It was only when the Hebrew Bible began to be dissected and studied in isolation from the powerful function in the community life that the theologians and biblical scholars began to demand of it something that it was not.  From the 18th century , in the Enlightenment quest for thoroughly accurate, verified history, the historical factuality of the Bible became – as it remains – a matter of bitter debate” (p.318)

The reason for this understanding of the Bible as a source of literal history prevailed for so long was because of archaeologists  committing one of the “cardinal sins” of science – interpreting evidence only through the lens of a pre-determined hypothesis:

“…the archaeologists often took the historical narrative of the Bible at face value.  Instead of using archaeological data as an independent source for the reconstruction of the region, they continued to rely on the biblical narratives – particularly the traditions of the rise of Israel – to interpret their finds.” (P.21)

Unfortunately this still goes on today.  It’s not hard to find “biblical archaeology” groups out there claiming they have “proof” the Bible is true.  They latch on to what they consider evidence of the Bible’s accuracy, while ignoring any that contradict their views.

With the scientific advances made in recent decades (including carbon 14 dating) and new discoveries made in both archaeological digs and historical records, scientist are able to paint a more accurate picture of what went on in the Middle East during the Bronze and early Iron Age periods.  We’ll go through some of those now.

The book begins with the story of Moses and Israel’s captivity in Egypt.  The Egyptians kept meticulous records, many of which we have today.  From these records we can gather a few key facts:

  • There was no large group of people held for captivity and used for forced labor in Egypt during the Bronze age
  • There is no record of the Ten Plagues
  • There is no record of a large group of people fleeing Egypt
  • There is no record of the Egyptian army being wiped out in a single event.

The book focuses a lot on the Exodus, an event recorded in great detail in the Bible.  Some 600,000 men (plus women and children) wondering around the Middle East for decades.  But did this event actually happen?  As the book explains:

“Even if the number of fleeing Israelites (600,000) is wildly exaggerated… the texts describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions.  Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent.  However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation fro the time of Ramessees II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been identified in Sinai.  And it has not been for a lack of trying. […] The conclusion – that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible -seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication – if present – would almost certainly be found. […] Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity int eh Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees.” (p.62-63)

Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan is also recorded in great detail and yet no solid evidence has been found to support these stories:

“As with the Exodus story, archaeology has uncovered a dramatic discrepancy between the Bible and the situation within Canaan at the suggested date of conquest… Although we know that a group named Israel was already present somewhere in Canaan by 1207 BCE, the evidence on the general political and military landscape of Canaan suggests that a lightning invasion by this group would have been impractical and unlikely in the extreme” (p. 76)

“In the Bible, no Egyptians are reported outside the borders of Egypt and none are mentioned in any battles with Canaan.  Yet contemporary texts and archaeological finds indicate that they managed and carefully watched over the affairs of the country.” (p.77)

Probably the most famous battle in the OT, one that any Sunday School child can recount, is the battle of Jericho.  The sight of Jericho has been thoroughly excavated and studied.  This is what was determined:

“In the case of Jericho, there was no trace of settlement of any kind in the 13th century BCE, and the earlier Late Bronze settlement, dating to the 14th century BCE, was small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified.  There was also no sign of destruction.  Thus the famous scene of the Israelite forces marching around the walled town with the Arc of the Covenant, causing Jericho’s mighty walls to collapse by the blowing of their war trumpets was, to put it simply, a romantic mirage.” (p.82)

Similar discrepancies between archaeology and the Biblical accounts  can be found in other ancient cities, such as Ai, Gideon, Arad, Heshbon, Bethel, Lachish, Hazor, and other Canaanite cities.

So, if Israel did not come on to the scene as refugees from Egypt, then where did they come from?  It turns out that the early Israelites were, in fact, Canaanites themselves and first appeared around 1200 BCE, as herders and farmers in the hills of Canaan.

“…the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not it’s cause.  And most of the Israelites did not come from outside of Canaan – they emerged from within.  There was no mass Exodus from Egypt.  There was not violent conquest of Canaan.  Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Age.” (p.118)

The history of Judea is similar in regards to there modest beginnings:

“As far as we can see on the basis of the archaeological surveys, Judah remained relatively empty of permanent population, quite isolated, and very marginal right up to and past the presumed time of David and Solomon, with no major urban centers and with no pronounced hierarchy of hamlets, villages, and towns. […] There is absolutely no archaeological indication of the wealth, manpower, and level of organization that would be required to support large armies – even for a brief period- in the field.” (p.132, 134)

“Despite Judah’s prominence in the Bible, however, there is no archaeological indication until the 8th century BCE that this small and rather isolated highland area… possessed any particular importance… it’s population was meager; it’s towns – even Jerusalem – were small and few. […] Until the late 8th century, there is no indication that Judah was anything more than a marginal factor in regional affairs.” (p.230)

In regards to the heroic tails of David and Solomon’s  great empire:

“David and his son Solomon and the subsequent members of the Davidic dynasty ruled over a marginal, isolated, rural region, with no sign of great wealth and centralized administration” (p.238)

“Despite the longstanding contention that the opulent Solomonic court was a scene of flourishing of belles lattres, religion thoughts, and history writing, evidence for widespread literacy is utterly lacking in Judah during the time of divided monarchy. Not a trace of supposed 10th century Judahite literary activity has been found.  Indeed, monumental inscriptions and personal seals – essential signs of a fully developed state – appear in Judah only two hundred years after Solomon, in the late 8th century.” (p.238)

There are also discrepancies regarding Judah’s history of holiness and devotions to God:

“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had some times abandoned the faith.” (p.234)

However;

“…the archaeological finds of clay figurines, incense altars, libation vessels, and offering stands throughout Judah merely suggests that the practice of religion was highly varied, geographically decentralized, and certainly not restricted to worship of YHWH only in the Temple of Jerusalem.” (p.241)”

Monotheism came about much later than the biblical record would lead you to believe, “In a period of no more than a few decades in the late 8th and early 7th century BCE, the monotheistic tradition of Judeo-Christian civilization was born.”

Scholars in the 18th century determined that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, as was previously thought, but was written centuries later and contains several different narratives pieced together.  The first such piece was most likely written during the time of king Jeroboam II.  Because of literacy rates prior to this time, Judah hardly had the capacity to produce extensive biblical texts:

“It is at the height of the prosperity of the northern kingdom under the rule of Jeroboam II that we can finally identify the full complement of the criteria of statehood: literacy, bureaucratic administration, specialized economic production, and a professional army.” (p.212)

King Josiah also contributed part of the Pentateuch:

“Josiah’s messianic role arose from the theology of a new religious movement that dramatically changed what it meant to be an Israelite and laid the foundation for future Judaism and for Christianity.  That movement ultimately produced the core documents of the Bible – chief among them, a book of Law, discovered during the renovations of Jerusalem Temple, in 622 BCE, the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign.” (p.276)

“The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and centralized the national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that created an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dream.  This is presumably the reason why the authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and part of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people of Israel: to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.  Embellishing and elaborating the stories contained in the first four books of the Torah, they wove together regional variations for the stories of the patriarchs, placing the adventures of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob in a world strangely reminiscent of the 7th century BCE…” (p.283)

The book stresses the fact that when the earliest forms of the Pentateuch were taken form, the goal was not to record an accurate history (this would have been almost impossible), but to give the newly established nation a backdrop for their identity:

“The aims were not to produce an objective history of the northern kingdom but rather to provide a theological explanation for the history that was already known, at least in its broad detail.”


For anyone interested in history and archaeology, I would highly recommend this book.  The details can be a bit overwhelming at times, but it flows nicely and you never get too bogged down with unnecessary information.  There’s even several appendixes of additional details in the back for those who really want the whole story.

You never get the impression that Finkelstein and Silberman have a vendetta or are tying to “disprove” the Bible.  In fact, they seem to have a high regard for Scripture.  They are simply laying out the evidence as we have it and making determinations based on it – as any good scientist should.

The authors conclude the book by giving us this perspective of the Bible:

“The Bible’s integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical “proof” of any of it’s particular events or personalities… The power of the biblical sage stems from it being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and the quest for social equality.  It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experience, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.”

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Take Aways: Accidental Saints

(Because of my love for books and the profound insight I gain from them, I thought I would share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book)

“There really is nowhere you can hide from human bullshit, since we just bring it with us wherever we go.”

During my brief stint as a progressive Christian, one of my “go to” books was Nadia Bolz-Weber’s first book Pastrix; a memoir about her life and journey from being a homeless addict to an ordained Lutheran minister.  The openness, honesty, and candid nature was a breath of fresh air from the typical “Christian” books out there.

I gained a deep admiration for Nadia and often lamented that there wasn’t a church like hers (House of All Saints and Sinners) nearby for me to attend.  In the words of Jaba the Hut, she was “my kind of scum”.

My admiration of her hasn’t waned in the years since I read Pastrix, despite my exile from religion, so when I saw her latest book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People, I had to check it out.  The book’s title aptly describes it’s content; short stories focusing on Nadia’s interaction with people and how they have shaped her life and the lives of others.

What I appreciate about Nadia’s books is that she is in no way an apologist – she’s not trying to convince anybody of anything.  Certainly being an ordained pastor she subscribes to a theistic understanding of the world, but I never felt like she was getting “preachy” at any time in the book.

Nadia is known to be outspoken about the current state of religion in America, and we both share a lot of the same critiques, especially in regards to religion being guilty of escapism – trying to distract people from the realities of life rather than having to face them:

We’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place we escape from difficult realities instead of as the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.  It’s like if you were stuck in a subway tunnel during a sudden blackout.  You can respond to the fear and darkness either by using the remaining battery on your cell phone to entertain yourself with Candy Crush or by using that phone as a light to see others around you, to the contour of you environment, and maybe even walk toward a light source more reliable than your own.  Religion can be a way to hide, numb, or even entertain ourselves like spiritual Candy Crush, either through the comforting blandness and predictability of mainline Protestantism or through the temporary lifting off our spirits and hands in Evangelical worship.  Of course, there are many ways of pretending shit ain’t broke in ourselves and in the world, but escapist religion is a classic option, and the churches have seemed to turn into places where we have endless opportunity to pretend everything is fine.

That sums up one of the many reasons I quit going to church in the first place – this glossy, stereotypical, “Positive! Uplifting!”, seeing-the world-through-rose-colored-glasses attitude that is predominant in the most all Evangelical churches.  It wasn’t real.  I don’t care how many times the leaders would tell people that we were an “authentic community of believers”; there was nothing authentic about it.  It was a lot of people pretending they had all their shit together and not leaving much room for those who didn’t.  This also meant that there was no room for people who weren’t you typical right-wing, conservative, Evangelicals, like myself.

This stand in stark contrast with the stories of Jesus and whom he chose to associate with, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by Nadia:

Jesus could have hung out in the high-end religious scene of his day, but instead he scoffed at all that, choosing instead to laugh at the powerful, befriend whores, kiss sinners, and eat with all the wrong people.  He spent his time with people for whom life was not easy.  And there, amid those who were suffering, he was the embodiment of love.

Also:

To be religious (despite all the negative associations with that word) is to be human in the midst of other humans who are equally messed up and obnoxious and forgiven as ourselves.

Another area where Nadia and I see eye-to-eye is the almost incessant way that people try to hide behind their religion when pushing their own views:

Too often people try to use God’s name to lend authority to their opinions and personal hang-ups and ambitions.  This is vanity, as in using the Lord’s name in vain.

If I had a dime for every conversation that started with “Well, the Bible says…” God says…” “Jesus taught…” You can use the Bible to justify anything.  Absolutely anything.  When people use these expressions or ones like them what I hear is, “This is my opinion based on my own understandings and prejudices, but I don’t have the balls to stand behind them, so I’m going to give them some resemblance of authority by invoking religious speak.”  If you can’t present a solid argument without invoking God or the Bible – it probably isn’t a good argument.

Grace is one of the most common themes found in Accidental Saints as well as Pastrix, but Nadia talks about grace in a different way than it is usually talked about in Church.  The word “grace” is almost always associated with substitutionary atonement, the illogical and rather repulsive notion that Jesus was a “substitute” for humanity in taking God’s wrath, or as Nadia puts it, “Jesus standing in for us to take the really bad spanking from God for our own naughtiness.”  But with Nadia, grace is something more real and more tangible.  It’s something that happens in the hear and now, with real people in real, messy relationships.  She describes grace as the best shitty feeling in the world:

And the thing about grace, real grace, is that it stings.  it stings because if it’s real it means that we don’t “deserve” it.  And receiving grace is basically the best shitty feeling in the world.  I don’t want to need it.  Preferably I could just do it all and be it all and never mess up.  That may be what I would prefer, but it is never what I need.  I need to be broken apart and put back together into a different shape by that merging of things human and divine, which is really screwing up and receiving grace and love and forgiveness rather than receiving what I really deserve.  I need the very thing that I will do everything I can to avoid needing.

That part of the book really hit me.  The notion of grace doesn’t have to be something tied up in dogma.  It’s something that all of us in relationships have experienced, but we seldom talk about.  We’ve all had friends, relatives, and spouses offer us grace.  We’ve all felt that wash of emotions that is simultaneously grateful – to the person giving us grace, and also angry – at being the type of fuck-up that needs it so bad.

I wish grace was something that was talked about more in the non-believers circles.  Unfortunately that word carries so much baggage for many of us from our religious days, that some just avoid it. I think that’s unfortunate, as true humanism requires an abundance of grace for our fellow man, and the ability to humbly give as well as receive grace is paramount if we hope to form healthy lasting relationships of any kind.

Nadia would likely describe herself as an introvert.  She may get up in front of thousands of people at speaking engagements, but in small groups or one-on-one, she seems to prefer her own company (just my diagnosis, based on her books). Probably the part of the book that had me feeling like I was looking in the mirror the most was when she was when she talks about being in groups of people she doesn’t know.

You have to pay attention to people if you want to connect with them, and I worried that if I paid too much attention, I might make the realization that I didn’t like them.  If that happened, I’d have to spend all my energy pretending I like them…

Yep.  That’s me.  Whenever I’m in a group of people I don’t know, that’s exactly what’s going through my head – “I’m probably not going to like any of these people anyways, so why bother?”  A rather childish attitude for someone my age, I’ll admit, but a reality nonetheless.  But as Nadia shows through her story, sometimes the very people we think we’re not going to like, turn out to be the people we need the most.

This was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while.  The stories were very engaging, I never found myself looking ahead to see when the next chapter was coming.  Also, it had me feeling a whole range of emotions – it made me laugh, it made my angry, it had me lifting my fist in the air (Preach it sister!), it had me shaking my head in disbelief (you can’t really believe the Battle of Jericho really happened, Nadia, can you?) and it even got me a little misty-eyed at times.  That’s makes for a good book in my opinion – one in which the authors own emotions are so plainly laid out, that you can’t help but have your own emotional response.

 I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – even as an outspoken atheist, I would go to Nadia’s church.  Not because I believe in any of her (or her church’s) theology, but because of the community that she’s built.  A community that is open, loving, accepting, a little weird, and has no pretense of having it all together or having the right answers.  I can get behind that.  I would say I could be her token atheist, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the only one in her congregation.

Thanks for reading.

Take Aways: Losing My Religion

(Because of my love for books and the profound insight I gain from them, I thought I would share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book)

For those of us who have gone through (or are going through) the deconversion process, hearing other people’s stories is a means of finding peace and solidarity with others who have walked the path before.  I’ve read numerous such stories, and have always enjoyed hearing about others experiences and what life on the other side of religion looks like.  The latest such story I’ve read comes from William Lobdell and his book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America – and Found Unexpected Peace.

The book tells the story of Lobdell’s religious conversion into Evangelicalism, his life as a Christian, and the eventual loss of faith.  As the title suggests, Lobdell lost his faith over the years of reporting as a journalist on religion in America.  What started off as simple column for the Los Angeles Times, reporting “feel-good” stories about the good that local churches were doing, turned into a “roller-coaster of inspiration, confusion, doubt, and soul searching as his reporting and experience slowly chipped away at his faith.”

What sets apart Lobdell’s books from others is how well it is written.  Being a veteran reporter and journalist, Lobdell has a knack for telling a captivating story that hits you emotionally while not being sensationalized.  His turning point away from faith came when he began to report on the dark under-belly of religion that quickly came to light in the public eye in the ’00’s, most notably the Catholic sex-scandals and “Prosperity Gospel” megachurches.  All of this led up to him writing a personal essay in 2007 about his loss of faith that ended up becoming an international sensation.

When reading other people’s deconversion, I’m always struck by just how similar the process is, regardless of the individual’s backgrounds.  One of the most common experiences is the persons’ deep desire to hold on to their faith.  Yet, as much as they try, faith inevitably looses out to reason.  As Lobdell explains:

Spiritual suicide infers that people make a conscious decision to abandon their faith.  Yet it isn’t simply a matter of will.  Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t.  They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence.  If an autopsy could be done on the spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide.  It would be natural causes – the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason. 

While reporting on the corruption that took place in the Church, Lobdell was struck by the disconnect between what these “men of God” claimed and what their actions demonstrated:

It started to bother me greatly that God’s institutions – ones He was supposed to be guiding – were often more corrupt than their secular counterparts.  If these churches were infused and guided by the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t if follow that they would function in a morally superior fashion than a corporation of government entity?  In general, I was finding that this wasn’t the case.  I started to see that religious institutions were more susceptible to corruption than their secular counterparts because of their reliance on God, and not human checks and balances, for governance.  The answers to prayer or God’s desires… are prone to human interpretation that can be easily twisted for selfish and sinful needs.

His point illustrates precisely why I’m always suspicious of those people demanding their “religious freedoms”, or of Libertarian Christians who want the government less involved in their lives – Christians have a long tract record of doing the most immoral things when left to their own devises.  Far from making them more righteous then non-believers, Christians often represent the worst that humanity has to offer.  Later in the book, Lobdell addresses some of the criticism he received after his personal essay came out:

My piece did receive criticism, the most consistent being that I had witnessed the sinfulness of man and mistakenly mixed that up with a perfect God.  I understand the argument but I don’t buy it.  If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society.  Statistically they aren’t. […] It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.

At the beginning of Lobdell’s agonizing journey away from God, he found that everything eventually boils down to two sides:

Do I side with what I wish to be true?  Or do I go with what I know to be true?

I think that Lobdell speaks for all de-converts with that sentiment.  In the end it simply becomes a matter of how much we are willing to lie to ourselves and put on blinders to retain our faith that often doesn’t seem worth it.  Lobdell eventually walked away from religion, and found that not only did he not need God, but was far better of without him.

Take Aways: Anarchy Evolution

(Because of my love for books and the insight they give me, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)

I just finished up reading Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson.  Those familiar with the punk rock scene of the 80’s and 90’s will recognize Greg Graffin as the lead singer of Bad Religion, arguably one the most influential bands of that era.  What most probably don’t know is that Graffin also holds a PhD in zoology and teaches science at UCLA.  One of the better books I’ve read in a while, Anarchy Evolution weaves the story of Graffin’s life with his thoughts on science, religion, and music.  I always tell people – you know I’m reading a good book when the corners are turned-down on pages that I want to come back to and read again.  This book was full of turned-down corners.

Greg Graffin

Graffin describes himself as a naturalist, a term he prefers to “atheist” because it describes what he is for, rather than what he is against.  He opens the book by talking about this philosophy and why he chose it:

I think of naturalism as a philosophy rather than a lifestyle.  From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  The matter and energy in the universe can come together in an essentially infinite number of configurations over time, and these configurations cannot be predicted with any certainty for complex systems over extended periods.  But matter and energy do not influence and are not influenced by supernatural forces. […] For me, evolution provided the context for our lives.  Yes, evolution has implications that can make us deeply uneasy.  But on important questions we must seek truth, even if the truth is difficult to accept.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.

In the chapter, “Creativity, Not Creation”, Graffin talks about creativity and how it effects all things, from music, to science, to faith.  He says that creativity is often misunderstood as being something that has been designed or intended, but in fact “truly novel and lasting innovations are often surprises.”  He talks about creativity and how it applies to life and institutions:

Some people have no desire to be creative.  They believe that if someone follows the rules and routines, they will be able to claim that they have lived a successful life.  Maybe they think that, by doing so, they will have achieved some utilitarian goal and useful end.  But I believe they have achieved only a fleeting taste of success.  Lasting success requires creativity, even if more creative feats are ultimately accidental and unpredictable.  Rules and routines may be tolerable or even comfortable in the short term.  But eventually they need to be scrutinized and in many cases rejected to make intellectual and emotional  progress.  Rebellion has to be part of the response to rigid social institutions, or stagnation is assured.  If evolution has taught us anything, it’s that life is in a state of constant change.  There is anarchy in the variation that serve as one driver of evolution, and there is anarchy in the inability of life to remain static.  Eventually, radical changes beset every living thing. […] Institutions that enforce rigid adherence to their own tenets must be scrutinized with particular skepticism.  Religion, political parties, corporations… can all fall into the trap of demanding loyal and unwavering devotion.  They can require that followers adopt not just a specific way of acting but a specific way of thinking.  Institutions, by and large, strive for permanence, and they almost always see life through a formulaic lens and strongly disfavor individuality and change.  

Like most non-religious people, Graffin has encountered the often sighted claim that there “can be no good without God”; that people who have no religious faith have no moral compass.  He addresses this by talking about what truly drives morality in humans – empathy.  He explains that all healthy humans have empathy, thought they may feel it in a verity of ways and the expression of it can change over time.  He states (rightly, IMO) that western religions largely ignore empathy:

[Western religions] are prescriptive.  They impose codes of behavior based on injunctions from supreme authority, not based on the give-and-take of human interactions.  Western religions define proper behavior by analogizing human nature with the behavior of mythological figures who have supernatural powers…  Codes of conduct, therefore, emerge from the supernatural realm and are not to be questioned by mere mortals.   

One of the main reasons I gave up on religions was precisely for that reason – Christians claiming to be morally superior while displaying some of the most immoral behavior imaginable – because their god/Bible told them to.  I agree wholeheartedly with Graffin that empathy, not religion, is a far better compass for moral behavior:

The capacity for empathy enable us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.

Another argument that Graffin address is the notion that non-religious people have no meaning or “faith” in their lives:

Everyone must believe in something – it’s part of human nature…  Naturalists must believe, first of all, that the world is understandable and that knowledge of the world can be obtained through observation, experimentation, and verification. […] Humans impart meaning and purpose to almost all aspects of life.  This sense of meaning and purpose gives us a road map to how to live a good life.  This guidance emerges spontaneously from human interactions of human beings in societies and thinking together about how best to get along.  It doesn’t require a god or sacred text.

While most atheists do not believe in heaven, hell, or any other sort of afterlife, Graffin emphasizes that this fact does not mean that naturalists like himself are not concerned about what happens after he dies.  He is concerned about his family, and making sure they are happy, successful, and taken care of after he passes.  He is also concerned about making the world a better place for future generations.  He goes on to say:

A strong case can be made that naturalists tend to care more about these thing than do religious people, since naturalists are committed to an ethic that emphasizes the casual effects of our actions in the here and now, as opposed to a mythological hope for a better life in a supernatural realm. 

Anarchy Evolution is great read, that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in science and music.  You don’t have to be a fan of Bad Religion or punk to enjoy this book.  This would be a good book for someone who is on the edge of religion and looking for an alternative.  Naturalism is an ethos that I intent to look into more, and I think others would find it equally attractive.  In closing, I’d like to offer one last great quote from the book:

The word “nature” doesn’t really mean anything.  In a manner of speaking, everything is natural…  I have a similar beef with the word “God”.  If God is everything and everywhere, then what purpose does the word serve?  if it explains everything, it explains nothing.  but if it describes something important, then it should be observable by everyone, explained, and shared with other people.