Beyond Apathy

The time has come for me to get involved. I can no longer afford to care about issues from the comfort of my office chair, which is not really all that comfortable. I have had the opportunity to join up with a group called Faith in Action. Though it is not faith that I care to put in action, it is passion for a better world.
On Tuesday, May 8th, we will be involved in an action with a view towards ending the practice of macing students in public schools, which happens to be a big problem in Birmingham. The other action we hope to address is the practice of predatory lending. This happens in the form of payday, or title loan lending. These institutions prey upon the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. The interest on these loans are upwards of 450%. We believe that Birmingham can do better.
It will do better!
Anyway. This post was mostly to encourage those sitting on the sidelines to find something you are passionate about and get involved.  I will periodically let you know how it is going.
David Johnson
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Beyond Prejudice: Race (Part Four)

I closed my previous post by suggesting I would spend equal time discussing what blacks have to fear in America.  I changed my mind.  It would seem self-evident that historically, and presently, blacks have much to fear.  Since I used an example involving a neighborhood in my last post, I will provide on example to start this one.

A working class, black woman with two children and no husband, living from paycheck to paycheck, sees a mini van pull up to the house next door.  Filing out of the moving van is a white couple with two children.  The day before, a professional moving company stopped by to fill the house with furniture and boxes of personal belongings.  This is clearly a family of privilege.  Why are they moving into this neighborhood?  It is not a bad neighborhood, but it is old and neglected.  If it was not, most of the people living there wouldn’t be able to afford their mortgage and property taxes.

Now, a new class of people are moving in.  A word comes to mind that scares you to death: gentrification.  This was once a rich, white neighborhood forty years ago.  It was abandoned and left to ruin.  Now, they are coming back to retake the neighborhood.  Houses are being repaired, along with streets, sidewalks.  A tennis court is going in, as well as a park and plenty of green spaces.  It won’t be long before the property value rises so high, new working class families will not be able to moving in, and property taxes will expand to the point where current residents will have to move out.  Even what appears to be a positive change to the neighborhood can be cause for fear.

However, the same warning applies.  Not all caucasians are the same.  It was caucasians that enslaved blacks, true.  But, it was also caucasians that freed them, and lost much blood and life in the effort.  Not all whites are upper-middle class.  Some of the most impoverished people in America are white.  White people commit crimes and perform acts of valor.  As with blacks, it is impossible to tell much about the person based on race and ethnicity.  In America, anyway, a book cannot be judged by its cover.  People cannot be judged by the hue of their skin.

That makes life considerably more complicated.

Now, we have to evaluate people on the basis of their actual culture, not their presumed culture.  If skin color tells us nothing about the culture of a person, then we are forced to withhold judgement until actual signs of culture appear.  We also have to ask ourselves what constitutes culture, and which parts of our culture are worth defending at all costs.  I suspect most people have not done this type of evaluation.

In a church setting, music and preaching styles are the two biggest factors that define culture.  In a stayed, refined, high-church setting, all are welcome as long as they are willing to abide by the rules of the majority culture.  You should not walk into such a church expecting to transform the choir into something you saw in “Sister Act”.  You should probably keep your loud, vocal flourishes and exuberant “amens” to yourself if you want to fit in.  Your race has nothing to do with it.  Challenge the dominant culture and you can expect to be shown the door, or at least offered the cold shoulder.

Churches that manage to create some type of cultural fusion are the ones most likely to be multicultural.  I find that Charismatic churches do a pretty good job at this.  Unless churches are willing to bend a little on music and preaching styles, they will likely be, predominately, a single-race church. They value their culture over the fellowship of diversity.  I believe that when musical preference becomes more important than the fellowship of other human beings, the church has hopelessly lost its way.

Let me be clear.  Even by its own lights, such a church is no longer a bible-based institution.  It is merely a culture club for certain types of believers.  To be even more clear, to Hell with such institutions! Anyone who places minor cultural preferences above actual human beings has lost what it means to be both a church, and human.

 Unfortunately, this is the state of the Christian church in America. That is not to say that all churches suffer from this melees, but a startling number do.  We have elevated the God of preference to the height of idolatry! I have no room in my heart, nor politically correct words for idolaters!  
What people need to be asking themselves is, are my cultural markers important enough to warrant separation from the fellowship of other human beings. If not, then it’s time to start weaning yourself off of your cultural preferences that have reached the state of idolatry.  Race-based preferences are not just another form of idolatry, rather it’s a symptom of idolatry. It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with fear, mostly of cultural loss.
In order to overcome race-based prejudices, we need to redefine culture.  Culture should be about how we live up to our calling as humans.  Do we value education and curiosity about the way the world works?  Do we value the life and happiness of our neighbors around the corner and around the world?  Are we willing to share our surplus with those who have a deficit?  Can we pursue our own happiness while not hindering others from doing the same?  Can we see and appreciate the full humanity in a stranger, especially one less fortunate than ourselves?  These are the issues that define the culture of an intelligent species worthy of evolutionary advancement.  If the most important cultural markers for us are a persons preference for entertainment, dialect, and apparel, the meteor that crashes into the earth and ends all life as we know it can’t come soon enough.
David Johnson

Beyond Prejudice: Race (Part Three)

Fear Factor

In the previous post, I pointed out a couple of scenarios where race-based fear was unfounded, and again, where such fear was perfectly reasonable.  The real challenge is how do we determine which is which.  As we know, race-based fears are a shorthand for cultural expectation.  Some races/ethnicities go out of their way to be homogeneous.  I don’t think they ever fully succeed, but they try.  The Hebrew scriptures presented ancient Jews in this way.  For a long time, the Japanese were somewhat monolithic.  If you knew one, you knew them all.  I believe it was the Chinese who had the saying, “The nail that stands out, gets pounded.”  In those cases, it was possible to make a race-based generalization as that is exactly what you were supposed to do.

Blacks in America have never been of that ilk.  There was never a time when you could look at a black person and know what he would be like, culturally.  Not all negroes taken from Africa were of the same tribe.  In fact, it was Africans responsible for selling other Africans to slave traders.  If anything, the differences have widened since blacks have been in America.

Different blacks deployed different strategies to deal with their new, slave reality.  Some managed to ingratiate themselves with their white masters and become useful servants in the home.  Those servants were highly prized and treated with something akin to respect and dignity.  They had opportunities to learn skills that the field slave would never possess.

The field slave grew strong and physically, if not mentally imposing.  Even among the field slaves, you had the ones who made peace with their situation, and those who were constantly bent on escape, and undermining the system that made them slaves in the first place.

This is not to stand as a substitute for history.  Rather, it is just a reminder that there was never a time when all blacks were the same.  We are even less homogenous today than we were then.  We are thugs and gentlemen, our IQs range from 80 to 180, and more.  Our musical tastes go from rap to opera.  We drive Chevy, Caddy, Ford Audi, Dodge, and Lexus.  Sometimes the colors we wear represent gang colors, other times, it just happened to be the color of whatever was cheap at Walmart that day.

We are People of faith and non-theists.  Some of us have never watched a show on BET.  Some of us have impeccable elocution, and a vocabulary that tends towards the sesquipedalian.  In short, being black in America can mean just about anything.  Ethnicity tells us nothing about black culture for one very good reason; there is no black culture!  There is only culture.

I have met as many unsavory whites as blacks, who can bring down property values faster than a dot.com bubble can burst.  There are as many blacks who would put their lives on the lines to save a white stranger as there are who would menace one.  Trying to tell by color, who is culturally compatible and who is not, is a little like trying to tell who is gay with just a casual glance.  It simply can’t be done.

So if we cannot judge by ethnicity who is safe and who is not, how can we judge?  We must, first, stop using race and ethnicity as cultural shorthand.  As cultures blend, that method becomes less reliable.  The real challenge is defining the culture you want so desperately to preserve.  It is also reasonable to ask if that culture should be preserved at all costs.

I have spent a little time describing what some white people fear.  Next time, I will spend equal time describing what black people fear from whites.  Those concerns are just as valid, and just as wrong for the same reasons.

Till next time…

David Johnson

Beyond Prejudice: Race (Part Two)

In my first post on prejudice, I said that the heart of prejudice is fear.  This is no different for race-based prejudice.  So, the real question that needs to be answered is, what is it about racial differences we fear.  We can safely eliminate skin color as a candidate.  no sane person is afraid of the hue of your skin.  They are not even afraid of your particular ethnicity.  In other words, race-based prejudice has little, if anything, to do with race.

Remember, prejudice is a kind of shorthand for life situations.  We rarely prejudge anything based on nothing.  We often prejudge based on insufficient evidence.  But that is not the same as nothing.  Insufficient, or inaccurate evidence can be remedied by better information and experience.

In my own life, I am quite prejudice against certain breeds of dog.  I happen to believe that some are too difficult to train, and some are to naturally aggressive to be safe to keep as pets.  In time, I can be proven wrong on both counts.  But, for now, when I am walking in my neighborhood and encounter certain types of dogs roaming free, I will react with fear and move to self-preservation mode, even if that dog happens to be the friendliest dog in the neighborhood.  Prejudice is pre-judgement triggered by fear fed by prior information that may or may not be true.  It is not wrong.  It is human nature, and how we survive.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, we need to ask ourselves what it is people are really afraid of, and why.  Race triggers a prejudgment, based on fear, fueled by prior information.  This is the anatomy of race-based prejudice.  At the heart of all race-based fears is the loss of culture.  There are other factors, but I think that is the big one.  Allow me to offer a few examples:

A new person moves into the house next door.  There goes the neighborhood.  You know nothing about this person accept race.  The only person you saw was a black male between ages 21 and 30.  Unconsciously, you filter that information through your mental library for all the “facts” you know about young, black, males.  Information starts coming at you at the speed of thought: drugs, loud music, criminal, low education, the hood.  “Oh my goodness!  This place is turning into a hood!”

The sad truth is that these are not unreasonable fears.  As a black male who has lived in the hood, and other, predominately black neighborhoods, I know exactly what the average white person might fear in that situation.  Frankly, I fear the same things.  Ironic, isn’t it.

Now, let’s complicate the situation a bit further.  Looking out of your window, you see a black woman about the same age as the male.  You assume it is his wife.  You notice rings on fingers.  Perhaps this is not just some baby-mamma.  Perhaps this is a traditional young couple with traditional values.  You feel a little better about the situation, a little.

Finally, you notice a couple of children about the same age as yours: four and six.  They are just as cute as buttons.  Though I have no idea why people think buttons are so cute.  The children are tired and excited, all at the same time.  Under the circumstances, they seem quite well behaved.  You hear bits of conversation, and realize they are speaking the King’s english as opposed to some mangled, ebonics version of english.  Your visions of drug dealers and loud music fade to the background.  You decide to wait and see how it goes.

Alter the situation ever so slightly, and you get all of the old fears, and more.  It is a young black man, but this time, no wife or children.  Rap music is thumping from the moving van, and a couple of “homies” get out of the van to help with the move.  Whatever dialect they are speaking, it is loud, obnoxious, and definitely not the King’s english.

You are a single, white female in your early fifties.  This does not look good.  Time to call a real estate agent, or a security firm.  Are these thoughts unreasonable?  Certainly not!  Might her fears still be wrong?  Absolutely!  The problem is not the race-based prejudice.  It is determining which fears are valid and which are unfounded.

That is where I will leave it for now.  Next time, we will consider the fear factor: how to judge between legitimate concerns, and harmful, mischaracterizations.

David Johnson

Beyond Prejudice: Race

Of all the various types of prejudice out there, race is the most difficult to discuss in public.  It is the most polarizing, and most intractable of all types of prejudice.  Yet, I have had a change of heart on the subject since I first started crusading for racial diversity in the church.  Truth be told, I have had several changes of heart, enough to keep a transplant doctor busy for life. 🙂

There have been times when I felt like the end of the problem was within reach, and would be experienced in my lifetime.  On other occasions, I felt like there was no solution to the problem and it is just a part of human nature that cannot be altered.  Today, I am a bit more optimistic.  I have come to believe that the problem is not what we think it is.

When we think of issues dealing with race, we automatically think of racism.  For the sake of this post, I am going to ask you to expunge that notion from your mind.  I have come to believe that the vast majority of problems we have with race have very little to do with classical racism.  Classical racism is more about biology than cultural dissonance.  It is a belief that ethnicity is the key factor of genetic excellence.  That, in turn, suggests that genetic excellence is the key to taxonomical superiority.

On the surface, this is not as bad as it sounds.  Taxonomically, I am superior to my dog.  My cat, on the other hand, might beg to differ, but she would be wrong.  In a sense, this feeling of taxonomic superiority on the basis of genetic makeup is at the heart of classical racism.  Classical racism is not evil.  It is just a matter of bad science.

You would have to know me personally to know just how hard it was to key those last couple of sentences.  I have operated under the assumption that racism, in and of itself, is a great evil that needs to be defeated at any cost.  I know I am not alone in feeling this way.  But I am now, firmly convinced that is the wrong perspective.

First, there is the practical matter of defining racism as evil. Once something so common is defined as evil, it becomes untouchable.  You cannot reason with an evil person.  you cannot turn a person from evil to good by the power of your reasonable argumentation.  Evil does not yield to reason.  Once something is deemed evil, the only way to deal with it is to isolate and exclude it from your life, or kill it like an exterminator kills termites.  Even animal activists don’t try to reason with termites.  They just hire someone to exterminate them.  If classical racism is evil, then we should be at war, not at WordPress.

As a practical repercussion to labeling racism evil, no one is a racist.  To admit to being a racist is to admit to being evil.  Sure, everybody knows a few racists, but no one is, themselves, a racist.  The problem can only ever be an intellectual exercise.  Trust me, my mind gets more exercise than my body ever will. I am not in this to win the gold medal for mental gymnastics.

No!  I am convinced that we have to remove racism from any kind of moral judgement if we are to address it.  There is a difference between bad science and evil intent.  I am not unaware of racism’s dark history.  But we must divorce ourselves from our emotional reaction to an emotionally charged subject if we are ever to make any progress.

One of the ways I suggest we do this is to stop using the word, “racism” or “racist”.  These are fighting words.  They have lost all connection with biology, and have just become a part of our common vernacular of hate speech.  I suggest a slightly less emotionally charged term like, “race-based prejudice”.  That is more accurate for describing the social malaise of the modern era.  We all have prejudices.  It is unfortunate that some of those prejudices are triggered by race, but there is no getting around it.  That does not mean the situation is hopeless; far from it.

I may be showing my naiveté, but I do not believe there are that many classical racists left in the world.  They are in the same category as Flat-earthers.  They’re out there, but they are few and far between.  Our race-based prejudices have nothing to do wit genetic excellence.  Frankly, most people do not have the education to be classical racists.  Prejudging someone based on the color of their skin is not classical racism.  It is just another type of prejudice, like religious prejudice.

A key difference, however, is that religious people actually hope they can, by reason or artillery, change the mind and nature of someone who is religiously wrong.  There is hope for conversion, either by the word or the sword.  We do not just evangelize to save souls, but to make them: the lost others, like us.  In doing so, we validate ourselves.

Racial prejudice can never succumb to the best efforts of evangelism.  We are born with our ethnicity.  Our skin tone was mostly written on our DNA long before we could spell DNA.  If people are truly prejudiced against certain skin tones, then all is lost.  Love it or hate it.  The world will always be filled with a variety of skin tones, none of which is selectable.

I, however, do not believe race-based prejudice has anything to do with skin tones or ethnicity.  The reason the war against race-based prejudice has gone so badly is because we are fighting the wrong war.  We do not understand the real problem.  Once we do, I believe more people will gain the optimism that has so recently come to me.

In the next installment, I will describe what I believe to be the real problem.  Stay tuned.

David Johnson

Beyond the new iPad

I couldn’t help but notice that readership has slacked off over the last couple of days.  Now that the iPad reviews are out, I suspect a lot of people are a bit preoccupied with the new hotness.  I am actually ready to post my thoughts on race, but feel compelled to wait until Sunday morning, after the initial iPad frenzy has died down.

If even three commenters, either from here or Facebook, suggest I go ahead and post on race, I will go ahead and do it.  Otherwise, my initial impulse is to get beyond the new iPad before diving into such a huge topic.  Thoughts?

Beyond Labels

I have a confession to make.  It is taking me much longer to compose this series or posts on prejudice than I anticipated.  I thought I might knock out the entire subject in two of three posts at the most.  It took me four posts to give a proper introduction to religious prejudice.  Racial prejudice is a lot harder.  It should be easier in some ways, as I have devoted much of my life to the subject.  But, that is part of the problem; I have information overload.

My typical stream of consciousness style of blogging seems inappropriate for a subject this important.  So, I guess what I am getting at is that I need just a little more time to come up with the right approach for such a sensitive issue as racial prejudice.  Thank you for your patience.  As a primer to the subject, I will write a paragraph or two about labels.  This is not a full treatment on the subject.

The one thing I want to say about the subject is that ALL labels are bad.  All labels are not only bad, but dehumanizing.  They are a way of removing the human from the equation so that we can deal with a person, impersonally.

In war, we do not kill people.  No human being has ever been killed in war.  Instead, we kill Japs, Chinks, squint-eyes, rag-heads, barbarians, monsters, enemies, and the like.  Once we learn to see the person on the other side of the gun barrel as something other than a person, I gets a lot easier to kill it.

This same dynamic works for all types of things where hate and distrust are involved.  Rather than acknowledging a difference of opinion with another human being who might have a valid point, we are forced to deal with conservatives, liberals, moderates.  Religiously, we deal with Baptists, Catholics, and Mormons.  Once we have them categorized into a set of creeds, we no longer have to consider their humanity.  To bring this point home, I grew up in a denomination that believes that everyone outside of that denomination is going straight to Hell.  Denominational labels were the difference between possible, eternal life, and certain, eternal damnation.

Even the labels we consider positive are bad for much the same reason.  They dehumanize the ones we label.  We don’t idolize talented entertainers; we idolize stars and superstars.  Once a person becomes a star, they no longer have the rights of a normal human.  They are hounded, relentlessly.  We feel we have the right to know every detail of every moment of their lives.  Privacy does not apply to stars; it only applies to humans.  It is not a stretch to say this very attitude is what killed Princes Diana.

Racial labels are the ultimate, dehumanizing labels.  Race does not just lend itself to prejudice, but dehumanization.  Food for thought.

I’ll be back in a day or two to pick up the thread.  Comments are welcome and appreciated.

David Johnson

Beyond Religious Prejudice (Part 4)

(Sorry about the numbering a pagination.  Things do not always translate well from Word)

Perhaps I reached for that depression medicine a little too soon. J

There is hope, yet: at least in my house.  I went a little auto biographical in my last post and talked about how religious prejudice persists even in my own house.  My wife dropped me off at my non-religious church of choice before heading off for her faith-based church… or so I thought.  Moments after I settled in class with a fresh cup of coffee, in walks my wife.  I expressed some bit of undignified shock, but was happy to see her.  On the way home she told me why she came back.  She said something about modeling the love of Christ to those without faith.  Great!  Now, I’m a mission field.  But it’s a start.  She crossed an important barrier for the sake of our community.  This may have been the most courageous thing I have ever seen her do.

Now for those solutions…

I have four ideas on a subject that has seen little progress over the ages.  I think it will require the input of more than my four ideas, but here they are:

  1. Overcome the fear.  Earlier, I said that all prejudice is based on some kind of fear.  While that is not always a bad thing, it is a bad thing when it is always.  We cannot go through life in constant fear of everyone and everything.  I understand the survival instinct, but we have to come to grips with the fact that none of us is going to make it out of this life alive.  Whether ill health or a stray bullet intended for someone else, something is going to get us.  Fear of that unknown something only diminishes life; it does little to enhance it.

Telling people to get over their fear is easy; doing it is hard.  But, there are some strategies that can help.  It seems that almost all children are afraid of the dark at a certain age.  In my case, I was convinced that monsters were waiting to get me the moment the lights went out.  My oldest brother would get up in the night with me to go to the bathroom or get some water.  He was always fearless.  As long as he was there, the monsters couldn’t get me.

However, at some point in a person’s life, their big brother is not there to go with them to frighten off the monsters.  Eventually, I had to go to the bathroom bad enough that the monsters and I would just have do battle if that’s what it took.  As it happens, I made it that night, and every other night.  It turns out that the monsters were just as afraid of me as they were of my big brother.  It eventually dawned on me that there were monsters of which to be afraid.  Fear can be overcome when the motivation is strong enough.

My wife and I want a healthy marriage.  That is a strong motivation.  Back when I was a faithist, I took a job as the piano player and music director of a United Methodist Church.  I needed the money.  Motivation.  That experience led me to experience other denominations that I had written off as hopeless.  I wanted to get to know people outside of my limited world.  Motivation.  I have clawed my way from my religious beginnings as a small child in a conservative church, through a large swath of religion, and out through the other side.  Each step of the way, there was fear to overcome, and motivation enough to overcome it.

I learned that the people I feared were just like me, for the most part.  Where we differed, there was room for negotiation.  Where we were alike, there was brotherhood in places I didn’t believe possible.  But it was not enough for me to overcome my fear.  I had to help others do the same.  By my going to places that people like me usually do not go, they had a chance to experience someone like me in a safe environment.  To their great surprise, they found that there was little to fear in me just as I was learning the same about them.  Sometimes, our religious communities take the place of the big brother who holds our hand in the dark.  It is time we grow up and venture into the unknown.  Visiting, even participating in other types of religions is not so frightening once we learn that there are no monsters to get in our way.

  1. We must pursue a common humanity.  In my first post on the subject, I used an example of three fictional, agrarian churches to make my point.  At the end, I said that they all wanted to grow their crops.  In my next post, I challenged that assumption, suggesting that for many religious people, there are some things more important than growing crops, such as attaining Heaven, avoiding Hell, or wiping out all the ill-behaved infidels.

What I am suggesting is that we find our common humanity and get back to common, human goals.  At some point, we must lay aside the otherworldly beings that we are desperately trying to please, and pursue our common humanity.  In my example, if growing crops were really the goal, the three religions would not have lasted very long.  This is true in all manner of human endeavors.

An example is raising children.  We all want to raise healthy, smart, good looking, and successful children so they can experience a prosperous adulthood.  But, there are a few exceptions to this.  In many parts of the world, a daughter is considered less than a son: less than a person.  Religion trumps the natural humanity of loving one’s progeny.  Another example would be those parents that, due to religious objections, refuse necessary medical care for their children.  They are convinced that such care would offend their god, so they would rather watch their child die a senseless death than provide the necessary care.  Here, again, religion trumps common humanity.

We all want sufficient food, clothes, shelter, and safety, yet some religions require us to sacrifice some of these things for the sake of piety.  We want more than sufficiency; we want quality offerings, and a full measure of what life has to offer.  Many religions tell us that such pursuits are wrong.  This leads to us being jealous of those who do have a full measure of the bounty of life.  We vilify them as heretics who laid up their treasure in this world as opposed to the next.  How much better might life be if we all were free to pursue the full measure of what life had to offer without the constraints of religious guilt and jealousy to dampen our common humanity?

A common moral center is also necessary in finding a common humanity.  Rape and murder cannot be acceptable anywhere if we are to experience a common humanity.  Holy wars are always unholy, regardless of who fights them.  Righteous indignation is seldom righteous.  Enough said

  1. We have to learn to practice mirror ego.  When I see you, I must also see myself in you.  If I see nothing of myself in you, then mirror ego is not in force.  I must see my fears mirrored in your furtive glances, and my joys in your smile, and my sense of humor in your laughter.  Your confusion when you try to speak my language is no different than my inability to speak yours.  Your cultural headdress is my cowboy hat.  Given a slightly different set of circumstances, you are me and I am you.  Recognizing and acting on this is what I call mirror ego.
  2. Finally, Religion, if it is to persist, must become personal.  Many Westerners talk about a personal relationship with god, then spend their lives judging others based on that personal relationship.  If a Volcanist wants to throw himself into a volcano, no problem, the religion will quickly change or die out.  Tossing in babies makes it much less personal.  Behaviorists need to spend more time working on their own behavior rather than fretting over mine.  They might just discover that in the grand scheme of things, human behavior is pretty much the same across the board.  But don’t let your choice not to eat mean give you reason to judge my enjoyment of my hamburger.

Creedal faithists are not only interested in maintaining faith in a set of creeds; they want to evangelize the world and make sure everyone is adhering to the same set of faith-based creeds.  Suddenly, there is nothing personal about that personal relationship.  Naturalists, while tending not to be very religious, seem to want everyone to be scientists.  This is unrealistic.  Not everyone is capable of seeing the world through Einstein’s eyes.  The world will always be a mysterious place for the majority of its inhabitants.  There are none so holier-than-thou as the naturalist who “understands” how the universe really works.

We must let our religion be personal, and our humanity be public.  We should remember that we were people before we were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus.  We were born human, not religious.  It is our humanity that we should wear on our sleeves, not our faith.  Forming communities around creeds is an awful thing.  According to the biblical story, god separated man at the tower of Babel for no good reason.  He continued his separatist policies when he commanded his chosen people to stay exclusive from the world.  That policy was furthered in the Christian scriptures when Paul commanded that a believer and an unbeliever should never be unequally yoked together.  The world has never recovered from religious separatism.

Instead we should form more communities around our humanity, leaving religion to the private life of the individual.  Let us stop using creeds as a test of fellowship, and instead, replace it with a humanity index.  My community of the future has no place for psychopaths, but most everything else goes.  I would rather be a friend with a happily married, gay couple, than a toxic heterosexual couple.  When we form our communities around the needs of humanity rather than the demands of personal religion, then social evolution will be ready to take a giant leap forward.

David Johnson

Beyond Religious Prejudice: Solutions (Part Three)

I know I promised a post on racial and cultural prejudice.  That will have to wait at least one more post.  I couldn’t leave religious prejudice at just stating a few of the problems.  It is 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  My wife and I go to different churches.  Yes, I go to church.  It is a non-religious, non-theistic church.  For the last few weeks, we have been in a state of compromise.  Every other week, we, each go to the church of our choice.  She chooses to go to a more traditional church; I choose to go to a Unitarian, Universalists church.  We recently had to alter the compromise.  Now, she drops me off at the Unitarian church and then leaves for her more traditional church.  We can’t even solve the problem in our own house.  Don’t expect that to hinder me from offering solutions, or at least an expanded view of the problem.

Recalling my previous example of the three churches, she is more of the mainline behaviorist, while I am more the liberal naturalist.  I want to define a fourth category.  It stands between behaviorism and naturalism.  Let’s call it faithism.  This group tends to be more conservative in belief than they are in practice.  They believe that their god is most pleased by you successfully decoding the message rather than you successfully carrying it out.  They have all manner of formulas for grace and forgiveness to deal with imperfect behavior.  What is important to them is that you believe the right things about the right things.  They do not throw babies into volcanoes.  Nor do they disfellowship a person for a few behavioral problems.  They are not completely opposed to knowledge-based reality, but are not ruled by it.  Mostly, they believe that they believe the right things, and think everyone else should believe it to.  They are very creedal.  In fact, the creed is everything to a faithist.

My wife is more of a faithist than a behaviorist.  She is more mainline than any of the other groups in my opinion.  The thing a faithist cannot stand, and in fact, fears most, is a person without faith or creed.  A naturalist like myself has a hard time with a faithist.  I have an easier time with Volcanists because at least they are doing science: bad science, to be sure, but they are trying to understand how the world works, and are following through.

A faithist has a set of core beliefs that are not subject to science and reason.  In fact, they tend to be somewhat hostile to science and reason because those positions are always questioning faith-based assumptions.  Science and reason are good as long as they do not question a faith-based assumption.  At that point, they become evil lies of the devil.  The whole point of faith is to believe in spite of better evidence to the contrary.  If one’s faith could be swayed by science and reason, then it would no longer be faith.

For a naturalist to go against what science and reason demands is to betray his own conscience.  I cannot pretend faith in things that I do not believe, or that offend the mind.  To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, “Faith is what any darn fool knows ain’t true.”  It is impossible for a naturalist to maintain faith in something he does not believe in his heart and mind.  It cannot be done, even for the sake of a happy home.

We each have fears that I do not know how to solve.  The faithist fears life without faith.  They pity the person who believes in nothing.  They don’t understand such a person.  That formula does not compute.  They fear enraging their god who requires faith, even when the faith seems irrational.  They fear the kind of world we would live in if everyone stopped believing in the unnatural.

For my part, speaking as a naturalist, I fear faith.  I fear abandoning mind, conscience, and reason.  I fear a lack of honesty about the way the world works.  I fear the hindrance of social evolution that cannot happen without fidelity to the facts.  I fear people who have abandoned reason.  Such a person is capable of anything in the name of their god.  If Abraham can walk away from his happy home to sacrifice his only son on an alter to the lord because of his faith, then faithists are more dangerous than Vocanists.  Such stories of irrational behavior are the meat and potatoes of the faithist.

Another challenge to finding a solution is an assumption I made near the end of my previous post.  I said that all of the groups want their crops to grow.  On further consideration, that may not be the case.  When religion is at play, I do not believe we do all have the same goals.  The naturalist may just want his crops to grow, the other groups are more interested in pleasing their god, or at least, not angering him.  Some want to go to Heaven; even more want to avoid Hell.  Still others want to facilitate social and biological evolution, while others just want to survive.  We most certainly do not have the same goals.

A behaviorist would rather starve than accept a gift of crops from people they consider evil.  A faithist would rather have an unhappy life with another faithist, than a happy life with a faithless, naturalist.  A naturalist would rather die than eat food produced by throwing babies in volcanoes.  It is way too simplistic to say that we all want to grow crops.  That simply isn’t true.  We all want to further our religious agendas, regardless of the consequences.  I have no solution for that.

The easy thing for me to say is that religion is the culprit, and the solution is to eradicate religion.  I happen to believe this is a big part of the solution.  Unfortunately, it is never that simple.  Most of the religious world would rather die than give up their religion.  I love my wife.  I fear her religious faithism, but I don’t want her dead.  It hurts me to even write these things.  However, as long as religion rules the day, we will all continue to look at one another askance, as we do not have the same motives, methods, or morals.

A Jihadist wants the infidel dead, and his culture of evil wiped from the face of the earth.  A behaviorist wants to change the behavior of the world by force, if necessary.  The faithist will teach our children untrue fantasies about the world to grow another generation of faithists, even if it means never finding a cure for cancer.  The apocalypticist can’t wait for this world to end in the flaming destruction it has coming to so that the new heaven and earth can come sooner.  They have little interest in making Heaven on earth.  They can’t wait for Jesus to come back in “flaming fire, taking vengeance on them than know not god!”

No, we don’t all want the crops to grow.  Religious agendas are at cross-purposes.

In the end, I have said much about the problem, and little about solutions.  Perhaps it is more difficult for me to see solutions because of the situation in my own house.  As my wife of 16 years and I prepare to go to separate churches, I can’t help but feel the situation to be intractable.  But, I promise, next time, I will try to come up with a few solutions.  I think it will be a very short post.

Now, where did I put that depression medicine…

David Johnson

Beyond Religious Prejudice: Part Two

For this post, let us build three tabernacles.  Or, if you prefer, let us construct three, imaginary, agrarian-based religions.  The first is an ultra-conservative group that believes their crops will not grow unless they sacrifice a newborn baby to the nearest volcano once a year.  These Volcanists have a low tolerance for any other group because the faithful practice of their religion is a matter of life and death.

Next, we have the Behaviorists who believe that crops do not need human sacrifice, as such.  What is required is for people to behave in a certain way.  Only then, will the god of corn and beans be appeased.  This is a much more mainline group.  They have little tolerance for the Volcanists, but even less for the third group.

That third group would be the naturalists.  They study agriculture from a more scientific basis, and have decided that the growth of crops requires neither the sacrifice of babies, nor the practice of good behavior.  They have observed that the ultra-conservative Volcanists still have poor growing seasons: about the same as everyone else.  They have also observed that in the Behaviorist group, crops grow just as well for people with notably bad behavior.  Instead, they believe that certain laws of nature have been set into motion, and it is up to us to figure out the best ways to apply them for producing good crops.  Naturally, these are the liberals of the bunch.

Each group has a strong prejudice against the other, even though, living in close proximity, they have to be cordial to one another.  They are all driven by fear, and thus, can never experience true fellowship with one another.  The conservatives scapegoat the other two groups because those groups are selfishly abstaining from the necessary infant sacrifice that is required for everyone to eat.  The liberals are deathly afraid of the conservatives because they believe that at any moment, the conservatives will come and steal the liberal’s newborns and toss them into volcanoes.  The mainline group is afraid of both sides.  They fear the extremism of the conservatives, but at least they respect it because, at least, the conservatives honor god and try to do his will the best they know how.  They fear, and sort of hate the naturalists because the mainliners believe that the liberals do not honor god, and believe that they can grow crops without the direct intervention of god.  The liberals respect neither extreme acts of religious faith, or piety.  They put their faith in their own ability to grow crops.  Not only will god punish everyone for the hubris of the Naturalists, but the Naturalists seem to repudiate everything the other two groups stand for.

Against this backdrop, we have the seeds of all manner of prejudice.  How could it not?

The conservatives believe in a god that cares more about proper religious observance than he does about human life.  The mainliner’s god cares only that you behave according to his will.  The god of the liberals has very little work to do, and demands almost nothing, having done the bulk of his work in the beginning.  The liberals tend to be a more intellectual group that considers the others superstitious and mentally lazy.  The conservatives believe the other two groups do not honor god, and rely on their own ability to do what only god can do.  For the conservatives, the arrogance of the other two groups is overwhelming.  The mainline group is caught in the middle, and clearly sees the flaws of everyone else.  They are the only ones who are levelheaded enough to understand the truth.  Everyone else is a mission field.

Now, let’s take those three groups and add about 41,000 other Christian denominations to the mix, all believing that they have the inside track on god and religion.  That is the current reality of our time.  Every one of us looks askance at the other, suspecting the other of some grave misunderstanding of god’s will, and causing the world to be a slightly worse place than it has to be.  Conservatives are still blaming killer tornados and tsunamis on sinful people who know not god, and therefore, get what they deserve, while liberals blame conservatives for not having enough respect for nature to study and treat it appropriately so that life can be more happily sustained by all.

You will notice that all of these prejudices begin with our understanding of god.  Is god a busy bee who is constantly flitting about doing this and fixing that?  Is he more or less at rest, acting on our behalf only when our behavior matches his ideals.  Finally, is god less personal and more of the engine that started the universe, but not the drivetrain that steers it?  (Sorry, I know nothing about cars).  Your ideas about god govern your religious prejudice towards other people.  In other, more inflammatory words, religion breeds prejudice.  In fact, I would argue that it is impossible for it to be any other way.

A big part of the reason for that is revelation.  If you believe that god revealed to you the words of life, then you are special.  Your knowledge is superior over everyone else’s.  God spoke to you, either through a clear reading of his word, the opening of doors, or a fire in the belly.  God told you exactly what he wants, and you become something like a prophet.  When someone else contradicts your clear revelation, they are challenging both you and your god.  Therefore, we have not only prejudice, but hostility towards people of other religions.  Other people range from being a little wrong about questionable matters, to hopelessly godless, and kindling for the eternal flame.

In the end, it is all driven by religious fear.  We fear that our city will be blown away by storm, or that our nation will suffer financially, or our understanding of god is wrong, and thus the understanding of ourselves.  We fear missing out on Heaven, or more likely, the inheritance of Hell.  We fear that if we are religiously wrong, we will lose our sense of self and be utterly at a loss of who we are and how we should live.  We fear that we have pursued a false path for our entire lives, and have been made fools of.  Religion has us so full of fear; it is a wonder that we can navigate the world without medicine cabinets full of anti-depressants and panic pills.  In fact, it seems we can’t.  Even ecumenical movements are a lot more fearful than they seem, showing no tolerance for the intolerant.  In such places, political conservatives are openly bashed.  They have a hard time feeling comfortable or welcome in such places.

I was invited to the house of a Unitarian who seemed to be an extremely nice person.  She confided in me that she can deal with any religious point of view, but she absolutely draws the line at political conservatives.  I have found this attitude to be common among religious liberals.

I believe we can do better.  I believe that conservatives and liberals can learn to get along because we all want our crops to grow.  What separates us is our god, our revelation, and the religion that we use to serve him.

Join me next time as I tackle racial and cultural prejudice.

David Johnson

Beyond Prejudice: (Part One)

Theoretically, this should be an easy subject for me to write about.  In many ways, I have devoted my life to the subject.  That is quite another story.  I have largely dealt with racism, but I realize that racism is not the only type of prejudice out there.  In fact, in this first post in the series, I will talk about a few ways that prejudice (used loosely) can be a good thing.  I will also be using prejudice and stereotypes interchangeably, even though there are gradients of meaning.

Prejudice is another way of saying “prejudgment”.  On the surface, that sounds like a bad thing, but in fact, it is a necessary thing.  We cannot take the time or risk to independently judge everything and every situation we encounter.   Most of what we do has to be a judgment call.  It is a part of our evolutionary survival instinct.  The fight or flight instinct as to kick in fast in a dangerous situation.  Perhaps the bear you happened upon is a friendly bear that just ate his fill of berries.  You don’t have time to ponder the question.  You have to condense everything you know about bears into a fraction of a second and turn it into swift action if you want to live.

The more vulnerable you feel, the more prejudice you will be if your survival instinct is working properly.  I sell personal items a few times a year on Craigslist.  This is usually facilitated by meeting a potential buyer in a public place like a coffee house or bookstore for the exchange of goods and money.  I recently had a text exchange where I suggested the potential buyer and I meet.  I did not make a clear that I was referring to a public place.  The response was that, being a woman, she was hesitant to come to my place to examine the item.  That is not what I was suggesting.  But she felt vulnerable in that situation.  Therefore, she used a form of prejudice for self-preservation.

In fact, I would say that all prejudice is adopted as a form of self-preservation.  People have no prejudice about things they do not fear.  All prejudice stems from the fear of loss.  It is not always loss of life.  Sometimes, it is the fear of the loss of a way of life.  This is why churches can be said to be the most segregated groups in America.  A church is, first and foremost, a social group.  It is a society of people who share a particular, theological culture; culture being the key word.  A black person, even if made to feel welcome at a white church, would be hesitant to become a member of that church for fear of losing certain culturally important aspects of life, which they most likely would.  The same is true for a white person who ventures into a black church.  It is less about hate and distrust, and more about the loss of a way of life.

Black slavery in the American South was less about a sound business plan, and more about a way of life.  Successful, black rappers often spend a great deal of time in the hood with their bros, even though they can afford to be anywhere they want to be.  It is not about money, but preserving a way of life.  Historically white colleges and universities were afraid of allowing admission of black students into the institution.  It had little to do with the belief that such students couldn’t keep up; it had everything to do with preserving a way of life.  Black colleges are no happier to see white students gain admittance for the same reason.  The fear of loss is a survival instinct.  And the more you have to lose, the more prejudice plays a role in your decision making process.

This is all very understandable and very human.  I have come to understand that it is not evil; it is natural, and we all do it at different times for different reasons.  It is, however, not the optimal way of being human.  We must continue to socially evolve beyond our fears.  We must also stop idolizing our way of life as if it was sacred, and its loss would diminish us.  While grasping our old way of life, we miss out on a new way of life that might be even better than what we knew.  No baby voluntarily exits the womb, but no adult would ever voluntarily go back.  The way to defeat prejudice is not to vilify it, but to show the fearful there is nothing to fear.  This is a different way of approaching the problem, even for me.  I’m literally exploring this concept as I write.

Thank you for joining me in the exploration.  Next time, I will focus on religious prejudice, where it comes from, and how to overcome it.

David Johnson

Beyond Faith

This is not the post I promised last time.  I am working on a series of posts on prejudice which is taking so time to put together.  Instead, I have adopted an article I wrote several months ago called, “Reasons to Believe”.  I thought it might give you something to chew on while I work on “Beyond Prejudice”.  Enjoy.

 

As someone who does a lot of writing, I realize my readers are not in the same place as I am on the faith journey.  We have traveled different paths and had different experiences.  I seldom reflect that sensitivity in my writing.  Mostly, I just want to make a point with as little hand-holding as possible.  This results in me not including helpful markers such as biblical citations for all of the scripture I allude to.  The same is true for providing corroborating sources for facts and general opinions.  I assume a certain level of competence on the part of the reader to know, or look up some of these things for themselves.

I also am known to state rather abruptly that I do not believe in this or that, with little accompanying explanation.  It is precisely this issue I wish to address in this writing.  To the extent possible, I have been in the process of reexamining all of my presuppositional beliefs.  These are the beliefs that I have taken for granted for as long as I can remember.  So much of religious belief falls in this category.  Most Christians couldn’t tell you why they believe in the Exodus account of the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection, or the ascension.  They just believe it.  It’s in the bible.  It is what they have been taught since childhood.  Few Christians question these things.  They just accept them and pass them on to other children who, themselves, are young enough to still believe in Santa Clause.

It is my goal to believe only things that are based on reality rather than fantasy, desire, fear, or child-like ignorance.  That is not to say that everything I believe is the absolute truth.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that what I believe has to have a fact-based foundation.  In other words, there has to be a good reason to believe it.  For the next few pages, I will lay out the case for why I believe what I believe, and why I disbelieve the things I disbelieve.  This is an absolutely essential exercise for any seeker of truth.

Poor Reasons to Believe

The reason I’m starting with the negative side of the equation is because, developmentally, we did not start out in life with good reasons to believe anything. We start believing things long before we have good reasons to believe them. All we have are bad reasons.  Let me put it this way; we had no good reasons to believe anything that makes up the foundation of our belief system.

Children are not told the truth about Santa Claus until upwards of age 12. I was seven when I was baptized. I understand that most children are not baptized in active in a church at such a young age.  Even so, these children are taught things about God, the Bible, the church, and religion in general that will be with them for a lifetime.  These lessons will affect how we think of, and treat women, do business, pursue education, and evaluate truth. These lessons are not innocent and benign. They are insidious, and last a lifetime without us even realizing their impact.  We are literally indoctrinated with the same tools that we have to evaluate the truth about Santa Claus. At least, at some point, we are told that the Santa Claus story is not true.  As far as our religious indoctrination goes, we are never given permission to evaluate it.

Alethiology

How do you determine what is true?  However you do it, you are practicing alethiology: the philosophical discipline of determining what is true.  We all like to believe that we believe in true things.  Believing in untrue things makes us fools in our own eyes.  This is likely why being deceived is called being fooled.  Nobody wants to be made a fool of by accepting misinformation ass fact.

I can think of two ways of coping with the possibility of being fooled:  One, a person becomes so cautious that they refuse to believe anything, or two, the person becomes so dogmatic about what he believes that his beliefs crystallize  into faith statements that replace fact and reality.  Both are unhealthy extremes.  The simple fact is we have to believe things that we cannot scientifically prove.  Sometimes, we have to use belief as a placeholder for truth until facts become available.  There is nothing wrong with holding these temporary beliefs just as long as they are held loosely.

The far worse problem is accepting those placeholder beliefs as permanent, unshakable truths.  Imagine if we continued to believe as adults, everything we believed as a child.  This would be a devastating development in the maturation process of a human being.  Yet, when it comes to religious matters, that is mostly what we do.  We believe what we are taught as children with very little refinement through the years.  It is past time we take a long, hard look at why we believe what we believe.

Santa Clause Reasons

To discover what most people believe in religious truth claims, one need look no further than the reason children believe in Santa Clause.

A parent figure said it was true

Frankly, as a child, this is one of the best reasons to believe anything.  After all, if you can’t believe your parents, who can you believe?  Even bad parents are the highest authority of truth for children of a certain age.  Children simply do not have the tools for knowing the difference between truth and fiction.  They do not understand anything about science or physics, or how the world really works.  If a trusted adult tells them that certain creatures can fly a jolly, old saint around the world in one night, to give the most desirable presents to good little boys and girls, there is nothing about that story that triggers the least bit of suspicion.

Emotionally Motivated

Another Santa Clause reason to believe is that the believer is emotionally motivated to believe.  The Santa Clause story pushes all of our emotional hot-buttons.  It triggers our greed for things to magically appear that we greatly desire.  It triggers the fear of being judged,  ostracized, and having our secret failings discovered by an all-seeing eye.  In short, we believe in Santa Clause because we want him to be real, or we fear he is real.  We are emotionally entangled in the story.

Peer Pressure

One of the most powerful reasons we believe anything as a child or and adult is the fact that the majority of our peers seems to also believe it.  Perhaps worse than being fooled is being isolated.  It takes a great deal of courage and conviction to make a public departure from the established beliefs of one’s community.  Most people never develop either the courage or conviction for such a departure.  For many practical reasons, social and economical, we need the approval of our community.  No one is an island.  We are all interdependent.  We know this even as children.  If everyone in our community of peers seems to believe something, we have to have an extremely good reason to question it.

We Do Not Care to Know the Truth

I was happy to stop at the above three reason until a recent conversation with a friend on the subject.  He convinced me that there was another reason to be considered.  For whatever reason, we just do not care to know the truth of a given matter.  Either we are afraid of facing the truth, or we do not care enough about the issue to dig for the truth.  In either event, the truth is not the ultimate goal.

There are many people who avoid going to the doctor because they are afraid they may have a terminal illness.  They believe they are better off if the diagnosis is officially made.  They insist they are fine because they do not want to face the consequences of the truth.  For many, life would become meaningless if their understanding of god was proven to be untrue.  They would rather adopt blind faith than to face the possibility that the god they depend on is not what they believe.

At some point, we all fall into the category of the apathetic.  We accept what experts say about the economy, science, technology, and politics because we just do not care enough about the topic to educate ourselves on the matter.  The friend to which I keep referring is a computer programer.  Sometimes he waxes poetic about a programing language, or some other fine point of a computer’s inner workings.  I just nod and dully accept his pronouncements, not because I believe him to be infallible.  It is just that I could care less about the subject, most of the time.  In such a conversation, he is right by default.  I will never care enough about the subject to educate myself on the subject and check his facts.

It bears mentioning that there are those situations that do not neatly fall into any of the above categories.  We just find ourselves believing a thing because it never crosses our mind to doubt it.  It is simply not possible or reasonable to question everything.  Some things are presuppositional.  Other things are non-intuitive.  Still other things have been proven to the satisfaction of the experts.  Life has given us no reason to question such things, and therefore we do not.

All of these reasons to believe fall in the category of Santa Clause reasons.  These are the types of reasons a child believes in monsters and magic.  A child can be excused for believing in such things for such reasons.  After all, a child does not have the intellectual, emotional, or experiential tools to evaluate truth any better.  As adults, we have no such excuse.

Reasonable Believe

The time has come for us to turn our attention to better ways of evaluating truth.  It is my contention that we are fully aware of the difference between good and bad reasons to believe.  As well-balanced adults, we practice good truth evaluation techniques everyday in almost every aspect of our lives: every aspect except religion.

Seeing is Believing

It was once an axiomatic fact that seeing is believing.  In some circles, that fact is being countered with the warning, don’t believe everything you see.  When did ocular detection fall from the list of good reasons to believe?  My guess is that we are only warned not to believe what we see when someone is trying to make us believe in something that is not there.

We might indulge a child’s fantasy of an imaginary friend, or monsters under the bed up to a certain age.  But at some point, it is necessary for children to understand the difference between what is imaginary and what is real.  One of the things we might point out is that the friend or monster is not visible, and thus, is not there.  This is obvious to any parent who has had to ween a child off of the belief in such things.

However, all such logic goes out of the window when we want our children to believe in imaginary friends and monsters.  We only do this in the context of religion.  We encourage our children to talk to god because he is right there with us, just like an imaginary friend.  He walks along beside us.  He is there during the big exam.  He is with us when the bullies assault us.  And even though the bully beats us up and steals our lunch money, the invisible god protects us from all harm.

The same is true of the monster we call the devil.  The fact that we cannot see him does not mean that he is not there.  On the contrary, one of his greatest tricks is to make you think he is not real, so we say.  His invisibility almost becomes evidence for his existence in a twisted kind of way.  The invisible monster is the cause of all the evil in the world.  He is out to get you, and will succeed if you are not a good little girl or boy.  Perhaps that is why the bullies win.  God cannot protect you if you are not good enough.  That is when the devil monster has his way with you.  We are encouraged to pray to one invisible being to protect us from another.  No wonder we have such a hard time evaluating truth.

Beyond god and the devil, there is a whole invisible world of invisible beings fighting invisible battles in invisible wars everyday all around us.  We call them angels and demons.  These are the invisible agents of the invisible superpowers of the invisible realm.  We imagine this literal conflict between literal beings raging just inches from our heads at any given moment.  No wonder the anti-anxiety medication industry is booming.  Neurosis is a side effect of religion.

I will go as far as to say that every unique truth-claim of religion is wrapped in an impenetrable, invisibility cloak.  The six-day creation is hidden behind the shroud of a billions year old universe.  The appearance of age is but a cloak that hides the invisible truth of the young earth.  Both arks, the holy grail, and every other sacred artifact is covered by the cloak of invisibility.  The garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and any bone fragment that suggests humans lived as long as 900 years are likewise, invisible.

The virgin birth cannot be confirmed.  History has lost any record of King Herod’s campaign of infanticide.  There is no contemporary record of the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, or ascension of Jesus.  There is no contemporary, written witness of his many miracles.  There are no modern sightings of resurrected saints.  There are no empty tombs.  All such claims, historical or contemporary, are hidden by the cloak of invisibility.  There is little wonder that the purveyors of religion desperately want you to doubt your senses.  If seeing is believing, then there is no believing in any unique, religious truth-claim.

I posit that seeing, while not 100% reliable, is a pretty good start.  I further posit that we already know this and practice it in our daily lives.  If we are about to walk into a bank and see through the window, a masked man holding a gun, we will quickly alter our plans to make a deposit.  Further, we will move away to a safe distance and call the authorities.  Do we know for sure that an armed robbery is taking place?  No.  We could be seeing actors playing a roll in a movie, or a security drill by the bank, or a number of other unlikely events.  Still, we act on the most likely interpretation of what we see.

This is why we teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street.  We do not tell them to just cross whenever we feel the spirit of the lord upon us.  No number of invisible angels keeps our children from getting hit by cars.  That is why we rely on teaching vigilance based on careful observation.

We do not enter into contracts without first seeing the terms clearly spelled out in writing.  We do not pay a plumber for repairing a leak when we can plainly see the faucet is still leaking.  We do not pay for invisible wedding cakes, automobiles, houses, or vacations.  No one will pay in advance for a tour of the Garden of Eden.  In all practical matters, seeing is most definitely a reasonable step toward believing.

Outcome-Based Belief

There are plenty of things that cannot be seen with the naked eye like ideas.  How do we know if an idea is good or bad?  We see or experience the results of following that idea.  If the outcome repeatedly matches the prediction of the idea, then we might deem that idea to be true.  I know that burning myself with fire is a bad idea because I have burned myself with fire on more than one occasion, and it has caused injury every time.  I know that training my dog is a good idea because I have had many dogs.  The ones I’ve trained turned out to be better companions every time.

We know that it does not make sense to continue doing things that do not work, and avoiding things that do.  We know that mowing our lawn is more effective than praying over it.  We know, at least in developed nations, that seeing a medical doctor is more effective than seeing a witch doctor.  We understand and subscribe to this principal in every walk of life except religion.

When it comes to religion, we demand no proof.  We require no evidence that religious claims are actually true.  We have been trained to believe that it is an act of rebellion to demand evidence.  “We walk by faith and not by sight”, so the good book tells us.  You want something substantive?  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…”  You want evidence?  Faith is “the evidence of things not seen.”  In the Christian worldview, it is far more virtuous to believe without seeing rather than to believe because you see.  We are unworthy if we ask for a sign.

With religion, we are encouraged to nurture a particular type of cognitive dissonance.  We are given to expect certain predictions based on our faith-based behavior, but are trained never to question when those predictions do not come true.  Instead, when faced with counter evidence, we are expected to believe all the more.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of prayer.

We are told that we are to believe with all our heart that our prayers of entreaty will be both heard and granted.  We are told that the main reason our prayers are not answered is due to the lack of faith.  See James 5.  The problem is that the vast majority of prayers go unfulfilled.  Everyone who reads this has had at least one unfulfilled prayer.  You prayed the way you were supposed to.  You believed with all your heart.  Yet, in the end, you did not receive the reasonable thing you asked for.  Rather than conclude that prayer does not work, you were probably made to feel like you had done something wrong.  So, you tried again, and again, and again.  Each time, you tried a little bit harder to pray with a little more faith.

Every church of every denomination engages in some form of prayer.  Yet every congregation keeps losing faithfully prayed for members to financial ruin, unemployment, injury, sickness, and death.  No one has ever prayed a faithful member out of the grave.  Even though we know in our hearts that prayer has no effect on the practical outcome of a situation, we still do it.

If we truly believed that prayer was efficacious, we would do as James suggests and take our sick to the church elders rather than the doctor.  No Christian, no matter how faithful, sees a lump in her breast and calls the church officials.  Nor does she pray that the lump goes away without making an appoint to see a specialist.  Though many are uninsured in America, none pass up the opportunity to be insured because they have the protection of prayer.  When an unemployed person seeks help from a church, the church officials advise that person to find a job, not an alter.  People pray in addition to doing things that might get results, not in stead of them.  It is reasonable to believe in things that lead to predictable, repeatable outcomes.  It is asinine to believe in things that do not.

Embrace the Falsifiable

In the field of science, there is a principal called falsifiability.  From Wikipedia:

 Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion or a theory is the logical possibility that the assertion (or the theory) can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.

If a thing is not falsifiable, then it can never be proven false.  It places the proposition beyond the reach of proof.  The proposition must be accepted on the basis of something other than verifiable evidence, namely, faith.

There are no important, religious claims that are scientifically falsifiable.  None!  The authority of the bible is an excellent example of this point.  I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to any reasonable person that the bible is not a magic book written by the direction of an otherworldly being.  Even so, that proof will never be enough for the believer.  For her, the bible is the unadulterated word of god, perfectly preserved and rendered.  No evidence will shake that conviction because the conviction is not based on evidence.  Regardless of evidence, she knows the unfalsifiable truth of her conviction.

The existence of god is not subject to proof.  No serious Christian will assert that he is able to prove the existence of god.  They will claim to have good reasons to believe, but never anything that rises to the level of proof.  The same goes for everything else about their religious beliefs.  Because these things are not based on evidence, but faith, they can never be proven wrong.

Just try to convince a child who is afraid of monsters that there are no monsters.  You can’t do it.  The child has an unfalsifiable answer to your every attempt at reason.  The monster is invisible.  The monster only comes out when no one can see it.  The monster disguises itself as ordinary objects.  The monster speaks in such a way that only the child can hear it.  No matter what you try, you can never win that debate.

Now, try and convince a Christian that no one can hear their telepathic prayers, or that their drug addicted sister is not demon possessed, or that an angel did not save her from a car accident, or that her recently departed mother is not dancing with King David in Heaven.  She will rest secure in the notion that you are totally incapable of disproving any of these things.

This is exactly why so many religious people flock to unfalsifiable beliefs.  It provides them with a false security blanket.  They never have to question their worldview because they are shielded from debate.  No one can ever prove anything they believe to be wrong.  What they do not know is that the very thing that makes their position unassailable, is also what makes it not worth believing.  When we feel we must shield our beliefs from proof: that relentless predator that eventually devours all bad ideas, then we are most definitely on the wrong track.

Reliable Witnesses

There are many types of witnesses.  I will touch on three: eyewitnesses, second-hand, contemporary witnesses, and expert, historical witnesses.  Here is an example of how these witnesses operate:

If I want to know who played and won Superbowl XX, I have to find witnesses, as I do not recall the details, despite the fact that I watched it.  I might ask someone else who also watched it, but has a better memory than I do.  That would be an eyewitness.  Such witnesses for the Superbowl are easy to find.  There are also those who many not have watched the game for whatever reason, but talked and wrote about it at the time.  They heard the details from eyewitnesses.  These are second-hand, contemporary witnesses.  Finally, a sports historian who neither saw the game or spoke to eyewitnesses may have done exhaustive research on the subject and discovered discarded ticket stubs, programs, and retail items attesting to the game.  This is an expert, historical witness.  Any one of them is a strong witness.  All of them together, in large numbers, are virtually unassailable.

There is another point to consider.  Not every witness is reliable.  In courts of law, eyewitnesses are dismissed all the time for unreliability.  Perhaps it can be proven that their eyesight is poor, or they have a racial bias against the suspect, or they have an emotional investment in the outcome that makes their testimony or observations suspect.  Contemporary witnesses may have received faulty, second-hand information, or heard it wrong, or wrote it down poorly.  Historical witnesses may hove misread the evidence and come to the wrong conclusions.  They may not be very good at their trade.  This is why the quality of witness must be taken into account.

This is never more true than when evaluating religious truth claims.  How well-attested is the claim?  Are there many sources, good or otherwise, or just one or two?  What type of witnesses attested to the event?  Were they eyewitnesses, second-hand, contemporary witnesses, or expert, historical witnesses?  What was their involvement with the event?  Were they stakeholders in the event, or disinterested observers?  What was their track-record?  Were they accurate and literal with their details, or were they prone to exaggeration, contradictions, inaccuracies, and flights of fancy?  All of these things must be taken into account when evaluating the reliability of biblical witnesses.

Consider the virgin birth.  Who are the witnesses?  The only person that can fully attest to the veracity of the story is Mary, and she never wrote anything down.  She most likely was illiterate.  The fact that the only person who could have attested to the event is unavailable to us in history puts this story on a very shaky foundation from the start.

Now, we are left to depend, solely, on second-hand, contemporary witnesses.  These would include the people in whom Mary confided at the time.  Unfortunately, such information is also unavailable to us.  There are no contemporary accounts of the virgin birth reported by anyone.  If such accounts ever existed, they are also lost to us.

Finally, we must look to expert, historical witnesses.  That is the best category fit for the two written witnesses we have in the bible: Matthew and Luke.  Neither of these writers were eyewitnesses to the event, nor were they there at the time to pick up on the local buzz.  In fact, they wrote their accounts of the events decades after the time it was supposed to have happened.  There is no evidence that Mary was even still alive at the time of their writing.  We are never told how they came by this information, so it is difficult to evaluate their methodology.

The challenges do not stop there.  Only two historical witnesses attest to this extraordinary event.  This would be hard enough to accept without the added complication that these were not the most likely candidates to report on the event.  Paul: the most prolific and first of the biblical writers, didn’t seem to know anything about the virgin birth as he never mentioned it.  Mark: the first gospel writer, also seemed oblivious of the immaculate conception.  John: the last of the gospel and biblical writers, was closest to Mary, yet never mentioned the event.  There is no reason to believe that the one who did mention it had any inside information unavailable to the others.

Since Matthew is the first to write about it, one might wonder where he got it from.  In all likelihood, he got it from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “young woman”.  Matthew told his Jesus story through the lens of Jewish liturgy.  He very consciously made the Jesus of his story fit Jewish imagery of the time.  If he thought a virgin birth of a messiah was predicted, that is how he wrote his story.  There is little effort to tell a historically accurate account of events.

What of Luke?  Apparently, Luke picked up most of his information from Mark and Matthew.  When carefully examining the information provided in the Luke/Acts cycle, one can only conclude the Luke is unreliable.  In almost every occasion where Luke’s account is repeated or mirrored in another: the writings of Paul is a good example, there are irreconcilable discrepancies.  When Luke contradicts Paul about the life of Paul, we must conclude that Luke is hopelessly unreliable.

Neither Matthew or Luke are disinterested parties.  Both are leaders in their respective communities and have a personal stake in the acceptance of the Jesus story as told by them.  Neither has credentials as a historian.  Neither play straight with the facts of an event.  If not for these two witnesses, the world would know nothing of a virgin birth.  Neither of these writers can be considered reliable witnesses outside of the context of magical thinking.  With such a faith-based reality, these men are reliable because god somehow, magically channeled his message through them.  This, of course, brings us right back to the unfalsifiable conundrum.  If it turns out that any biblical claim is true, it is not because of reliable witnesses, but despite the lack of them.

Conclusion

Before closing, it is important for me to acknowledge that no one, including myself, has a completely reasonable system of beliefs.  We all have a few beliefs that are based on Santa Clause reasons.  We all started believing things long before we had the mental, emotional, and academic tools to form reasonable beliefs.  One can never completely clean out that closet full of old and musty beliefs, nor do I think it is necessary to do so.

What is necessary is that we hold all beliefs loosely, always prepared to toss aside, those that do not prove to be reasonable when tested.  Religious people tend not to do this.  They hold to their beliefs more tightly.  Faith, in religious circles, is not just an option, but a virtue, a necessity.  “Without faith, it is impossible to please god.”  Religion does not lend itself to proof.  It is not a fact-based endeavor.  If you actually had good, solid, fact-based reasons to believe, then it wouldn’t be acceptable as faith.

Faith is what religious people cling to when reason makes a better case.  Faith is what we get when beliefs are tightly compressed in the desperate grip of dogma.  Faith is the shortcut through education which, when taken, makes even the unlettered person an expert on the unknowable.  I am not a man of faith; I am a man of truth and knowledge.  I must know the truth about things that matter even if it unmakes me, and it has on a number of occasions.

When I was religious, I had no reasons to believe anything.  I had rationalizations.  We do not start with a set of reasons, then find answers accordingly.  We start with things we believe, then find excuses and rationalizations for believing them.  When a Christian is faced with a clear contradiction in the bible, they do not say, “This is a clear contradiction.  It must not be true!”  No!  They say, “This seems like a contradiction.  I must figure out a way to understand this so that it is not.”  We set aside reason which serves us well in all other life endeavors, and put on the shield of faith for religious inquiries.

The shield of faith protects us against, what?  Doubt?  Uncertainty?  I do not trust a person who has no doubt or uncertainty.  I believe nothing so strongly that I cannot let it go in light of better information.  Everything I know is falsifiable, and I grow as a person when I learn something that I didn’t know before, or have corrected, something that I thought I knew.

When I say that I do not believe something, it is only because I have not been presented with any compelling reasons to believe it.  In religious circles, I was expected to believe things just because someone told me I was supposed to.  There were too many things that I could not question and apply reason.  I cannot live in a world where reason is not allowed.  I cannot bend my mind into the pretzel of faith-based reality.  Lord knows I’ve tried.  If one wished to engage me in discussion on religious matters, they must be willing to do so on the basis reason and fact-based reality.

There are very few places in the religious world for such as me.  Most people like me have simply walked away.  Perhaps they are the wise ones.  I cannot help but wonder what religion might look like without the mental gymnastics, magical thinking, and faith-based dogma.  I believe that when you strip that all away, you will still have a viable platform for what James called, “true religion”.  “To care for the widows and orphans at the time of their need, and to stay unsoiled by unworthy things.”  I took some liberties with the passage from James 1, but you get the idea.  Can there be religion based on reason?  I can’t wait to find out.

David Johnson

Beyond Ego

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading, “A New World” by Eckhart Tolle.  I wanted to internalize it for a bit.  And though this is still not a book review, it is most certainly inspired by the book, at least in part.

I have a problem with ego.  I don’t mean to say that mine is too big, though some would definitely say that.  My problem with ego is what to do with it, and how to think about it.  I am using the word to mean something like the self, or self-awareness.  I recognize the difficulty of a post like this because depending on one’s upbringing, the ego means different things to different people.

I come at the subject from a lifetime of religion.  So for me, ego is always a bad thing.  It is most definitely something to overcome and get beyond.  There is no greater power for evil than self.  All manner of sin begins with selfishness.  We go astray when trying to accomplish self-determination.  Only god can determine anything good for us.  It is not enough to love one another as ourselves; we must love one another greater than ourselves, learning to esteem others higher than ourselves.

The ultimate goal of a Christian is to die to one’s self.  Jesus taught us that to follow him, we must deny ourselves.  Part of how we do this is to put ourselves last.  To this day, I feel guilty going through a self-serve potluck ahead of someone else.  Not only are we not to live for ourselves, we are to completely die to ourselves.  The cases where “self” is used positively in the bible can be counted on one hand.  Based on a reading of the bible, especially the Christian scriptures, the biggest problem with ego is that we have one at all.

To be sure, I am certainly not advocating the other extreme.  I decry narcissism in all its forms.  I agree that problems arise when one thinks too highly of themselves.  But that, in and of itself is not the problem as much as it is, thinking to lowly of others.  Ego seems to be a zero-sum game.  I can only be defined as great if others are defined as less great.  A champion athlete is only a champion in the context of being better than the vast majority of her peers.  In every endeavor, for there to be winners, there also have to be losers.  Christianity tells us that we, the followers of Christ should think of ourselves as the losers.  I reject this notion.  I can no longer pretend this notion has any meaning in my life.  I believe it is just as wrong to project one’s self as the loser as it is to project others in that role.

I am convinced that having an ego is not a problem; it is human.  It is just another one of those human attributes Christianity attempts to repress as it tries to make us over into some other type of being.  In the same way that “self” is used as a negative concept in the bible, so too, is pride.  There are no positive mentions of pride in the bible.  Ironically, there is more than enough guilt and shame for everyone.  It seems perfectly in keeping with biblical doctrine that we have a healthy dose of shame, but there is no such thing as a healthy dose of pride.

This view of ego does not bring us any closer to equality than does narcissism.  If we live a life of meek humility before the rest of the world, than we are, in essence, saying that we are less than others.  This type of modesty, or false modesty, still creates inequality.  We just find ourselves on the short end of it.  Why would we want to do that?  Because of the notion that one day, god will lift us up.  Again, that is playing ego as a zero-sum game.  I will be less now so that I can be greater at a later time.  I do not know if my personal formulation of ego is possible.  But I will give a crack at playing philosopher.

I believe that a healthy ego is a mirror ego.  That is to say, we see ourselves not only as others, but also in others.  We should feel great pride in our accomplishments, and try our best to accomplish even more.  We should do this in the context of recognizing the accomplishments of others, and wishing their accomplishments to also expand.  Ego is not a zero-sum game.  You do not have to lose for me to win.  Well, actually, you do have to lose sometimes.  Playing a game to a draw is not my idea of fun.  But you do not have to lose more than me.  Two grandmasters of chess meet in a tournament.  One will ultimately win the tournament that day, but the championship changes hands often.  They are both great at what they do.  They shake hands at the end of the game as recognition of the greatness of the other.  That is healthy ego: mirror ego.

I am convinced that this type of ego has to spread throughout every course of life to enable the next leap in social evolution.  Naturally, religious ego must die.  We simply have to give up the notion that we have received a special revelation from god that others haven’t, or haven’t properly interpreted.  That type of ego is much closer to narcissism.  If god is talking to you and not to me, then you are better than me in immeasurable ways.  Denominationalism is the ultimate expression of religious egotism.

Beyond religion, we must also be willing to give up national ego.  That is the pride of place that says, “My country is better than yours!”  We must actually stop being proud to be an American and join the greater nation of humanity.  We must stop seeing ourselves as the new Jerusalem.  That is not to say that we should feel guilty for our wealth and power.  Rather, mirror ego sees Mexico in the same light, and uses that wealth and power to expand that pride to others.  We will know we made progress in this area when watching the Olympic games, we cheer for the best athlete, rather than the one who merely wears our colors.

We must give up ethnic egotism.  Black power is just the weaker, more pathetic version of white supremacy.  Neither moves the needle towards equality.  Mirror ego sees the differences in race and culture, and revels in the beauty of those differences.  Like the Borg of Star Trek, mirror ego hopes to assimilate those distinctives into itself, minus the violence.  We know that racial ego has died when we see a person of a different complexion and accent, and hope those characteristics can be seen and heard in our own grandchildren.

Ultimately, mirror ego does not see a multiplicity of individuals fighting for resources and power.  Rather, it recognizes only one ego: the universal ego: the self of which we are all a part.  When the words of John Donne find expression in our lives, then we will know the true meaning of mirror ego:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Consider this post an introduction to an upcoming series of posts: Beyond Prejudice.

David Johnson

Beyond Jesus: Proclamations

So what does it mean to be a Christian?  At the very least, it has to include following the teachings of the one we call the Christ.  But if that is the case, I do not currently know, nor have I ever met a Christian.  There are teachings attributed to Jesus that are universally ignored and even ridiculed.  Therefore, being a follower of Jesus, in practical terms, means that you get to pick and choose which of his teachings you will follow.  That is true of every human teacher who has ever lived.  If, however, you insist that you at least try to follow all of the teachings of Jesus, then I would like to introduce you to a small sampling you might want to reconsider:

  1. On marriage:  Why is it that the most respected religious authorities on marriage are those who are not.  Catholic priests, the apostle Paul, and Jesus.  Of the bunch, the teaching from Jesus is the most egregious.  The doctrine goes something like this: if you have been married before, divorced, and are now remarried, with few exceptions, you are to walk away from your current, happy home and resume the marriage with your original spouse.  This idea is so far away from any reality that we know, it could only come from an otherworldly being.  The teaching stems from a few verses in Matt. 5, and 19, as well as a few others.  The upshot is that divorce, with few exceptions, equates to adultery.  Remarriage is adultery in those situations because the first marriage is still in affect.  Being reconciled to your first spouse is the only way to fix it.

It gets even weirder.  When his disciples head his teaching on the matter, they were concerned that it was just better not to marry.  Jesus answered their concerns with the following:

Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps.  Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

  1. Benevolence:  Do you think you’re a generous tipper?  Do you give beggars a few coins when you see them?  Do you tithe?  Well, you haven’t even gotten started.  When a particular rich man wanted to follow Jesus, he was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give the money to the poor.  I have heard every excuse for this teaching and they are all bankrupt.  Let’s just say you have a problem with money.  You are a little too attached to it, as we all are.  Good advice may be to become less attached to wealth, and focus more on rational philanthropy.  Jesus didn’t say that, or anything like that.  It was an all or nothing proposition for him.  He demanded his followers to divest themselves of worldly goods.

This is often dismissed as a special case with regard to this one man.  Not that it matters, but it wasn’t.  Jesus actually said it again to a broader audience.  (See Luke 12:33).  As a bonus, try the following from Luke 6:30

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.

  1. On anger:  Jesus had some interesting opinions about common, necessary, human emotions.  In Matthew 5, he clearly equates anger with murder.  He also suggests that certain, everyday insults might send you straight to Hell.  I find this ironic since the writer of the gospel of John places all kinds of insults in the mouth of Jesus when he was dealing with the Jewish leaders.  As for the anger, some translations limit it to anger without a cause, which still does not save the murder comparison from incomprehensibility.  Jesus was the one who got so angry at a fig tree; he hexed it and killed it.  The writer of the story noted that it was not the season for the tree to bear fruit.  That sounds a lot like anger without a cause to me.
  2. On lust:  Notice, I am only talking about lust, not sex.  According to Jesus, just a few verses later, he tells his audience that anyone who even looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery.  If he just wants to leave the crowd scratching their heads, he could have stopped right there.  Instead he leaves them gouging out their eyes, and worse:

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’  But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

I could go on like this, but hopefully I have made my point.  If a person started advocating some of what Jesus taught today, they would be institutionalized.  I recognize that Jesus wasn’t talking to the people of this place and time.  He had 1st century, Jewish, Eastern sensibilities that do not mesh well with 21st century, Enlightened Christian, Western sensibilities.  Having done a little study of the sayings of Jesus, and the culture to which they were said, I have a hard time seeing how certain of his proclamations make sense in any time and place.

Making matters worse was his love of parables.  Often, he didn’t just say a thing that people could clearly understand and start applying to their lives.  He said many things in the form of short, fictional stories from which the hearer must extract the hidden message.  This type of thing may be acceptable in a literature or philosophy class.  It just doesn’t fly when accurately interpreting the message can make the difference in the resting place of your immortal soul.  Furthermore, the argument of reading through the lens of a different culture also does not fly.  After all, the bible was intended for all the people in all the world for all time, or so I’m told.  Therefore, it has to be written in a way that all people can grasp sans cultural stumbling blocks.

There are other aspects of the teachings of Jesus that give me pause.  It was Jesus who brought us the threat of Hell.  That does not come from the Old Testament prophets.  The teachings of Jesus are filled with the threat of Hell, not just death, for those who do not live up to his precepts.

In Jesus day, not only was it possible to send people into Hell, but it also worked the other way around.  Hell could enter into people.  We do not see demon possessions until Jesus walked the earth.  It seems he was quick to identify mental illness as demon possession.  Jesus brought us exorcisms when all he needed to give us was antidepressants.

At this point, I even sound like I’m nitpicking, and it would be easy to go on in this fashion for a long time.  Suffice it to say that whoever was responsible for the teachings attributed to Jesus was no god, and likely not a single man.  I think it was more of a teaching tradition than a particular teacher.  This tradition does not represent the best teachings ever given, and in some cases, they represent the worst.  It is also fair to say that there are some teachings in this tradition that I like very much, and try to make a part of my life.  There are plenty of sayings attributed to Jesus that are worth holding on to, but not all of them.  This is the same for all interesting teachers and philosophers of all ages.

The sayings of philosophers are like taking pictures on a photo safari.  Take as many as you can; keep only the best.  Most will not be worth developing.  But the ones that are…  pure treasure!

David Johnson

Beyond Jesus: the Myth Part 2

So why do I keep using the word, “myth” when describing Jesus?  I really do understand how offensive that is to many people.  It would have been offensive to me not very long ago.  I am not unaware of the emotional impact the idea carries.  I also realize I am likely fighting a losing battle with this one.  Jesus is neither man nor god to most people; he is an idea, an identity.  If Jesus, or the stories about him turn out to be a myth, a great many people will no longer know whom they are.  Overnight, the world will become a very different and frightening place.  So, I just want you to know that I understand where you’re coming from.  I’ve been there myself.  I will try to be brief and sensitive when addressing the subject.

I plan to take a closer look at four aspects of Jesus: prophecy, personage, power, and proclamations.  For this post, I will not go into any detail with any of them.  I just want to ask a question, and make you familiar with the answers you may not hear from your preacher on Sunday morning.  If I can prompt you to think about these things in a different way, and do a little research, this post will have been successful.

The question is a variation of the same thing applied to each of the four aspects of our interest.  What are the chances of the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures being about Jesus?  If all you read were Matthew and Paul, you would think that everything the Old Testament said was a veiled reference to Jesus.  Yet, the prophets of old were not prophets in the magical sense that we use.  They were not far seers who were giving insight into the distant future.  They were more like preachers whose message was much like the messages of today.  Repent and live.  Continue in sin and die badly.  Justice is coming soon.  Decide!  That is every prophetic message in a nutshell.

Jeremiah did not know or care about you.  He had no more consideration for a world 4,000 years removed as you do.  He knew nothing of Jesus, Peter, Paul, the church, or religion in the 1st century.  The same goes for the rest of the prophetic writers.  There are rather simple, or at least, sensible explanations for what the prophets had in mind when they wrote about things we generally ascribe to Jesus.  There is a reason Jewish rabbis do not see Jesus on every page, or any page of Hebrew scripture for that matter.  The chances that these men were getting messages about the distant future from an alien being who lives beyond the boundaries of space and time are zero.

Prophecy is a slippery ill to catch.  All prophecy gets interpreted after the fact.  The interpretation is used to fit whatever is required of it at the time.  If you want to use the Hebrew scriptures to see prophecy about Jesus, you can.  Then again, I can find as much prophecy there about myself.  It is all a matter of what you are trying to prove.

It is also rather telling that the keepers of the law: all of the various factions, understood the law and the prophets very well.  None of them saw Jesus in the writings.  When Jesus came onto the scene, you would expect that the members of the Sanhedrin court would have recognized him immediately and said, “That’s the guy!”  It simply didn’t happen.  Jesus of prophecy rests securely in the category of myth.

The second question is far more controversial than the first.  It really gets to the heart of the matter.  Did Jesus exist?  Was he a real person of history, or just a fictional amalgamation of different characters throughout history?  Let me just say up front, I seriously doubt the historicity of the man, Jesus.  He does not read like a person of history.  When looking for the historical Jesus, I think it fair to completely throw out biblical accounts, though they are instructive.  His legend seems to grow with every telling.

But, what we are looking for are accounts from disinterested parties who were contemporary to the time of Jesus.  We are also looking for mundane details about the man that do not fall into the legendary soup that we have in the bible.  In fact, if you were looking for a history of a man, the bible is the absolute worst example of a historical account.  There is no attempt at historical accuracy or an absence of bias.  The bible paints Jesus more like a comic book character than a man.  If the bible is all we have for locating Jesus in history, then the case is a lost cause.

Fortunately, if even a fraction of what the bible says about Jesus is true, we should have plenty of contemporary, nonbiased accounts of his life.  The problem is, we don’t.  Not only do we not have plenty, we don’t have any.  This is a case most odd, as we can locate some of the other characters in the Jesus story.  We have no doubt about the personage of Herod, Pilot, and even Joseph of Arimathea.  We know of Quirinius, and the time of his rule.  The Jesus stories of the gospels read like religion fiction set against the backdrop of actual times and events.  Jesus seems to be the only main character in the story of Jesus we cannot locate in history.  There were no files on him among the Romans or the Jews.  There were no records of his enemies trying to kill him as a baby, teen, or adult.  He cannot be found among the historical false messiahs who were hunted down and killed.

There is another possibility that should be explored.  Perhaps the Jesus of legend simply has overshadowed the Jesus of history.  Just because every detail we have about Jesus is legendary does not mean that the legends were not based on a real person who, himself, is lost to history.  However, I do not find this explanation compelling.  Jesus was purported to be more than a great, itinerate teacher in an insignificant province.  If that is all he was, then we should not expect to locate him in history.  Then again, no on should be worshiping such a man, either.

No, Jesus demonstrated the kind of power that, if even a portion was true, would have drawn the paparazzi of the day to follow him 24/7, drawing sketches and taking notes that would have survived a thousands fires.  In the end, it makes no difference whether there was a figure on whom Jesus was based.  People do not worship an itinerate preacher from an insignificant province.  They worship the god/man, Jesus.  If that Jesus is not real, then Jesus is not real.  It is practically impossible that any such man ever existed in history.  He would have simply been too difficult to hide.  The first mention we get of him, even in the bible, was sometime after the middle century.  And that Jesus wasn’t half the man that legend would make him as time went on.  As more than a few experts have made very clear, if there ever was a man Jesus, he is hopelessly lost to history.  All we have left is myth.  I would just add if the man could be lost to history, he wasn’t worth the trouble, anyway.

But what of the power ascribed to Jesus?  There is simply no way to take any of it seriously.  Putting aside my disbelief in miracles, the kind of power Jesus supposedly demonstrated simply could not be hidden from history.  Furthermore, we should see evidence of it today.  When he sent word to his friend John about who he was, his message was essentially that the lame walk, the blind see, and the ailments of the world are being eliminated.  Well, as I look around me, the lame are in wheelchairs, the blind, of which I am mostly one, where glasses or carry white canes.  The deaf use sign language.  Most importantly, the dead are all still very much dead.

Did any of his miracles happen?  What if it could be proven that one of the most important miracles never happened?  What would that say about the rest?  Some time after the crucifixion, the bible, in one place, gives an account of the dead rising from their graves and appearing before many.  That simply could not have happened under any circumstances.  There would have been too many witnesses to hush it up.  Further, no other biblical writer ever alluded to the event, as if they had not heard of it.  It was even given details as if it was literal history.  It is one of the most embarrassing passages in all of scripture.  If that didn’t happen, and it didn’t, then why would we believe any of the other powers he was supposed to have possessed?  His power can only be described as mythical.

Finally, there are his proclamations.  Let’s just say that there was a great teacher who had some interesting things to say about how people should live.  What statements come from this teacher, and what statements are just attributed to him through myth?  It is impossible to say.  Experts tell us the story of the woman caught in adultery is almost certainly a late addition, not remembered history.  Most of the last chapter of the book of Mark is a fraudulent addition.  Even biblical footnotes practically say as much.  Many of the sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, or the valley, depending on which account you read, were in circulation for some time.  The famous Lord’s Prayer most certainly did not originate with Jesus, but had been around for some time.

So what exactly were his teachings?  If there was such a man, and I doubt it, his actual teachings are as lost to history as the man, himself.  Still, there is another way to be a follower of the teachings ascribed to Jesus.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter if there was actually a god/man, Jesus.  Perhaps the only thing that matters is the teachings that were passed down through the generations.  If one follows the teachings ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to Jesus, would that not still make them a Christian?  I suppose.  But that is where I will have to leave it for now.

You see, I do not just propose that we get beyond Jesus because he is largely mythical.  I propose that we must get beyond Jesus because, in the end, I don’t believe he was a very good teacher.  Some of his teachings are worth considering, others are worth debating, but many just have to be tossed out as bad doggerel that was never timely or true.

Next time, we will take a closer look at a few of the teachings ascribed to Jesus that we simply need to stop elevating as the infallible word of god.  Man or myth, Jesus was far from the greatest teacher who ever lived.

David Johnson

Beyond Jesus: the Myth Part 1

With a great deal of naiveté, I dive into this series with the expectation of keeping it to two parts: the myth and the teachings.  Yet, even I see the real possibility of this ballooning into six or seven parts.  Brevity has never been my strong suit. 🙂

I will break down the “myth section into four parts: prophecy, personage, power, and proclamations.

By way of introduction, I feel this may be my most controversial set of posts to date, so I thought they deserved a bit of explanation.  Many worship Jesus as the anointed of god, and at the same time, as if he was god incarnate.  This is a very unusual type of veneration that needs to be addressed.  His disciples call themselves Christians, after what they perceive his title to be.  They do not call themselves “Jesusites”.  I find this quite telling as even the people who do not believe he was god, but only a great teacher, still call him the Christ, and themselves Christians, as in followers of the Christ.  Jesusite would be much more appropriate, but is never used.  Clearly, there is something more going on than the veneration of a great teacher.

There have been many great teachers, but to my knowledge, few have a discipleship that religiously follows them as if the teacher was something more than a teacher.  No one drinks representations of the blood of Gandhi, or wears bullets as jewelry to honor the death of Martin Luther King.  We also easily recognize the common human flaws of all great teachers.  We do not pretend that they were the perfect archetype of humanity.  Sometimes, we even dare to disagree with some of the teachings by those we respect as great teachers.  None of these considerations are allowed when considering the teachings of Jesus.  He was the perfect being (whatever kind of being he was).  He knew everything that was important to know.  And he was never wrong about anything he did or proclaimed.

With such an understanding about the one we call Jesus, he cannot be studied, understood, questioned, or doubted.  He can only be worshiped.  Which of us would not be inclined to bow down to perfection personified?  Consider just a few of the things said of him:  No one ever suffered a death a gruesome as he did.  He was tempted in every conceivable way, and passed with flying colors.  He had only healthy relationships with women, never lusting or desiring sexual relations with one, or objectising them in any way.

He was wise meek, yet strong as an ox.  He loved everybody he ever met or might have met.  There was no sin found in him.  Jesus wasn’t even born in the normal fashion of men.  God personally inseminated his mother.  As such, he was born of a virgin who never knew the lust of a man.  Even the stars rearranged themselves to announce his birth.  Those who came to see him as a baby born of nondescript parents automatically knew him for the king he was and would become.

He was a child of prophecy.  Almost every part of the Hebrew scriptures proclaimed his arrival.  Everything that happened before him was but a shadow of his eventual life.  All of history points to Jesus, his birth or death being the historical dividing line, whichever you prefer.  He is the savior of the world, the door, the way, the truth, the life and light.  He is the only way to the father.  He is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

He did not die, as men die.  Rather, he freely gave his life as a gift to humanity, paying a debt we could never pay.  But death was only a brief detour.  He didn’t stay dead for very long.  Rather, he came back better than ever.  He taught many.  So compelling was his teachings that even the Roman soldiers had to acknowledge that never has a man spoke like this man.  He didn’t just rise from the dead as if it was a well-earned nap, but he ascended into Heaven with promised to come back soon with rewards for the faithful.

While he was with us, he caused the lame to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dead to be undead.  He calmed raging seas without effort and caused at least one fig tree to die just by telling it to.  For him, walking on water was no more difficult than levitating into the sky.  If he was not a god, then we have no need for gods.  These are just a small sampling of that which is attributed to Jesus.  It seems “myth” is a rather mild word for describing such a man.

Why is it so important to separate the myth from the man?  After all, history is full of myths about men.  Do the myths detract from the greatness of the men in question?  Was there really an Alexander the Great, and did he do all that was attributed to him?  Was there really a King Author?  Did Shakespeare write his plays?  Did George Washington cut down a cherry tree for no reason?  Were the Write brothers really the first to fly?  Was Benedict Arnold really a traitor?  The answer to all of these questions, and more, is who cares!  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter because our lives are not formed around the truth or falsity of those particular myths.  No one worries that their immortal soul is at stake based on the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Jesus, on the other hand, is a most important myth.  If even some of the myths about him did not literally happen, then that changes the world for a great many people.  We can afford to get all kinds of details wrong about all kinds of heroes because the outcome simply does not matter.  Every detail about Jesus has attached to it, some fine point of doctrine.  If Jesus was not born of a virgin, then he is not Jesus the Christ.  If Jesus did not miraculously heal the sick, then we had best be spending a lot more money educating our kids in science and biology.  If Jesus did not live a perfect life, then perhaps we should abandon that unrealistic expectation in our own lives.

I should have known this couldn’t be done in two posts. 🙂

Next time, I will talk about the prophecy and personage of Jesus.

Stay tuned.

David Johnson

Beyond Sacraments (Final Thoughts)

I have three final thoughts about sacraments.  As I stated in the first post on the subject, all churches have some type of sacramental system.  They most likely call it by another name.  Also, many of the sacraments are combined, so there may not be exactly seven in your tradition, but they are all represented in one form or another.

My first thought is that the sacraments are the church’s control mechanism for its members.  Sacraments are how the church decides who’s in and who’s out.  If you do not perform the appropriate sacraments in the appropriate ways, then you are most definitely out.  Your eternal destiny is based on your faithful performance of the sacraments.

The sacramental relationship is not just between you and god, but you and god’s representative, which is itself, a part of the sacramental system.  That gives a select few humans an awful lot of power and control over your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  I can only guess at the amount of Zoloft prescribed and consumed due to the religious anxiety caused by sacramental underperformance.

Second, the sacramental system plays on fear, not freedom.  The only thing needed for religion to survive is for enough people to be afraid of the possible consequences without it.  Even people who do not believe in the fundamental underpinnings of the sacraments, still participate in them on occasion.

Countless non-religious couple still opt for a church wedding.  People who do not accept the Eden story as literal history still seek reconciliation from a fall that never happened.  People who do not believe in the literal events of the Passover, and are appalled by the narrative, nonetheless, partake in the Eucharist.  Many who have no formal relationship with a church still request last rites by a priest in a hospital.  All of these actions are motivated by fear.

I can’t count the times that I have been told by a religious person that it was better for them to be wrong about religion when they died, than for an atheist to be wrong when he died.  This turns religion into a “what if” policy.  “I don’t really buy into any of it, but what if some of it is right?  Maybe I should keep up to date with the sacraments, just in case.”  I don’t do “just in case” religion.

Finally, the sacraments are ineffective.  Baptism does not confer any discernible gift of the Holy Spirit, nor any blessed assurance of eternal life in a heavenly abode.  Confession does not ease your conscience of the guilt of sin.  You are always confessing because you are always a sinner.  No amount of Christ’s blood, whether drank or wallowed in, can change that simple fact.

Marriages held in cathedrals, officiated, by a bishop, and witnessed by millions of believers last no longer than Vegas weddings officiated by an Elvis impersonator, and witnessed by a drunk.  The innocence of little boys and girls are no safer in a room full of priests and nuns as it is at a secular camp full of atheists.

No amount of oil and holy water applied to the forehead by the most devout of clergy will cure the mildest of cancer.  It won’t even ease the symptoms of the common cold.  Oh, I’m sure the sacraments have the limited power to temporarily salve a guilty conscience, or provide a false sense of security from the evils of the world, which seem to invade at will, anyway.  But, if all I needed was a soothing of my troubled mind, Paxil will do as much as all the sacraments combined.

I will conclude by offering a few alternatives to the sacraments.  We do not need blood rituals such as baptism and Eucharist.  Quite enough blood has been shed and celebrated in the name of religion.  Instead of dying to ourselves and practicing the rituals of death, we should live a more abundant life and revel in every moment of it.  Human life is a very good thing.  Let’s find more excuses to break the bread of life together, rather than partake in the corpus of the dead.

Let us set aside priests and elders in favor of respected friends whom we can coach, and help coach us through life.  We need no blessings or offerings made on our behalf by a holy man.  There are no holy men.  Instead, we need to look deep within ourselves and our role-models and discover what changes we might make in order to become better humans.  I neither need or want an overseer.  I do need a community of equals who look out for one another and who have each other’s back.  Holy ordination is not required.

In stead of reconciliation and penance, let’s just learn to say, “oops!”  Mistakes are a part of the human experience.  We should not even try to avoid them.  Rather, we should learn from them.  We have to stop feeling guilt and shame for the sin of being human.  We did not fall to this state of being; we rose to it, and we are not done rising.  Here’s a thought, spare your feelings of guilt and shame when you actually do something of which you are guilty and ashamed.  When we stop trying to live up to someone else’s idea of perfection, we will find there is very little to be ashamed of.

Finally, let us stop judging one another’s fitness to be in our august company by how well or often someone adheres to our sacraments.  I have been baptized.  But if I could, I would declare myself unbaptized just to avoid being acceptable to someone else based on a sacramental rite of passage. I would no more participate in a blood ritual to Jesus any more than I would to Gandhi.

I boldly unconfess my sins.  I am not a lowly sinner, but a divine human in all my flawed glory.  In short, I renounce all of my misguided allegiance to the sacraments I have kept over the course of my life.  In doing so, I have found more to live for.

I have found it easier to love without reservation, those who were once unlovable.  I recognize no religious authority figures, yet I have found more men and women I genuinely respect and honor.  Their advice is priceless to me.  I have no sin, but I am more deeply hurt by my thoughtless actions that cause harm to others, and I am more likely to try and make amends.

I am a better husband now that I have stopped trying to be the head of the house.  I’m a better brother now that I have stopped judging their failures.  I’m a better son now that I can listen to my parents without fear or retribution.  I no longer care about obeying them; I only care about making them as proud of me as I am of them.

In this brave new world without religious sacraments, I find that my life is far more sacramental and meaningful minus the piety, which never really fit all that well.  May you find the same for yourself.

David Johnson

Beyond Holy Orders

I am combining the last two sacraments because I have little to say about either of them.  I feel they are the weakest of the sacraments, and expose sacramental theology for what it is: a purely human endeavor that is devoid of any efficacy for good in the world or the church.

First, there is ordination, which might also be called Holy Orders.  The key part of this sacrament is the employment of god’s holy representatives to do his sacramental work.  In this, I would have to say that god’s track-record for hiring is as bad as the Post Office.    There is no magic formula for finding the right person for the job.  After all the applications, interviews, background checks, and drug tests, companies, both great and small, still end up with people who are more suited for prison than gainful employment.  One would expect god to be able to do a little better.

He doesn’t.

Without recounting the horrors of priestly child abuse, the Catholic church has done more to prove the impotence of god than any atheist.  It is as if god couldn’t see it coming.  There is something hopelessly wrong with the sacrament of ordination.  But lest Protestants start getting smug, it is no better on our side of the fence.  Our elders and deacons are just as prone to theft as the leaders of Enron.  Our preachers are just as likely to wake up next to someone else’s wife as their own.  Our children are no safer with our youth ministers than are little boys with Catholic priests.

How many preachers has your church been through?  How many were lost to scandal or incompetence, or both.  It is all the proof you need that the omniscient god of the universe is no better at hiring than anyone else.  And that’s pretty bad.

As for extreme unction, or last rites.  I have even less to say.  The graveyards are full of devout believers who received the faithful, fervent prayers of righteous men and women who, nonetheless, had no power to change the outcome of the inevitable conclusion of all flesh.  It seems the last rights are just a way of helping the dying get over their fear of the oncoming death to which the are about to succumb.  Again, there is neither magic or efficacy in this sacrament to change the outcome or stem the tide of grieving for the survivors.  The last rites is the story we tell ourselves to convince ourselves and our loved ones that we are really not going to die, but go on living forever in another, better universe than the one that just unceremoniously spat us out.

Stay tuned for my final words on sacraments in my next post.

David Johnson