Here is the link to the new blog. Download the booklet for free and be sure to share the link with friends. Your comments are welcome. Keep them clean and relevant. Attacking commenters is not allowed. Attacking ideas is fair game. The marketplace of ideas is an interesting place to shop. Caveat emptor.
Since the very first post, I have been intending to turn the best of this blog into a book. 150 posts later, I think I have enough material. While my goal is still the same, the shape up the project has altered in subtile, but significant ways.
First, I am not simply going to reprint what I have already posted here. Although, I do think that would make for some interesting reading. But I realized that I wanted something more than just an interesting read. I wanted to answer some questions. Truthfully, as the project progressed, I realized that there was only one question that I wanted to address. I wanted my religious friends and family to understand why I abandoned religion and became a non-theist.
I also wanted my friends to understand that it is not them; it’s me. I am not rejecting them. I am rejecting a way of thinking that contradicts how I understand the world to operate. I did not decide to disbelieve. I simply decided to acknowledge it. When I was a kid, I wanted to believe in Santa Clause, but never did. At some point, I acknowledged my disbelief and moved on with my life. I also wanted to believe I could fly without wings or a jetpack. I been on many rooftops, but never took that leap of faith, as I didn’t believe such flight was possible.
I spent most of a lifetime trying to believe in God, and often succeeding to the extent that I could. There is nothing that I wanted to believe more. There is nothing I tried harder to believe. I beat my mind into submission as best I could. I studied my religion and practiced it rigorously. I was a Pharisee of Pharisees.
I am now the staunchest of unbelievers. How did I get from there to here? What killed my god? That is the question that I want to address. When I was a believer, I couldn’t understand how a person could not believe in god. Anyone professing disbelief was just rebelling against the god they knew existed so they could freely indulge in a life of sin. I understand the people who now feel that way about me. They’re wrong just as I was. But I do understand it.
I want them to understand that there are other ways, besides dishonest rebellion, that a person can come to disbelieve in god. For me, it was unanswered questions. I spent a lifetime seeking answers to questions that good Christians didn’t want to address. They dismissed such questions as foolish, and to be avoided. When the questions were addressed, it was a desperate attempt to dismiss the question, not an honest investigation of the issue.
At some point, my pile of questions grew much larger than my pile of answers. The search for answers consumed me, and ultimately ended up killing god one question at a time. That is what this blog project has been for me. It is a way of compiling those god-killing questions into a format that is easy to read and understand.
My book is called, “Killing God, One Question at a Time”. It is not about making atheists, but the making of one particular atheist. It is about how my god was killed by these questions. Yours might survive them just fine.
I don’t just want you to understand me. I want you to understand others like me who have taken similar journeys. We are not lying about our disbelief so that we can live that life of sin we always wanted. We are living our lives with intellectual and emotional integrity. Like you, we want to believe anything that is true, and disbelieve everything that is not.
This book contains some of the questions that make atheists out of devout believers. Ignoring or being dismissive of these questions just makes more atheists. If you are a believer, you owe it to yourself to try and understand why others are not. While this work might provide ammunition for the evangelistic atheist, I really wrote it for the believer.
If Christians want to stop the bleeding from their ranks, they have to address these, and other god-killing questions. I want these questions to be addressed. I want the god debate to center around the issues that really matter. That is why I will be making the book available for free through the new blog. It will be all about the questions that kill faith. The blog and book will share the same name, “Killing God One Question at a Time”.
In addition to blogging the book, I will make it available on iBooks and Kindle for 99¢. There are ten questions in the free version. The ones purchased will get free updates that include the next ten questions as I write them. The final draft is done. But there is still a process to be completed for publication. Expect the new website any day. I will post a link to it once it is ready for visitors. I hope you will stop by.
The word is far worse than a simple pejorative. Where I come from, it is practically hate speech. In fact, it is less an insult and more an accusation for which there is no defense, and the penalty is worse than death. To avoid this social penalty, many hide behind the label of agnostic. An agnostic is an atheist who is afraid to admit it. Such a person claims to be open to all possibilities, but lives like the atheist he really is. Such a path is not for me.
That said, I still do not self identify as an atheist. The word is too emotionally charged. It would be like walking around saying you are a racist, or worst yet, a sex offender. It would be better if I were to identify as a draft dodging, flag burning communist than to say that I am an atheist. But in point of fact, that is exactly what I am.
I am completely non-theistic. I do not leave any room for doubt that there is, or even could be a supernatural God being as portrayed in the bible. To pretend that such a possibility is equally as valid as say, string theory, is absolutely absurd and disingenuous. Mine is not just a rejection of the god of the bible, but of the underlying worldview that presupposes such a construct.
In the Deep South, this makes me more than a minority; it makes me a villain. In the Christian story, the villain is the devil. The bible labels those a fool who say there is no god. That makes me both a demon and a fool. Where I live, it is hard to become more marginalized than that. In the South, the only thing worse than an atheist is a murderer, and that is not a universal sentiment. Had I come out as gay, or impregnated countless young ladies, or become addicted to drugs, my mother would still be able to hold on to the idea that at least I still believed in God. A drug-addicted, gay, promiscuous Christian is far better than a clean, straight, monogamous atheist.
One of the worst things about rushing ahead of the pack is that you find yourself alone, abandoned by the ones you once ran with. As the saying goes, “One step ahead, and you’re a leader. Two steps ahead, and you’re a martyr. Going full atheist in a world of hardcore believers is most definitely two steps ahead.
There are two sides of being an outcast. The most obvious is how you are viewed by others. The second is how you start to view others. In both cases, your former in-group is now the others. As much as they change the image they had of you, you change the image you had of them. It is simply not possible for things to remain as they were. You might, as I was, be inclined to pretend that nothing had changed. But that illusion cannot last for very long.
Try to imagine that you were once a part of the Flat Earth society. You grew up in it. All your friends, family, and associates are still a part of it. But for some turn of luck you cannot fully explain, you discovered the round-earth truth. What of your relationships with all the people you once knew? Not only do you know the truth, it is obvious to you. More than that, any notion of flat earth is borderline insane to you. Suddenly, everyone you know is like a small child in their understanding of the world. Not only are they like children, they are like dull, slow children.
You might even try to help them to see the truth of things by sharing the science of round earth with them. They meet your evidence with derision and scorn. Those round-earth scientists are brainwashed, are lying, are a part of the anti-flat earth conspiracy, are afraid to speak out from fear of being ostracized within the scientific community. The only real scientists are the tiny fraction of scientists that promote the flat-earth view of the world. Those are the enlightened scientists. Why history is filled with great men of science who believed in flat-earth. After such hopeless discussions, it it difficult to say whether they pity you more than you pity them.
Once you see flat-earthism for the utterly bankrupt and laughably stupid idea it really is in light of current data, you can’t help but to consider those who hang on to the notion as laughably stupid as well. How could you not? They are either ignorant by choice, or ignorant because they really can’t do any better. Either way, their ignorance places them in a category of people whose judgements and insights are not to be trusted. Although they are competent in many areas, they are incapable of understanding fundamental truths about how the world works.
Overnight, those good people that made up your entire community and who helped to shape your worldview, are now as looney as toons. They are mere caricatures of what you once thought they were. If you are going to preach the round-earth truth and marginalize the flat-earth doctrine and the apologists who espouse it, then you are in the unenviable position of marginalizing everyone you once held dear. You may still hold them dear. But you have no choice but to undermine their influence, lest they raise up yet another generation of flat-earthers who will be unable to process the truth. Like it or not, your former community is now the others.
Mine is a generation without heroes. What the History channel hasn’t ruined for us, the internet has. We know their secrets. We have seen the men and women behind the curtain. Because of what we know, we now look down on the people we once looked up to. The truth is there for all to see. They are no better than us. There is no reason to believe that their answers are any better than ours.
Now that I see the worldview of my mentors as bat-guano crazy, I can’t exactly go to them for advice about anything that matters. Suppose I was having a problem with my marriage. It is hardly worthwhile to go to someone who is likely to suggest that the first step I should take is to rededicate my life and marriage to god. That answer would not only be useless, but offensive. They just as well tell me to rededicate my marriage to Diana: goddess of love, pray twice a day to Zeus, and pay a small tribute to Loki once a month.
No matter what I asked such a person, and regardless of her answer, there would come the moment in the conversation when they would feel compelled to offer up a prayer on my behalf. Since praying is not fundamentally different than faith healing or a Voodoo incantation, it would just ruin the whole encounter. I simply could not take seriously any advice that was accompanied by an appeal to magic.
Today, I find myself completely without mentors. It is not as if I have all the answers. At age 44, I most certainly do not. But because my life was peopled with magical thinkers, leaving the world of magical thinkers has left me without advisors. That leaves me as the highest authority in my life. That said, I am not sure my best lights are any worse than someone who believes in holy water, or that eating a bite of cracker places them in magical contact with the body of their crucified god. I feel like mentors and heroes are important. On the other side of religion, I feel the loss of them daily.
Once I set to the task, I thought this project would be easy. More fool, I. There are so many things that lead a person to take one path or the other, he is not even aware of all of them. In a cosmic sense, I have no idea why I, alone in my family, have been able to break away from the theistic worldview. Not only do I not wish to believe, but I am so made that I cannot believe.
I have tried to believe with all my might. I have tried to fit into the faith community on both sides of my own faith. I never wanted to rock the boat or be a rebel. I never wanted to hear my own father tell me to my face that I was a hopelessly lost infidel controlled by Satan. But I have lived long enough to hear those words, and recently enough so that they still ring fresh in my mind.
The Church of Christ is an interesting case study. It is one of those denominations that either has to be completely right, or all religion is wrong. You do not leave the Church of Christ for another denomination as a general rule. Once you walk away from the churches of Christ, you walk away from theism. They manage to poison the entire well of religion. I suspect they have made more atheists out of their adherents than Christopher Hitchens.
Hyper-rigid religions do not allow their members any flexibility. To bend is to break. Had I grown up on the more liberal side of the churches of Christ, I might have hung in a lot longer. But I suspect that I would have eventually left anyways. Liberal churches would have been more accommodating to my doubts. But at the end of the day, I still would have rejected even the liberal notion of god. I would also have rejected the bible as any kind of authority.
I suspect my path was determined more by nature than nurture. I really am incapable of believing in any extraordinary thing in the absence of extraordinary evidence. It is much like a person born with extra chromosomes that create gender confusion. I simply could not have chosen to be any other way. I tried. Perhaps evolution has naturally selected some of us to see the universe as it is, omitting the gene that allows us to believe in fantasies.
Does that sound the tiniest bit arrogant and self-important to you? It does to me too. Yet I cannot be any other way. I am surrounded by people who believe the world is powered by more magic than a Harry Potter novel, and is populated with more magical beings than Middle Earth. I have no choice but to think myself elevated above that. I am not sorry, and I shall never recant. I am on a mission of sorts. One might even call it evangelistic. Perhaps that is just more cruft from my Church of Christ upbringing.
My mission is to spread the truth of reality in a world intent on embracing fantasy. I use my blog as my pulpit. I hope to reach people who are much as I was. I say the things I wish someone had said to me when I was younger and impressionable. I would consider the mission a success if I can help one person avoid wasting their life on a false and unworthy god. If I can help a thousand get beyond religion, that would be even better.
To the beginning, and beyond
I came by my doubts honestly. It took years of study and soul-searching before I could admit that my faith was in a state of crisis. By faith, I did not just mean an acceptance of a particular point of doctrine. I also do not mean doubts about my exclusive denomination. My crisis of faith went beyond religion in general, and even scriptural inspiration. I had a real crisis of faith because, for the first time, I was seriously starting to doubt the existence of God.
I couldn’t locate God in any tangible sense. God’s morality as testified to in the bible was suspect. It was certainly different from any morality I claimed as my own. From the monstrous acts of the God of the Jews, to the insistence of Jesus that the majority of the world would burn in Hell, the bible’s moral messages I could wholeheartedly endorse were few and far between.
I could not locate God in the sciences. What I found was a world ordered in such a way that no god was required to explain its workings and appearances. Things once believed to be the workings of god were discovered to be the results of natural processes. Sickness was not caused by sin or disobedience. Health and long life were not the result of righteous living, or being obedient to one’s parents. Those prayed for by armies of the righteous were just as likely to die of cancer as those who worshiped the devil.
I could not locate God in my day to day life. I saw no evidence of supernatural intervention in any aspect of life. My fortune was not better or worse with or without confidence in God. My bills were not smaller or easier to pay. My inner spirit was not more or less satisfied. My experience was insufficient. So I expanded it to encompass the whole world. I could not find God in any pocket of human experience. Disease, war, oppression, and poverty visited the lion’s share of the earth’s population at any given time. The nation that was the happiest, wealthiest, cleanest, and most well balanced in almost every category was the most atheistic. The most religious seemed to also suffer the most. The cosmos smashed planets and blew up stars as if they didn’t matter at all. There was no evidence of a guiding, loving, miraculous hand anywhere I looked. As hard as I tried, I could find no god.
I had to give up on finding god in the present. He was nowhere to be found. Even so, there was one more place I could look. Though God was not to be found in my present, he was definitely to be found in my past. I had to know why I believed in him in the first place. My whole life had been based on belief in God. I didn’t just believe he was real. I knew it. I knew it just as sure as I had come to know he was not real. I had to know if God was hiding from me because I was the recipient of one of those strong delusions, or if I had been deluded about his presence my whole life. I laid out all the reasons I ones believed, and held them up to scrutiny. For the purposes of this article, I narrowed it down to three reasons:
I was born into faith
I can be honest and objective about it now. Back then, I denied it with all my might. My father had other jobs. But through it all, he was always a preacher. I was always a preacher’s kid. There was never a time when I did not go to church at least three times a week. Two of those times were on Sunday. There was never a time when I didn’t know about collection plates, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. There was never a time when I was unaware of my sinful, hell bound condition. When I could stand it no more, I was baptized. That was at age 7. There was no getting around it. I was born into the church. I never had any choice to do or believe anything else.
By the time I was 7, I was thoroughly indoctrinated. Some might say brainwashed. I would not disagree with that assessment. After all, that is the whole point of convincing a half preteen that he is desperately wicked and on the fast track to perdition. The word, “abuse” comes to mind. I don’t lightly use such an emotionally charged word. I also do not use it in a mean spirited way. An act need not be malicious to be abusive. How many children were beaten to within an inch of their lives out of love for the child’s soul, and devotion to God? Imposing religion on children young enough to still believe in Santa Clause is a form of mental and emotional abuse. Good intentions notwithstanding.
Because the bible said so
I recognize this reasoning is circular and invalid. But as a child who grew up with it as a cornerstone, it went unquestioned for most of my life. It goes something like this: The bible is God’s infallible word. The bible tells us that God exists. Therefore, God tells us that he exists, and God cannot lie. Therefore, God exists. Of course, the flaw in this logic is one that believers are incapable of considering. We are conditioned to unquestioningly accept the bible as a sort of magic book that is completely accurate and true in all its details. If the bible is not true, then our entire foundation of faith falls apart like a house of cards built on the sand in a windstorm.
Here’s the thing. If something is presented to you as the exact words of the living God, then you kind of have to respect it. It is one thing to doubt your parents and teachers. But to doubt God would surely get you a first-class ticket to Hell. Doubting or questioning the bible was tantamount to doubting and questioning God. No one in their right mind would do that.
So strong is the acceptance of scripture as sacred on some level, even those who come to believe that the bible is not the literal word of God still hang on to aspects of theism and religion that can only be supported by a literal reading of the bible. They still go to church as if it were a sacred assembly. They still tithe as if they were Jewish males with a literal share of the promised land. They still believe in the fall while rejecting a literal creation, eden, and the works. Most important, they still believe in the god of the bible long after they stop believing in the bible.
They can question bits and pieces of the bible while still accepting the bible as a whole, whatever that means. They have no hermeneutic or guiding interpretive principal for deciding which parts of the bible to accept and which to reject. The god of the bible and his will for us somehow transcends the words written in the bible and all their many faults. I can’t explain it any better than that. I can only say that I was such a person. I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because it was in the bible, and the bible was beyond critical scrutiny. How are you supposed to apply human criticism to the inspired words of God? The very idea was absurd, until I actually did it.
I needed it to be true
Finally, I believed in the god of the bible and his religion because I needed it to be true. My whole life was based on it being true. If the bible wasn’t true and there was no god of the bible, then I didn’t know who I was any more. Though my textual study of the bible rendered it impotent as a sacred text, I still held on to the God delusion it fostered. Theism was the only worldview I understood. Without it, I didn’t know how to relate to politics, ethics, or humanity in general.
Just as bad, I didn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world of believers. If I denounced God, I would be alone in the world. I had a large community of liberal minded friends who happened to be believers in some kind of god. My family was still staunchly conservative in their belief. I stood to lose my entire community. I wanted to believe in god with all my being.
I tried a watered down version of god. It didn’t take. Deism held no appeal for me. The clock winder god who set things in motion and left them to wind down as they will was like having no god at all. What is the point of having a god who doesn’t actually do anything or promise anything. That kind of god doesn’t even watch. He has already done what he had to do. What follows does not interest him, nor he, me.
I would have been content to believe that God really was there, but had abandoned me to a strong delusion for my unfaithfulness. Even though it would forever leave me outside of his grace, there would still be a god around which I navigated my life. But the reasons I believed in the first place all turned out to be bad reasons.
My father was not a stupid man. He had a college degree from a conservative Christian university. He majored in bible. He was most certainly not a man of science. He had a large library of bibles, religious books and commentaries. He specialized in the minor prophets. He instilled in me the love of books if only by example. But I never once saw a science text in his library. He never quoted Einstein, or even Newton. I don’t think he understood physics at any level. It was simply a non-issue. I don’t believe he ever understood the science of evolution or creationism. For him, the bible was the only science he needed. The rest was the Devil’s playground.
The bible was not written by God, or inspired by God, or compiled by God, or even proofread by God. There are more textual errors in it as there are in my own writing. There was nothing superhuman about the grammar, spelling, composition, or fact checking. Most textual errors are written off as scribal errors. But if a magic book can have a scribal error, then it is not a magic book. If God dictated it word for word, but those words were written down inaccurately, then it is not the bible.
It wasn’t just the scribal errors that sank the bible as a legitimate source; it was the contradictions and outright atrocities in the stories about who God is. I got tired of spin doctoring obvious contradictions in the text. Different writers had opposing ideas about important matters of faith. Paul and James really were not saying the same things about faith and works. The four gospels really do not harmonize.
Beyond that, almost every direct act of God recorded in the bible is morally reprehensible. His laws were morally reprehensible. That goes double for his plan of salvation. The tenth plague, alone, disqualifies God from being an object of devotion. The fact that he ever thought that homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children should be put to death is just icing on the morally bankrupt cake. If I actually believed in this god, I would devote my life to hunting him down and killing him. I would never voluntarily bend the knee to the monster identified as the god of the bible.
Finally, I no longer need him. I never needed him. I just didn’t know it until recently. I often pondered this question: What would I be like if there was no god? Would I run wild through the streets raping, pillaging and plundering with reckless abandon? Would I become hateful or indifferent toward my fellow man? Would I give over to drugs, sex, and rock n roll? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding “NO” to all of the above.
More or less, I am the same person on this side of faith as the other. In many ways, I am better. I have extended my concern for people to include those I once wrote off as enemies of God. I have a greater appreciation for how the universe really works, and my place in it. When I do a good deed, it is 100% because of my compassion, not because I am trying to fulfill a duty. When someone does something nice for me, I acknowledge that kindness rather than redirect that gratitude to another being who deserves none of the credit.
I am more respectful to women. The bible inspired male domination complex no longer applies to me. I no longer need a heavenly father to tell me what to do. I can figure it out on my own. My decisions without god have, in aggregate, been better than they were with god. I can make decisions on reality rather than childish hope and the power of prayer.
But not everything has come up roses. Don’t think for a moment that one can go from Church of Christ rockstar to atheist without consequences. In the final chapter of this biography, I will detail those challenges.
Beyond religion: the quest for god
Why is religion so diverse? This is the question that drove me. What, if anything, was behind the curtain of religion? If God gave a message that he wanted everybody to have and understand, one would think everybody would have it and understand it. That does not seem to be the case at all. No two people seem to have broad agreement on what it is God has said or what he wants. For the longest time, I was convinced that I knew. Naturally, I was in the minority. God delivered his word to one and all through the bible. There were no private communications as they would be superfluous to what was already written in the bible, and freely available to everyone on the planet.
If anyone wanted to know exactly what God had to say on any given topic, they only had to open the bible and correctly parse the meaning of what was there. Simple. Increasingly, I became concerned by the fact that so many people kept coming up with different conclusions than mine. This represented a problem and required an explanation. In the past, I was content to believe that those with different opinions were either too stupid to understand simple truth, or they were insincere in their desire to know the truth. Another accepted reason was that they were so caught up in sin, God had given them a strong delusion so that that they would believe a lie. If you are not Verizon familiar with the Christian scriptures, you might not be aware of how this one works. Take a look:
…and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. 2Th. 2:10-12
That’s right, people. If you take pleasure in wickedness, you are just someone who refused to believe the truth. God wants to make sure he judges you while you are in that condition of unbelief. Therefore, he will send you a deluding influence to make sure you continue to believe what is false. That’s what you get for not loving the truth in the first place. In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a direct example of how God used a lying spirit to deceive someone so that he could get his way. Don’t even bother trying to square this with all that talk about how God hates lying liars. It seems he has a cross-licensing agreement with the father of lies. If you are not all that interested in knowing the truth, God will make sure that you never can.
That is what I thought had happened to the billions of people who disagreed with me. The search for God had to begin with a search for truth wherever it led. The bible had already told me to seek, and I would find. Thing is, I wasn’t the only true seeker. Therefore, I shouldn’t have been the only truth finder. I had enough experience with the denominational world to know that their problem wasn’t that they were too stupid, or insincere, or caught up in sin. If they had received a strong delusions so that they would believe lies, how did I know that I wasn’t equally deluded? If we were all seeking the same truth, why were we not finding the same god at the end of the same answers?
Their god cared about very different things than my god. Some of them had a god that was still active in the affairs of men in overtly miraculous ways. Mine wasn’t. Their god cared about social justice a lot more than mine. Their god was not particular about worship details. Mine was. Their god did not have a lot of rules about everyday living and habits. Mine did. Their god allowed dancing and swearing. Not mine. Their god liked churches with steeples and bell towers. Mine didn’t. Their god was very ecumenical. Mine wasn’t. I could not wrap my mind around their god. Yet mine was the minority god. After having many conversations and reading many books, I just could not understand why there was so little agreement about what it was God was trying to say to us. After what seemed to be an eternity of reading and rereading the bible, I realized I had no idea what it was trying to say either. By the time I was 35, I had been on both sides of every issue. I was just as confused as everyone else. I was looking for God to provide me with some sort of clarity that never came. I sought God through scripture. I prayed for truth. I begged for clarity. I learned the bible very well, but found no god within. I would have to widen my search.
God of the gaps
There was an uneasy and complex dance between the churches of Christ and science. Above all else, we revered truth. We also gave lip service to science. For the most part, we believed in three levels of revelation. The first is the revelation of our spirit. Everyone knows that God exists because we all have a god-shaped hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God. We have a knowledge of right and wrong. We have a sense of the eternal, etc. The second level is what some might call the book of nature. Mostly, it just refers to science. We can look around and see the evidence of creation. The observable evidence points to God if it is interpreted correctly. The third level is the bible. The other levels point to God and his nature. The bible provides the specifics. The bible is the only one necessary. The other two just serve to confirm it, not that any confirmation is needed. If a person insists there is no god, the book of nature and the god-infused spirit would be enough proof of the contrary..
Both of those point to the bible in the end. But since the bible had failed me, or I it, I had to look to the other two levels. At that point, I was not looking for religious details, just God. My inner spirit was not doing much for me either. That just left the book of nature. I had determined to get as familiar with that book as possible. It is not fair to say that I began a serious pursuit of scientific understanding at that time, since I had always appreciated science, and thought I knew the basics pretty well. While I would never be a biologist or physicist, I did have a good grasp of the scientific method. Without the bible to point me to God, I found it necessary to brush up on science. My intent was to discover God through science.
What I found was shocking to me. Rather than God being made evident through observation, I found the opposite. If evidence for God was there, it was well hidden. It seemed God went out of his way to be undiscoverable in nature. From astronomy, to geology, to biology, to psychology, to history, the universe was dressed in a cloak of independent operation. Science revealed the universe to be old and evolved, not young and instantly mature. God had cleverly hidden himself behind illusion. We were to believe in him despite the best evidence in front of us, not because of it. Science was a test of faith, not an affirmation of it. For the first time, I felt the real antagonism between faith and science. I realized that all of my evidences for the existence of God were the gaps in my scientific understanding. The more gaps I was able to fill, the less room there was for god. I devoted myself to biology, physics, astrophysics, quantum physics geology, ecology, history, anthropology, and anything else that could be consumed from books and lectures. After that, I applied myself to philosophy, logic and reason. I did not abandon God. I looked every place I could think to look, including introspectively. He simply was not there.
If he existed at all, he was hiding from me. The broader I expanded my search, the fewer clues I had of his whereabouts. During this time, I was praying a lot, constantly. One might even say that I was praying without ceasing. My prayers had come down to one simple request: “Show thyself!” If a glimpse of his awesomeness would drive me blind, I could live with that. I by bolstering my faith with certain knowledge of his existence would disqualify me from all but the room next to the noisy ice machine for all eternity, then I was prepared for that. I just wanted a sign, any sign. A still, small voice of a deafening roar would have been equally welcome. I was desperate and willing to die on the spot for the confirmation I sought. In my search for God, I left no stone unturned. I just wasn’t there, at least, not for me.
Conclusion: full circle
And so it was that my search for god ended in failure. But I was not yet done. Perhaps I couldn’t find God with human effort. Perhaps God would appear to me on his terms and in a time of his own choosing. At the very least, I wanted to collect all the reasons I believed in God in the first place, and with a fresh set of eyes, see if any of them had merit. If they did, then perhaps God was there, but hidden from me. I refused to be the victim of a strong delusion. So I started a new examination. I lined up all my previous reasons for believing in God in the first place, and measured them against my newfound insight.
The search for the ancient order
One of the first, serious, multi-volume tomes I read on the subject of church history wass called, “The Search for the Ancient Order”. It focused on the Restoration movement, which is not to be confused with the Reformation movement. The two should never be confused. Reformation was about reforming the existing church infrastructure to bring it more in line with what it was intended to be. It suggests that the true church just got a little off track and only needed a bit of a course correction. Restoration was about reconstructing the original church from scratch. The existing church structure was so flawed as to no longer be a part of the original, if it ever was. The ancient order no longer existed, and had to be meticulously reconstructed from what original DNA we could find.
This book, however, was ultimately unhelpful as it just ended up promoting the Church of Christ as the ultimate end of the quest. But that could not be the ultimate end for me as I had already discovered that the churches of Christ were fundamentally flawed. To discover the true trail of the ancient order, I would have to expand my search to include other traditions.
Some other doctrine
Paul made it clear to the Galatians that they were to accept no other doctrine than that which they had received from him. The churches of Christ were very clear that the only doctrine was their doctrine, which was Paul’s doctrine. Anyone teaching any other doctrine was to be considered accursed. Just so it was perfectly clear, even if an angel from heaven taught this other doctrine, it was to be ignored. Unfortunately, careful research into the matter left Church of Christ doctrine weighed, and found wanting. For truth, I would have to seek out some other doctrine.
That meant visiting other denominations, which in general, was frowned upon. But once I acknowledged to myself that the Church of Christ was nothing more than a denomination of human origin, flawed just like everyone else, then there was no reason for me not to visit other churches to see what truth they might have to offer. Though I recognized this intellectually, it was still difficult to accept emotionally. Be that as it may, I started branching out, but not by much.
My first explorations were of liberal churches of Christ. You have to understand that conservative churches of Christ viewed most liberal churches of Christ the same as all other denominations. Once I started visiting them, I soon understood why that was. These churches did not hold as many things sacred. They acknowledged the fact that there were Christians in other denominations. Many of them had no ethical problem with using instruments in the worship assembly, though few actually did.
I tried several of these churches and liked them a lot. Unfortunately they were still churches of Christ. Seldom did they expand their fellowship beyond the traditional churches of Christ. If I wanted to truly explore what religion had to offer I would have to go beyond the Church of Christ. That is precisely what I did. I got a job as the choir director at a United Methodist church. There, I helped revive the choral tradition they once had. I planned the worship assembly. I taught sight reading. I helped plan special events. I did all the things that could never be done in the mainline churches of Christ. Beyond that, I had great conversations with the pastor. You see, I was just an employee, not a member. I never became a member.
When I applied for the job, I made it clear that while I was no longer in agreement with Church of Christ doctrine, I would never become a member of the United Methodist church, or any other denomination for that matter. I let them know that their beliefs were foreign to mine, but that I would give them a heck of a music program. Amazingly, they were cool with that. Tangentially, It was a white church where I was the only black attendee.
There were so many reasons for them not to hire me. The fact that they did changed my life forever. I never imagined that something called church, wrapped in religion, could be so different from what I grew up with. I was amazed at how little friction there was between me and the clergy. I was as much an outsider as you could get. I could write a lengthy post about the experience. Suffice it to say, it was a pivotal moment in my religious development.
I will mention one detail about my time there. It was something that led to my undoing as their music director. It wasn’t long after the choir really started rocking that they wanted to get the old robes out of mothballs. Sound good, look good. I balked at the idea of choir robes. My conservatism reared its ugly head. I felt like robes suggested a form of differentiation between members that was unseemly. My objection was amplified when I saw the robe they insisted I wear. It was Pope-like in its ostentation. To wear it implied that you were not only somebody, but somebody whose ring should be kissed. I was definitely not that person, nor did I want to be. That priestly robe showed me the limits of my ego. I believed in egalitarianism among brothers and sisters in Christ. That Robe represented a pedestal on which I did not wish to stand. I wasn’t even a member. I disagreed with many of their core beliefs. I felt like such a fraud.
I wore the robe anyway for a few weeks. There were people who helped me dress with the appropriate ornamentation. It was everything I feared it to be. When I was a younger, rising star in the churches of Christ, that robe represented everything I hoped to achieve. Once it was thrust upon me, I had changed so much, I couldn’t bear it. I stopped wearing the robe. Religion with a high-church gloss was never going to be a good fit for me.
For a few years, I wondered in the desert of churchlessness. Becoming a foster parent changed all that. I thought raising a child necessitated some time of community grounding. At the time, I still thought that religion offered the best take on morality. So my wife and I decided to start attending a neighborhood church in walking distance of where we lived. It was a Covenant church. I attended for several years before moving on.
Again, I never became a member of that church. But functionally, that only meant that I could not vote in meetings. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t teach, or be on committees. So I taught classes and was on a few committees that also had a profound impact on the rest of my life. I will refrain from writing a volume on that time in my life. The debates and discussions were priceless. I was able to help shape and participate in programs that were meaningful, and resonate to this day. For me, it was the first time that religion was less about doctrine, and more about social consequences. What I believed was less important than what I did. There, I had a chance to join action with faith.
After that, I started a podcast called, Church Visitor, or something like that. Each week, I would visit a different church of a different denomination. I would record the entire service and interviews with members and someone from the leadership. I posted snippets of all that to my website. I wanted to experience all of religion. I took in as much as I could consume. I experienced everything from high-church Catholicism, to low-church slaying in the spirit. Tongues, wild dancing, an hour of silence: I tasted it all. I know religion at its most dignified and undignified. I’ve know the most conservative to the most liberal. I’ve even done Friends and Unitarians. I know religion better than the vast majority of seminary graduates. I have weighed it all, and found it all wanting.
After reading this, you might think my search for the ancient order a miserable failure. In fact, it was a profound success. Like most quests, I ended up in a place I never imagined at the beginning. My great discovery was that there was no ancient order. There never was a first-century church writ large in bold letters. There was never a blueprint for what a proper church should be. There was no apostolic creed. There was no codified set of beliefs that all of the apostles taught to all new converts. There was no leadership structure replicated in all the churches.
What one can find in the Christian scriptures are people who were making it up as they went, and doing the best they could to live out their understanding of what it was to be a follower of Jesus. There were only a handful of people in the world still alive who had ever met Jesus. Consider this: Paul never met Jesus before the crucifixion, and Paul is the one most instrumental in defining modern religion. If not for Paul, the religion of the original apostles would have died out as just another failed Jewish sect. That said, not one of the churches Paul established survived either.
Christianity is a malleable organism that can reshape and reinvent itself for maximum survivability from one generation to the next. There is no ancient order, and never will be. Today’s religion is just as valid as what the Corinthians practiced in the days of Paul. Religious people are doing the best they can to live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus despite the fact that there is no one alive today who has ever met him. Today’s religious complex is a remarkable social achievement. It is also a useless pursuit. It is ultimately the wrong search. It asks the wrong questions. For me, the quest did not end; it changed. I no longer had any interest in finding the ancient order. I cared only about finding God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an ancient tale of a fortified city with walls that could not be breached. God had a plan to take that city. So he had his soldiers march around the city seven times. On the final circuit, they would blow trumpets. With that mighty blast, the walls would come atumblin down. I begin this post with this particular story because it was the insistent blast of instrumental music that would bring down the fortified walls of my faith.
You will recall that one of the doctrinal distinctives of the Church of Christ is the exclusive use of non-instrumental music in worship. To put it bluntly, singing in church with instrumental accompaniment will send you to hell faster than being a mass murderer. In fact, if the mass murderer was a member of the Church of Christ, he would have a much better shot at Heaven. I grew up believing in the absolute correctness of that position. As I grew more and studied more, I began to have doubts.
To fully appreciate my quandary, you have to know a little more about me, or at least, the me that was. I was a talented, perhaps even gifted singer. It manifested early, and was quite unambiguous. By the time I was 13, I was something of a celebrity in my church circles which happened to be quite broad. Since we didn’t employ the talents of piano players, we used song leaders to direct the singing of the congregation. I was a champion, award-winning song leader. I mean that literally. I have the trophies to prove it. I was known nationally for my ability. I was heavily invested in the Church of Christ doctrine of singing a cappella.
I was also a burgeoning musician. I played several band instruments, and was becoming proficient at the piano. I would go on to be a published song writer. But that is another story. I had the musical chops to become a church musician. I had the singing voice to be one of the premier song leaders of my time. I had no interest in bringing instruments into the church. I did, however, want to formally introduce the use of choirs into the official worship service. As hard as I tried, I could find nothing wrong with it. Neither command, example, inference, nor silence from the scripture forbad the practice as near as I could tell.
One of our favorite slogans was that we would speak where the bible speaks, and remain silent where the bible was silent. On the matter of choirs, I became increasingly certain that we were making law where there was none for the sake of our comfortable tradition. On that subject, we simply were not right. As I studied the subject of acceptable modes of musical expression in church, I also began to question our stance on instrumental music. That is where the real problems began. While in the church, there was always an undercurrent of debate among liberals and troublemakers about music in church. There were always some who argued that our traditional position was wrong. I lost one or two of those debates growing up. Those counter arguments stayed with me. When it was my turn to take a good, long, independent look into the matter, I had to acknowledge that the Church of Christ position might be wrong. And that was a really big deal.
Understand that I didn’t immediately admit that we were wrong, just that we could be wrong. That was pretty much the same thing. The possibility of not being right about an important religious matter was enough to rock my world. That may sound strange to you. But you are not thinking like a religious conservative. Consider this: A Catholic would never consider the possibility that the Pope could be wrong. In orthodox Catholicism, the Pope can’t be wrong. He is infallible. That would be like saying Jesus or Paul was wrong about a matter of doctrine. The notion is simply preposterous. Though the Church of Christ had no Pope, our unwritten creed was our infallible doctrine. Our beliefs were not right because we thought they were right. Our beliefs were right because they were decreed by God. It was not just that we were right, but that there was no possibility of us being wrong.
To admit the possibility of being wrong was to admit that our doctrine was not the precise dictates of God, but merely our interpretation. If we were acting in accordance to our human interpretation, then we were no better than the Baptists who were clearly going to Hell. Yet as more time past, the more I knew we were wrong. Music was a salvific issue for us. It was not a secondary matter. I had become convinced that we were wrong about a salvific issue. The only way to salvage my faith was to demote music to a secondary issue. As I became more vocal about the matter, I grew out of favor with the leadership. The last thing they needed was an up and coming influencer who would draw people away from the status quo.
I had worked out in my mind that it was okay to be wrong about secondary issues. There was another saying of which we were somewhat less fond: In matters of faith, unity. In matters of opinion, liberty. In all things, charity. The problem is that we hardly credited anything as a matter of opinion. It was all a matter of faith. I soon came to realize that one person’s matter of faith was another person’s matter of opinion. As a hermeneutic, this was untenable. There had to be some way to distinguish the two. I devoted the remainder of my time in the church looking for the delineating factor. I never found it. If we could be wrong about our classifications of faith and opinion, we could be wrong about anything. We could be wrong about everything! That realization shook me to the core, and changed my life forever.
Conclusion: the highest authority
Everything had to be reexamined, and I had to be the one to do it. I couldn’t trust anyone else, not even my father. Everyone I respected as a church leader was painfully and obviously wrong about some fundamental things. It started with music, but didn’t end there. Who could I go to but the liberals and the troublemakers. They were the only ones who could see behind the curtain. They were the only ones not blinded by tradition and personal preference. I sought them out. I read their books. I questioned and debated them. I had to be sure. Never again would I be the victim of another person’s faith. There was only one thing for me to do. I had to reexamine everything I had been taught. And reexamine, I did.
Durring the process of reexamination, I discovered the most unsettling thing of all. I had become the highest authority in my religion. I trusted no one else, for they had all deceived me, with few exceptions. My church was no longer infallible. They could and had gotten things wrong. The only way I could know what was right was to study it for myself, and accept what was revealed by the evidence. I was equipped for the study. I had been preparing all my life for this adventure. I had the resources and the knowledge. What I gained was the conviction that I would believe nothing that I could not understand and prove for myself, at least in the realm of religion.
With that resolve in place, I opened my bible and read it again for the first time. Shocked at what I discovered, I read it again, and again. After some time, I was finally able to acknowledge an unavoidable truth: As a lifetime member of the churches of Christ, I was quite literally wrong about everything I once held dear. And the walls of my Church of Christ Jericho came atumblin down.
Rightly dividing the word of truth
Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. 2Tim. 2:15 (NET)
This is a much better rendering of the passage I grew up with. The KJV said, “Study to show thyself approved unto God.” Of course, not all of my bible teachers were very conversant with 17th century English. The word, “study” had absolutely nothing to do with reading and becoming informed on a matter. It means to strive, work hard, endeavor, better still, make every effort. To this day, and with maximum irony. The Church of Christ misinterprets that verse as using the modern American word for study. This is the verse we most employ in the mission of provoking members to read their bibles. The passage meant nothing of the sort. There were no bibles on every coffee table to read. There was just an old man encouraging a young apprentice to work hard at his craft. The passage most known for its call to rightly divide the word of truth is wrongly divided.
Comical misinterpretations notwithstanding, a major tentpole of the churches of Christ is their commitment to accurate and infallible transmission of the precise words of God as transmitted through time in the form of the bible. We do like to say that we have the correct interpretation of the bible as much as to say that we understand it correctly. The bible is not open to private interpretation. It does not need to be interpreted, only read with honest eyes. If you are interpreting the bible, you are already doing something wrong. Interpreting is something of a red flag for us.
That is not to say that we, they do not have methods of interpreting the bible. In bible college, students would learn the word, “hermeneutics”. That is nothing more than the art of interpreting a document. We had a particular hermeneutic for interpreting scripture. The following three items guided all of our biblical interpretations:
- Direct command
- Approved example
- Necessary inference
You will notice that each item is preceded by a modifier. It is not just command: “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake”, but direct command: “Love one another”. The first is indirect and situational. The second is universal, and can be applied to all people in all places at all times. Surely, no hermeneutic could be more clear than this. If God, himself, gives a direct command to you and the entire world, then that should be the last word. Except… God, himself, never gave you and the whole world a direct command. It is all open to interpretation. Consider the following: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That sounds an awful lot like a direct command. The Church of Christ doctrine of evangelism is partially based on this command. We interpret it as a literal command for every active member of the church.
But was Jesus delivering this edict to every member of his (at the time) nonexistent church? That makes little sense. We assume the apostles dread this teaching as they established the church. We figure that every new convert was given this instruction immediately after their baptism. However, the bible does not support anything like this. There are many examples of conversion, but none of this instruction to the recently converted. It stands to reason that at the very least, every would-be book of the Christian scriptures would feature this command. That is not the case either.
Since the vast majority of the people living in the first century would never see the writing that features this command, it could not have been intended for them. That means that only Jesus’ disciples gathered around him at that moment, and those who would have a complete copy of the bible much, much later were the recipients of that command. That also seems rather selective. If Jesus gave the command at all, the only thing we can say is that he gave it directly to his disciples that were with him at the time.
It gets even more ridiculous. Every convert is not equipped to sponsor a worldwide mission to preach the gospel to every creature, or even every nation. How many nations have you visited? How many creatures have you preached to? Right. So in what universe do we suppose that everyone who becomes a Christian is to preach the gospel to every creature and nation? None! That is how much sense that passage makes as a direct command. There are no direct commands. They are all subject to similar interpretation. We are still in search of a consistent hermeneutic.
It only gets worse from here. An example is any bit of narrative that illustrates a particular behavior of the protagonist. An approved example is one that carries the weight of command without a specific directive. “On the first day of the week, the disciples came together to break bread.” “Afterward, they sang a hymn and went out.” The first example clearly teaches that we are to take the Lord’s supper every Sunday. In the second example, we are taught that no church meeting can end without a closing song.
Naturally, the bible is full of examples of protagonists doing things that we do not emulate. We really only consider examples approved when they have something to do with the assembly. That is the problem with using this as any sort of hermeneutical principle. Who gets to say which examples have the weight of command and which do not. It also pretends that everything they did represented the perfect and mandatory execution of God’s inviolable will. Even if you want to be like someone you respect, you don’t copy his every action. Most of what a person does is unimportant, personal preference. The Church of Christ has traditionally made no distinction between important behaviors to be copied, and unimportant behaviors that can safely be ignored. Without such fine tuning, the principle is useless.
This is the slipperiest of all the hermeneutical slopes. How do we know that Sunday is the official day of meeting for the church. Believe it or not, the bible never says. Here’s how it works. We have commands and examples that show the early Christians had a common meal on the first day of the week. We extrapolate that the meal either was, or contained the Lord’s supper. We also know that at least for a brief period of time, a few of the churches collected a charitable donation on the first day of the week. Since Jesus was said to have risen on the First day of the wee, early Christians started keeping that day sacred instead of the traditional Sabbath. From these bits and pieces, we must necessarily infer that Sunday was the day they set aside for worshiping God. This inference bears the weight of infallible, direct command.
You do not have to be very imaginative to see how this can all go awry. The same inference bait that has us meeting on Sunday every week, should also have use sending money to the poor saints in Jerusalem every week. That is what that first day a week collection was all about. It had nothing to do with paying for meeting halls, staff, and church programs. Furthermore, it was only temporary. The same bible tells us that for the most part, assemblies were held in private homes, not corporately funded buildings. What can we infer from that? Just about anything.
And that’s the problem with inference. That is the problem with all of it. The solid hermeneutic on which we hung our faith was about as constant as curdled milk. Like Play Dough, we could bend it, twist it, and shape it into anything we needed it to be. To this day, members of the Church of Christ believe the quicksand of their hermeneutic is solid, unshakable ground. They simply do not understand why you don’t see things their way. With this simple hermeneutic, the bible should read the same to everyone the world over. If you do not understand these simple truths, there must be something wrong with you.
There were other hermeneutical principles such as the continuity of the testaments, and the silence of scripture, not covered here. The point is that for me and my kind, the bible was not only the absolute word of God, but it was completely understandable with very few grey areas. Not only did we have the truth which was available to everyone, we had the only correct interpretation of the truth. That made us unique. Of course I thought I knew everything. I did know everything that was important. We all did, and I was one of the best of the bunch.
Perhaps you will forgive my arrogance when you understand that for me to admit to anything less than perfect knowledge was the same as me admitting that I didn’t know God’s will. And if I didn’t know God’s will, then I was as hell bound as the rest of the world. Knowledge was power. And perfect knowledge was the gift of our golden hermeneutic. If that hermeneutic were to start showing cracks, the faith would crumble. It would not be long before the first cracks in that slippery surface would start to show. The reverberations continue to this day.
The unwritten creed
Most creeds are concerned with the underlying truth claims of a religious worldview. They affirm certain events such as the virgin birth to be historical and true in the literal sense. Some creeds may be more interested in cosmological issues such as the nature and preexistence of Jesus, the human spirit, free will, and sin. The nature of God, the trinity, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would also make the list in most creeds. If the church of Christ had a creed, all of that would be relegated to footnotes. What we most cared about was the order of worship. Some traditions care more about the foundational truths of the religion while paying little attention to lifestyle. Some care only about lifestyle and are flexible about esoteric matters. The Church of Christ was primarily interested in what takes place during a worship assembly. That is not to say that esoteric matters and lifestyle issues were unimportant. They were just secondary. Our creed was about how to do church, not how to be church.
This point cannot be stressed too much. When we went into a home on an evangelistic mission to make a convert, we spent most of our time dealing with matters of the assembly. We never wasted effort trying to bring someone to faith in Christ who did not already believe. For us, evangelism was converting a person from their denomination to ours, that is to say, the one true church: the Church of Christ. We did not regard the Baptists and Methodists as Christians. They were lost souls. Their only hope was to convert to our religion. In all fairness, I didn’t know any atheists. I seldom met anyone who didn’t believe in God. In the Deep South, everyone had some experience with a church, even if it wasn’t very good. Even so, we saw the devout Baptist as being no different than the person who never heard of Jesus, assuming there was such a person.
We were really into sets of five. Therefore, there were five acts of worship:
- the Lord’s Supper
You would be forgiven for mistaking this as a generic list of things that everyone did regardless of denomination. What you are missing is the nuance in each of these acts that make them distinctly authentic. All acts of worship had to be authentic to the first-century worshipers to be considered valid. Do any of these acts in an unauthorized way and you were not really doing them at all. I will give you the list again, this time with its stamp of authentic distinction:
Singing: This is not just an act of opening ones mouth and making musical sounds with lyrics. One had to be singing the proper songs. The bible specified psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The fact that it was in a hymnbook didn’t make it a hymn. The song had to be in precise accord with the revealed word of God. It also had to be done without the accompaniment of a musical instrument. It is one thing to sing, “Amazing Grace”. It is quite another to sing it with piano accompaniment. That would send you straight to Hell. We believed the bible was very clear that only unaccompanied singing was allowed in worship. Also, everyone had to participate.
We had a strict prohibition against the use of choirs in worship. The main reason is that choirs, by definition, were only a small subset of the assembly singing, while the rest listened in silence. That was not scriptural. There were complications, however, that were sorted out with mental gymnastics. The simple fact was that we loved to sing, and we loved choirs. Many churches of Christ have them, and use them, but not in worship per se. First, we didn’t call them choirs. We called them singing groups. That helped us avoid the stigma of having a choir.
Second, we didn’t use them in the proper assembly. For that, we only used song leaders. We had special, unofficial gatherings where the singing groups could perform. At those gatherings, there was the practice of the five acts of worship. But it was not considered worship. It was very important that we make a clear distinction between official worship services and unofficial gatherings. I’ve already gone too far into the weeds. Just know that singing was strictly regulated. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, you were not doing it right.
Praying: Mostly, praying is what you think it is. There were a few minor distinctions to watch out for. First, like all acts of worship, only meant could lead prayer in a mixed assembly. Prayers had to be specifically addressed to God the father, and had to be done in the name of Jesus. These things had to be stated during the prayer, not silently assumed. The main prayer was usually a performance piece. It was long and drawn out, using many words to stir the audience, much like a sermon. Other prayers were more to the point.
Preaching: A sermon is a sermon is a sermon. We believed that sermons were always bible-based and filled with many scripture references. Sermons were heavy on quoting book, chapter, and verse. Anecdotes without scripture references were frowned upon. The main distinction was that an appropriate sermon must always end with the recitation of the plan of salvation. This evangelistic push was a fixture of every sermon. In my experience, if a preacher forgot to add it, or didn’t do it sufficiently, someone else would get up after the sermon and tack on the plan of salvation to complete the package.
The Lord’s Supper: You might know it as communion. The Catholics would call it the sacrament of the eucharist. There are three crucial elements: First, you had to be worthy to take it. I never quite knew what that meant. But the bible clearly stated that taking it unworthily would lead to bad things, even death. Second, it had to be the right stuff. It could not just be bread and juice. It had to be unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine. For us, that meant grape juice. Don’t try to get cute and substitute it with tomato juice. Also, it had to be unfermented. These were doctrinal, not personal preferences. Finally, it had to be taken once a week, every week, no exceptions. If you were unable to attend service, there was often a group who would bring the Lord’s Supper to your home, replete with ceremony.
Giving: Make no mistake about it. Giving was not merely a freewill offering or an institutional necessity. It was mandated by God. The amount could be any amount over 10% of your income. This was to be done on the first day of the week just like the Lord’s Supper. Inexplicably, though, it could be done as often as the leaders preferred. There was no limit on how many times the plate could be passed. It could even be passed multiple times a week if there were gatherings. The Sunday morning collection was the only official one. But others were highly encouraged. It was important to never call it a tithe like the members of other churches did. It was very specifically a collection, not a tithe.
Conclusion: the work of the church
I grew up hearing that phrase a lot. It was very important that young men be trained to do the work of the church. When you hear that, you might think of caring for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. You might conjure notions of civic reform, or standing up for the rights of the oppressed. From a Church of Christ perspective, you couldn’t be more off base. For us, the work of the church meant leading songs, public prayers, preaching sermons, officiating over the Lord’s Supper, and handling the collection trays. This was the grand high work of the one true church. These were also considered areas of leadership. Doing these things made you special. Women were not allowed to do these things. They couldn’t even pass the collection trays. Only the men were allowed to do the real work of the church.
When we learned to teach others about Christ, these are the things we presented and defended with all the weight of scripture behind us. When there was a new convert, these are the things we started teaching them to do, provided they were men. Women, we taught to keep quiet and bring tasty dishes to potlucks. Matters of social justice seldom crossed our minds. Real Christians concerned themselves with real assemblies of the church. There is a national competition for young members of the Church of Christ focused on preaching short sermons and leading songs. It is extremely elaborate because those are the critical areas of leadership that need attending. That is the real work of the real church. That was our understanding. That was our creed. Only much later did that become my shame.
I grew up singing an old hymn familiar to everyone who went to church every Sunday during that time. Unbeknownst to me, I was singing a slightly modified version of the song. The first time I heard it the way it was originally written, I couldn’t sing it on doctrinal grounds. You might know the song as, “When we all get to Heaven”. At no point did I ever believe that we were all going to get to Heaven. I have never been in a room of people that I felt confident would all get to Heaven. Even in a room of people who only consisted of members of the Church of Christ. I knew that even only a subset of those would get to Heaven. Growing up, I knew the song as, “When the saved get to Heaven”. That was a much truer sentiment. The white churches would tend to sing it the original way. Even so, they were not espousing an ecumenical message. They were only referring to Church of Christ members when singing that all would get to Heaven. We had plenty of in-house debates. We did not always agree on who was going to Heaven. But we were very much in agreement about who was not. If you were not a member of the Church of Christ, then you are not saved.
Nowadays, this is not a universal sentiment. However, it is still a recognizable doctrinal distinctive of the churches of Christ. There may be some individual pockets of disagreement among individuals. There are even whole congregations that take the minority view. But make no mistake about it; the possibility of salvation outside of the Church of Christ is a minority view. The individuals who feel that way have learned to keep it to themselves. As I stated in the previous post, there is no creed. But if there was a creed, this would be one of the main tenets. There is no salvation outside of the church. There is only one true church, and the Church of Christ is it. All others are mere denominations of man.
The delusion of originality
In Matthew 16, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The non-denominational group known as the Church of Christ sincerely believes that they are that church. That is not to say that they are a part of that church, but that they are that church. That means that no one else is any part of the church. The body of Christ is not divided. It has an unbroken lineage from Jesus to Paul to Alexander Campbell to the present-day members of the Church of Christ. History has not intervened, tampered with, or in any way altered the pristine method of doing church. If the first-century Christians were transported in time, they would find no difference in the Church of Christ today and the church of their day. Of course, this notion that we are the original Christians is a delusion, but it’s our delusion.
Today’s Church of Christ believes that it is an exact replica of the first-century church in every meaningful way. They believe there is a kind of blueprint for recreating the original church of the apostles. That blueprint was dictated right out of the mouth of Jesus and directly to the apostles. Though the bible does not detail the specifics of everything, the stories and narratives of the bible show us how the church was set up, and is therefore, an example of how it is supposed to be for all time. The churches of Christ feel they have fully captured the zeitgeist of the original. The authority of the Church of Christ comes from the idea that they, alone, have recreated the original church in exacting detail. Everyone else has at least one critical aspect of it wrong. By the way, all aspects are critical. That passage in James that says being guilty of one point of the law makes you guilty of all, is particularly applied to church organization.
Alexander Campbell, and the fully restored church
There is a crack in the delusion of originality, and its name is Alexander Campbell. The delusion begs a particular question to be asked: What became of the church between the time of the apostles and today? There is a rich, storied, and well-documented history. The churches of Christ vehemently denied having any part of that history. More to the point, they deny that any part of that history follows the true lineage of the one true church. Denying the history is absolutely essential. To accept the history is to accept that the Catholics have a clear and unbroken line of assention to the apostles. The lineage of the one true church would have to run through the Reformation Movement. We claim no brotherhood with early reformers such as Luther and Calvin. The church those men helped reform was not the right church to begin with. A reformed Catholic tradition is no more valid than the church of Satan.
Therefore, the question remains: What happened to the one true church after the last book of the bible was written? Where exactly is the handoff of the baton from the hallowed pages to the pages of secular history? Like the Tree of Life and the Ark of the Covenant, it seems to have just disappeared leaving no historical trace. Some have tried to solve the mystery by hunting down small bands of believers in various places that might be the remnant of the original church. These efforts are unsuccessful as they are arbitrary and bear no weight of verifiable scholarship. I’ve tried, and followed the efforts of others who’ve tried. It’s all bunk. The other method is to posit that the one true church shrunk to a remnant, never quite dying out altogether. Due to being small and heavily persecuted, the underground remnant was forever lost to history. There was a dark time for humanity between the closing of the canon and the mid-1800s.
Since the one true church was lost to history, it couldn’t be reformed. It had to be completely restored from scratch. Fortunately, the bible provided an indisputable blueprint for being the one true church. Also fortunately, there was a man named Alexander Campbell around to help us rediscover it. It wouldn’t be until 1906 until the churches of Christ were officially recognized. The Church of Christ has both a founder and a birthday. It is not Jesus Christ, and it is definitely not A.D. 33. The church avoids this conundrum by stating that Campbell had nothing to do with founding the Church of Christ. He only helped to rediscover and restore it to the world that had lost its historical thread. That’s their story, and they are sticking to it.
It is very important that you understand how the Church of Christ views itself. It will give you insight into how I viewed myself. The church was not one of many, nor was it a denomination. The Church of Christ stood alone as the first-century church of the apostles, fully restored in our time and untarnished by history. It was Jesus to Paul to me. I was a part of a small but elite group of people who had it all right. The sincerity and good deeds of other groups simply didn’t matter. They were running the race from the outside of the track. Only the racers on the track have a chance to win. There was only one true track, and I was on it. They were not.
That is still true for the majority of mainline Church of Christ members today. I don’t care how nicely they treat you, and how welcome they make you feel in their home. In their heart, they are convinced that if you die without being converted to their religion, you are going to burn in Hell. Neither your good nor evil makes one iota of difference. This kind of elite superiority and unwavering conviction combined with just the right personality is a dangerous combination.
I could write 10,000 words of introduction. I don’t quite know how to start, nor do I have any idea where it will end. This piece is an exploration of my past and present. Like all explorations, there will be many encounters with the unknown and unexpected. How do I separate my critical analysis of religion from the present reality of familial relationships? All of my family is still religious, deeply entrenched in beliefs with which I was raised. I may have moved on, but they didn’t. Every harsh word I have ever said about people of faith apply to my own flesh and blood. I am deeply entangled in the daily workings of my family. Every word I write is hard, and comes at a price. If I refer to religious nut jobs, you might be mildly offended. When I write those words, I have to envision my beloved mother and father who means the world to me. You do not know the half of the emotional struggles I go through when writing this blog. If you follow this series, wherever it leads, I assure you, you will have a much better idea of who I am and where I am coming from.
The Church of Christ, and the world as I knew it
I will start by showing you the shape of the world as I understood it. The religion known as the Church of Christ represented the boundaries of my world. Though mainstream, most people know very little about the religion. It boasts millions of adherents worldwide, and a number of universities of note such as Pepperdine University and Abilene Christian University. Its roots go back to the American Restoration Movement, and it is based mainly in the Southeast. It is not a secret organization. But there are good reasons why it flies mostly under the radar.
Unlike the Southern Baptists, it does not have a centralized organization. There is no one person or committee or assembly that speaks for it. There is no written creed. They say it is because the bible is all the creed that is needed or allowed. However, the more practical reason is that there is no one with the authority to write it. Decentralization means that one preacher’s word is as valid as anthers. Every congregation is autonomous. An official creed would have no power at any congregation. If one person decides that the bible is being interpreted in a way that he does not like, he can just start a new congregation insetting himself as the preacher. His congregation is just as much a Church of Christ church as the largest, most established in the world.
There is also no official ordination process for preachers. You are considered a preacher if you are allowed to preach. If you have the talent and apply yourself, you can be a preacher in the Church of Christ. While large churches tend to prefer their preachers come from a Church of Christ university with a preaching degree, formal education is not required. This is especially true for black churches where formal education was often denied. However, in the black churches, what we lacked in formal education, we made up in experience. We started out young, very young.
As a preacher’s kid, I had the inside perspective on how church was really done. I knew how the sausage was made, and I was destined to be a maker. My church career officially started at age 7 when I was baptized. As I recall, I led the closing hymn that very night, and never looked back. My first public sermon was at age 12 or 13. I preached regularly from that point on. I was not alone. There were many young protégés. I was but one of the recognized future leaders of the church. By the time I was 15, I had more experience for the job of youth minister than the majority of college graduates who studied for the position. In my early twenties, there were few assistant ministers more qualified. If one congregation accepts you as a preacher, you’re a preacher. All other congregations are obliged to accept you in that regard. That is just one of the benefits of having no centralization.
There were also drawbacks. The lack of centralization and a unified voice meant that we lacked political influence. We were not the ones on the news providing soundbites because there were no representatives of the Church of Christ as a whole. No one could speak for all of us. We were all independent. We spoke for ourselves. When someone did presume to speak for us, we tended to shoot down such efforts. We had no bishops, diocese, or popes. National political power requires a national spokesperson, and unity among the people within the organization. The extreme autonomy of the Church of Christ makes that a nonstarter.
We were also isolated by our non-mainstream beliefs. For starters, only members of the Church of Christ in good standing had any hope of going to Heaven. That means that everyone not a member of the Church of Christ was unsaved and destined for Hell. It made little sense to speak of political issues since everyone was going to Hell anyways. Abortion seemed like a pretty silly issue to get all excited about since both the mother and the doctor performing the abortion were bound for Hell. It had little to do with the act of murder. It had to do with the fact they neither would have been a member of the Church of Christ in good standing. That was true with most everything. People didn’t go to Hell because they were on drugs. They went to Hell because they were not members of the Church of Christ. When dealing with outsiders, nothing else really mattered.
We had a high view of scripture. That means we saw it as the perfectly transmitted words of God to be taken literally. It was the only truth worth knowing for all relevant matters of living. The creation versus evolution debate was incomprehensible to us. The bible said we were created by God in six days. Anything that disagreed with that was just stupidly wrong, perhaps even satanic. You bring your evidence. I’ll bring my bible. I win! You don’t believe in God? The bible says that only fools say there is no god. Therefore, you’re a fool. Why are we even talking? Life really was that simple for me. You were either one of us or you were kindling for Hell. I might put forth a little effort to try to save your miserable soul. But I wasn’t going to waste too much time casting my pearls before swines. To be clear, you would have been considered a swine. Don’t judge me too harshly. I was raised to think that way from birth. My parents were taught to raise their children that way. The regression is not infinite. But it’s close.
Other doctrinal quirks included singing a cappella in church. No musical accompaniment was allowed. This was not a matter of preference, but a matter of obeying God’s word. If you had instrumental accompaniment in church, you were clearly an enemy of God. We believed in taking the Lord’s Supper once a week, and collecting money as often as we could. We believed the only official positions in the church were elders and deacons. However, we also saw them as optional, making the preacher the de facto head of the congregation. We believed that church attendance was required every time the doors were opened. There were not really any optional services. It was a sign of spiritual weakness if you chose to be somewhere else when Wednesday night bible class was in session. Marriage was eternal. Divorce was only allowed in cases of infidelity. Formal education, especially secular education, was often disparaged. It should be sufficient to only know Christ, and him crucified, whatever that meant.
…and on it goes.
That is not just what I was raised to believe. That is who I was. That was my whole world. One year, I decided to live out my conviction that it was a sin to wear short pants in public. Don’t laugh. This was a huge issue in many churches back in the day. I was in grade school at the time, and in the athletics program. I was a wrestler. The school required dressing out in short pants, I refused and told them they could flunk me in PE. I made it very clear that I would obey God rather than man. I didn’t dress out. They flunked me in PE. Honor was satisfied. I carried a briefcase not a book satchel. I always had at least one bible with me, and wasn’t afraid to display it. In the fifth grade, I purposely gave religious answers on science tests because I refused to support the lie of evolution. I couldn’t be controlled or manipulated by teachers. I was self-possessed in ways that other students weren’t. Religion was one of the few things that really mattered to me. It was not just a mask I wore, but what I strove to be.
That overview will have to do for now. The important takeaway is that I was not just a church goer. I was a true believer, the truest of believers. I was more than a believer. I was a person of action. I put flesh on those beliefs. I read my bible, and every other religious text book I could get my hands on. I studied the same material read by graduate students. I did what few managed. I excelled in both black churches and white churches. I walked in both worlds as if I belonged, and I did. That was a rare gift. You may think yourself religious, but I was the real deal. I was smart, well placed, driven, and on my way with almost no obstacles in front of me. And that is where my real story begins…
For if that first covenant had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second one. But showing its fault, God says to them,
“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.
“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.
“For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.
“And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.
“For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”
When he speaks of a new covenant, he makes the first obsolete. Now what is growing obsolete and aging is about to disappear. Heb. 8:7-12
This passage is an indictment against everything we think we know about religious evangelism. For that reason, it is one of my favorite passages in all the bible. It starts by setting the stage. The old covenant is broken. If it were not, there would be no need for a second one. After that bold declaration, the writer outlines a particular way in which the new covenant is different. Dispensational theology suggests we are living in the second dispensation, under the second covenant right now. The Lord’s return will mark the third. The first was ended at the cross. We also separate the books of the bible along these dispensational lines. We speak of the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is the pre-Jesus, post-Jesus era. The first covenant was with the Jews. The second is with the followers of Christ. My point being that almost all Christians would say that we are living under the new covenant right now.
The writer is focused on the method of revelation. How do we receive God’s word. How do we know it is really him, and what he really wants from us. Acquiring that information is called revelation. Sharing it with someone else is called evangelism. The new covenant was to include a method of revelation that required no evangelism. According to the Lord, he would put his laws in our minds and inscribe them on our hearts. This is a great departure from the days when we were to do the writing and inscribing ourselves. There would be no more transcription errors, or interpretation errors, or transmission errors from one person to the next. From the least to the greatest, everyone would know the Lord. There would be no need for countryman or brethren to teach another about the Lord or his ways. There would be no more evangelism.
So what happened?
Here we are firmly entrenched in the second covenant. Yet the neighborhood sidewalks are dotted with white-shirted pairs going from house to house teaching the good news of the god of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. Countrymen and brethren are still enlisting neighbors to attend the revival meeting that will introduce them to Jesus. Pamphleteers are still leaving small booklets about the Lord’s will for you on bus seats across the country. Pastors are desperate to offload some of the evangelistic burden onto their members. Evangelist campaigns range from door knocking to TV ads. One thing is for sure; even though done poorly, evangelism is alive and well.
Apparently, there is still a need to press the flesh, establish fake relationships, and tell strangers how to get to know the Lord. What does this mean. First, it means that the second covenant has failed just as badly as the first. Maybe we disappointed God yet again. Maybe he pulled out of the second covenant. He decided not to write his precious laws on our hearts after all. Perhaps he decided that writing them in an indecipherable book was sufficient. Or perhaps the indecipherable book was our idea, so he took his ball and went home. What ever the case, the evidence for the second covenant has not materialized. We never got the second covenant, and there was no mention of a third.
Second, our evangelistic efforts expose religion as a purely human enterprise. If you have to use the power of persuasion to sway me to your side, then it is you, and you alone who are doing the persuading, and it is wholly your cause. If you tell me about Jesus and I decline, that is not your failure, but God’s. If the message wasn’t compelling to me, then the message is at fault. God’s Spirit can work on my heart or not. It is his choice, and in his hands. If you persist, then you are insinuating yourself into the process. You are trying to persuade me for your purposes, not letting God’s word speak for itself. What if God selected me as a vessel of destruction? Who are you to try to persuade me to his cause? In this new covenant, God is supposed to communicate directly to me. How I respond to that is my business, not yours. No evangelism should be required if you really trusted God to do his business the way he sees fit.
Christians may counter that with the commissioned to go and preach the good news to every nation. That is simply not true. He gave that very specialized message to twelve people who were specifically called and trained for the purpose. You are not the 13th apostle who replaced Judas. Jesus did not spend three years in Arabia grooming you to take over apostle duties for the gentiles. Apostles like Paul and Peter groomed assistants like Mark and Luke. But at no point did they prepare an apostolic line of succession. When the apostles died, so did the office, and the associated power that went with it. There is no chapter in the bible about how to evangelize your neighbor. There is no how-to guide for getting people to come to church with you, or telling people about Christ. This does not exist for the very excellent reason that the new covenant was supposed to have eliminated the need. God has not enlisted you to tell others about him. Believing you are called to do such a thing is arrogant dilution bordering on narcissism. Stop it! Just stop it!
Conclusion: feeling needed
As a kid, I learned about my calling. I was special. I had talent, and I was meant to do something important with it. God had a mission for me. He had some necessary job I was supposed to do. All I had to do was pay attention and watch for the signs. Obviously, some type of evangelism was a part of that calling. It was only natural that I would go into the preaching business. God needed me, and I felt needed. I didn’t become a salvation salesman because of my secret love of rejection. I did it for Jesus. He needed me, and I felt needed. I approached strangers and friends alike. I brought them to revivals, set up home bible studies, and did the one on ones. I personally baptized a few, and brought others to the point of baptism. I was answering my calling. I was needed, and I felt needed.
Today, I would not worship a god who needed someone like me for anything. I now realize I was working for my organization, not my god. We were concerned about lost members, not lost souls. This fact was brought home to me when I put in for a new position at a church I was attending. The powers that be really seemed to like the idea and were willing to pay me to do it. All I had to do was bring in a minimum of five new families as members. I could have done it. In the end, I refused to pursue it further. I couldn’t get past the dilemma a of evangelizing solely for the purpose of financial gain. For the first time I realized that evangelism was about lost revenue rather than lost souls. I never campaigned for Jesus after that. I no longer felt needed. I felt dirty.
Listen. Put down the pamphlet, the flyer, and the filmstrip you were planning on showing. Do not knock on that door or ask your friend if they would like to get to know your god. They don’t. Their god, or lack thereof is quite sufficient. Growing up, I was taught to believe that many people would burn in hell for all eternity because I didn’t take every opportunistic opening to sell them on the gospel as I knew it. There is a quiet desperation in evangelism that is more like a cry for help. Consider this an intervention.
In part three of this series, I find myself turning to the crux of the matter. Miracles and magic tricks only sustain a person’s faith until the impact of the event wears off. After that, a person can convince herself that what she saw or felt or heard was just her overactive imagination. The real test of religious conversion is the changed life that continues as a testimony for all to see for as long as that life persists. This is the evidence that means the world: this one and the next.
I want to start with the biggest challenge for anyone attempting to change their lives for the better, addiction. When a person becomes a Christian, they are promised some sort of gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not quite clear what that gift entails. There is a broad range of disagreement on that matter within the church community, and even within any given faith tradition. One of the more commonly held beliefs is that the Spirit provides some sort of power to overcome sin. It makes holy living more of a reality, or at least puts it within the grasp of all believers who really want it.
A person struggling with sin is supposed to be able to come to God with a genuine desire to change, and faith that God will deliver. Repentance, genuine desire to change, and faith that can move mountains is supposed to be enough to get the job done. Apparently, it isn’t. To paraphrase something I used to hear as a kid, dry devils come up wet devils. Baptism seems to convey no protective barrier between a person and their propensity to sin, no matter how much they wish it otherwise.
Addiction is the ultimate sin trap. Once snared, a person will find it more than challenging to break free. Experience tells us that extricating one’s self from sin is simply beyond the capabilities of the average person. Breaking free requires one to be a superhuman human, or a recipient of superhuman intervention. That is where the Spirit comes in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. It seems to make no difference if one finds addiction after his conversion or before. Addiction proves victorious over the most sincere repentance, and the most direct indwelling of the Spirit.
There are two passages in the bible about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that speak to this matter, yet seem to stand in direct oposition of each other. The first one seems to suggest that the Spirit can overcome the wiles of the devil. The second portrays the Holy Spirit as a powerless passenger in the saved, human body:
By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world. You are from God, little children, and have conquered them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1Jn. 4:2-4
Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him. 1Cor. 6:15-17
If temptation is the devil’s tool, then one having an indwelling of the Holy Spirit should have no problem fending it off because greater is he that is within. But that was from the one writing under the name of John. Paul took great exception to that notion. You are completely in control of the body; the Spirit has nothing to do with what you do or how you behave. It just seems to be along for the ride. Depending on your proclivities, it’s going to be a very wild ride for the Spirit of God.
What hope is there for the person who is addicted to drugs, or worse? John, at least, offers hope that the indwelling Spirit of God is greater than the addiction. Paul puts all the onus on the afflicted who is obviously incapable of freeing himself. If the addict has no hope, who does? Which sin problems stand a chance of being cured by the spirit? Seeing an addict at church trying to conquer he addiction is like seeing a person in a wheelchair faithfully attending a healing church. The amount of cognitive dissonance is too much to bear.
In my decades of faithful service to God, I never found even the most minor sin to be easily dispatched. I received no supernatural assistance with my struggles. My prayer to, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God” fell on deaf ears. My index of good, clean living is no less as a non-believer than it was as a believer. Had there been some observable difference in my own life, that would have meant a lot. The bible tells us that we will be known by our fruits. If that is truly the case, then there are no Christians. The only fruits I see from all the Christians I know are just the fruits of people trying to make it in this world using their best, purely human efforts. I also see plenty of good fruits coming from non-believers.
What also would have meant a lot would have been to see a measurably higher level of the clean living index in the lives of my fellow sojourners in The Lord. At no point did that happen. The pews were full of wet devils, as we used to say. The more I knew about the real lives of pious believers, the harder it was for me to ignore the fact that nobody was experience any kind of life-changing conversion that registered in overall behavior. Whatever power The Lord of the Flies had over people before they gave themselves to Jesus, was the same power he had afterwards. That alone, is reason enough to reconsider the entire faith proposition.
Why is it that some are given ample, miraculous evidence to believe, while others are required to have faith without evidence? That is what I mean by the inconsistent requirement of faith. Every important figure in the bible received some sort of faith-abrogating sign from god that removed any doubt about whom they were dealing with and what they should do about it. From Abraham to the lowliest follower of Jesus, people were inundated with signs and wonders acted directly on them, or in their presence. These people could choose to follow or not follow God. But they didn’t have to deal with the paralyzing decision to believe or disbelieve in his existence.
It does not end there. Every other believer seems convinced that they, themselves, have experienced a miracle of some kind or other. They have been healed. They have heard his voice. They have received supernatural guidance. They have seen a vision or dreamed a dream. Their bowl of cereal told them in no uncertain terms that Jesus loves them. They have had some sort of experience that makes it very clear that God is real, and active and their lives. Let’s just pretend that all of those experiences are legitimate. Why should they receive confirmation of God’s presence while others such as me must be content to believe without a shred of empirical or experiential evidence?
If Moses can receive a special visitation from God, where’s my visitation? Where’s my vision? Where are the holy voices in my head? Where’s my healing? Where’s my magic power? It seems to me that those who have received some sort of confirming experience have no right to preach to anyone about faith without sight. That is like a married man with twelve children and 72 virgin mistresses, preaching about fidelity and celibacy. By what right do any of the biblical authors demand faith without sight?
Had I been chosen to receive this special dispensation of experience so freely given to others, I would possibly still be on the side of the angels. Since it is clear that I am required to believe in that which I cannot experience, then I have little choice but to end up where I am. I have no desire to worship a god who requires some to have blind faith, while giving his favorites a peek behind the curtain.
(This piece started out with a long conversation and a challenge. My friend, Andrew and challenged each other to come up with a list of at least five items that in our opinions, would have served the bible well to include. There are a couple of things common between the lists. Rather than combine the lists as if they were written by one hand, I will include both in their entirety. His contribution will follow the subheading, Addendum
What would it have taken to have kept me on as a believer instead of the enemy of religions faith that I have become? It’s an interesting question, and one that I fully intend to explore in more detail. Consider this the first of several such posts. For me, the main tool for belief is the bible. In my faith experience, the bible turned out to be a critical point of failure. Had I been raised Catholic, I would have a couple of fallback positions when the bible proved unreliable. But instead, I was razed to believe that the bible was the inerrant word of God, and the only authority on which right thinking faith should be based. Perhaps if the bible had a few more chapters, it would not have failed me.
The chapter on the virgin birth
Only two of the biblical writers bother to mention the virgin birth. Neither of them was the first writer. The only person who would have known about that birth would have been Mary. She wrote no books, nor dictated any in her name. Luke would not have known her. And it seems highly unlikely that she would have confided in Matthew, but not John: the beloved apostle who was like a son to her. Yet even the clearly fabricated details about the birth are rather sparse. What was it like to be physically entered by the Holy Spirit? Did she get pleasure from the experience. Joseph sure had a lot to live up to after that. The Catholics solve the problem by suggesting that he never tried, and that Mary remained a virgin, despite the other kids the bible says she had.
How long did the pregnancy last? Did she have morning sickness? Was it a painful birth? Was there a need for any recovery time. Inquiry minds want to know. More than any of those things, it seems like those closest to the situation would have found that miraculous birth something worth writing about. Neither Paul, Peter, John, nor James seemed to know anything about it, or if they did, didn’t think it was very important. Consider the implications of the story. If there was no virgin birth, then Jesus was just another man, in no way a god-man. Christianity as we know it ends right there. Resurrection is a neat trick to be sure, but it had already been done several times before. Literally born of God seed, now that’s a miracle worth writing about. The apostles could have spent a little time on that event.
The Chapter on Paul’s time with Jesus
Paul casually mentions that he spent time with Jesus after his ascension. It was done in the space of a couple of verses, and left us guessing about key details. Was it in Arabia? Was it over the course of three years? Was anyone else present, or was Paul the only one who saw Jesus in this second incarnation? Paul’s authority for considering himself an apostle was based on him being taught by Jesus directly. I would think that Jesus coming back to earth for the purpose of teaching one man the ropes would be pretty big news.
How did the apostles who had been with Jesus take this news? According to Paul, they were cool with it. None of them asked for any corroboration or proof of this encounter. None of the other writers ever discussed the time when Jesus came back to earth to make a new apostle. Even Paul never mentions any details about it. Paul also never produces any notes he may have taken in that three years of having the Lord’s undivided attention? What questions did he ask, and what answers did Jesus give? Did Jesus really spend all that time teaching Paul about church organization? At the very least, we could use another chapter or two on that.
The Chapter on the Great Resurrection
In one verse, Matthew drops the equivalent of an atom bomb that left no reverberations. In one verse, he tells us everything we will ever know about an event that took place after the resurrection of Jesus. In Jerusalem, the graves opened and gave up their dead. Oh, and the temple curtain was torn when Jesus died. It seems Mark, the first gospel writer heard about the temple curtain, but knew nothing about the Great Resurrection. As it happens, neither did anyone else. Save for one verse, the bible is completely silent on this event. I’m pretty sure the city would have been packed with visitors there fro passover. How is it that the apostles heard about the resurrection of Jesus, but heard nothing about the resurrection of all of Jerusalem’s dead?
There is no indication that they were taken into Heaven, or were sent back to their graves. You just have a bunch of people who were dead, and now they were not. Paul should have had at least one companion he introduced as, “my friend who arose from the grave just a few years ago”. Is it possible that not one of these people became disciple of note? None of them ever presented themselves before the courts and got into trouble with the conservatives? Not one of them ever rated a mention by any of the people who contributed to the bible? Really? Really?
The chapter about what it was like to hang around Jesus
If you spent three years with Jesus, especially the last three years of his life during the most important time of his life, do you think you may have snapped a few candids, or shared a few stories? Apparently, none of the apostles did. Paul was supposed to have spent time with Jesus. Yet there is no mention of personal details about the time they spent together. Peter, John, and James are equally silent on the life and adventures of their friend. We know that Paul had a favorite belt and a favorite coat. Why don’t we know this about Jesus. Did Paul really think the world would care more about his personal life than that of Jesus?
James, the brother of Jesus, fills all of zero pages with his fond remembrances of the time he spent with his big brother. It seems natural that James would have at least recounted the time when he came to believe in his brother as Lord and Christ. Perhaps they had one conversation that would prove inspirational. The book of James is not written like it came from someone who grew up in the same house as Jesus. At the least, this represents a few missing chapters.
The chapter that explains what happens next
In a rare fit of straightforwardness, Jesus explains to his disciples what to expect from the end times. The explanation leave no doubt that he was talking about events that would happen in their lifetimes. The only problem is that their lifetimes came and went without the return of the Son of Man. There are apostolic writings that hint at their belief that the end would come in their lifetimes. Some of Paul’s followers were taken by this question, and were led to believe that the end would be soon, perhaps in their lifetimes. Amazingly, we’re still here, and they’re not.
There was no Christian bible at the time. It was decades after the death of Jesus before anyone started writing about the events of his life. No one was left with any clear instruction, or provided any useful expectations. The bible closes without addressing the end of miracles or apostolic succession. Did James and Peter have apprentices? What would be the criteria for replacing them? Were they supposed to be replaced? When he original church planters died out, were there to be more churches planted? By whom? How? Knowing that the religion would be around for at least another two-thousand years, why is there no addendum for the people at various future times? Some instructions on not going through with the Inquisition would have been nice.
We are left with a closed canon, and nowhere to go from there. With only the bible to follow, we are bound by the temporal nature of its instructions. We are left with instructions on what they were supposed to do in particular situations relevant only to them. We have no guidance on how to do church in the 21st century. There is no chapter on smooth transitions from one generation of leadership to another. It would have been nice to believe that the bible was timeless and forward-thinking.
The Bible: The Forever Missing Manual
In the information technology arena, there is a popular series with the subtitle “The Missing Manual”. These books provide insight into products whose manuals are either missing or incomplete. While it is not at all politic to ask what is missing from the bible, it is instructive to consider elements that are not found. The following list contains elements that I believe should be included to make the story compelling to individuals.
What Did James Know?
As the brother of Jesus, James had a unique perspective on the figure of the King of the Jews. What do we not find? James does not record any event leading up to the ministry of Jesus. There is no discussion of leaving home, how Jesus’ parents would be impacted, no talk of coping with potential hardship, nor of the desire to recruit and dangers of recruiting others to the divine plan. After the resurrection, James does not record a tender moment between brothers stolen during the doubtless tumultuous period of days before the ascension. It might be argued that these moments were not critical or would not have contained material essential to salvation. However, treatment of family, coping with hardship, and the meaning of the resurrection and its importance cannot be overlooked. Without these topics, what would be left in the bible. Well, the remainder would be a list of vast atrocities that defy explanation.
What Was Missing at the Cross?
John 21:25 leaves us with the knowledge that much more about the life of Jesus is not know than that which is known. That is, the world could not contain the books needed to describe all his life and works. Surely however, Christianity would benefit from the Psalms of Jesus or the Proverbs of Christ. Without these, generations of Christians identify more with Paul, Peter, and James than Jesus. Surely the Teachers words are more to be valued than the student.
We Have Teaching Without Structure.
The area of Biblical hermeneutics is mirky and vague, particularly as it pertains to the New Testament though the Old Testament cannot be said to be clear. We have in Romans 1 a list of sins, We have in Revelation a list of churches. We have in Timothy a list of qualifications for elders. Where is our list of principles for interpretation? Give us a discrete list for systematic theology. We want but cannot “rightly divide” the holy word.
The Words of the Father Are Missing.
As the earthly father of Jesus, we know nothing of Joseph. While he is not the biological father, according to tradition, of Jesus, he was found adequate to the earthly task and apparently proved himself so when Mary was found pregnant. Today, we have an entire generation of young people in this circumstance. The challenges here are unique and the words of Joseph would benefit the world. God must have known this “in the beginning”.
“”A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!
—Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
How do Christians get out of having to say something as silly as, “It’s turtles all the way down”? It is through a loophole called, “special pleading”. It works a lot like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for logic traps. In this case, the logic trap is “infinite regression”. Convinced that the lack of scientific certainty is an opportune insertion point for god, the Christian can ask the scientist, “but where did that come from”, until the scientist is forced to acknowledge that he does not know. Triumphantly, Christian respond that they know the answer, and that the answer is God.
While the scientist can be forced into a spiral of infinite regression. The Christian evades the trap by declaring that God is the end of of the regression: the beginning of everything. He exists outside of time without having a beginning. That is the special pleading. It is off limits to inquire into God’s beginning because he does not have a beginning. If you insist on knowing why god has no beginning, the Christian’s proof is that we declare it to be the case.
The Christian does not seem to understand that the special pleading works both ways. The scientist can also speculate that matter and energy also existed outside of space and time just like god. Why should it be postulated that god was the only preexistent energy? Both the scientist and the theist can appeal to preexistence. It does not make sense for one while being absurd for the other. At best, it’s a tie. It does not advance either case. Otherwise, it is perfectly fair to ask if god is our father, who is our grandfather.
The greater rhetorical weapon belongs to the scientist. When asked about the first moments of existence, he can simply say, “I don’t know”. That is a powerful answer that is underutilized. Not knowing ultimate answers about origins does not unravel any of the work of science. It simply doesn’t matter. Perhaps we are the bacteria from the effluvia of an ancient, bygone society of otherdeminsional aliens. Who cares? It does not harm the scientific enterprise in the least bit. The scientific method is still a reliable way to proceed. If theists are forced to admit that they do not know, their whole world falls apart. Christians are forced into pretending to know all sorts of things they don’t. Otherwise, they would have to admit that they are just guessing about the whole god thing. That would be the true end of faith.
Let’s take a moment to look at the featured image. There is a naked, preteen boy on a pile of stones, being held down by an old man. The man’s left hand is gripping the boy’s face, forcing it down onto the stone. In his right hand is a sharp knife just inches away from the boy’s exposed neck. The old man’s right wrist is being grasped by a much younger looking man who is pointing in the opposite direction. The old man is listening intently to the younger man, but looks decidedly confused. The expression on the boy’s face is abject terror. This picture depicts one of the most important and sacred scenes in all the bible. It is the penultimate moment before Abraham murders his only legitimate son like a goat on an alter, in blind obedience to the Most High.
The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is one of the keystone stories of the Judao-Christian faith. For Christians, it foreshadows the sacrifice God will make of his only son. It also demonstrates the kind of faith expected of God’s followers. Only blind, unquestioning faith will do. Here lies the problem with religious freedom. Freedom can never be decoupled from reason. Where there are no speed limits, the speed one drives is not just dictated by physics and the desire to live, but by reason. Freedom of speech can only be understood and properly exercised by reasonable people. The right to bear arms is also dependent on reason, and reason-based limitations. Religious freedom, however, is completely divorced from reason. That makes it untenable.
Reason, freedom, and religion
Allow me to reiterate this key point: Where there is no reason, there can be no freedom! People who are insane still have rights, but no freedom. Depending on the danger they pose to themselves and their society, they may be physically restricted by restraints, masks, etc. People who are insane, by definition, do not have the ability to reason. That is only slightly different from the person who can reason, but chronically demonstrates poor judgment. If a sane person shows poor enough judgement often enough, they will find their freedoms restricted. There can be no freedom without reason.
Religion presents itself as a worldview that rises above the petty concerns of human reason. One does not come to religious faith by reason, but despite reason. There is no reasonable boundary to what religion can be. Satanism is a legitimate religion because there is no way reason can be used to distinguish it from mainstream Christianity. If you accept one as a legitimate religion, then you have to accept the other. It is not as if one makes logical sense and the other does not. Both require blind obedience to invisible gods. Under both would-be masters of the universe, the vast majority of people end up suffering in Hell.
Because religion is not regulated by reason, anything at all can be religion. Dancing with poisonous snakes on your head can be the basis of a religion just as legitimate as orthodox Christianity. The worship of house cats can be the basis of religion. A conviction that the earth is flat might also be a religion. Your religion could be based on the love of serial killers and the hatred of minorities. You might have a religion based on a cosmology that it is turtles all the way down. While there is freedom to believe any unreasonable thing, there is not freedom to practice any unreasonable thing. Freedom of religion has become code for, “I can do anything I want just as long as it can be called religion”. Freedom of religion has become a behavioral blank check. That cannot stand!
The ultimate blank check
Not even a blank check is without limits. The purpose of a blank check is to offer payment for a product or service with an unspecified price. Let’s say you drop your dog off at a vet. You tell them that someone else will be picking up the dog, but that you want to pay right now. Since no one is entirely sure what services will be needed until the dog is examined, you leave the vet with a blank check to be filled out after the price is determined. The amount is limited by the actual cost of services rendered. Even if the vet was unscrupulous, he cannot write the check for more than the amount that is in the bank.
The blank check written to religion has no such limits. Any behavior on which the law and society frowns, can be legitimized as long as it can be framed as religion. Do you want to throw your baby into a volcano or tie him to a pile of rock, cut his throat, and bleed him out like a sacrificial goat? You’re barking mad! …unless god told you to — in which case, you are covered by religion. Did you want to have sex with you neighbor’s three 14 year-old daughters? Pervert! What’s that you say? God told you to? Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Religion. Do you want to teach your kids to be science deniers and magical thinkers? What the heck is wrong with you? Oh, right. Religion.
It is the same blank check that allows parents to get away with allowing their children to die from very curable illnesses. Their religion says to take the mater to a church official rather than a doctor. It is the same blank check that transformed biblical war criminals such as Moses and David into heroes. Their god told them to do those awful things to those babies and little girls. Make it a genocide and you’ve got the makings of an epic song. Add the will of a god to any atrocity and you’ve got a morality tale fit for little children.
The religious blank check is even more insidious than that. It keeps us from exercising critical judgement on an action. At the very least, it greatly retards the process. The moral judgement of religious people is suspect at best, non-existent at worst. Christians are taught morality by fiat. They memorize moral laws by rote. They develop static lists of rights and wrongs. For them, the only reason a thing is right or wrong is that their God declared it to be so. What they do not develop is a sense of moral judgment. Since they never learn why things are right and wrong, they are always reduced to asking what Jesus would do, or what God’s word has to say about that particular thing.
Ask a Christian about the morality of targeting noncombatant civilians in war. Some percentage of them might suggest that it is wrong, but they would be hard pressed to tell you why. You see, all of the war heroes of the Hebrew scriptures did just that at the command of their war god, Jehovah. It was not only okay to target civilians, but required. They have rationalized that since God no longer operates in that manner, civilians are no longer to be targeted. There is no timeless and universal principal on which they can draw. All they can say is that it was God’s will then but not now. They can never say that the God of the bible demanded immoral acts from his followers. The act is not immoral. It is just right or wrong depending on how their god feels about it at the time.
The same goes for laws concerning homosexuality and adultery. The god of the bible assigned the death penalty to both acts. Growing up, it always seemed to be that God was quite a bit more disgusted with homosexuality than garden variety adultery. His followers definitely took the cue. We saw plenty of adultery, however you define it. A person repents and moves on. Homosexuality was a very different matter. It was not only sin, but obscene, like child pornography. More than a sin, it was an abomination. the only thing that made it different from other sins was the way we perceived God’s attitude on the matter.
In my case, the situation was even worse. I knew in my heart that the filthy sodomizers deserved nothing less than the bad death God had originally condemned them to. God wanted them dead. Who were lawmakers to want anything different? But God would not be thwarted. That is clearly why he invented AIDS which we once knew as GRID: gay related immune disease. God was carrying out his judgement in the modern age. Death to the fags! God is not mocked! That is really what I believed. I am now covered in shame for ever holding such a belief. I thought I was being faithful to my god. I was only able to think differently when I was able to let go of a desire to please such a god. Once I developed a moral compass of my own, I realized that true North was in the opposite direction from the god of the bible.
It gets worse. I felt the exact same way about abortion doctors. Whenever I heard about a bombing at an abortion clinic, my inner heart leapt with glee. Another baby murderer got what was coming to him or her. Although God did not have anything to say about abortion, and the fate of abortionists, I had extrapolated that it had to be somewhere in the neighborhood of homosexuality. To be clear, I am just as much against abortion today as I was then. The pro life position does not require crazy fundamentalism. I just no longer want murder to replace reasoned debate.
There is a fine line between wishing a class of people dead, and giving aid and comfort to those who carry out those wishes. There is an even finer line between that and carrying out those wishes yourself. I thought terrorism against abortionists was a righteous cause. So did the people who actually carried out acts of violence. That is the kind of person you get when moral judgement is replaced with a rigid set of moral laws. Religion short-circuits our ability to develop moral judgement.
Speaking as one of them, we don’t see the atrocities in the same way as other people. We don’t feel the full measure of empathy. Our sense of right and wrong is out of balance. Carrying around a secret hatred of gays seemed downright civil to me since the real penalty was death. Speaking of the “real” penalty, the ultimate punishment for the vast majority of people who ever lived was an eternity in flaming Hell. Just how much empathy was it right for me to have for a person who was condemned to a life of torment for their wickedness. God’s enemies were my enemies. How could I think of them any other way?
That is why conservative social programs are always ultimately focused on saving souls rather than lives. No matter what we say, we just don’t care about the dehumanizing squaller that is the living condition of much of the world’s population. If we have no chance of saving their souls, there is little meaningful value in saving their lives, or changing their living conditions.
Do you know why Christians favor corporal punishment? The god of the bible says that children should be beaten, and prescribes the way to do it. But it is much worse than that. In the back of our minds, those of us who are really knowledgable about scripture know that God ordered truly disobedient children to be dragged to the edge of the city and put to death. If we beat the living hell out of our disobedient children and they can still breathe after we’re done, then they were shown mercy, not abuse. Such is the moral judgement of one who counts “spare the rod, spoil the child” as the last word on child rearing. The type of person I was raised to be should never have a blank check of freedom.
This is not a theocracy
Attention: This is not a theocracy! People who call for religious freedom like to pretend that they are living in a theocracy. They’re not! God is not on the throne of this country. There is no throne. The president is in the White House, and we don’t give him all that much respect. Congress makes laws. The courts ratify them. God has no power or place in the law making machinery of America. Get over it! Right and wrong is ultimately decided in this country by we, the people. If it turns out we don’t like the laws we made, we fire our lawmakers and hire new ones. At no point in the process is a bible consulted.
In this country, we don’t give a damn about what the bible says about abortion or gays in the military. We do not pay respects to disembodied voices or angels from Heaven. If God came down to Washington D.C. in person to express his will, he would have to call his representative. Without a visitor’s badge, he will not even be allowed entrance into the halls of power. If we elected God to congress, he would still only be worth a single vote. We do not live in a theocracy!
No one gives a damn about what your god told you to do. That has no legal bearing. It is a blank check for nothing, serving as legal tender nowhere. Even if God tells you to do something good, it simply doesn’t matter. You can’t build a house for a poor person without licenses and approvals from the government. You can’t give a person a job without the government checking credentials and regulating the process. Calling yourself a missionary does not get you past my No Trespassing sign.
To be clear, I have no problem with individuals practicing their private faith. If you want to smear your face with steaming fresh cow dung five times a day while facing West, and declaring your undying love for John Wayne, knock yourself out. That’s not religious freedom; that’s just freedom. Religious freedom should not entitle you to any privilege not given to me under plain, old, generic freedom. Religious freedom is not a special dispensation of freedom. It is simply a guarantee of freedom regardless of your personal religion. Religious freedom is another way of saying that we will not withhold freedom based on your religion. It is the same as nondiscrimination laws for minorities or women. It does not give those groups more freedom. It just secures the same freedoms allotted to all.
Black freedom does not give me special dispensation to blast loud music and form violent drug gangs. Female freedom does not give women the right to change a baby’s diaper in the dining area of a public restaurant. And religious freedom does not give Christian parents the right to withhold necessary medical treatment and education from their children. In the end, there is only one kind of freedom. It is just called “freedom”. Putting qualifiers on it implies additional freedom to the qualified group not available to others. If that is your idea of religious freedom, you should try to find a theocracy. America is not God’s country. The bible is not the constitution.
Conclusion: liberty and justice for all
Forget about religious freedom. I care about liberty and justice for all: the SAME liberties and justice, not different sets for different groups. No person should be denied a fair mortgage rate because they self-identify as Muslim. I will fight against any such discrimination. However, no Muslim should get a better interest rate because their religion restricts the amount of interest they can pay for property. Religion is being used by people to carve out a special set of rights and freedoms that make them exceptions to the rules of society in general.
If your company has a dress code of long, black pants and a long-sleeve white shirt with no jewelry, that should be the code for everyone. If your religion forbids you (a woman) from wearing pants, that does not give you the right to show up in a skirt or dress. Your employer should not have to make an exception for you. The same is true if your religion requires you to wear symbolic jewelry. Either your religion must be flexible enough to allow you to coexist in the real world with infidels, or you should have to find another job: one without dress codes.
If an employer must make an exception for religion, then he can have no rules at all. If you can wear a skirt instead of pants, I should be able to wear green instead of black. Why should your religious taboo be more important than my since of style? If you can wear your cross, on what basis should I be forbidden to wear a Satanic symbol? I can’t think of any. And why should the exceptions stop there? If your religion requires that you take five breaks for prayer time, why should I be limited to two breaks a day? If your religion keeps you from serving wine as a waiter, why can’t I also opt out of serving shellfish or slaughtered animals? Liberty for religion offers justice for none. That must change.
Justice for all means that everybody is equal under the law. It does not mean that different groups get to make up their own rules based on their superstitions and sensitivities. No one should have to care about the rules and sensitivities of your cult. The moment someone has to care is the moment it is no longer a personal and private faith. Once it becomes a public faith, then it is subject to public debate, public morality, and public regulation.
Go ahead. Take your best shot. Give me your best argument for why I should care whether or not your god is real. Don’t bother convincing me that he is real. For the sake of argument, I stipulate the point. He is real to you. Now tell me why that should matter to me. I contend that even if there was a god, any god, it would make absolutely no difference in the price of a gallon of milk. Let’s explore this idea:
The best possible world
If there was a god who created the world, he has already created the best possible world he could. Look around you. This is what was produced by God’s best effort. For undirected evolution, it is not bad. But as the masterpiece of an all powerful god, it leave something to be desired. Disease? Decay? Poop? In what was supposed to be a perfect world, why should these things exist at all? (Uses best Seinfeld voice…) And what’s the deal with natural disasters? Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, forest fires, and floods: they are so stupid, they can’t avoid populations of good people.
Speaking of populations, what about all the bad people? I have already stipulated the existence of your favorite god. But he is either unable or unwilling to do anything about the level of evil in the world. Worse than evil, he does nothing to address the unremitting suffering of large swaths of the population. Belief in god has done the world precious little good so far. Despite the existence of your god, the blind still need guide dogs and the lame are still wheelchair bound. Prayer to this god has cost hospitals no lost business. People are still dying to get into grave yards, and the bones of the dead remain buried. The faithful still end up on prayer lists every week suffering from the same cancer as the wicked. The righteous person is just as likely to get raped, pillaged, and plundered as the heathen. We are living in your creator god’s best world he could make. His existence does not make a nickel’s worth of difference to mine.
To infinity and beyond
I know that many will suggest what happens in this life is not important compared to what happens in the next. But I contend that the next life is also unimportant to me. First, I have no confidence that the god who created this world can do any better the next time around. Consider the biblical story. He created Heaven and the angels, and all was perfect. Except there was the whole Satanic revolt that brought war to Heaven, and a third of the angels agreed with the other guy. What a mess. Then he creates our universe. Some say he did it twice. It doesn’t matter. Both times were disasters. The first ended with the earth being formless and void of life. We can see what a mess this creation has become. We are told that it will end in blood and fire. Now, we are supposed to believe that the worst world-builder of all time is going to get it right the next time around.
We have already established that this is the best world he could have made. The original Heaven was also the best world that he could make. Why should the next one be any better? Another reason the afterlife makes no difference to me is that my fate is the same either way. If moral cowardice caused me to bend the knee to your god, I would still harbor only hate for him in my heart. I do not love god, or the concept of god. I hate him, and everything about him. He is, and has been a monster, not a friend to humanity. I don’t want to spend eternity with him. That is like a woman being forced to marry her rapist. No thanks. Since he already knows this about me, I would be slated for his punishments regardless of my professions of faith. Your god disgusts me. If he is real, there is still no path to a pleasant afterlife for me, except maybe by overthrowing him. You can keep your Heaven. It was not made for such as me.
It’s my life
Finally, I would like to offer the best reason why God’s existence does not matter. It’s my life. If you choose to give your life to your god, congratulations. But you can make no case why I should give my life to your god. Let’s say it is also true that he made the ultimate sacrifice for me. So what? Thanks, I guess. Now get the hell out of my way, I have stuff to do. I do not owe your god a lifetime of gratitude and service. As we have already established, I will end up in your god’s hell anyway. If your god has a problem with any of that, he can take it up with me personally. I might cower before his awesome power, but my mind would not be changed. He can either squash me like a bug, or get out of my way. I do not owe this god my life. I like my life the way it is. I neither want nor need his supernatural meddling. The fact that you do want and need supernatural interference to make it through the day tells me more about you than me.
God always has the option to strike me down. But that is not a reason his existence should matter. Drive-by shooters have the ability to strike me down at any time. Big deal. I’m not going to bow down to them either. My parents gave me life, and sustained it for many years. That doesn’t mean that I am going to start worshiping them any time soon. So your god exists. Bully for you. Besides spicing up the evolution debate, your god’s existence has no bearing on how I live my life. His superior power does not make him right, nor morally fit to judge anyone. So now that I have granted your god’s existence for the sake of this argument, take my challenge. Tell me why your god is worthy of authority. Does might make right, or is there something else? What, pray tell? What makes his moral judgements better than mine. Why should his opinions trump human laws? Why should gratitude cost me a life of servitude? I’m not the one with questions to answer about the existence of your god. You are. David Johnson
In light of the past three stories, I thought it a good idea to take a closer look at what we think of as religious freedom. Under that rubric, a state legislature voted to allow all manner of discrimination. Another’s education committee voted to require prayer in school. Finally, there was the passing of one who handled snakes in the name of his god. In the United States of America, 2014, all of these things were not just considered, but done in the name of religious freedom. Religion is dramatically retarding the progress of social evolution. Yet we have barely begun the discussion about reasonable limits on its spread and practice. Consider this a conversation starter:
The first thing we have to do is agree on the necessity of limits. In life, nothing is without limits. I am not even referring to matters of law. Nature, of which we are a part, has definite limits. Our life is limited by mortality. Our activities are limited by physicality. The amount of good or ill we can do is limited by imagination and resources. All law is about placing limits on what we can and should do as members of a society. Even when speed limits are completely lifted, we are not without limits. We still cannot drive as fast as we want to. We are limited by the maximum speed of the vehicle, and the maximum speed we can safely navigate the road. That is a situation where the law recognizes that the natural limits are sufficient.
Laws giving one person freedom to do something, restrict another from doing things that limit that freedom. Even freedoms granted by law are limited. Free speech still forbids speech that amounts to treason or inciting to riot. Slander and liable are also off the table, as is perjury in a court of law. There are so many restrictions of the freedom of speech that it requires much more than a couple of sentences to list them all. The same goes for the freedom to bear arms and the freedom of religion. All legislated freedoms must be understood in the light of their natural, social, and legal limitations. Many act as if they believe that religious freedom should never be hindered by natural, social, and legal limitations. Such people are either immature or whack jobs. I will spend no more time on this point. We now turn our attention to sorting the nature and specifics of those limits.
Religious freedom and children’s rights
Robots have no rights. As of now, robots are not sentient. We can do anything with them that tickles our fancy. We can program them to do bad math just for laughs. We can intentionally program them with false information about the world so that none of their output is reliable. We can spend every waking moment trying to abuse them, insult them, and even frighten them. We do not have to show them a modicum of respect. We own them. They have no rights. The same is true for anything we can own. Ownership changes everything.
But what of children? Who owns the children? I am going to bypass the many philosophical and emotional traps by simply declaring that no one can own a person, and children are people. The conclusion to this syllogism is that no one owns a child. Parents do not have ownership rights to their children. When it comes to the balance of rights and responsibilities, all parents have are responsibilities with regards to their progeny. That means that there are really no such thing as parental rights. The best we can say is that parents have privileges. Those privileges are very specific and greatly limited.
My employer has privileges and responsibilities. I have worker’s rights. He does not own me. I own myself. Based on our negotiations, he has limited use of my time and talent. He has limitations on how he can address me, or invade my personal space. While on the job, he has responsibilities for my safety and well-being. He must provide safety gear and training. He must provide a clean, secure workspace. He is responsible for paying the agreed compensation and tax filings as required by law. He is not my owner and I am not is slave. We are equals in a symbiotic relationship. He cannot run his business without me, or someone like me. And I cannot provide for my household without him, or someone like him. That type of relationship is replicated throughout all aspects of society.
Parents have the privilege of raising children, and the responsibility to provide for them. As wholly owned subsidiaries of themselves, children have all the rights implicit in full personhood. They can gain or loose certain rights specific to adulthood. But they are born with the full rights of personhood. Unlike with a robot, there are physical restrictions on how we handle a child. We cannot beat it, shake it, or cause bodily harm to it. We cannot exploit it for our sexual pleasure. We cannot sell it when we get tired of the responsibilities associated with it. There are even limits on how we talk to a child and what we can say. Those limits may be difficult to enforce, but they are there.
Children, and the right to truth
Before diving into truth, let’s talk about lies. There is nothing illegal about lying in and of itself. In fact, I contend that polite society is not possible in the absence of lies. As social creatures, we have to lie in a thousand little ways everyday. They are the necessary, little lies that make civilization work. Even as mature adults, we cannot handle the unfiltered truth all the time. Any filtered truth is something less than true. Children are even less capable of handling unfiltered truths 100% of the time. There is a fine line between unfiltered truths and outright lies.
I propose that a basic human right is the right to truth. That includes children. However, too much unfiltered truth about too many things can be damaging. This is a particular concern where children are involved. How much truth, and on what subject is proper for children? The answer is a moving target. This is where we have to exercise nuance. We have to walk that fine line between filtered truths and outright lies. In my experience, parents do a lousy job of this, preferring the relative safety of outright lies rather than risking an inconvenient and inappropriate truth. We do this because we overestimate the fragility of children, and the value of innocence.
Children are not that fragile. We always fear that they are more fragile than they are. Their bones do not break with every fall, nor are they riddled with infection every time they eat dirt. Even as babies, we are a lot tougher than we look. The same is true emotionally. Pets die, people die. Parents die. These deaths occur without regard to the age of the child. We live through these things. They do not hinder our growth. Much of a child’s fear and confusion about death is based on the lies and fantasies with which we fill them. They have to square those lies with the reality that is before them. That is a tough job even for mature adult.
Innocence is a thing that only comes in limited quantities, and is overvalued. We define innocence as the ability to remain ignorant of the complexities and dangers of the real world. The expression, “ignorance is bliss”, perfectly capsulizes how we feel about innocence. The innocent person enjoys a glass of milk without the awareness of what it took to get it. It never crosses their mind that someone expended the time and energy to poor it, paid for the cost to store it and cool it, bought it with money they would rather have spent on something else, acquired a job doing some menial task for too little money just to be able to afford it, etc… Maturity is enjoying a glass of milk while realizing and navigating all those realities.
The same is true for danger. The innocent have no sense of danger. To them, the world is designed around their comforts and needs. A sheltered child knows nothing of the dangers around every corner. Bears are cute and cuddly friends, while snakes might try to deceive you with lies. The man known as Grizzly Man never came to understood the truth about bears. Paster Coots never learned the truth about snakes. In a sense, they were both innocent: ignorant of the dangers posed by the real world. We are only allotted a short period of time for innocence. On certain matters, in certain places, innocence is an indulgence we cannot afford.
We lie to children in an ill-advised attempt to artificially prolong the sate of innocence which we too highly prize. We believe that our desire to prolong the child’s innocence trumps any right to truth she may have. If a child is to be raised in the woods, they have zero opportunity for innocence with regards to wildlife. Snakebites can kill, and bears will happily rip your head off. They must know this the moment communication is possible. If a responsible adult suspects a child is the victim of sexual abuse, there is no more time to worry about innocence. The child must be given enough information to be able to detect the danger, and convey what is happening.
What, then, is the age of innocence? More to the point, what age is right for the death of innocence? The reason this is such a hard question is because it is the wrong question. It assumes that innocence is something we can and should control. It assumes that the child’s guardian is the ultimate arbiter of her innocence. I believe those to be faulty assumptions. We should never be asking how long should we keep the child ignorant of the way the world works. We should be asking how soon we can safely disclose more truths about the real world. The truth is the child’s birthright. It does not belong to us. We must release every last bit of it to the child that she can handle. Protecting innocence by perpetuating ignorance is almost always a bad thing.
A child needs a true answer to every question they are capable of asking. When a child is old enough to ask where babies come from, they are old enough for the answer. I have never understood why the answer to that question was such a shameful mystery. We have no moral problem explaining other biological functions. Try explaining pooping and peeing without making reference to internal and external body parts and functions. The biological details are simply not that complicated or blush worthy. It is the mystery that is titillating, not the facts. Once the facts are known, the child will likely be disappointed and move on to something more interesting.
If you insist that the child is too young to know all the facts, don’t tell them all the facts. That still doesn’t give license to lie about the details. At no age is it appropriate to convince a person that babies come from some fairy land and delivered by storks. Just tell them that babies come from mommies and daddies. That’s the truth. You need not include details that make you squirm. Always tell the truth. But do so in filtered, diluted doses when necessary. Death, marriage, divorce, and war can be handled with equal delicacy.
In our image
Do parents have the right to raise children in their image? Must a daughter walk in her mother’s footsteps? Do parents have the right to intentionally pass on their likes and dislikes, prejudices, hatreds, politics, and religion? For the sake of argument, let’s say that not all worldviews are created equally. Should a parent be allowed to pass on the worst possible worldview to their child? Should alcoholic parents be allowed to indoctrinate their children in the ways of alcoholism? This could be done without breaking any laws. Just glorifying the lifestyle may be enough.
Should a father be allowed to intentionally prepare his daughter for a life of prostitution and pornography simply because he enjoys those things? Remember, prostitution is not illegal in all places. What if he lives in a state where it is illegal? Can he still prepare her for that lifestyle? Do you feel icky even considering the question? Don’t worry. I’m not advocating it. In fact, I am trying to find something that we can all agree is off limits. More to the point, we need to agree that there should be at least some limits on what a parent can imprint onto a child.
A less vile, but equally devastating example would be for a parent to systematically convince their children that 2 + 2 = 5. This, along with a few other falsehoods about arithmetic can utterly destroy a child’s future. She would never graduate, never get a GED, never go to college, never hold a job worth having, and in the end, only be qualified for prostitution and pornography. This ruination of a life can be accomplished just by teaching bad math. Imagine what can be done by simply inputing other bad data.
At what point does this become a child services issue? What if from birth, a parent teaches his child to hate Jews? Not only that, he teaches that Jews are subhuman, worse, that all Jews should be killed on sight by a true believer over the age of 18? How bad does the indoctrination have to get before society steps in and revokes the parental privilege of guiding a child in his formative years? Paster Coots, the snake handler, leaves at least one son behind who follows in his footsteps. How young was that child when he started playing with poisonous snakes in the name of his father’s god? Was it abuse the first time daddy taught the impressionable kid to stick his hand in a basket of serpents for Jesus? At what age did it stop being abuse? I contend that the problem is not the snakes. It is the systematic input of false information about the real world.
It is as if we believe that parents have the right to make their kids as bucktooth stupid as they are. This was true not so very long ago. Today, we require that all US children go to school regardless of the wishes of the parent. We have decided that there are some basic truths that every child has a right to know about the world. Since parents have proven to be poor teachers, slightly better teachers are employed by the state.
With few exceptions, a child cannot grow up without someone trying to teach them how to read and write, do basic math, identify the location of important places on a map, understand the basics of politics and economy, drive a car, exercise and eat nutritiously, play an instrument if the aptitude is there, etc. As bad as public school is compared to other parts of the world, it is so much better than the alternative of allowing children to grow up without a guarantee of basic information about the world. It is a child’s best hope of not growing up in her mother’s image.
When religious freedom and the right to truth collide
Freedoms, religious or otherwise, always only pertain to the individual. All freedoms encounter limits when they impinge on another’s rights. You have the right to believe in any god you choose, and pray to him or her as often and as loudly as you like. You don’t have the right to disturb my sleep when you do it. As a teacher, you can maintain whatever faith-based belief system that suits your fancy. But you don’t have the right to teach it to my hypothetical children. Why should you be allowed to teach it to yours?
The reason you cannot teach the precepts of your god in the classroom is that it is a breach of every child’s right to true and reliable information. Does a child have any less right to true and reliable information when he gets home from school? How much right does a parent have to undermine the state-required instruction? If a teacher assigns a student the homework of reading three chapters of classic literature, and practicing the multiplication table, can the parent systematically forbid the child to read at home or do math with heathen numbers? Can a child really be forced to flunk a grade because her parents insist she only answer questions in ways approved by the religion of her parents?
If that should not be allowed, why should a parent be allowed to convince their children that there is not really any such thing as death. That is a basic tenet of most religions. What we call death is just a passage of one type of life to another. It is the vehicle that takes us to an even better place where no harm can come to you, and you get to have everything you ever wanted. How is a child ever to understand the dangers of the real world if she believes that dying is code for a trip to someplace better than Disneyland? How is that not abusive? How is that legal?
At school, children are taught the best information we have about the development of the universe. At home, they are taught the worst information available. Moreover, they are taught to distrust and disrespect anything taught to them by teachers. Think about it. If the universe was created by God in six days, then the teachers are way off on all their information about the most basic things. The teachers say that the universe evolved over billions of years by undirected forces. How stupid is that, right? The bible says different. Sunday School teachers say different. Parents say different. These two stories are not remotely the same. As a student, if I don’t have to listen to the teachers in matters of science, why should I listen to them in matters of math, English, and history? With parents actively undermining a child’s right to education, it is little wonder that we are so far behind in education
Conclusion: a mind is a terrible thing to waste
I propose that there should be limits on the amount of garbage with which we fill a child’s mind. Garbage in, garbage out is a true maxim in every sector. I do not care how much bad information a person pours into a computer. The computer belongs to them. I also don’t care what lies parents choose to tell themselves. They can lie to themselves about matters of sexuality, health, finances, or science. I only care that children be allowed an environment where they have the best chance to encounter and process true information.
If a parent tells a child that prayer heals sickness, why should the child ever take medicine or quietly submit to a shot? Uncountable numbers of people refuse to take life-stabilizing medications for mental illnesses because they were taught that God, not science is the key to healing. There is material harm in this type of upbringing. How much less secure are our little boys and girls who have been led to believe that an invisible friend with magical powers is watching over them, and protecting them from all harm. When harm does come their way, they are taught that either they were displeasing to their magical friend for some undefined reason, or that it was all a part of the magical friend’s plan. Either way, you should just accept the bad things that happen to you, and try to be a better person as a result. Psychiatric professionals will never run out of clients. There is material harm that cannot be denied.
I will refrain from going into too many details about what religious limitations I feel are appropriate for children. I will offer a couple of broad categories that should be considered. Children should not be taught a worldview that makes death seem like something preferable to real life. If children believe that death is the gateway to a fairy dreamland, they will not be as diligent about protecting and enhancing the one life they actually have. They should not be taught a philosophy that makes them feel that they are something other than a part of nature. In no way should they be taught to believe that they are apart from, or in dominion over nature. They should not be taught things that hinder their future ability to graduate and hold a responsible job. They should not be forced to tout the creeds of evolution deniers any more than they should be made to sing the anthems of the Flat Earth Society.
It goes without saying that any religious practice or belief that endangers the child’s health and safety should be heavily regulated both in and out of the home. Even in states where snake handling is legal, there should be laws about snake handlers with children living in the home. Children should also be restricted from attending such assemblies. There is nothing illegal about nude church either. The kids just have to remain fully dressed, and in another room with fully dressed adults. We already regulate matters of religion as it relates to health. Parents do not get to withhold vaccinations from their children regardless of religion. They also do not get to withhold other necessary medical treatments. On this matter, the legal system is inconsistent.
Finally, they should be free of any doctrines of separatism and exclusivity. This is the seed of all racism. It starts with the stories of God choosing a particular race of people to be his representatives and priests. Exclusivity is just as bad in the Christian scriptures. Jesus makes it clear that he is the only way to God. Anyone outside of that path is kindling for Hell’s fire. Once this idea becomes acceptable, Children have permission to use race, religion, and physical attributes as the basis of acceptable discrimination.
This is not to say that people cannot learn about religion. It is simply to say that there should be formalized regulations as it relates to children. If a parent can be fined for keeping his child out of school, why don’t the same types of penalties apply to a parent that counteracts and negates the instruction provided by school? If it is wrong for a parent to intentionally teach a child bad math and English, why should it be okay to teach them bad science? Perhaps there should be an age limit on proselytizing children. There is a smoking and drinking age. People still choose to smoke and drink. They just have to reach an age where they can make a responsible decision. We really should be talking about an age of responsibility when it comes to declaring one’s allegiance to life-altering worldviews. Ww have a real problem when 7 year olds are immersed into the blood of Christ for the remission of their sins, dying to themselves, rising to a new life of submission.
All last week, while reading a ranting about the legislation in Arizona, I was privately relieved that at least it wasn’t Alabama, my home state. Lord knows we’ve had enough of a well-deserved black eye in matters of church and state. Let another “A” state take the gold in the religious lunacy olympics. Well, Alabama won’t give up that prize without a fight. I just read that a bill made it out of committee to require prayer in school. Here are the things you need to know:
A key committee in Alabama’s House of Representatives has pushed through a bill requiring teachers and students at all of the state’s public schools to spend 15 minutes every morning in Christian prayer, even though a majority of legislators present say they opposed the measure.
But that stand seems lukewarm next to the current House measure’s planned compulsion of religion among captive pupils. The bill passed through the chamber’s education policy committee late last week, according to the Montgomery Advertiser:
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, would require teachers to spend no more than 15 minutes in the first class of each day to read, verbatim, opening prayers said before a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, chairwoman of the committee, said she heard more votes in favor of the bill.
“It’s what I heard as chairman,” she said.
Only McClurkin and one other Republican on the panel actually voted “aye” on the bill. Two Republicans and one Democrat insist they said “no” to the bill in the voice vote; three legislators weren’t even present for the vote. The House’s clerk told the Advertiser that “the chairman of each committee has the discretion to decide the outcome of a voice vote.”
McClurkin also voice-voted through a bill “that would allow students to initiate prayer in school and express their religious views in their schoolwork.”
The sponsor of that bill told the Advertiser: “Every bit of this bill is already legal. It’s just that no one knows it’s legal
First, I don’t believe there is a chance in hell of this getting through all the stages of becoming law. That’s not the point. Militant, religious nutjobs are on the loose, and in positions of power. We give them this power by voting for them, and by not applying reasonable tests of sanity to the people we empower. No one wants to be accused of discriminating against a candidate solely on the basis of religion. Fine. Take religion out of it. Is it okay to discriminate on the basis that the candidate is stark raving mad?
Suppose you discover the perfect candidate who espouses everything you believe in. He gives all the right answers to all the right questions and makes all the right promises. He is affable and believable. The only red flag is that he swears up and down that he visits with Elvis every Tuesday on the King’s private space ship he acquired from aliens in the star system to the right. Elvis, and occasionally the aliens help shape the policy position of the candidate. Is that alright? Can we vote for that person? Sure, he’s going to lower my taxes. But the whole Elvis, space alien thing… Well…
Religious politicians are worse. They say many of the things you think you want to hear. There is just the matter of the invisible being from a higher dimension whom they speak to regularly, and who regularly provides input on what they should do and think. These politicians are intensely loyal to this alien. If he said that 2 and 2 was 5, they would believe it, and reprogram their calculators to agree with the new revelation. They believe this alien told an old man to kill his only son as a sacrifice. They celebrate the faithfulness of that man for being willing to do it without question. They believe that kind of faith should be lauded and emulated. We place those people in positions of power. What did we expect would happen?
In this case, based on what little information I could glean, one person was able to ramrod an asinine bill through a major committee and onto the House floor for a vote, all over the objections of the majority in that committee. There were shenanigans aplenty. Because that one person who believes in the invisible world of angels and demons was voted into office. Alabama has to deal with a bill that makes prayer in school mandatory. Remember, that only took one whack job. Alabama’s legislative branch is full of them.
These types of things are not limited to the Southern states. America’s history of religious lunacy in the state house is legendary. No state is free of it. The federal branches of government are equally tainted. We should not be upset at the politicians. Crazy people do crazy things. We should be upset with ourselves for continuing to place these people in to positions of power, rather than marginalizing them as the basket cases they are. Religious politicians are simply living out the mandates of their faith.
It is time we start taking the implications of that faith seriously. They regard Abraham and Moses as moral authorities. One was willing to sacrifice is living son to his god. The other was party to the murder of every first-born person and creature in the country. It is probably not necessary to mention the war crimes. We wouldn’t elect someone who proudly, publicly admitted that Hitler was one of their role models. Admit that you admire the bible’s worst war criminals, and you get to mandate school prayer, or religiously motivated discrimination replete with separate drinking fountains. There is no end to the harm you can do as long as you wrap your insanity in the cloak of religion.
Stop the madness!