Beyond Confirmation & Marriage

As you can tell by the title, I am combining two sacraments into one post.  I am not suggesting that marriage is a bad idea.  This is not where I will air out some of my more insane views on marriage.  This only deals with marriage as a religious sacrament.

I have chosen to combine the two because they share so much in common:  Both are done in the context of community.  Both should be reserved for consenting, mature adults.  And both are defined and blessed by the church.

There really is no such thing as a private confirmation.  I suppose it can be done, but the whole point is to make a big show for the community that you have made a commitment decision to that community.  It would be rather odd to leave the community out of that event.  In the Protestant world, confirmation is generally tied to baptism.  Again, this can be done privately, but is usually reserved for a special, public event.

In the same way, marriage is very much a community event.  I know that many couples decide to run off and elope privately.  Family and friends of these couples feel deeply slighted by this action.  Even more than confirmation, marriage is about ceremony, and making a commitment with, and before the community.  As I am something of a communitarian, this is probably a good thing.

The controversy begins with the next similarity.  Few would argue that marriage is a commitment that should be undertaken only by consenting, mature adults, even though, too often, it is not.  Unfortunately, far fewer people see the necessity for religious confirmation to be undertaken only by mature, consenting adults.  I was baptized at the age of seven.  Too young.  Not uncommon.  There is a certain desperation with regard to church membership that makes them want to baptize and confirm anyone who walks in the door, regardless of age.  The vast majority of baptisms I have witnessed have been those of pre-adults.

As churches lose members and their roles grow smaller, they are desperate to hold onto their kids for the next generation of church member.  There is less emphasis on instilling a quality, religious education than there is to get them into the water as soon as possible. The only real requirement seems to be that a young person has had the Hell, literally scared out of them so that they take out the requisite fire insurance.  That would be a little like advocating marriage at the age of initial sexual awakening.  A person cannot even inter into a legal contract before 18 or 21, depending on where you live.  But we coerce them into a spiritually binding, eternal contract with the church and god before they know their first kiss.

Thirdly, these two sacraments are similar because they are regulated and defined by the clergy.  It seems every church has its own rules for membership.  The bible plays little role in that determination.  The local church is a community first, and a religious institution second.  All communities have their spoken and unspoken rules about how to join.  This personal relationship with god begins with an impersonal decision by one of his representatives.

Marriage is the same way.  The church reserves the right to decide when two people are married and when they are not.  I find this type of regulation to be offensive.  Does the church really believe that the countless people who decide not to have a church wedding are any less married?  What of the marriages in other cultures and countries?  They often involve neither priest nor magistrate.  Yet, they have found a way to declare marriage for longer than the church has existed.  In both confirmation and marriage, the church is claiming authority that it really does not have.

Finally, the way in which both sacraments are most alike is their ineffectiveness.  Despite the desperate attempt to commit children to the church community before they are ready, kids tend to leave when the opportunity presents itself.  Churches generally seem to be shrinking, not growing.  No matter how much holy water is used during the course of the confirmation, it does not have the power to hold that convert to her church commitment.

It is even worse with marriage.  Remember, this is a ceremony overseen by a clergyman, and blessed by god.  Yet, there is no evidence that church marriages last any longer, or produce happier unions than pagan weddings.  Divorce courts do as much business with god blessed Christians as they do with atheists.  A broken, Christian home is no less difficult for a child than any other type of broken home.  Incidents of infidelity seem to occur just as frequently among the church married as the Vegas eloped.

In other words, whether we are talking about confirmation or marriage, using theistic religion as the main ingredient simply does not work.  This is problematic for religion.  It makes these institutions less sacramental, and more aspirational.  Churches hope for strong communities and solid marriages.  But so does everyone else.  Churches claim a higher power for delivering these things, but in practice, are exposed as impotent as everyone else.  For this reason, I consider these two of the weakest of the sacraments.  I consider the next one even weaker.

David Johnson

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Beyond Reconciliation

The Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance, or Penance and Reconciliation) has three elements: conversion, confession and celebration. In it we find God’s unconditional forgiveness; as a result we are called to forgive others.

http://www.americancatholic.org/features/special/default.aspx?id=29

According to the above definition, reconciliation points to three aspects of the same thing:  They are ways of finding god’s unconditional forgiveness.  As you might  imagine, I have a big problem with unconditional forgiveness.  It leads to more questions than I care to ask at this time.  What is conditional forgiveness?  Is that when you are a little forgiven, or temporarily forgiven, or more tolerated than forgiven.

Is unconditional forgiveness really unconditional?  Can you be unconditionally forgiven, then blaspheme daily for the rest of your life while remaining in a state of forgiveness?  Is it like a baseball player getting to take as many swings at bat as he likes?  If we ever achieve this unconditional forgiveness, why must we be religious in any way, at any point thereafter?

According to the quote, the sacrament involves conversion, confession, and celebration.  All of these are conditional elements.  Furthermore, they are continual.  Conversion is a process, not an event.  Confession is a way of life, and celebration (worship) is an ongoing requirement.  What I mean to say is that it is impossible to stop any of these activities and maintain forgiveness.  Unconditional forgiveness hinges on us constantly meeting rigorous conditions.

That aspect, aside, why do we need penance in the first place.  The answer is because we are unforgiven sinners who must beg for our lives and positive dispositions of our immortal souls.  Penance is for the unforgiven.

So how did we reach the state of being unforgiven?  For some, we were born in that condition.  Just by drawing our first breath, we are bound for the pit unless someone intervenes on our behalf.  Still others believe that we are born saved, but only temporarily.  The moment we reach the age of accountability (which is never specified) then we immediately go from saved to lost, and in need of penance.

About that unspecified age of accountability, some baptize babies.  In the tradition of my youth, many, including myself, were/are baptized while in single-digits.  We all believe in some sort of original sin.  The only point of argument is when we are held responsible for it.  For some, it is at birth.  For others, it hits after a few years, the same years we are still young enough to believe in Santa Clause.  We are either sinners from the start, or will soon be.  The passage, “All have sinned and come short…” should read, “All will sin and fall short…”  It is only a matter of time, and a very short time at that.

Once a child is afraid of the boogeyman, she is old enough to be afraid of eternity in the flaming pit of hell.  From that point on, she is obsessed with not offending the other-worldly being that can put her there for virtually no provocation.  This guarantees that she will spend an unhealthy portion of her life in fear, and with feelings of inadequacy.  She will be constantly repenting.  I never knew a devout Christian who believed they were forgiven that didn’t spend an inordinate time begging their deity for forgiveness and penance.

In the end, it all starts at the beginning.  The reason we need to be reconciled is that humanity messed up in the beginning.  You have to accept the Eden story to accept the fall, to accept that you are fallen and in need of reconciliation.  I don’t.  Surprisingly, more Christians are willing to admit a certain disbelief in the literalness of that story.  The thing is, if the story is not literally true, then we are not fallen and in need of forgiveness, reconciliation, or penance.  We literally accept that we need reconciliation because of a portion of a poorly crafted myth that few take literally.  This seems insane to me.

For my part, I quote a line from a once popular country song, “The Truth about Men”.

“I ain’t wrong.  I ain’t sorry.  And I probably going to do it again… and that’s the truth about men.”

In this case, the truth about humanity.  It is past time we stop feeling sorry for being human, warts and all.  Imperfection as defined by a being who is not even of this space/time continuum is not my idea of fallen.  If my normal humanity offends your god, then it is your god who has the problem.  I know that seems harsh, but I am tired of watch my fellow humans beat themselves up for being exactly what they are: human.  I defy anyone who creates anxiety for us because we are exactly what we were born to be.

I call for less focus on conversion and confession, and more focus on the celebration of humanity.

David Johnson

Beyond the Passover

On Sunday, this most holy of Christian days, it is finally time to get back to the sacraments. It took me a long time to decide on a name for this post. After all, religious tradition demands I call it by a more traditional, religious name. The Eucharist is an obvious candidate. After all, sacrament is a Catholic word, why not use the word Catholics are most familiar with? But I’m not a Catholic, neither, I suspect, are most of my readers. The good Protestant name for the ceremony would be the Lord’s Supper. Thaat is the one I grew up with. For a number of reasons i might go into, that one doesn’t feel right either. So, I decided to go Old school: Old Testament.

You see, there can be no Lord’s supper or Eucharist without the Passover. If that event in Hebrew lore is neither literal nor meaningful, then there is simply no foundation for anything built atop it. I will say up front, I do not believe in any of the details surrounding the Passover. In fact, I believe it is one of the most repugnant stories in all of scripture. It is not to be celebrated, but morned.

Quickly glossing over the details, god’s people were slaves in Egypt. He wanted to free them, but not too soon or too easy. He allowed them to stay in that condition for 400 years. When he decided to free them, he didn’t just open a door to freedom and have them walk through. First, he tormented the Egyptians with unnatural plague after plague, no doubt, killing countless innocents in the process. Having your entire water supply turn into blood can’t be healthy for the population.

He finally ends his reign of terror. by creating a situation he described as causing such sorrow as as never been experienced before. He didn’t just want to free the Hebrews, which seemed to be a secondary goal, he wanted to build a reputation and really give it to those Egyptians. He did this by sending a death angel to slaughter every firstborn save for those who had an appropriate bloody sign on their doorpost. Naturally, the Egyptians didn’t get the message. God killed every firstborn of everyone in the region who’s doorpost was not appropriately bloodied. The death angel hacked and slashed his way through adults and babies alike, as well as livestock. The only homes that were passed over were those Hebrew homes with the bloody signposts.

That is why it is called the Passover, and that is why it is celebrated by the Jews. There was a meal and several other rituals involved. The bottom line is that by the time Jesus famously celebrated it, the Passover had become something else. Jesus had taken the place of the pascal lamb, and it was his blood that was to be placed on the doorposts of our hearts. But symbolism must have its basis in reality. If there was no death angel running around killing innocent children, then no Jews were ever save from such a fate. A ceremony that reenacted that ritual would be meaningless without the actual ritual to reenact. If god really cause that suffering in Egypt, then the Passover should never be celebrated. If he didn’t, then we are all fools for participating.

There is no need to get into the ritual of drinking blood, or the reenactment of drinking blood. to debunk this ghastly ritual. Your perspective on that matter simply does not matter on iota. If a death angel did not literally pass over the Hebrew people in the way described in Exodus, then the Passover, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper is a farce. There are a lot of superstitions that you have to wholeheartedly buy into to accept the Passover. I can’t, and lord knows I tried. I do not take it in any form these days. I simply cannot do so with integrity. If you can, feel free to leave a comment in the Comment section.

David Johnson

Beyond Superstition (Part 3)

So what is the difference between religious superstition and mainline religion? To paraphrase a friend of mine who put it best, superstition is the stuff your god does that my god doesn’t. Let’s examine the principle of curses. No, I do not mean obscene language. I mean the practice of wishing or causing harm on another person by supernatural means. I would initially be inclined to say that most mainline Christians do not believe in curses. That would fall under the category of things their god does not do. It would perhaps be better to say that their god does not do it as much these days. Here are a few examples of biblical curses. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it mine. When I started researching the issue, I discovered others who had done better work than I had the patience to do. I will make the citations later:

BIBLICAL CURSES

  • Those who curse or mistreat Jews (Deut. 27:26; Gen. 27:29; 12:3; Num. 24:9).
  • Those willing deceivers (Jos.9:23; Jer. 48:10; Mal. 1:14; Gen. 27:12).
  • An adulterous woman (Numbers 5:27).
  • Disobedience of Lord’s commandments (Deut. 11:28; Dan. 9:11; Jer. 11:3).
  • Idolatry (Jer. 44:8; Deut. 29:19; Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:8-9).
  • Those who keep or own cursed objects (Deut. 7:25; Jos. 6:18).
  • Those who refuse to come to the Lord’s help (Judges 5:23).
  • House of the wicked (Prov. 3:33).
  • He who gives nothing to the poor (Prov. 28:27).
  • The earth by reason of man’s disobedience (Isa. 24:3-6).
  • Jerusalem is a curse to all nations if Jews rebel against God (Jer. 26:6).
  • Thieves and those who swear falsely by the Lord’s Name (Zech. 5:4).
  • Ministers who fail to give the glory to God (Mal. 2:2; Rev. 1:6).
  • Those who rob God of tithes and offerings (Mal. 3:9; Haggai 1:6-9).
  • Those who hearken unto their wives rather than God (Gen. 3:17).
  • Those who lightly esteem their parents (Deut. 27:16).
  • Those who make graven images (Deut. 5:8; 27:15; Ex. 20:4).

http://www.chooselove.org/biblical_curses%20apendix%20additions.htm

Trust me, this is a very short list. The page goes on and on. My favorite curse in the whole bible comes when King David finally moves the Ark of the Covenant six whole steps without anyone being killed for mishandling it. David dance himself out of whatever clothes he was wearing, which cause some bit of scandal by the lights of one of his wives. She confronted him with the problem, and David did not take it so well. He promised to disgrace himself before the lord even more, and because of her attitude, she would be unable to bear children. This was not David’s declaration that he would not inseminate her. Rather, that god would not allow her to become pregnant no matter what. Apparently, god was very involved with who did and did not get pregnant in those days. Most barren women were considered to be cursed. In this case, she was.

It seems God could not avoid a good curse. Most of the punishments in the bible were stated as curses. God particularly liked to curse the innocent who had some tangential relationship with the guilty. Perhaps you were the third or fourth son of one who was cursed. Too bad! You also bore the curse. Innocent women and children were wiped out, or worse, because of what a few guilty people did in a particular region.

The Christian scriptures are not without their curses, either. No less a personage than Jesus cursed a fig tree for no good reason other than he was mad at it. The tree didn’t bear fruit during a time when it wasn’t supposed to bear fruit. Jesus made it wither and die. His disciples were also not beyond curses. Peter and Paul were both proficient in the art. Besides all the actual curses, there were the threatened and implied curses if certain behavior wasn’t achieved.

The flipside of curses is blessings. A blessing requires the same type of supernatural meddling, only with a positive result, at least to the blessed. One person’s blessing may have been another person’s curse. God caused famine in the land and cursed countless thousands. But since he gave forewarning to one of the kingdoms, it was a blessing to them, as they were able to create storehouses of reserves, becoming the destination of choice for those in search of food. If god causes it to rain for three years, he floods uncountable crops. If he causes it to stop raining for three more years, he causes immeasurable starvation. If he blesses one wife with a child, he curses the second wife with the inability to bear a child. In the grand scheme of things, a blessing is no better than a curse, and the bible is full of blessings.

It seems that if curses and blessings fall in the realm of superstition for some, they have to be for Christians as well. To put it more accurately, we can never say that a curse or blessing for anyone is superstition, as they are activities in which our god most certainly participates. The god of the bible never met a curse he didn’t like, up to and including the use of bears to rip children limb from limb for the unforgivable crime of… wait for it… teasing a bald man.

Perhaps a good question at this time is, how does a person achieve blessing and avoid curses. The only answer I can offer with any integrity is, I have no idea. After we have talked about reward for good deeds, and punishments for bad ones, all bets are off. God curses the innocent as often as he blesses the guilty. It is all rather arbitrary and capricious. There is simply no natural formula or logic that allows one to predict the onset of a curse or a blessing. Then again, that is kind of the point. Curses and blessings are not of this natural world, neither, it seems, is the logic behind them.

I have spent a great deal of time on biblical curses and blessings, but the subject of superstition would be incomplete without bringing in a few other cultures. Here are a few write-ups by others that were better than mine, so again, I will attribute the sources:

Voodoo practitioners aspire to achieve complete harmony with the spiritual world via their spiritual intercessors, be they ancestors or Lwa. Practicing voodoo involves appeasing the Lwa, calling on them for help, and remaining on good terms with them.

If a person is having difficulty maintaining a good relationship with his met tet, ancestors, or other Lwa, a priest is consulted. A priest will help the person do what needs to be done. A male priest is called an oungam, and a female priest is called a mambo. They are responsible for healing, organizing rituals, and offering guidance, if their service is needed. The intercession of a priest, however, is not necessary to the practice of voodoo.

http://altmed.creighton.edu/voodoo/Practice.htm

Here is a question I found about Catholic superstition. I have included a small part of the answer. I encourage you to read the entire dialogue:

Q. Why do Catholics use “good luck charms” like medals and relics of the saints in order to preform miracles? Why is that not superstitious?

A. It does sound superstitious at first. And perhaps there have been Catholics who used these things in a purely superstitious way. But we would not know for sure unless we questioned them.

The questioner could have also gone on to ask about Elisha’s bones, Peter’s shadow, and Paul’s handkerchief.

Read the page on Catholic superstition, then reread the page on Voodoo. There is simple no way to quantify the difference. Catholics pray to saints, seek favor from their god, and try to avoid his disapproval in the exact same way as practitioners of Voodoo. Catholics, and other Christian groups, seek out the aid of holy men to aid them in sacraments and pleasing, as well as understanding their god. The same goes for Voodoo. Christians usually do not stick pins in dolls to cause our enemies discomfort. That would be something their god does that our god does not, in other words, superstition. Then again, the Voodoo practitioner does not tend to drink a common liquid and eat a common cracker expecting it to miraculously turn into the literal body and blood of an other-worldly being that will convey on them the power of eternal life. That would be something our god does that theirs does not, superstition.

Against this backdrop, it is time to dive back into the sacraments.

David Johnson

Beyond Superstition (Part 2)

In the previous post, we considered a number of definitions for superstition. Not surprisingly, many of those definitions involved god and religion. I provided my own definition as the belief in the unnatural. The reason god and religion are so tied up in superstition is that in order for something unnatural to happen, someone or something beyond nature, has to pull back the curtains of nature to make the unnatural a reality in this world. That most commonly involves god and religion. To amplify this thought, this post will look specifically at biblical superstition.

Such a journey has to begin with the creation stories. The fact that we have creation stories is a type of superstition. The people of ancient times could not even conceive of presence without directed creation. The idea of evolution is relatively modern. Biblical writers just couldn’t imagine any other way. The six-day creation represents another lack of imagination. They could not even fathom billions of years. It is like asking a two-year old to imagine life a hundred years ago. It is just not possible. To a young species, everything is young and new.

Sin, and the consequences of sin are both superstitions. If there is a creator with many of the same human traits as we have, then his will is law, and breaking that law has consequences. A pre-scientific civilization has no choice but to believe this. But things get a lot more interesting than that.

Almost everything the bible has to say about the nature of the universe is based on superstition. The three-tiered universe is a prime example. God lives in a house above the earth so that he can look down on his creation. Eventually, we worked out that bad people go down into a pit. If you read the first chapter of Genesis to discover the bible’s definition of the firmament, it is rather embarrassing. Then, read about the Tower of Babel. God feared the ability of pre-historic man’s ability to build a tower into heaven. It just shows how small we believed the earth and cosmos to be.

Don’t stop there. At one point, a great warrior enjoined god to stop the sun in the sky to provide more daylight to kill more enemies. Never mind the killing part. We now know the sun does not move relative to the earth, but the other way around. The church actually killed people who dared say differently.

Why do women go into painful labor for child birth? Why is it difficult to grow food? Why do snakes slither on their bellies? Pre-historic man had nothing but superstition to go on. Why do we still use the same answers as if we do not know any better?

Why are people born blind or get sick? Is it a generational curse, or was it so that god could later prove his power by healing such people? The bible has bought into both theories at one point or other. How does a sick person get better? According to the bible, a holy man must perform some type of unnatural ritual, or righteous people must petition an other-worldly alien being for miraculous aid, or the elders of the church must pour oil over the head of the sick. There is nary a mention of germs, medication, surgery, and preventative care. Even though we know about these things, we are still about the business of petitioning the great, other-worldly being for aid, as if that will be just as affective as antibiotics.

What happens to us when we die, other than the fact that we die? According to the bible, we rest, but could be brought back by a medium for aid. This actually happened in the holy writ. In other parts of the bible, we spend eternity in a good place or a bad place, depending on how we are judged. We even have details about these places. One has big houses for everyone and streets made of gold. The other has an unquenchable fire that provides and eternal source of torment. Even in the bible, no one has been to either of these places and reported back on the details. Yet, we fill our sermons and eulogies with these superstitious images as if we had seen video from the great beyond.

Where are the storehouses of snow and sleet? According to the god of Job, they are in the land of Heaven just above the earth. We do not believe this, yet we treat the book of Job, and the god of Job as if both should be taken seriously.

So far, I am just talking about biblical superstition. Extra-biblical, religious superstitions go even further. More people have seen the beatific face of Mary in the clouds, or in a bowl of cornflakes than there are victims of alien abductions. Throughout history, at least as many babies have been tossed into volcanos as have been baptized or circumcised. For many, the cross, or just the sign of the cross is more useful for warding off evil spirits as it is for adornment. Need I even get into Islam, ancient and modern? Mormonism? Snake handling? That last is quite biblical. Witchcraft? Voodoo? It is all superstitious-based religion.

The real question is, how do we define the difference between superstition and acceptable religion. That will be the focus of part three of this series. After that, I promise to get back to the sacraments.

David Johnson

Beyond Superstition

Trust me, I have not put my essays on the sacraments on hold. Rather, I have been trying to prepare the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say. There are some real issues to wrestle with, so we have much to work out. Without laying the groundwork, we will not even be able to hear each other. We will just be talking over or at each other. These subjects deserve more honest dialogue than we are used to giving them. I pretty sure this will be my last prep post before tackling the Eucharist.

My first post was on moving beyond magic. I believe it was important to start there, but it did not go nearly far enough. Most people would say that they do not believe in magic, even when it is clear they do. Unfortunately, even fewer people would claim to be superstitious. The problem is that we do not have very good definitions of those words upon which everyone can agree. In the Western world, both words are somewhat pejorative. It is a little like accusing a person of being a racist. Even a hood-wearing clan member would hesitate to call himself a racist. No matter how you define it, there is almost no way to have a productive conversation about it that is substantive and personal. Here’s to the challenge.

I see at least two posts on the subject, so the first one will be all about definitions. I hope you like definitions. 🙂

1: a : a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation
b : an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, (1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil

2 a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit))

nature, or God resulting from superstition

2 : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary)
Merriam-Webster
1. a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence,proceeding, or the like.

2. a system or collection of such beliefs.
3. a custom or act based on such a belief.
4. irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.
5. any blindly accepted belief or notion.
Dictionary.com
1. An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.
2.

a. A belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.
b. A fearful or abject state of mind resulting from such ignorance or irrationality.
c. Idolatry.
American Heritage Dictionary
Superstition is a belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any process in the physical world linking the two events.

Opposition to superstition was a central concern of the intellectuals during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment‎. The philosophes at that time ridiculed any belief in miracles, revelation, magic, or the supernatural, as “superstition,” and typically included as well much of Christian doctrine[1].

The word is often used pejoratively to refer to religious practices (e.g., Voodoo) other than the one prevailing in a given society (e.g., Christianity in western culture), although the prevailing religion may contain just as many supernatural beliefs. It is also commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck,prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific unrelated prior events.

Wikipedia

Originally the word superstition meant something like “standing still in apprehension or awe,” but since has been rather watered down in its application and use. According to the writer Raymond Lamont Brown: “Superstition is a belief, or system of beliefs, by which almost religious veneration is attached to things mostly secular; a parody of religious faith in which there is belief in an occult or magic connection.”

Another way to put it is that superstition is an irrational or nonscientific belief in the existence of certain powers operant in the world, with positive or ill (usually ill) effects, and therefore a concomitant belief in the counter-effects of amulets, tokens and such, and the power of certain actions (or avoidance of some actions, such as not walking under a ladder) to diminish or deflect these ill effects and/or to promote the positive influence (i.e. crossing one’s fingers, or rubbing a beneficent stone, for good luck) of these indeterminate and usually unnamed powers.

About.com

This represents a handful of definitions, both official and common. I was struck by the number of times God and religion came up in the definitions. Before pulling that thread a bit more, I thought in only fair to provide a definition of my own:

Faith in anything requiring actions from outside of nature. That’s it. As it happens, this is also my definition for magic and miracles. This all stems from my understanding of nature. Anything that can happen within the confines of the universe is, by definition, natural. There are no exceptions to nature. If it can happen once, anywhere, then it is quite natural. Perhaps not normative, but natural.

I often hear a distinction made about about humans and animals. Certain human behaviors are decried as being unnatural because they do not occur in the animal kingdom. This reveals the fundamental misunderstanding that humans are a part of the animal kingdom. If humans can do it, then it is natural, perhaps socially distasteful, but quite natural. It requires no magic, mystery, miracle, or superstition for a person to walk over hot coals barefoot. Despite what some showmen might say about trance states, the activity is purely science, and not hard science at that.

Superstition would be the belief that you could cause an object in earth-normal gravity to levitate. This would require the curtain of nature to be pulled back for an outside force to act against the natural forces. Even if such a think could happen, it would no longer be nature. We would be living in a world of the arbitrary supernatural. Anything could happen at anytime without regard to the established laws of logic or physics. We would be living in a state of chaos.

Even if only good things happened as a result of this supernatural tampering, chaotic anarchy would still reign. If the dead could just rise up, whole, from the grave, the death would truly have no meaning. If we could just beseech an other-universal being to make our outstanding bills go away, and to provide us with enough resources so that we never have to work again, then work would be meaningless. Sickness, poverty, addiction, and disenfranchisement would be equally meaningless. Yet, we know from bitter experience that all of these things are going concerns.

Superstition makes these things less a going concern simply by the power of our faith for them to be so. The superstitious person believes she has a source of power that emanates beyond nature, and can affect the stream of events by the power of will or ritual. Many even go as far as to label their superstition as a miraculous act when one of their wishes comes true. If such a person says a blessing on a child, only to watch that child grow up and become successful, that might be taken as a sign of miraculous activity rather than superstition gone amuck.

Even though naturalistic explanations can be applied to positive outcomes of superstitious belief, the superstitious person insists that the outcome was not naturalistic at all, but miraculous. Such a person can never be convinced that they are not superstitious, or that a miracle didn’t happen. It is a fools errand to even try.

Here’s to a fools errand. Next, we will talk about religious superstition in particular.

To be continued.

David Johnson

A Few Words about Opinions and Respect

I have launched into my essays on the sacraments. I am not so much taking a break from it, as I am laying the groundwork for the rest of what I have to say about this, and other subjects. Some of what I have to say will seem disrespectful of the opinions of others. It is. Please try to separate your true essence from your opinion of the moment. I have a great deal of respect for people. You do not have to do anything to earn my respect, and will have a hard time losing it. What you have to earn is my respect for your opinion.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not accept the idea that everyone is entitle to their own opinion. Unenforceability should not be confused with entitlement. There are a lot of false, negative, and destructive opinions that I do not believe anyone has an unassailable right to. Believing that all Jews should be murdered because of some perceived sin against humanity is not an opinion anyone has a right to hold. Many hold such an opinion, and that opinion has led to much evil action. But even if it only leads to hatred and prejudice, it is still an opinion that should be excised.

I am rambling on in this way for a reason. For some reason, we believe that we all are entitled to our own opinion of how the universe works. We believe that our opinions should trump facts. This is the power of religion and magical thinking which I wrote about earlier. It is not that religion is trying to make factual claims about how the universe works. Rather, it makes claims based on how its adherents want it to work.

Religious people become quite offended if you have the gaul to challenge their ideas about how the world works, even though they are making claims that are well within the purview of science and reason. They believe their opinions are somehow beyond the reach and judgement of science and reason, and should therefore be respected, regardless of what it is.

Some of the greatest men and women in the world have had opinions for which I have no respect. It is easy to respect a man like Thomas Jefferson, yet not respect his opinion on slavery. Religious opinions can and should be judged for respectability. Therefore, when I state opinions about how the world works, they are based on my understanding of science and reason, not magic. You can respect them or not, but dismissing them out of hand is probably a poor option. In any event, I hope you can still respect me apart from my opinions that are sometimes quite wrong.

I hold your opinions in no greater esteem than you should hold mine. If you say something sensible, I will consider it and learn from it, even if I do not like you very much. If you say something nonsensical, expect me to call you out on it. We need to stop tip-toeing around each others opinions, rather they be religious, political, or economic.

If you express the opinion that I should burn every other dollar I make in a fire, do not expect me to respect your opinion. Expect the ridicule the suggestion deserves. If you suggest I should base my political vote on who has the most hair, expect equal ridicule. Religious absurdity is no different. Do you still believe in a three-tiered universe, or that sickness is caused by generational sin and demons? Do you reject the shape and scope of the known cosmos and the presence of germs? If so, do not expect me to treat your opinion as if it were respectable. It is not, even though you are.

I know how harsh this sounds, and I do not mean it to be. But I do not believe we can make any progress in any intellectual or spiritual pursuit if every bad opinion is given equal treatment to good ones. We must be more discerning about the differences. In the words of the apostle Paul. We must prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good.

I felt it necessary to preface my next essays on the sacraments with a few words on opinions and reason. You might already be able to guess where I am going with the Eucharist.

David Johnson

Beyond Baptism

Now that I am all done with the book I was reading, let’s talk sacraments. In particular, let’s talk baptism. I am honestly inclined to combine baptism and the Lord’s Supper into a single post, as they have so much in common. I will make this more clear when I discuss the Lord’s supper, which should be my next post.

It is difficult to talk about baptism without starting with Jewish circumcision. I have written extensively on the subject and I just want to keep it short and simple. I am not trying to make an exhaustive, doctrinal case for my position. Rather, I am just going over the highlights that are easily digestible.

Circumcision was the cutting away of the foreskin of every Jewish male at the tender age of eight days old. For reasons difficult to quantify, it is still practiced today by Jews and Gentiles alike. Few Jews and almost no Gentiles believe they are cut off from God’s grace if they are not circumcised. Yet, the practice continues. It was once a requirement for salvation. At the time, salvation would not have been the term they used. Rather, it was a necessary part of the covenant relationship. No matter how you break down the definition of covenant in religious terms, it still comes down to a quid pro quo. I will do something for you if you do something for me. That is the relationship God had with the Jews, and it hasn’t much changed for the Gentiles, regardless of rhetoric.

At the time, no one would have asked if circumcision was necessary for salvation, or a covenant relationship with god. The answer was obvious. Of course it was. No one debated the efficacy of circumcision. Anyone who didn’t do it would be cut off from the kingdom, and would probably die.

Enter baptism.

Honestly, I’m not sure where it entered. There is some evidence that it entered into Jewish life with one of the many captivities. In any event, by the time Jesus came onto the scene, baptism was in full swing. It is important to note that baptism was being practiced before the inception of the church, yet was never a part of the Hebrew scriptures. Like so many New Testament practices, it just seemed to spring up from nowhere.

What did seem to be borrowed from the Jewish tradition was the fact of baptism’s necessity. It is an interesting mental exercise to pretend that the New Testament did not require baptism in the same way circumcision was required, but I have little patience for such mental gymnastics. In the same way that circumcision was the pathway to the covenant, baptism was the pathway to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Additionally, there is a blood and death ritual associated with baptism. In order to be washed of our sins, we must bathe in the blood of Jesus. Regardless if one considers this ceremonial or literal makes little difference. The only way for our sin-stained souls to be cleansed as white as snow is to be washed, immersed in the blood of the perfect human.

It is a death ritual in two ways. First, we reenact the circumstances of the death of Jesus by being buried in the watery grave of baptism, a few seconds later, to rise in the newness of life. Second, we act out the passion play of dying to ourselves, and becoming the willing vessel of the Holy Spirit’s control.

Consider the implications of this ceremony, even to the point of saying the details out loud. Baptism is a blood and death ritual whereby we pretend to die and be buried like our master, and where we consider our fully human selves dead vessels for possession of an other-worldly entity.

Even respect of a great man like Gandhi would not compel anyone to reenact his death and burial out of respect for his accomplishments for humanity. We would and do find appropriate ways to honor such people. But a ritual reenactment of their death is beyond macabre.

For those who believed Jesus to be a great teacher and enlightened example to the world, I suggest we find appropriate ways of honoring his life and teachings. Following his teachings might be a good start. He showed little interest in being worshiped during his lifetime. I can’t imagine what he would think if he saw his followers wearing miniature replicas of his instruments of his torment and murder about our necks and adorning our homes and temples. Would Gandhi want to be remembered by seeing his followers wearing guns and bullets as jewelry? I think not.

Of course, it you believe that you are an entity from another reality who happens to be trapped in this universe, an must die to your humanity in order to make your way back home, then perhaps baptism is right for you. I believe that number is dwindling fast. For those of us who have grown beyond that tradition, it is past time we go beyond baptism.

David Johnson

Beyond Sacraments Part One: Definitions

From the website:

http://www.americancatholic.org/features/special/default.aspx?id=29

The Latin word sacramentum means “a sign of the sacred.” The seven sacraments are ceremonies that point to what is sacred, significant and important for Christians. They are special occasions for experiencing God’s saving presence. That’s what theologians mean when they say that sacraments are at the same time signs and instruments of God’s grace.

I must confess; when I started out writing this post, I had a very different idea in mind about where I was taking it. As it happens, Eckhart Tolle has already had an influence on my thinking in ways I am not able to process at the moment. I am almost done with the book I started a couple of days ago, and expect to finish today. Don’t expect me to have anything profound to say about it until I have had a chance to live with it for a little while.

Still, I believe the topic of sacraments is more important than ever. I warn you, this will probably be an eight part series, maybe nine, depending on how the spirit moves me.. For starters, let’s just take a traditional look at the seven sacraments as defined by the Catholic Church. I can’t think of a better place to start, as every Christian group has sacraments of one form or another, and they are surprisingly similar. The biggest difference is that many of those denominations do not call them sacraments. But the practices are no less sacramental.:

  1. Baptism
  2. Eucharist
  3. Reconciliation
  4. Confirmation
  5. Marriage
  6. Holy Orders
  7. Anointing of the Sick

The definitions I give will not be from the Catholic encyclopedia, nor will they be exhaustive. Rather, they will be more generic to reflect the sacramental tradition in all religion.

Baptism is often called the outward sign of an inward grace. The ancient Jews did not practice baptism, I believe circumcision filled that role. Today. we accept some type of ritual washing to indicate we are cleansing ourselves from the stain of this life, and washing ourselves with the cleansing blood of Jesus.

The Eucharist, is what most Christians think of as the Lord’s supper. The primary difference is that while Protestants symbolically eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord, Catholics insists they are doing it in reality. There are other differences, but I believe they are too subtle to go into, here.

Reconciliation is a three part sacrament that includes conversion, confession, and celebration. Through these acts, we encounter God’s forgiveness, and the power to forgive others.

Confirmation is the mature Christian commitment of the believer. It also confers the gift of the Holy Spirit

Marriage is the sacred, irrevocable union that so often precedes divorce. 🙂 Clearly, I have a lot more to say on the subject than that.

As for the Holy Orders, think ordination of the clergy, and all the rights and responsibilities that entails.

The anointing of the sick is somewhat mislabeled. We most commonly know it as extreme Unction, or last rites. It is not so much about “arise and walk” as it is “I commend your spirit into the hands of Jesus”. However, there is an element of mental and physical healing involved.

That covers the basics of Christian Sacraments. Over the next several posts, I will discuss the specifics of each. The format will be for me to disclaim the aspects I find problematic, then to redefine, or even suggest a completely different sacrament to replace the traditional one that may have lost its meaning and value over the years. Even theists might get something out of this series of posts. 🙂 I most certainly will.

David Johnson

(Book Review) A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

When last we spoke, I promised to write a post dealing with sacraments if I did not get distracted by anything else.  Color me distracted. 🙂

Lunch with a group of friends (the friends, not lunch) convinced me that I should learn to appreciate the “now”.  I confessed that I didn’t even really understand that concept.  One of them suggested “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle.

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Being the iFanatic that I am, I whipped out my iPad and had most of the first chapter read before I got home.

A few pages into it, I was convinced Tolle was already hopelessly wrong.  I kept reading, and decided to re-read everything up to that point.  It turns out I was wrong, but not hopelessly.  There is hope for me yet.  I have a lot of preconceptions to shed before I fully appreciate everything he is trying to say.  Even as the first chapter comes to an end, I am starting to let go of those preconceptions and just take in the words.

Even though I labeled this post a book review, this is most certainly not.  Rather, from time to time, I will blog my experience of reading the book as I am doing now.  Fear not, I will continue that post on sacraments I have in draft.  I suspect, hope, there will be less venom the longer I post.  I just wanted you to know that there is more to my life and posts than harsh religious polemics, though I do find them rather cathartic.

More to come…

Eckhart, take me away…

Beyond Scripture Part 4: Marginalizing the Message

Before launching into the main theme of what I hope to be the final segment in this series on scripture, I want to clarify and tidy up a few loose ends. I like scripture. I have spent my life studying it. I continue to study it and read books written by people who study it. I actually believe it should be taught in schools with a few caveats. The bible is one of the most important pieces of literature the world has ever known. As a fan of literature, I wish more people knew it in that light.

I do not have a problem with the bible as literature. As literature, no wars were ever fought, no crusades undertaken, no eccentric old men and women burned as witches, no land ever declared sacred, no superstition about life and death ever troubled a mentally disturbed soul. no child was ever traumatized by threats of Hell, no women ever subjugated, no slaves ever taken and beaten into submission because of the bible being read and understood as a brilliant work of literature.

In addition, no one ever believed false things about the universe such as a three-tiered universe, a directed, perfect creation completed in six, literal days, the sun revolved around the earth, evolution of the species is a lie of the devil, sickness was caused by sin and cured by prayer and bleeding out the evil spirits, etc; none of these ideas were ever believed and acted on due to understanding the bible as literature.

Perhaps millions have died needless deaths, and hundreds of years of human knowledge has been irretrievably lost, not because we thought of the bible as poetry and allegory, but because the bible was taken seriously as a sacred book by which society must shape itself, and around which citizens must order their lives. I love the bible. I despise the unadulterated word of god. It is vital we understand the difference. One must be taught and valued as a literary treasure. The other must be marginalized out of existence.

Before we can put the bible into perspective, we must be honest about its nature. It may be a book of secular literature, but it was not written as a book of secular literature. It was written and compiled as a holy book. The Torah, Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon were intended to be sacred texts representing the holy and true words of god and his chosen prophets. These are not just books that tell us about the journey of different people who discover and understand their god. These writings are intended to inform the whole of humanity what is that good and perfect will of god. The bible as literature is toothless, and is not the subject of these essays;

The bible as the doctrinal basis for a lifelong worldview is the subject of my ire, and must be marginalized at all costs. Here are a few examples of what I mean. We began this look at the bible by noting that it started out as a collection of Jewish, tribal writings. We never considered how it became the basis of the Christian religion. This is where taking it seriously matters. The opening story tells of how humanity fell from grace. That sets up what might be considered a love story of how god did everything in his power to reconcile himself to humanity. That can only be considered a love story if you accept the story of the fall in the first place. If humanity never fell, then god’s pursuit of man reads more like “Fatal Attraction” than a love story.

The Christian scriptures open with the birth of Jesus, god incarnate in the flesh, making the ultimate sacrifice to be reconciled to humanity. Again, if the story of the fall is not taken seriously as religious truth, then the story of redemption is not only wrong, but silly. I cannot be saved if I was never lost in the first place. If the Adam and Eve story was marginalized as it should have been, there would never have been the book of Romans. Paul’s systematic theology begins with the premiss that through Adam, we die. He took original sin seriously and literally rather than literarily. As a result, Paul wrote, with a straight face, that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of god. Such words are not possible from a person who takes the Torah seriously as a holy book of facts.

The Jesus stories are an interesting collection of mythology completely unsupported by verifiable history. As John Spong would say, liberalizing the Jesus stories makes them out to be literal nonsense. Yet, Jesus was literally believed to be born of a virgin. To this day, Nuns and Priests take a literal vow of celibacy. This has filled more orphanages and created more sexual repression among the clergy to such a degree that the amount of sexual abuse as a direct result cannot be measured. How much human suffering could have been avoided if the story of Mary involved her having sex to give birth to a son like everyone else?

The miracle stories of Jesus were taken seriously rather than marginalized as literary devices. Had they been appropriately marginalized, we may not have large groups of people who speak in gibberish believing they are speaking in an unknown language of angels. Lame people may not be beating themselves up with guilt because they cannot seem to muster enough faith to just get up from their wheelchairs. And the finite nature of life might be more highly valued if we didn’t believe we would defeat death by rising again like Jesus was meant to have done.

If the priestly rituals of the Hebrew scriptures were marginalized as they should have been, trillions of dollars in tithes to the church institution would have been redirected to the charitable programs of individual choice. Instead, we were literally made to believe that god wanted us to support his priests/preachers, temples/church buildings, with our mandatory tithes/offerings. We should have laughed aloud the first time someone declared they were collecting the “Lord’s money”. Instead, we just kept writing the check to the church rather than adding a guest room in our house to take in strangers.

Instead of marginalizing the story of Jesus dying for our nonexistent sins, we eat a representation of his broken body and drink a representation of his blood into our bodies in remembrance of his literal sacrifice. We wash, and encourage others to bathe in a pool of water which represents his blood so that we might become spiritually clean.

We do these things, not because we find the bible to be a great source of literature, but because we take it for what it was always meant to be; a holy book that gives us instructions on how god expects us to live. This book should not be treated with any more reverence than the Odyssey. Yet we do. We can’t seem to help it. The book should have been marginalized long before the Christians pick it up. Now, we subject our children to it without giving them the tools to marginalize it as they should.

It is past time we stop referring to the bible as holy. We need to remove it from the sacred spot on of coffee table and replace it on the shelf next to Homer. Only then can we begin to appreciate the bible for the literary treasure it really is. Once we are able to get beyond scripture as a holy book, it should be much easier to get beyond sacraments. If I don’t get distracted, that should be my next post. Your feedback is appreciated. Private exchanges are welcome.

David Johnson

Beyond Scripture Part 3: Beyond Offensive

In part 2, I discussed how the bible was just plain wrong. Unfortunately, that is not the worst of the problems with regard to scripture. Not only is the bible factually wrong about almost everything, but it is beyond offensive. When I say, “offensive”, I do not just mean it is something that causes me personal, social discomfort. I mean it stands opposed to the mores, and values of civilized people. The bible is offensive to humanity, whether or not humanity is aware of the offense.

The whole purpose of the first three chapters of the bible is to place the blame of everything that has gone wrong, and everything that will ever go wrong squarely on the shoulders of mankind. Even acts of god are the direct result of humanity’s fall. Because we chose to sin and bring down the perfection of creation, everything that happens in nature is our fault.

Tsunami wipe out a half a million Asians from some place you can’t even locate on a map? Shame on you, and them. Our sins created the circumstances that allow disasters like tsunamis in the first place. Have a child born with a deformity or incurable disease? Shame on you. In was human sin that corrupted the natural birth processes. Have a lump that turned out to be not so benign? You know who to blame. Cancer is an evil, and all evil is a result of the fall, and the fall is the direct result of humanity’s failure, a failure in which we all share. I find that offensive.

Additionally, I find the dehumanizing moral code offensive. The third chapter of Genesis stands as justification for the subjugation of women. Eve, being punished for all women in all places for all time was made to be subject to the man. This evil started even before that. From the very creation, the woman was nothing more than an afterthought. The man was the creation. Unable to find a mate among the animals, god made him a companion from one of his bones. Eve was a gift of property, a correction of a mistake, a way to keep the man from taking up with the goats, nothing more. I find that offensive

Instead of bringing humanity together in peace and harmony, god actively separated and scattered humanity by confusing their language and driving a wedge between them. What would make him do such a thin? Were we about to build an nuclear weapon? Were we experimenting with biological weapons? Were we about to mindlessly destroy the last dinosaur? No. According to the story, we were building a tower with some kind of religious significance. These were people who had not yet discovered bronze, and maybe not fire. Yet, god became so agitated by the project, he did not just sabotage it, he destroyed the very basis of human unity. To this day, we are still trying to learn how to communicate and get along for the betterment of the race.

When it comes to destroying human unity, god was just getting started. He pitted one tribal faction against another. He chose a specific tribe to call his own, to be their god and for them to be his people. He required them to be social separatists from their neighbors. Purity of race was more important than cooperation among men. He made a point to declare his people as being set apart from the rest of the world. This would define his kingdom of priests throughout all of scripture. The evil done as a result of separatism and exclusivism is beyond offensive.

Much of the violence against homosexual males and sexually promiscuous women can be laid directly at the feet of the scriptural all mighty. I understand that these prejudices run so deep within us, we do not even recognize the problem I am underscoring with this category. Surely, we don’t have to treat gays and sluts like people? Right? Wrong! People who consider themselves good Christians are guilty of some of the worst atrocities against humans just because of sexual preference. A woman choosing a lifestyle of non-monogomy is a sexual preference, not an obscenity. Yet, the bible describes such people as deviant, profane, obscene, unnatural, whores and whoremongers. The verdict is “guilty”. The sentence is death. That’s right, death! God can work with a rapist, but can’t tolerate sexual freedom. Offensive!

Never once did the bible condemn or try to eradicate the institution of slavery. On the contrary, god seemed to command it on occasion. Rather than being condemned, it was regulated. I cannot imagine the god of the bible was on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. That was the side intent on stamping out slavery. Nowhere in the bible was that position taken by the side of the angels.

Finally, there is the matter of reward and punishment. I don’t know if life will ever be fair, the the god of the bible most certainly is not. His punishments tend towards the harsh side. Worse, the generational side. Before humanity left the garden, the entire race of humans, one of the animals in particular, and all of nature in general was forever cursed. Later, god favored cursing certain sinners to the third and fourth generations. We all suffer the consequences of original sin. But god is not just satisfied with visiting the consequences on the innocent, he revels in the severity of the punishment.

The punishment for the first dietary slip-up was death. Only a few pages after that and god is visiting death by flood on all but eight people. He saved more animals than humans. In war, he preferred his people to commit genocide. The exceptions were when he wanted them to rape the virgins and take them as captive wives. For taking a census, King David was magnanimously given a choice of three punishments, all to be visited on the innocent. The punishments ranged from famine, to an angel of death slicing through the kingdom. Ultimately, the punishment was so cruel, even by god’s low standards, he had to call it off early. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

For daring to defy the order to let go of the Hebrew slaves, (it was the Hebrew part that was the problem, not the slavery), god inflicted the Egyptians with ten hellish plagues that reigned terror on the innocent as well as the guilty. The final plague was specifically designed to cause an outcry of tears, the likes of which had not been seen before or since. The most innocent of innocent were targeted, and only the innocent. God murdered the first-born son of all the Egyptians, even those of the servants.

Beyond offensive!

I could go on in this manner for some time, but I believe the point has been made. The bible is not only factually wrong in every important detail, it is offensive to the human conscience not tainted by sociopathy. I know if feels like I have only be cherry-picking the worst of the offenses, but even the good bits are offensive in more subtle ways. There are plenty of stories of Jesus healing the lame, deaf, and blind, even raising the dead. These seem like good stories of hope we can share with those in need of healing. But a closer look tells us that we are dealing with a god who has demonstrated that he can heal any malady he chooses for any reason he chooses, yet chooses not to do so. Instead, he choses to allow children to be born blind, lame, and deaf, even still-born. Christians consider themselves well-rewarded when they are allowed to wake up to a new morning, but at any moment, could be punished with the death of an innocent child. Through it all, we must approach him with humility and thanksgiving.

I find that unspeakably offensive. It is past time we stop giving the many offenses of the bible a pass and start calling them what they are. The bible must be exposed for the factually wrong, and morally offensive book it truly is. Only then, can we begin the process of marginalizing it, and decreasing its influence.

(Continued in Part 4)

David Johnson

Beyond Scripture Part 2: Just Plain Wrong

In the next few installments, I briefly outline three reasons why the bible must be eliminated from serious discourse that affects social development. Those three reasons are that the bible is wrong, offensive, and marginal.

First, the bible is wrong. It is not a little wrong here and there. it is not wrong on a few tangential facts but right on the overarching theme. It is not wrong only in matters of disputable translation. In every, major, verifiable truth claim that can be measured by science, physics, biology, archeology, anthropology, and history, the bible is just plain wrong, with the exception of the occasional, accidental, tangential fact. It may site a historical place name location, or person. But in all matters of scholarly accuracy, the bible is just plain wrong.

This subject deserves and entire volume or ten, rather than a blog post. Since many such volumes have been written, I will not recreate them here. I will recommend you pick up, “The Bible Unearthed” by Israel Finkelsein. It’s a good start. What I will attempt to do is make an appeal to rationality and let others appeal to scholarship.

I will begin making my case about the wrongness of the bible by addressing an objection that I, myself, have made. There are many different types of truth. Rather, truth can be packaged in more ways than just the facts. There is truth in allegory, fable, parable, and myth. Sometimes, more truth can be found in these literary forms than in the most accurate histories. It is important to understand that when I say that the bible is wrong, I am taking these literary forms into account. Removing the bible from the realm of literal interpretation does nothing to make it more reliable.

Excessive scholarship is not required to grasp this point. It is a more mundane matter of moving goalposts. In American football, one way to score points is for one team to kick the ball from a fixed location on the field through goalposts that are also fixed on the field. The place from which the kick originates will differ with each attempt. But the goalposts are always in the same location on every regulation football field. A kicker would never miss if someone from his team could just move the goalposts to wherever the ball is headed after the kick. That does not happen in American football. It happens frequently in biblical interpretation. If one argument seems to be missing the mark, the clever apologist just moves the goalposts to ensure a score.

Growing up in the church, I learned that the bible was to be, with rare exception, taken literally as an understanding of events that actually happened in space, time, and history. In my household, it was considered more reliable than the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was expected to respectfully challenge science teachers on the blatant lies they taught that were contrary to scripture. There was no room for accepting the bible as anything less than the precise words of truth on all matters it touched.

I realize there are many who come from different traditions, and who learned to view the bible through a different lens. Even so, while they treat many portions of the bible more allegorically than I was trained to do, those types of believers tend to move the goalposts even more than fundamentalists. Also problematic is that even though many will acknowledge that portions of the bible are allegorical, they still treat the message as if it was sacred truth. We can’t have it both ways.

A good example of this is the creation stories and the Garden of Eden. Many will acknowledge these as allegorical, but go on to cite these stories as proof of a literal creation. Worse yet, while acknowledging there is no literal truth in the garden story, they, nonetheless, use it to insist that humanity is a fallen race of beings. This is exactly what I mean by moving the goalposts.

In a classic case of cognitive dissonance, more mainstream Christians are finding the courage to openly dispute the notion of a six-day creation and a 6,000 year-old universe. However, those same people vociferously insist that there was indeed a creation as declared in the first verse of the bible. They are willing to deny all of the facts about the creation as wrong. But insist the creation, itself, to which those fact build, is right. And why is it right? Because the bible says it. This, despite the fact that everything the bible has to say about that creation is admittedly wrong.

A serious question for the bible believer. When does wrong transmogrify into right? In the first several chapters of the bible, every word is wrong by every conceivable measure. What chapter and verse does it start detailing accurate, historical events? When do we go from tribal mythology to something that should be taught in science and history class? When does the bible go from silly children’s stories to the permanent foundation of an adult worldview? I suggest, NEVER!

Imagine, if you will that we are no longer talking about the bible, but about the Star Trek Technical Manual, which I happen to have. Yes, I’m a trekker. We readily acknowledge the book to be a fictitious tool of a fictitious universe. Yet, imagine at some point, showing up at a university physics class, only to find that the professor is teaching from the Star Trek Technical Manual. Suppose scientists who built medical equipment, wrote peer reviews, and did television interviews all started citing that source for their theories. Also, suppose there was a legal movement to get these fake 24th century ideas taught in school along side established science. Let us even imagine that some of the fictitious tools and theories were based on some real science. Would that make it better? No?

Yet, that is exactly where we find ourselves with the bible. Tribal mythology that presumes to tell us things about scientific reality. Though wrong in every salient detail, we are expected to treat the conclusions as correct. Why are we as Americans falling so far behind the rest of the world in science and education in general. Because from an early age, we are systematical teaching our children wrong things about the universe and their place in it. I am convinced we would be better off if our children were dropped off at Wicca gatherings than the traditional Sunday School of a mainstream church. At Sunday School, we are retarding our children’s ability to know true things about the world by teaching them from a textbook less accurate and more dangerous than the Star Trek Technical Manual.

(Continued in Part 3)

David Johnson

Beyond Scripture Part 1: Introduction

Without the bible, the Judea-Christian system of belief would not exist as we know it. In fact, there would be a completely alternate story for our modern civilization. No single collection of books have had an impact on so much of society in so many places over so long a period of time. It is not too far a stretch to say that without the bible, we would be living in a very different world.

The one thing Christians absolutely cannot get beyond and still be Christians is the bible. Many Christians who are practitioners of science have tried to go beyond magic and mystery to enter the world of empirical evidence. In the end, though, such Christians must always defer to scripture as the final court of arbitration for what is true about the world.

Even neuroscientists and biologists have tried to square their scientific profession with faith, but ultimately, must frame their findings in the light of scripture. Though such Christians tend to be considered quite liberal by the mainstream, they still are considered Christians as long as they hold on the some type of sacred interpretation of scripture.

To be clear, you can let go of a lot of things and still be a Christian by the reckoning of many. You can let go of your dogmatic convictions in denominational distinctives. You can doubt some literal interpretations such as the six-day creation and the virgin birth. You can question the efficacy of the sacraments and the primacy of the priesthood and still be considered a Christian, just barely, by many of the faithful who are eager to call you brother or sister. But make no mistake about it. Once you let go of the treatment of the bible as a sacred book, you have severed all ties to the religion of Christianity, and entered the world of the non-theist. That is the point of no return.

The bible is both religiously and culturally significant. Its religious significance is rooted in the idea that the bible was somehow, magically passed down from the mind of god to fallen humanity, in its current form. In some mysterious way, the bible is the uncorrupted words of god to humanity. To a religious person, nothing could be more important than obtaining, studying, and understanding the message from god that he personally delivered.

The bible is culturally significant because, for a long time, the only book the average person had complete access to was some translation of the bible. For many, it became more than a collection of religious doctrines. It became a sort of textbook. It was everything the common man knew about science, history, and nature. It became the basis of how children and adults learned to read and write. Faith-based interpretations of life became the basis of how we learned to reason. It is the foundation of the political and legal system of many countries. Even people who are not religious and have no reverence for scripture are affected by its influence.

Before we can begin to understand why the bible has had such an impact on secular society, we must first understand why it has such a religious impact. Our investigation must begin with the Jewish tradition. None of the Old Testament stories are Christian stories. The Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Fall, Noah and the ark, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Egyptian captivity and the Ten Commandments (both sets), Saul, David, and Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple, and the rest, are not a part of the Christian tradition. They are all, 100% Jewish in origin.

This is a rather extraordinary fact since most of the world isn’t Jewish. Digest that fact for a moment. The vast majority of the people who hold these stories sacred in some way neither bear the mark of circumcision as a sign, nor could they recite the Shabbat. Adding to the mysterious allure of these tales is the fact that they are primarily regional, even tribal in nature. In other words, they are not only Jewish stories, but exclusively Jewish stories.

The Semitic story never travels far from the center of creation. God’s promises and blessings were offered to the Jewish people. His protections were intended for the Jewish people. His commands were for the Jewish people. His everlasting covenant was with the Jewish people. Ultimate salvation would come through the Jewish people. The eternal law, both spoken and written would come to, and be filtered through the Jewish people. According to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, non-Jewish Christians owe the Jews a debt of gratitude. Even the ministry and passion of Jesus plays out an overtly Jewish drama. How did this exclusive, provincial story ever catch on and become the basis of a world-wide religion?

Naturally a meaningful essay on scripture cannot be completed in one shot, so I have decided to break this up into small segments. So far, we have acknowledged the tremendous impact the bible has had over both religious and non-religious culture. We have discovered that the bible, at least started out as a book of culturally narrow perspective. Next I will lay out my reasons for why it is vital we stop taking the bible seriously. In addition to providing a few reasons, I will also provide a few tools to help make that a reality.

David Johnson

Beyond Nature

In a previous post, I presented a number of ways in which Christianity is based in a realm beyond the time and space bound universe we call home. Christians literally think of themselves as aliens from another universe, trapped in temporal bodies of flesh, on a journey back to their native homeland somewhere beyond the stars. Though it reads like it, this is not from the manifesto of the Heaven’s Gate cult of years past. This is contemporary, mainline, Christian orthodoxy. The question becomes, how does religion go from its purely human origins to something that sounds like poorly plotted science fiction? Why would perfectly rational human beings feel more comfortable identifying themselves with an undiscovered universe than the one in which they currently live?

One of the key components of Christianity is that humans are beyond nature. We are not a part of the natural world, but rather, were inserted into it when the world was made fit for our arrival. In the same vein, the universe was made perfect and complete before we ever got here. Our arrival only added to the perfection already in progress.

The bible opens by telling us that in the beginning… “the earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep.” Had the bible ended there, science and religion would have little grounds for disagreement. From such a state, all of nature would have a long march through evolution to get to its lofty condition of today. Instead, the good book gives us a speedy creation story or two, and places humanity at the top of the perfection pyramid. From that lofty height, there is nowhere to go but down.

…And down we fell.

From there, the bible sets the stage for how humanity will forever be at odds with nature. The serpent at enmity with the woman, the woman labors to reproduce and becomes subservient to the man, and the man struggles with the earth to produce food, all are themes from the bible before we turn a half a dozen pages. We are not of this world, and are at odds with it. Every child who has ever visited a Sunday school class learned this lesson while they were still young enough to believe in Santa Clause. Before we were old enough to know what it meant, we were taught that humans were apart from, above, had dominion over nature. Whatever the substance of humanity, it is definitely not a part of nature.

Believing this has real consequences, almost all of them, destructive. I will mention three:

First, there is the damage to the human psyche. We become unnecessarily conflicted over every little thing because we are convinced that our natural component of flesh is at war with our alien nature. We become obsessed with listening to the inner voices from the other world to guide us through the maze of this one. This type of dualism produces paralyzing doubt, guilt, and self-loathing.

The doubt is obvious, as the nature-bound part of us must be constantly second-guessed by our non-corporeal essence just to keep it in check. Guilt is the natural result of not living up to the standard of perfection artificially imposed on us. Since our true essence is a perfected gift of god, the problem must lie in our fallen flesh. Since we are never perfect, we are constantly failing. Guilt is the only possible result. Naturally, carrying this much burden of unremitting guilt leads to inevitable, self-loathing.

Rather than the perfect creatures we should be, we are lowly creatures, debased before god, who judges us against his own standard of perfection. The only way to approach such a god is with humility, unworthiness, and self-loathing. A cursory examination of Christian prayer reveals the depth of how deeply our self-hatred runs.

The apostle, Paul, continues the theme throughout his writing. He tells us that the works of the flesh are wicked, while the fruits of the spirit are good. Always, the nature-bound part of humanity is cast in the role of the protagonist. For Paul, the ultimate expression of perfection is in the ultimate denial of humanity. “To live is Christ. To die is gain.” When we are indwelled, fully, by the other-worldly essence, “there is no condemnation”. Apparently, condemnation is reserved for those who insist on being only human.

Second, we become incapable of dealing with the fundamental nature of existence. The simple matters of life and death seem to be more than we can grasp. Indeed, these are simple, understandable, well-researched natural processes, about which we know a great deal. THEY ARE NOT MYSTERIES! They only become mysteries when we artificially decouple ourselves from nature.

There is no existential crisis of meaning when it comes to the birth of a puppy. We understand almost every part of the process. We do not argue that the cosmos arranged itself specifically for the birth of a particular animal. We do not agonize over why one lived and one died. We do not believe that any particular creature holds a special place in the grand scheme of the universe. While birth can be a beautiful and transformative experience, it is in no way, mysterious.

The same goes for death. We may cry over the loss of a beloved pet, but we do not generally invent stories about the eternal destiny of a beast of nature. We have all dispatched many an insect to its ignominious fate without musing over its name, marital, or parental status. We don’t consider its place in the hive of any cosmic importance, let alone, its place in the universe. We watch shows that depict one animal hunting, killing, and eating another. This serves as entertainment. It seldom stops us from enjoying our dinner.

The natural process of necrosis and decay is a matter of science, not magic. We do not anticipate the reanimation of dead animals, nor would we welcome such an event. With cold, medical precision, we know exactly how natural life begins and ends, without need of consulting priests or mystics. Life processes only become a mystery when contemplating life beyond nature.

Our existential crisis comes as a result of believing that we belong to a category separate and apart from nature. Yes, we know about life and death when it comes to animals, but what about us? Since we view our lives as something that comes from outside of nature, then it must have some meaning beyond nature. That also applies to our death. I believe the majority of existential dilemmas would come to an end if we would just embrace the fact that, instead of being a little lower than the angels, we are a little higher than the apes.

Finally, the belief that we are beyond nature damages our ability to value it. Belief in our dominion over nature causes us to behave towards it in ways that are more destructive than if we believed we were an integral part of it. We will be more inclined to believe that god will clean up our messes, or that nature will bend to our superior will. We do not actually believe that we can become as extinct as the brontosaurus while the universe fails to notice our absence. This kind of hubris is dangerous.

The bigger problem is that if we believe that all human problems are caused by this world and solved by the next, then we simply will not devote the resources to making this world the paradise we believe awaits us in the next. Human issues such as poverty and social justice will never be a priority to us as it would be if we believed that this world was all we had. Dictatorial brutality will be dealt with in the next life, so why let it trouble us now? Heaven will forever be a place we anticipate, not a state of existence we work to create in the here and now. If this world really isn’t our home, then very little about it truly matters.

When mainstream religion tells us we are beyond nature, that is a sure sign that we have to move beyond religion.

David Johnson

Beyond Magic

Lately, I’ve contemplated the question of how I could have gone from devout, Judeo-Christian monotheism to non-theism.  Naturally, that led me to wonder how anyone traverses the abyss from one extreme to the other.  It seems to me, the most important ingredient a person of faith must have is magical thinking.  Every aspect of religion requires some degree of magical thinking.  If one does not have some measure of magical thinking, they simply cannot be a fully vested participant in a religious enterprise.

By “magical thinking”, I mean the propensity to accept on faith, things that cannot be empirically  proven.  I recognize that there are many things that, as of yet, cannot be empirically proven.  However, there is a big difference between acknowledging that we do not know something, and reformulating the unknown into a faith-based fact.  The transformation from the empirically unknown to faith-based certainty is magical thinking.

Here is a short list in no particular order, of common religious ideas  that require heavy doses of magical thinking:

  • There is a personal, all powerful, all, knowing, all loving, all present god
  • You can talk to god both verbally and telepathically
  • He can hear you
  • He can affect change on your behalf
  • He keeps track of your thoughts and actions and judges them against an exacting standard of good and evil
  • He knows everything there is about you
  • He deeply cares about your worship practices and beliefs
  • He hears and loves your praise, and punishes your blasphemy
  • You will spend eternity after death in paradise or torment
  • The bible is the uncorrupted word of god
  • Humanity is a fallen species because of sins committed by the first humans
  • Jesus is god incarnate
  • Jesus was born of a virgin who was inseminated by the Holy Spirit
  • Jesus miraculously rose from the dead
  • We, too, will rise from the dead regardless of the disposition of our remains

The sad truth is that too many people will look at this list and see nothing magical about it.  For them, it is just the way the universe is.  The fact of these religious matters is as well-established to them as any fact of science.  They are content to forfeit curiosity about how these things are possible, and accept them, without question, as mysteries beyond human reckoning.

We cannot have any meaningful, societal discourse if over half the population deems magic and mystery on equal footing with empirical data.  In that scenario, one person says “evolution”.  It goes through the filter of religious mystery, and is translated as “creation”.  “Mind” becomes “spirit”, “wonder” becomes “worship”, and “uncertainty” becomes “faith”.  Through the magical looking glass of faith-based mystery, science and reason give way to hope and other-dimensional speculation.

I believe we tend to underestimate just how other-worldly traditional religious claims are.  Time and space are creations of a being untethered from time or space.  Rather, he resides safely outside of both.  He gave us bodies of this world, but a life-force from a different realm.  He can send water, fire, or any other weather pattern directly from Heaven as opposed to natural, atmospheric conditions.  Angels, other-worldly beings, seem to have the ability to come and go from here to there.  Demons are also a part of the powers and principalities of which the apostle, Paul warned.

These other-worldly creatures can not only come and go, but incarnate and indwell the human host.  From another realm, gods and demons influence our minds and sway our opinions in their cosmic game of chess.  We send our prayers upward to the place beyond space and time, and receive answers and blessings downward from that same timeless, placeless, realm.

Jesus was the incarnation of god come down from Heaven to live here on earth for a little while before returning again to the place beyond.  Our hope is said to be in that place beyond, not on this earth or in this reality.  At the time of our death, we are to look forward to traveling through the realms to the other-worldly land of the spirit.  In that realm, we will be sent in one of two directions.  We will either live in an other-worldly paradise with god, or suffer in an other-worldly torture chamber with the devil.  Either way, our story begins and ends, and is ultimately decided in a place other than the universe we currently call home.  Stephen Spielberg does less with other-worldly themes than the purveyors of Christianity.

The orthodox Christian literally believes that they are not of this world.  Without hesitation or blush, they will lyrically profess that this world is not their home.  They’re just a’passin through.  Their treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.  The Angels beckon them towards Heaven’s open door.  And they can’t feel at home in this world anymore.  That is not the song of a marginalized Christian-based cult.  That is the ideology that runs directly down the center of modern, Christian orthodoxy.  How do you have a serious dialogue about the great issues of this world with a person who honestly believes they are aliens from another universe with concerns that trump anything that might be happening in this insignificant, temporary stop along the way back home?  In my experience, such discourse is simply not possible.

This other-worldly fetish, if found in one person, would be sufficient cause for our pity, and grounds for institutionalization.  When found in millions of people, it is orthodox Christianity and requires our deference.

In another post, I will explore, among other themes, the self-loathing I believe is at the heart of the religious yearning to be something other than human from a place other than earth.  I believe we cannot fully understand the destructive nature of religion without coming to grips with this troubling aspect of it.

More to come…

David Johnson

Non-Theism

I’m not a fan of the term, “atheist”. It is not the word, itself, as much as the connotation. It has become a bad word that describes a bad person. It suggests the absence of something vital and necessary. To a devout Christian, an atheist is practically subhuman. At the very least, such a person is a fool, “for the fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no god.'” I would like to propose a different term, one that does not carry the dehumanizing overtone, but is still accurate. I propose the term, non-theist.

As I no longer have a theistic worldview, I count myself among non-theists. This news will come as a disappointment to many, as I grew up in the church and was a devout, conservative Christian for most of my life. It has been quite a journey. Going from monotheism to non-theism entails much more than the belief in one fewer god. For me, it is the abandonment of faith as a means of understanding and interacting with the world. It is not that I don’t believe in god; it is that I don’t believe in believing.

Moving beyond religion is the next, great challenge of my life. Just as religion has defined me up until now, non-religion will play a defining role in how the remainder of my life unfolds. What follows will be a series of essays and general ramblings on the subject that might, someday, become the bones of a book I have been meaning to write. You are more than welcome to come along for the ride.

David Johnson