Washed in the blood: a closer look at the cult ritual of baptism

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I was baptized at age 7 in my underwear by my father in a bathtub at a neighbor’s house in front of a small audience of onlookers. To put it mildly, baptism has always been a little weird to me.

Of the many questions I have about baptism, this is the biggest: What was a 7 year old doing getting baptized in the first place?I love that question. Thanks for asking. You might be a little disturbed by the answer.

My earliest memories start at about 3 years of age. I cannot remember a time when I was not in church on a regular basis. In my case, that would be some form of church assembly at least 3 times a week, and sometimes more. For most of those early memories, my father was a preacher. I was born a preacher’s kid.

My story was never going to progress any other way. It was not enough that we went to church. My father taught weekly bible classes at home to me, my 2 older brothers, and my mother. I knew the doctrine of my denomination more thoroughly than the vast majority of adults sitting in the pews. And I knew exactly why I needed to be baptized.

It hit me all at once. Everyone in my family had been baptized except for me. Their sins were forgiven. Obviously, mine were not. They would not go to hell when they died. I would. I was lost in my sins. I was not a member of the church. I was just an attendee.

I became overwhelmed with the heavy burden of my sinfulness. Yes, a 7 year old can be weighed down with sin. Don’t ask me exactly what sins I was burdened with. I was a good kid. My mother will attest to that. But it didn’t matter. I knew I was guilty of the greatest sin of all. I was not baptized. And that means that I had not obeyed god. I was living my life in defiance of god. And something had to be done about it right away.

I went to my dad that very day of my awakening and begged to be baptized. It was a Wednesday bible class night. So he made me wait until the alter call. We called it the time of invitation. All that day, I was frightened that something was going to happen to me, and I was going to die, unsaved. At that point, I would lift up my eyes in hell just like the rich man in that bible story.

You have no idea what terrors a 7 year old can conjure, especially one who was raised on all those bible stories. I had a vivid imagination. And it was no problem for me to smell my burning flesh as the flames that would never die, cooked me for all eternity.

Sure, my father asked me a few questions. Did I love Jesus? Oh yes! You bet I did. Of course I would have loved anyone who stepped forward to get me out of my predicament. Did I understand that baptism was to wash away my sins? You bet I did. I couldn’t imagine a heavier burden then my sins.

Did I understand the sacrifice Jesus made for me on the cross? Did I understand that taking on baptism meant dying to myself, and allowing the Holy Spirit to take control of my body and my life? Did I ever!

So there I was with my clothes off and the gawkers waiting expectantly. My father put one hand on my back, another on my face, and backward I surrendered to the watery grave of baptism.

I came up wet.

I didn’t feel like I had been inhabited by a spirit, holy or otherwise. I just felt wet, cold, and embarrassed. I suppose I did feel a brief sense of my sins being lifted. But that would only last until I had piled up more. My life would always be debt service for that pile of sin that never seemed to diminish.

I directed the closing hymn for that night’s bible class. And thus began my career as a churchman. I would go on to preach my first sermon 4 years later. And I didn’t stop preaching until I left the church entirely.

I thought it important to provide some of this biographical information so that you could understand what baptism meant to me. It was the gateway to my inevitable life as a preacher. My oldest brother started preaching at 12. Hell was a clear and present danger all the time. And others in my church community had been baptized around my age. I really had no choice, nor did I want one.

Baptism was the most natural thing in the world to me. From the perspective of my denomination, baptism was a requirement for salvation. There were no exceptions. There was no other way to receive remission of sins.

Before going further, I want you to stop and think about this from a different perspective: Take Christianity out of it. If a child came up to a school teacher and told her that he had just been washed in a pool of blood to remove his taint of evil, and he had also died so that a spirit from another realm could inhabit his body, what would you make of it? Would you not insist on an investigation by the Department of Health and Human Services?

Say all that in the context of Christianity, and it is just baptism. Does that make baptism any less of a cult ritual? I don’t think so. Here’s why:

Necessary

Back in the days of yore, the Jews were required to be circumcised. It was neither an option nor a debate. It was not a matter of misunderstanding. There was no choice. Failure to comply with the order carried lethal consequences.

So necessary was this ritual, god almost killed Moses for his lack of compliance. See Exodus 4, starting with verse 18. Baptism in the New Testament is spoken of in the same way. While we do not get an official introduction to baptism. We do get the direct message that baptism does save us. See 1 Peter 3:21:

And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The image is clear. Only 8 people were saved by water. The rest were drowned by the terrible flood. Today, we can either be saved by the water, or drowned in the lake of fire. I know many Christians read it differently. But I personally believe they’re wrong. The Bible does not make baptism any more optional than was circumcision. And the consequences of noncompliance are the same.

All cult rituals are necessary, not optional. Failure to comply is to be rejected by the group. Once you know the rituals, they take a dim view of you backing out. Baptism is a lot like that. If you happen to be in the baptism part of Christianity, it is compliance or hell.

Blood

Dark cults are obsessed with blood. That is one of the ways we used to identify a particularly scary cult. It would have some kind of blood ritual associated with it. It hardly got more cultish than Judaism. If it was worth doing, it was worth slaughtering an animal and using its blood for some ritual.

Christianity picked up where Judaism left off. If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing with blood. And if real blood runs afoul of cultural mores, invisible blood will do.

Christianity has two blood-soaked rituals that partially define the religion. One requires members to drink the blood. Don’t worry. It is just either grape juice or wine. But in their minds, it is the real blood of Jesus, at least for Catholics. For everyone else, it is a symbol of the blood of Jesus.

The other ritual is washing in the blood. Some Christians sprinkle it. Some pour it. And others are immersed in it. Though the medium of the blood is mere water. They believe they are coming in contact with the literal blood of Jesus. It is not merely a pantomime. It is the real thing.

Death

It is not just a matter of wallowing and bathing in blood to cleanse you of your sins. Baptism is a full-on death ritual. I come from a group that believes immersion is the only acceptable form of baptism. Part of the reason is that immersion mimics being buried in a grave. We even used the language of being buried in the watery grave of baptism.

The burial represented the fact that one was dying. We embraced death as a form of spiritual suicide. We had to die both to sin and to ourselves. Being lifted up from the water was rising into the newness of life. The old person was dead. An new person was born.

We would talk of being dead in the flesh and alive in the spirit. Baptism is the culmination of that death and rebirth. One could not be born again just by imagining they were born again. They couldn’t just change their perspective on life and decide they were born again. They had to be baptized into the lord’s death in order to be born again.

Rejection

Baptism is the gateway into the kingdom of god. To be baptized is to voluntarily walk through that narrow gate. But to do that you have to simultaneously leave everything from your old life behind. Baptism is a symbolic rejection of the old life you used to live.

This is another one of those behaviors that are strongly associated with cults. You don’t just join the cult. You reject everything and everyone you left behind. Jesus says that if you do not hate your father and mother, you are not worthy of him. You cannot use excuses tied to your old life such as having married a wife, or that you have to burry a parent. Let the dead burry the dead.

Once baptized, your concerns are no longer of this world. It doesn’t matter what you will eat or drink. Saving money and building bigger storehouses for the future is for those still in love with this world. Sell all your possessions and get rid of the money. That’s your new life. You must utterly reject everything about the old one, even despise it.

Conclusion: Wet

At the end of the day, baptism makes you wet, typically, cold and wet. What it does not make you is preternaturally peaceful. It does not make you wiser, luckier, more financially stable, more attuned to what is right or true, more moral, or better in any way. It mostly just gets you wet.

It does offer at least one social benefit: it makes you more accepted within your in-group. It provides entry into the cult. It is an initiation offered both to children and babies, depending on which branch of the cult you are entering.

However, it is telling that the cult ritual of baptism is administered to children and infants. As a bloody requirement for sin removal, one wonders how that can possibly apply to those so young. What sins do a 7 year old have that need to be washed away.

The god of this cult is so exacting in his standards, that even children and infants need to be covered in blood for the murderous death angel to pass. This tells you everything you need to know about this ritual, and the god of this ritual.

What I wish for is an un-baptism ceremony and certificate. People can be Re-baptized. We can even be baptized for the dead. But there is no ceremonial way to be un-baptized. Well I declare myself un-baptized. And I further declare un-baptism for the dead on behalf of all those who died unbelievers, but who had experienced baptism at some point in their lives.

Finally, I invite all those who have entered the church via this cult ritual to un-baptize themselves. Stop wallowing in the blood, death, burial, and rejection of a long-dead sage. Follow good teaching wherever you find it. But leave the cult rituals behind. And leave behind any group that requires them for entrance.

David Johnson

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Why We Believe

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For some time, I have been in discussion with a number of Christians on matters of faith. One of the questions I explore at least a couple of times a year is why Christians believe the things they believe.

Talk to them long enough, and you will always get two sets of reasons. The first set of reasons are the ones they use to try and convince you to believe. The second set of reasons are the real reasons why they believe?

The reasons in the first set are usually based on evidence or philosophy. They will bring up their favorite apologetic arguments. After that, they might talk about fulfilled prophecy, the empty tomb, and the historical fact of the resurrection.

And while these things might serve to support a flagging faith, or provide reasonable talking points for communication with unbelievers, they are seldom the reasons anyone initially comes to faith. Those reasons are usually rather more subjective.

The real reason most people believe can be traced to where they were born and raised. It is also determined by the belief system of the parents and culture surrounding the individual. But notice that these are never the reasons given when a Christian is waxing poetic about why they believe. They understand that to be credible, they need better reasons. Thus, apologetics.

The apostle Paul is my goto example. Before becoming a Christian, he was a persecutor of the church. He literally murdered Christians for a living. He seemed to be doing so on behalf of the Jewish leadership. And he had the finest Jewish education.

All of this is to say that he had access to all of the evidence for a risen Jesus. And he had training in all of the messianic prophecies. None of that convinced him to be a Christian. What actually convinced him was that he had a religious experience: a vision.

But there lies the problem. You can’t just go around trying to convert people on the strength of your religious experience. You can’t just tell others to have their own religious experience. You have to use something else to convince them. So in typical fashion, Paul used the same scriptures he rejected, to try and convert others.

This is a similar path to where I normally go with this topic. But I decided to expand the question to why atheist believe what they believe. Because I have been both a believer and nonbeliever in my adult years, I started by questioning myself. Do I believe differently as a nonbeliever than I did as a believer?

I think about how I came to beliefs before versus how I come to beliefs now. And there does seem to be a difference. I wanted to know if I just believed what I wanted to believe. Did I believe in Christian things when I wanted to be a Christian, then believe in atheist things when I wanted to be an atheist? Is it all just wish fulfillment?

I don’t believe it is. One reason is that when I gave up faith in god, I didn’t want to. I was doing everything I could do to maintain faith. When I was a Christian, I really wanted to believe in Christian things.

So examining why I stopped believing has provided me insight on the different methods and mechanisms for belief depending on whether one holds to a faith-based system, or if one is a skeptic. There is yet another major difference in how believers and skeptics come to believe things:

When anything is possible

One of the main reasons Christians believe differently is because for them, anything is possible. And when anything is possible, everything is possible. Atheists tend to have a smaller set of things that are possible. Their possibilities are usually limited to the laws of nature.

Christians have a builtin mechanism for infinite possibilities. They believe in an infinite god who can do anything at all. There are a few things he can’t do such as lie, or sin, or anything that Christians don’t really believe in. But otherwise, his capabilities are boundless.

Atheists have no such mechanism. Nature is vast, but limited. It functions based on rules that can be learned and understood. A lot is possible, including many things we cannot explain. But we would not subscribe to the notion that anything is possible, because it isn’t.

Believers take a lot of things on faith because even if they don’t know how it is managed, they have an underlying belief that it is possible, whatever it happens to be. It is very hard to believe in something that you think is impossible to begin with. Therefore, one of the prerequisites for belief is that you have some belief mechanism that renders the proposition possible, if not probable.

Probability assessment

Not only do believers tend to believe more things are possible, they believe that those possibilities are far more probable than they really are. Even if they know that causing a cancerous tumor to disappear via prayer is only marginally possible, they nonetheless convince themselves that it will happen because god is not limited by probability. In other words, they have a builtin defeater for probability.

In this way, the least likely thing can become highly likely. They use a type of faulty reasoning that informs them that the least likely thing, as long as it is mathematically possible, is just as likely as any other possibility.

The believer has the same issues with probability as the gambler. The gambler buys 10 lottery tickets instead of 1, thinking that he has increased his chances from improbable to very probable. He might also rub a lucky rabbit’s foot, and wish upon a star to increase his chances even further.

While more tickets help mathematically, out of hundreds of millions of tickets purchased, 10 tickets does not really help. If it did, millionaires would spend a million dollars a week on tickets to win a hundred million. They don’t. They tend to be better at math.

The believer does similar things. If one prayer makes it probable, 10 makes it likely. In addition to prayer, the believer can do many good deeds, and give money to charity. They will not only pray more often, but more fervently. Surely these things improve their chances. But they don’t.

The atheist has no such fallback. There is only cold, unyielding probability. If the odds aren’t very good, we see no reason to play them. We tend not to place our bets on the least likely possibility. We deem many possible things to be implausible. And there is nothing we can do to improve the plausibility of the least likely event.

Testimonial evidence

Believers tend to place a lot of weight on testimonial evidence. There is something to be said for a good, personal testimonial. But it is not exactly the same as other types of evidence. Not all types of evidence are the same. But Christians tend to treat all types of evidence as the same while atheists don’t.

Even in a court of law, testimonial evidence is rarely enough. When two disputants disagree on the facts, other evidence has to be considered. Even a confession of guilt would not be admissible if that confession was that a person committed a murder via magic. The confession might get a person time in a psych ward, but not prison.

Christians tend to believe that stories written in the Bible are the same as carefully vetted history. They also tend to believe that miracles happened to others on the bases of their testimony alone. When evaluating extraordinary claims, atheists tend to put less faith in testimonial evidence.

A lack of proof

Another major difference between Christian and atheist belief systems is that for the Christian, a lack of proof is not a problem. Believing a thing hard enough, itself, becomes a sort of proof. This works alongside testimonial evidence. If the person presenting the testimony believes it enough, their belief adds credence to the testimony.

They think that if the earliest apostles were martyred for their beliefs, then their beliefs must have been true. The martyrdom argument is made by the most notable apologists. No less than C. S. Lewis made the case that because Jesus actually believed what he said about himself, we should too. He was either liar, lunatic, or Lord. Lewis sees not other options. And Christians eat this logic up. Atheists don’t.

Conclusion: Supernatural

At the end of the day, believers always have the supernatural to fall back on, while as a general rule, unbelievers do not. Everything about Christianity that makes it interesting is heavily steeped in the supernatural. That includes the information delivery system by which we learn of it.

It comes telepathically from the mind of god, to the hand of writers, in a way that leaves the message uncorrupted. We are given aid to read and understanding it courtesy of the Holy Spirit. By that same spirit, we are granted a gift of faith in that message. The truth of the message cannot be accessed without help from the supernatural. For the Christian, it is supernatural all the way down.

Do I have some confirmation bias? Of course. But it is also held in check by many checks and balances I have in place. I read and follow Christian thinkers as well. I never stopped reading the Bible. I still probably read it more than the average Christian. I routinely engage in online conversation with theists. I test my arguments before making them, and change them if they turn out to be bad.

Since becoming a nonbeliever, I have been to church, prayed the seekers prayer, was open to religious experience, made arguments in favor of god and faith, just to see if I could, and did all the things Christians suggested I do to find god. He remains unfound. And I remain unconvinced.

Now compare what confirmation bias I might yet have to the absolute certainty of the supernatural held by believers. That is so much worse than confirmation bias fueled by skepticism. For the record, I am skeptical about everything. But the believer always carries a trump card that can overcome anything, any objection, any scientific fact, any logical necessity. The supernatural is not confirmation bias. It’s confirmation crack.

My bias can be proved wrong. But the supernatural can never be proven wrong. It is unfalsifiable, completely immune to skeptical inquiry. Because it cannot be proven wrong, the supernatural explanation is always as good as any other explanation.

Unfortunately, the supernatural is a place where inquiry goes to die. Your supernatural explanation can be trumped by someone else’s unfalsifiable, supernatural explanation. Rational inquiry is barred from entering the arena.

Because the Christian believes in the supernatural, there is no objection that can stand. Because there is no way to test the supernatural with natural means, every theory that includes the supernatural is confirmed by the supernatural. As you can see, confirmation bias is a minor issue compared to that.

Expect another post in the near future exploring why we skeptics think the way we do.

David Johnson

Fool’s Gold: Why the Bible Must Be Cast Aside Once and for All

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Fool’s gold is a brassy, yellow mineral that can be mistaken for gold. That is the bible in a nutshell. It is mere pyrite being passed off as something of value. Nothing about it is praiseworthy or honorable. Far from being respectable, the bible is a fraud, masquerading as words of wisdom from a higher power. It should be treated like all other frauds, with indignity and scorn.

I can’t say exactly why they call it fool’s gold. It is either that you have been fooled into mistaking pyrite for gold. Or you would have to be a fool to mistake pyrite for gold. It could be that your are using pyrite to fool others into thinking it was gold. Either way, if you have invested your fortune into pyrite thinking it was gold, you have been fooled. And you were a fool with your money.

How much more so is that true for one who invests their life in the bible: a book even less valuable than a pocket full of pyrite? The Bible is not wisdom, evidence, or assurance of anything. Even if the god spoken of by the bible were real, the bible itself would be a poor representation of the hidden reality. Over the next few paragraphs, I will briefly make the case for why the bible is profitable for nothing:

Profitable for nothing

You have known the Holy Scriptures ever since you were a little child. They are able to teach you how to be saved by believing in Christ Jesus. God has breathed life into all Scripture. It is useful for teaching us what is true. It is useful for correcting our mistakes. It is useful for making our lives whole again. It is useful for training us to do what is right. By using Scripture, the servant of God can be completely prepared to do every good thing. 2 Tim. 3:15-17

In this passage, Paul is encouraging Timothy: his protege, to stick with the bible. Paul reminds Timothy of his biblical indoctrination as a child. In this, I feel some kinship to Timothy. I was also indoctrinated into the bible from my earliest memories. I was able to read the bible before many kids were able to read.

Paul acknowledges something that many progressives attempt to deny. You can’t get to the fundamentals of Christianity without the bible. Without the bible, Christianity falls. While this is not the overt message of verse 15, the implication is there. The bible is there to teach you how to be saved by believing in Jesus.

Paul doubles down on the bible by listing all of the things for which it is profitable. In summary, the bible is useful for everything that is important. It can teach you everything worth knowing. It can prepare you for doing everything worth doing. For a well-rounded life, the bible is all you need. On another occasion, Paul said this same thing in a different way:

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 1 Cor. 2:2

It was enough for Paul: an educated man, to only know the message about Jesus. This is the message of the bible. All else is considered dross. Paul was all in and double or nothing on the bible. Paul did not talk about a human Jesus who lived, taught, and ministered to real people as a matter of history. Paul talked about the Jesus of prophesy.

During Paul’s lifetime, there were no written gospels as we have them today. When Paul refers to the Jesus of the bible, he is not talking about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He is talking about the first 39. He didn’t refer to the miracles of Jesus, or the teachings from Jesus, but to the prophesies about Jesus. Paul wants believers to get their Jesus from the bible, not from history.

Therefore, Paul has to sell the bible as gold rather than pyrite. Christians have to be convinced that the bible is an infallible, almost magical book. It is profitable for everything. And the only way to go wrong is to stray from its teachings. But in the real world, we know better.

No one but the most unfortunate would open the bible to learn history, or science, or math. Those who’s science literacy begins with, In the beginning, god created the heavens and the earth, have a disadvantage in the world that is hard to overcome. Even the true things they learn from science will be colored by the false things serving as their foundation.

While Paul insists that the bible is useful for everything that a believer needs, I will continue to lay out the case for why it is useful for nothing:

Anecdote is not the plural of data

If Christians are to be believed, the most powerful and convincing aspects of the bible are its many anecdotes, stories, parables, and claims. Just as an example, they know there is a god because the bible says that you must be a fool if you don’t believe in a god. While it is an interesting claim, there is nothing persuasive about it.

How powerful a force is faith on the universe? According to the bible, it can move mountains. Never mind that no one has ever seen a mountain being moved due to faith. It is enough that the bible says so. Can we establish that there even is something called the kingdom of god? Well, the bible tells us stories about Jesus presenting stories about what the kingdom of god is like. Therefore, there is obviously a kingdom of god.

I could go on this way for a long time. But I think you get the point. Christians talk about the bible as if they believed that anecdote really is the plural of data. In no other aspect of their lives do they apply this kind of epistemology. To be as fair to the believer as possible, let us assume that the bible contains absolutely true facts about what actually happened.

To assume this about the bible does not make it a useful tool for discovering truth. A broken clock is correct twice a day. If you only look at that clock when it is correct, you might mistakenly believe that it is an accurate timepiece. But even when it is correct, it is a bad timepiece.

The bible says that god created the heavens and the earth. Let’s say he did. How do we know he did? We have an anecdotal story that says he did. We could further speculate that the anecdote came directly from the one who did the creating. That still doesn’t make it reliable as data.

My diary is not evidence of what I did yesterday. It cannot tell you who actually started the argument, or what was said or done, or in what order the events took place. I may be fabricating all the stories in my diary to make myself look good. Reading my diary will not tell you about my calorie intake, or my exercise regimen. Some of what I wrote may be true. But the fact that I wrote it doesn’t make it true.

The best the bible can ever do is point to something that is independently true. A math book is only reliable insofar as it points you to formulas that work. The formulas in the book have to be independently verified as true. A claim in the bible is only true because it is independently true. The biblical claim does not make it true.

The bible supports every truth claim

Not only does the Christian try to elevate storytelling to the level of evidence, they use the bible to support every truth claim, even the contradictory ones.

Did Jesus ascend to heaven on the same day of his resurrection, or was it as much as 40 days later? According to the bible, the answer is yes to both. Was David the 7th of 7 children? The answer is both yes and no. The bible is very clear about both answers. Did the bible support the kind of slavery we are against today? The answer is a definitive yes or no, depending on which passages you prefer at the time.

Despite the fact that the bible says that homosexuality is an abomination to god, and that they should be put to death by a mob, there seems to be some confusion over whether or not they are to be welcomed as full members of the church with all the rights and privileges of leaders.

It is more like Schrödinger’s bible. The truth is held in superposition until opened and observed. The truth on any matter is wholly dependent on who is observing it at the time. As long as the bible can be used to support all positions, even contradictory ones, then it cannot be trusted as a reliable source of any truth.

There is no consensus on the bible

If I did want to rely on the bible to learn the truth about faith healing, where would I turn? Even after I read all the scriptures you tell me to read, I will still not know the answer. Do I accept your opinion, or the opinion of the person next to you? Perhaps I should accept the opinion of the denominations who practice faith healing. Then again, I don’t want to ignore the opinions of those Churches that are convinced faith healing has ceased. Oh, bother…

The issue doesn’t matter. Is the bible the word of god or the word of humans? There is no consensus even among Christians.

Conclusion: Dead to me

I have a lifetime of knowledge and experience invested in the bible. Even as an unbeliever, I have been loathed to let it go. I’m now letting it go. The bible is officially dead to me. I do not wish to be rude to the people I debate with on forums. But from now on, quoting the bible to make your case immediately marginalizes any point you are trying to make.

I will no longer waste my time trying to respect your magic book as any sort of viable point in a debate. It is not. Claims and stories are not multiple data points. A book that supports all claims is verification of none. And if there is no consensus on what it means, then it is useless as a source. If you cannot understand these basic principles, then we have no basis for discussion on the matter.

David Johnson

Holy War

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A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:10-12

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, Eph. 2:1-2

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

That should be enough to get the ball rolling. In case the point is too subtle, we are at war. And it is not just any war. It is the holiest of wars. It’s not a war against humans, but against the God of this world, the powers of the air, the powers of the unseen world, the evil spirits in heavenly places. This is full-on Dark Ages, superstitious, nut-jobery. But that is the world and war that Paul imagined. So that is the world and war I will address.

Ancient Foe

We tend to think of God as the old man with the long, white beard, and a wizard’s robe. I think we have it wrong. It seems to me that image better suits the devil. The Ancient of Days has an equally ancient foe who is wise like a serpent, knows all the ways of God and man, and uses a more subtle magic to work his ways.

This ancient foe has been around for so long and is so good at his job, he has created havoc in both the heavenly and earthly realms. He has god’s forces spread so thin, God has to conscript us into his army to help with the battle. Because of this ancient foe, god’s plans have never succeeded in any realm. We can read our bible from cover to cover, and never find a scenario where God wins. It is all highly contested. And the outcome is up for interpretation.

So what do we know about this ancient foe? Honestly, not much. Here is what we can infer:

  • Satan is immortal. I’m not suggesting that he existed in infinity past. But whatever beginning he had, it doesn’t seem as if he has an end. The bible does not ever talk about killing the devil. He is only to be locked in some sort of inescapable prison.
  • Satan’s forces are equal to god’s forces. This is a disturbing idea for a lot of people. Satan has been fighting God for a very long time. And he doesn’t show any signs of stopping. He always has God on his heels, reacting to Satan, rather than God fighting an offensive battle. If Satan’s forces were not at least equal to god’s, the war would have been over a long time ago.
  • Satan is winning the battle for souls. The bible never tells us what the war is over. We sometimes speculate that it is a battle over souls. They each are trying to take as many as they can. If that is even part of the truth, then the devil is not only winning, he will ultimately win. The bible tells us that most people are going to hell. And only a few will make it to heaven. No matter what else happens, the devil has already won the battle for souls.

There are a few more details we can tease out from the story. One that I wanted to take a bit more time with is the fact that Satan cannot be locked out of anything. In Job, the devil is in the courts of heaven, talking to God as if he belonged there. In Genesis, the devil in the guise of the serpent has no trouble getting into god’s special walled garden. That is not exactly how the story goes. But that is how it is popularly conceived. Even if you don’t place the devil in the garden, he gets here somehow, and becomes the God of this world.

His ability to break and enter goes beyond mere location. He can enter humans. Demon possessions were quite common in Jesus’ day. There is no indication that this special talent of demons was limited to any particular location or time. And we have no reason to believe they have ceased. The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t believe they have ceased, and carry out exorcisms to this day.

It seems the devil does not have to have physical access to a person to do the same kind of damage as he can with a possession. He knows what you are thinking and what you desire. And he can craft the perfect trap for you based on that inside knowledge. Against such a foe with such universal access, we have no hope.

Power of Persuasion

The story of job is about a bar bet between God and Satan. It seems job was the one man left on earth that the devil couldn’t corrupt. This seems to imply that he had successfully corrupted everyone else. One loss and a billion wins is a pretty good record. My point is that Satan knows how to persuade, or shall I say, deceive:

For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Matt. 24:24

So that huge dragon—the ancient serpent, the one called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world—was thrown down to the earth, and his angels along with him. Rev. 12:9

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. 2Cor. 4:4

This last passage (repeated from above) is one of the scariest in the bible. Why are there unbelievers? Because the God of this world has blinded their minds. It is not that we failed to believe because the evidence and the logic presented by believers was bad. It is that the devil has blinded our minds so that we cannot see the glorious light of the good news. It seems to be suggesting that Satan can just make atheists out of people at will because he has the power to blind minds and block them from seeing the truth.

The very elect are not even safe. Of the handpicked 12 selected by Jesus, one was rotten to the core. Satan actually got all of them to abandon Jesus at the critical hour. He even got Peter to actively deny Jesus. That may even be worse than what Judas did. Make no mistake about it: The devil is really good at what he does. How good is he?

Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it! Matt.7:13-14

Jesus has already told us the outcome. Many (the majority) will enter the path of destruction. While few (the minority) will even find the path to life. In other words, Satan wins. He is going to deceive almost everybody. That includes those who are convinced they are faithful workers in the kingdom:

On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ Matt. 7:22-23

The point of the section is that the devil has a superpower. He is more persuasive than God. He could persuade a third of the Angels to follow him as opposed to God. Think about that for a moment. In your wildest imaginings, what would it take to talk an angel in the lap of luxurious heaven to rebel? What could you possibly offer someone who, at that very moment, was being bathed by the light of God. The devil didn’t just get one or two, but a third. Had he been granted more time, he may have gotten them all.

Satan can talk Angels out of the very arms of God. He had no trouble talking the apostles out of the arms of Jesus. And he doesn’t even break a sweat blinding the eyes of people so that they become unbelievers, even the very elect. What chance do you have against all that?

Stalemate

In chess, a stalemate is a position where a player cannot make a move that would not immediately lose the game. The rules do not permit a player to move into checkmate. Therefore, the best strategy for a person who is in the weaker position is to maneuver the opponent into forcing a stalemate. While neither side can declare victory, the one with the weaker position has managed not to lose.

If the Christian maintains that God is the one with all the power, and that the devil is in a clearly weaker position, it seems that the devil can at least declare a stalemate. He is engaged in a battle against God, and has not lost, nor can God declare any meaningful victory. How is that even possible? Satan is not a newcomer to this war. He is the ancient foe. He has been playing this thing to a draw for a very long time.

This presents a major problem for Christians. Either God really is all powerful and just pretending to be at war with the devil, or there really is a war that God is not powerful enough to win after eons of fighting. If God is just pretending to fight, then this is all just a sick game. No one should worship such a god. The other alternative is that there really is a highly contested war with an uncertain outcome. God might lose.

But regardless what happens in some unspecified future, If we are to assume that God wants this war over, and with as few casualties as possible, he is not winning. But that is just one of the problems the Christian has to work out:

Free Will, or Did the Devil Make Us Do It?

The warfare theory presumes that there is so much evil in the world because the devil is manipulating people, and unduly influencing free will. But this multiplicity of theodicies produces a faith-canceling, interference pattern that must be addressed. If free will is a sufficient explanation for why people do bad things, and why bad things happen to good people, then the devil is completely unnecessary.

But if we are being influenced by one that is powerful and convincing enough to deceive Angels out of god’s heavenly grasp, then we are facing an unfair, cosmic force that pushes us into actions and opinions for which we are not fully responsible. In other words, this cosmic battle is causing more casualties the longer it wages. The question becomes unavoidable: If God can defeat the devil, why doesn’t he just go ahead and do it.

The Hatfields and McCoys, or, What Are We Fighting For?

There is the popular Hatfield and McCoy trope of two hillbilly families that are at war. It has gone on for so many generations, no one knows what the war is about anymore. They just know that Hatfields hate McCoys, and McCoys hate Hatfields. And that’s the way it has always been. So it is with the cosmic war between the powers of light, and the powers of the air.

We are never told what the war is over. We are just given the sides, and told which one is the good guy. We’re just supposed to support the one side, and hate the other side. But let’s take a moment to speculate about the catalyst of this war.

Some suggest that it is a battle for the souls of mankind. There seems to be both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. The devil wants the most souls. But he also seems to care about getting specific souls. It is as if one Saint equals 100 peasants. We are led to believe that the devil is not just hoovering up as many souls as possible, he is specifically after you.

But if this is just a mere matter of numbers, he has already won the battle. I refer you back to Matt. 7:13-14 as exhibit-A. We are told by Jesus how this all ends. Satan ends up with the vast majority of souls. If that is what this war is over, we can just skip to the end. There is nothing God can do to change that outcome as he has already announced it. So why are we fighting?

Perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps God was planning the end of history shortly after the cross. But the devil caught wind of the news, and was able to launch an offensive that has derailed god’s plan for nearly 2,000 years. Not only is everything delayed, but everything is in doubt.

Perhaps the heavenly realm is just not a safe place for humans right now. Maybe Satan is still causing trouble in heaven, and would pose a danger to saved humans that God would not be able to deal with. Therefore, the war is to completely overthrow Satan and cast him from the heavenly realm before bringing humans up there.

I could go on speculating in this fashion for a long time. But it would not get us any closer to an answer. We don’t know why their fighting. We just know that they have been fighting for a very long time. And there is no end in sight.

How Does the War End?

I’m not referring to mere outcomes. What I am talking about is the actual cessation of battle. Does the devil surrender at some point? Is he surrounded and captured? Or does he fight until the last angel is killed? Speaking of which, we seem to have another problem, as there is no indication that the devil can be killed. Humans can’t be killed. They just transition from one world to the next with a new body. I don’t recall an angel ever being killed, just cast out.

The bible talks about the devil one day being imprisoned, but never actually killed. If Angels can’t die, then what is the point of them fighting? If Angels could die, the fact that there has been a raging war for so long suggests that there is a method to produce more angels. Even the devil can produce more demons. If they can’t die, then the same angels and demons have been going at it for eons, unable to kill, unable to die. If no one can die, how does the war end? And what’s the point of the exercise?

If all God has to do is capture Satan alive and lock him in an inescapable prison, why not just do it? The implication is that he can’t. So does God have a big button on his desk marked, “Victory”? Does he just push the button when he gets tired of playing the game? As far as we can tell, the devil is getting stronger, not weaker. How does God end a war when the participants can’t be eliminated, the enemy cannot be captured, and his strength is constantly increasing?

Before leaving this point, how do we know if the war is still waging? What if the war ended a long time ago when no one was looking? What if the good guys didn’t win? How would we ever know? What would the world look like if Satan already won the war. It seems to me it would look exactly the way it looks today. If God had won the war, we wouldn’t be here anymore.

Fighting the Good Fight

I was having a discussion with a person in a comment thread who was convinced that this cosmic war was real, and that he was somehow a participant. I asked him what proof he could offer showing that there was any such war being waged, and what role he thought he was playing in that war. He never responded. I have never found a Christian who could provide an answer to either of those questions. Here’s the problem they face:

There is no way to answer either of those questions without seeming stark-raving mad, even to yourself. How, exactly, does an earth-bound human participate in a cosmic war that is not against flesh and blood participants? How do you wield the sword of truth in a way that effects the combatants? Do you shout out bible verses from the street corner? If you cause one prostitute to go home early, have you scored a victory in the cosmic battle? Did three demons just fall because you read the Sermon on the Mount out loud?

Some Christians believe that prayer is the secret weapon. But that makes even less sense than just randomly shouting out bible verses. Why would you ask God to strengthen the forces for good as if he were not already working at full capacity? Do you really believe that god’s strength is limited by the number of prayers he gets? Do you envision God holding back the winning blow until he gets enough prayer points? That’s absurd! So are all other possibilities of how humans might be participating in this war.

Try explaining how you know there is a war without resorting to, “the bible says so”. How do you prove it to someone who does not accept the bible at its word? If this war is being waged in a completely different realm, how do you even know about it? Are you getting war updates from the other side? All of the warriors are invisible. The weapons are invisible. The sounds of battle are inaudible. The only thing you can access are things done in this physical realm. How do you connect that to actions from some other realm With different physical realities? You can’t!

Conclusion: Give Peace a Chance

There are no holy wars. There only human wars of the flesh and blood variety. There are no angels, no demons, no principalities, no powers of the air and darkness, no evil spirits, and no oppressively powerful God of this world. There is no devil, no great serpent, no horned beast leading immortal legions against all that is holy.

You may be a Christian. But you are not a soldier, a prayer warrior, possessed or in dwelled by spirits from either side. You are not marching to Zion, or hoisting the royal banner. You are just some pathetic schmuck in a dead-end job, wishing for a little more magic, mystery, and adventure. You are just like the rest of us. You worry too much. You’re afraid of dying. And you want to believe that you matter to the cosmos, even though you don’t.

If you are Jewish, Muslims are not your enemy. If you are white, people of color are not your enemy. If you are straight, homosexuals are not your enemy. And if you are a believer, nonbelievers are not your enemy. There is no enemy. There is no kingdom to defend. There is no war to fight. So stop fighting.

Give peace a chance. Once you let go of this cosmic war idea, you will find that you have far fewer enemies. Peace is having no more battles to fight. Believers can never, truly be at peace as long as they are embroiled in a intractable, cosmic, invisible war.

David Johnson

Biblical Evidence for the Mythicist Position

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I do not believe that Jesus was a real person. I believe he was a mythical creation. I have believed this long before I heard of mythicism. A lot of things in the biblical account of Jesus just didn’t add up. I will eventually get around to writing a post that fleshes this out a bit more. For now, I just want to focus on one passage that stands out that seems to support the mythicist position:

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;

though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: Matt. 13:11-13, 18

Let us not lose sight of the answer Jesus gave to one of the most important questions asked in the bible. Like the disciples, I also wanted to know why Jesus spoke in parables that were hard to understand. Rather than obfuscating, Jesus responded to the question with a direct, and unequivocal answer: Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them

(For extra credit, look up mystery religions.)

By his own admission, Jesus didn’t want the masses to understand his kingdom teachings. He wanted them to be confused because the teaching was supposed to be a mystery available only to the inner circle. He then goes on to explain the parable, but only to his disciples.

When Jesus said that the one who has little will have it taken away, and the one with some will be given more, he wasn’t talking about money, but secret knowledge of the kingdom. Jesus is about to increase the knowledge of his disciples while intentionally confusing the crowd.

For this point, the actual meaning of the parable is not important. The fact that you heard what Jesus whispered to his disciples is proof that it never happened. Think about it: You were let in on a secret from which the masses were excluded. The secret was written down in a mass market book freely available to everyone in the world.

If Jesus had intended to keep the meaning a secret from the masses, he should have told his biographer to leave that part out where he revealed it to his disciples. It goes against the express wishes of Jesus that what he said was written down and shared with the whole world. If Jesus didn’t want it to get out, you wouldn’t be able to read about it.

What all that means is that this is nothing more than a story. It never happened. It is not history. We have both the parable, and the secret resolution to the parable because it is just a story. As the reader of this particular piece of fiction, you are made to feel like you are on the boat with Jesus, a part of his inner circle. You get the insider perspective.

Clearly, this scene is made up. Thing is, Matthew made up a lot of Jesus speeches and events. He is not a reliable witness of anything. He is a storyteller. The question becomes, why did the gospel writers have to make up stories about Jesus if they had access to a real Jesus. Since it is clear that this parable was made up, why not all the parables? Why not the sermon on the mount?

Even by conservative estimates, these writings were decades after Jesus supposedly left the scene. Jesus did not have a biographer because there was no one walking around raising dead people. Jesus stories are no more real than King Author stories. That is why we get to be in on the secrets, and be in on what certain people were thinking. Every page of the gospels is written like a work of fiction. The reason for that is because fiction is exactly what it is.

Grace- A Not So free, Not So Gift

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I listened to a program that featured a Christian and a Mormon debating the concept of grace. The Mormon representative delivered a grace with which I was very familiar, as it exactly mirrored the Church of Christ idea of grace I have known since I was a child. While the debate, itself, wasn’t particularly enlightening, it did get me thinking about the subject.

I am very familiar with the main formulations. I find Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates quite entertaining, and most on point. Listening to people debate Paul vs. James can also be rather enlightening. But the epiphany I had when taking in this particular debate was that I had absolutely no idea what any of it actually meant. The more I study grace, the more nonsensical it seems. I’m not sure how I ever thought I understood it.

Though different groups pour different meanings into the words, everyone seems to agree that grace is a free gift from god to humans. This is the gift of salvation, as without it, everyone would be lost (burn in hell, live eternally without the presence of god, be completely annihilated). Salvation and condemnation are yet more concepts different groups apply different meanings to.

But the more I study grace, it strikes me that it is neither free, nor a gift. And it seldom ends in salvation, whatever that happens to mean. Obviously, I’ve got some unpacking to do:

Free as in Beer

I don’t at all understand the literal imagery of this expression. But I know what it has come to mean. Free as in beer suggests that something is absolutely free with no strings attached. Not only is there no up front payment, there is never any expectations for payment, or even appreciation after the beer is drank. Free as in beer is as free as it gets.

When Christians talk about salvation being a free gift through grace by faith, they seem to have a very different idea of free than I do. Even as a Christian, I always struggled with this one. The formulation I learned is that salvation is the free gift of grace. But you had to receive the gift through certain fulfillment mechanisms.

We were careful not to label those fulfillment mechanisms as works. But we definitely understood that there was something we had to do in order to take possession of the free gift. It is not that we earned the gift in any way. We didn’t. We just had to take possession of the gift. Make no mistake about it: The gift was still free.

Receiving the Gift

One of the quiet scandals of the gameshow: The Price Is Right, is that many winners couldn’t claim their prizes because they couldn’t afford the taxes on those prizes. Yes, the prizes were free. But they still had to pay the California state tax.

A more common example you may have experienced happens when you order something from TV. Often, there is a free gift with your order to incentivize you. When you have a representative on the phone, they tell you that all you have to do to receive the free gift is pay the shipping and handling. Shockingly, that shipping and handling fee is often the real, hidden price of the free gift. No S&H fee, no free gift.

At that point, it becomes a matter of semantics. How much do you have to do before the gift is no longer free? I am reminded of the classic Nigerian scam. Some wealthy royal is escaping from a desperate situation, and needs help moving his substantial cash hoard. He offers to give you a lavish reward if you help. He just needs you to send a small amount of money in U.S. currency for whatever transaction fees he concocts. To receive your free gift, all you have to do is send him a few hundred dollars. What a bargain!

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there really is a substantial reward at the end of the deal. It still wasn’t free. You had to pay to get it, just like you have to pay the gameshow and the S&H fees. Semantically, the Christian can say that salvation by grace is free. But the loophole is that you have to do something in order to receive it, to claim your prize. You either have to be baptized so you can come in contact with the cleansing blood, or swear fealty to Jesus, your new king and master, or profess belief in propositions you can’t square with the facts. There is always something that you are expected to do to receive your free gift.

It gets even worse, and more confusing…

The Pearl of Great Price

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it. Mt. 13: 44-46

I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand these parables. I can only tell you how I understand them based on study, and how they have been taught over the years. The treasure and the pearl represent the kingdom of god. We are meant to be the person who finds these treasures. To truly possess the treasure, it costs us everything we have. These treasures (gifts) are so valuable, no one could possibly pay the true price. To obtain it, you must give (pay) everything you have.

The interesting thing about the gospels is that Jesus never talks about grace. He tells some to keep the law in order to be saved. To others, he says if they love him, they will keep his commandments. Both he and his predecessor required their followers to repent and be baptized to be saved. In the above passage, salvation costs more than belief, repentance, and confession. It costs everything you have and are. That seems like a pretty high price for a free gift.

The Gift that Keeps on Taking

When a gift is not really free, it’s not really a gift. The moment I make a payment to receive it, it is no longer a gift. It is merchandise. I now have a contract that states that when I perform an action, you have to make delivery of your promise. When I pay shipping and handling, the free gift had better show up. Semantics aside, what we have is a two-way contract, not a free gift.

God’s free gift is even more problematic. We can understand why there has to be some kind of fulfillment clause among humans. If I offer every person in the world a dollar, it is reasonable that I require them to send me an SASE. I’m only one person. There isn’t enough time left in my life to address 7 billion envelopes. As humans, we have limits. God does not.

This is where the charade gets just a little bit transparent. God doesn’t have to require us to pay a state tax, or shipping and handling, or provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. We don’t have to seek him, or decide if he is even real. We don’t have to believe in him or trust him. If he wants to give everyone in the world a free gift, he can just do so without drama or fanfare.

If he wanted everyone to be saved, everyone would be saved. There is no need to jump through fulfillment hoops. He requires artificial fulfillment clauses precisely because he does not want to give his pearl of great price away for free. He does not want to give what is holy to the dogs. He wants us to show that we are worthy of the gift for which we can never be worthy. By definition, god has made certain that his gift is not free.

He has also made certain that his gift is not actually a gift. It is not just that we have to pay something to receive it. We also have to go on paying after we have supposedly received it. I say “supposedly” because there is no verifiable, extrinsic, measurable sign that we have received anything other than a good feeling.

We don’t get any added health benefit, as well still get sick and die from the same diseases as everyone else.The lifespan of the believer is not longer or happier than anyone else’s. Their finances are not any more stable. Their marriages are not any more secure. Their kids are not any smarter or obedient. Their parents suffer from the same geriatric issues. There is simply no received gift that can be externally demonstrated.

The big gift is eternal life. Of course, there is no way to verify that gift without first dying. Once dead, there is no coming back to verify the gift for someone else. Your only gift is something that you cannot verify, and is highly doubtful. And for that gift, you are expected to do an awful lot.

A Life of Sacrifice and Self-denial

Jesus tells his disciples they have to take up their cross and follow him. What kind of gift is it that requires the most loyal to carry an instrument of torture and death for the rest of their natural lives? Paul put it this way:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… 2 Tim. 3:10-13

Paul made a point of his many sufferings so that he could pay it off by saying that every godly wannabe has to likewise suffer. Forgive me if I remain unsold on this gift that is starting to look a lot less like a gift. If my salvation has been completely paid for by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, why am I expected to pay through my self-denial and suffering?

There is an even more troubling aspect of this gift. If this grace thing is really a gift, who is the giver, and who, the receiver?

An Eternity of Obedience, Worship, and Devotion

Jesus says that if we love him, we must keep his commandments. Does this ever stop? Will we always have to be subject to his commands even in heaven? Is there ever a time when we can say, “Nope. I think I’d rather do something else”?

One of my secret fears as a child was that I would go to heaven, get conscripted into the choir, and be stuck singing praise anthems to god for the rest of my eternal life. Is there a time when you can duck out of the song-fest and go shoot pool with some of your buddies? In heaven, can you have any conversation other than about how great god is, and how thankful you are to him for his free gift?

If life on earth is any indication, probably not. Once we have taken possession of our free gift, we are to be in a constant state of thanksgiving, prayer, and remorse for our sinfulness. We are never to trust inner own understanding. We are never to plan to do anything without first acknowledging that we can do nothing if it is not god’s will that we do so.

The advice of Ecclesiastes is that we should fear god and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man. Paul says that for him to live is Christ. And for him to die is gain. It seems that the only one getting a measurable benefit from the free gift is god.

He gets willing receptacles for his disembodied spirit. He gets us to give him money instead of the other way around. He gets us to volunteer our lives whenever he needs a sacrificial lamb. And he gets an eternity of worship, praise and sycophantic devotion. Even if we do get eternal life in the bargain, it seems god is getting much more. He is not giving us a gift. He is giving us a bill. And we will be paying it for the rest of our natural lives. Count me out!

Conclusion: Candy from Strangers

Why do believers accept this idea of a gift so uncritically? We look gift horses in the mouth everyday. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When did we stop believing that? We know about cons and scams. If you believe in cosmic, otherworldly beings, why could there not be cosmic, otherworldly scammers?

The promise of heaven and eternal life in a state of undefined bliss sounds a lot like candy from a stranger. At least then, you get the candy. Religion promises so much more, demonstrates no ability to fulfill it, and requires that you give all that you have to obtain it. Isn’t it reasonable that we ask more information about this god who speaks to us in parables through ancient intermediaries?

As I have already made clear, I don’t understand the grace thing. It is a free gift for which I don’t have to do anything. Yet if I insist on living my own life on my terms, then I don’t qualify for this thing that god so desperately wants me to have. No, I don’t understand it at all. I don’t see how it’s free. And I don’t see how it’s a gift. But even if I did, I don’t believe it!

I don’t believe there is a reward waiting somewhere in outer space for those who live their lives in a particular way. I don’t believe that there is anything beyond the grave. I don’t believe there is a hell from which to be saved. If there is such a hell, I do not believe that the human sacrifice of an ancient, Middle-Eastern man can do anything to help me avoid it.

I don’t believe any of it. There is simply not sufficient evidence for me to do so. It is not that I haven’t tried. But if there is a god who represents a universe where all of these things are true, he knows exactly how to reach me. He knows the kind of evidence that would convince me. If he was interested in saving me, he would not try to do so by the equivalent of offering candy from a stranger.

He intentionally and consistently avoids allowing me to see any evidence that I would find persuasive. He will not do for me what he has supposedly done for so many others. He will not appear to me. He will not talk to me. He will not even give me a hallucination. He will not give me an argument that I can’t easily defeat. He will not give me an unmistakable sign, or even a feeling.

Contrary to the song I sang for so long, his grace most certainly does not reach me. And I suppose that is a good thing. Because like the prizes on the Price Is Right, I couldn’t afford it anyway.

David Johnson

Why Did Luke Write Luke?

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I was talking to a friend of mine this morning about the authorship of Luke. That is not exactly precise. You see, I don’t really care about the authorship of Luke, or when it was written, or to whom it was written. What I asked was why did Luke write the gospel according to Luke in the first place. His completely theological answer missed the point of the question. It wasn’t his fault. The question I’m getting at is a lot harder to ask than it seems on the surface.

This is not a theological question, but a practical one. We don’t have to look deeply for the answer. It is right there in the first four verses of the book. It sits as a self-conscious introduction to the book, written by the author. It is very rare for a biblical work to start off with the author saying, this is what I’m writing, why I’m writing it, and how it should be used. Yet that is exactly how Luke starts. Let’s take a look:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. Lk 1:1-4

A notable absence in this introduction is any self-identification. He introduces the writing, but not himself. This implies the book of Luke is little more than a personal letter, not a work of record by a historian writing for all time and people. He assumes that whomever he is writing to, knows him sufficiently so that there is no need for an introduction. He never identifies himself as Luke, or as a companion of Paul and other apostles, or as one who traveled with Paul, or as anyone with special access to information.

Additionally, he does not characterize his motivation as anything other than his own. Contrary to what many have suggested, it does not imply that he was commissioned to write this account by Theophilus. It clearly says that he took it upon himself to write it. He also did not suggest that he was, in any way, prompted by god to take up the pen. He was not miraculously inspired to write it, at least, not that he knew of.

He seems to be acknowledging that he was not an eyewitness. Furthermore, he claims no special access to eyewitnesses. Other translations make that point unclear. What comes through in all translations is that he is taking on the role of an investigative reporter looking at events much talked about, but that happened at least a generation ago, perhaps more. He is also not claiming to be the first to write this type of account. His first words acknowledge the many that have come before him, doing the very same thing.

With such an introduction, one wonders why he bothered. It begs a few questions that deserve a closer look:

What did Luke think he could add?

Let me put the question a little differently. What do you think you can add? Let’s say you are a scholar of antiquities. You have learned a lot about Jesus studies, and have insights that are not found in the gospels. Do you feel worthy to write a fifth gospel? We already have the four, blessed by the Holy Spirit and the Church. How useful could your contribution be?

Luke was not writing in a vacuum. He was quite familiar with many such writings by others. Most scholars seem to agree that he likely had Mark and Matthew in front of him at the time he decided to write his own version. For the sake of argument, let’s just say he only had Mark: a pretty sure proposition. Who reads the book of Mark and decides that it is missing something? Apparently, Luke. Even more interesting are the elements he thought were missing:

An orderly account

After reading through several sources on this point, I must admit to being unclear about what it means. Looking at all other sources, including Mark’s. Luke feels it it necessary to write an “orderly” account of the Jesus story. There is no explanation of what that means. I found no agreement on what that means. The closest thing to agreement I found was the consensus that it did not refer to chronological order: something the book of Luke most certainly does not exhibit.

I found one suggestion that it referred to a thematic order. But that made no sense to me, as all the gospels are in a thematic order. It just depends on the theme the writer was interested in conveying. Luke certainly had his own set of themes he wanted to convey. But that does not mean all other accounts were disorderly. Whatever he meant, we know that he looked at the other sources, and found them wanting of the order he envisioned. As far as Luke was concerned, the other two synoptics were not orderly.

A persuasive account

The second stated goal Luke gave for taking on the project was to create an account for the reader that would know the certainty of the things he/they had been taught. This line tells us something about the audience for which this was written. They were not first-generation believers who experienced the power of god firsthand.

They were much like us, today. Perhaps they believed based on a smooth-talking evangelist. It is inconceivable that they had seen any miracles. This conjecture is based on the fact that their faith was flagging. They needed to be reassured, just like people today who have also never seen any convincing evidence. Perhaps Luke was the leader of a church community that was starting to drift away. All we know for sure is that he was convinced that their faith needed to be rekindled. They needed to be reminded of the truth of what they had been taught.

Observe that he didn’t rekindle their faith by performing convincing miracles in their presence, or sending an apostle: one of his supposed friends, to give them a firsthand account. He needed to write a whole new gospel account of the life of Jesus. In Luke’s mind, this was the best way to bolster flagging faith. It is curious that in a time when many first-generation disciples and miracle workers were around, and available to Luke, his goto method of faith building was to turn reporter and write a book.

Even more interesting is the fact that Luke did not feel that the current books on offer, Mark’s included, were sufficient to know the certainty of the things they had been taught. For that, a whole new book had to be written. Otherwise, Luke could have simply forwarded a copy of Mark and Matthew to his audience so that they could have an orderly and convincing account. He apparently did not feel those accounts were orderly or persuasive.

An authoritative account

While this was not stated explicitly in the text, implied is the idea that Luke did not altogether respect the authority of the other sources. He felt perfectly comfortable with changing the order and details of the accounts, and adding his own spin. Today, the word for that is “heresy”. He freely added and took away from Mark and Matthew’s gospel stories. He did not bother to cite or identify any of his sources. He just took what he wanted, changed what he needed to, and called it a day. Such is the stuff of sacred text.

What Luke did not do is treat the existing sources as though they were authoritative on the life and ministry of Jesus. He did not think he was dealing with parts of the inspired and divine word of god. He certainly didn’t fancy himself writing scripture. These were just documents about a subject in which he was interested. He created his own document on the subject that he thought was even better, more authoritative. I wonder what John must have thought about Luke’s work when he took up the pen.

An accurate account

Also implicit is the fact that Luke did not think the existing accounts were entirely accurate. While he didn’t say as much, he made some major changes to events. In Luke’s world, there was no sermon on the mount. It took place on a plane. Unlike Mark, Luke gave Jesus a birth narrative. But made the details quite different from Matthew’s narrative. They are not the same, and cannot be harmonized. This is true of many stories and events shared by the authors. Luke saw himself as fixing the story that others had broken.

Conclusion

You are welcome to come to your own conclusion. Here’s mine: Luke did not find the existing sources orderly, persuasive, authoritative, or accurate. These sources likely included two of the books we call gospels. For what it’s worth, I completely agree with him. I would only add that I find his account no more orderly, persuasive, authoritative, or accurate than the others upon which he tried to improve. So much for the gospels.

A difference of opinion

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Some have taken to styling the difference between the religious and non-religious worldview as a mere, difference of opinion. It is as if we believe it is on the order of rooting for Alabama (roll tide) or Auburn (War Eagle). To avoid the debate altogether, we engage in the conversational cowardice  of agreeing to disagree. But I contend that it is so much more than that. We are not talking about a matter of opinion or angle of perspective. We are talking about the basis of law, social mores, and human rights. It is not just a difference of opinion, but a fundamental understanding of how the universe works. And that is worth risking a few verbal bruises in the arena of meaningful debate.

Equal footing

To say that a faith-based worldview versus a science-based worldview is merely a difference of opinion, is to place them both at the same level. It pretends that both world views are on equal footing with one another. They are both mere matters of opinion. The suggestion is that it is wrong to assign one opinion more weight than the other. After all, it is only an opinion, and everybody has one. Yours is no better than mine. At least, that is how the reasoning goes.

This strategy only favors the one with the weaker argument. It allows them to lose the battle, but win the ceasefire. Religion can lose every argument. But if the battle ends with the other side treating religion as an equal, that is a major victory for religion. Such a ceasefire should never be allowed. Faith is not equal to physics. Religion and spirituality are not just other ways of reaching the same, universal truths.

Substance and evidence

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. He. 11:1

The bible attempts to place faith on equal footing with science by referring to faith as substance and evidence. This is an attempt to enlist the words of science to bolster the claims of faith. In the above passage, hope is placed on a level playing field with substance, and unseen things are elevated to evidence.

Reality, however, makes quick work of this juvenile sophistry. Fill one hand with the hope of a million dollars, and the other with a dollar, and it becomes readily apparent which handful buys you a cup of coffee. In court, defend yourself with unseen things while the prosecution convicts you with evidence. How many phone calls will you be allowed to make after the trial is over? Exactly!

Something you believe vs. something you know

To further make this obvious point, let’s do a thought experiment. Think about the closest house to yours that you have never been inside. Now, let’s place a bet on how many bedrooms you think it has, $1 being the smallest bet, $100 being the largest. Once done, think about the number of bedrooms in your own house. Place a bet on that number. Did you make the same sized bet on both propositions? Of course not. Where you were unsure, you place a small bet. Where you were certain, you bet everything.

Even if you looked at the construction, compared it to houses with which you were familiar, and was fairly convinced there were two bedrooms, you couldn’t be sure. In your own house, there was no room for doubt. It was not a mere difference of opinion. One was what you believed; the other was what you knew. There is no equality between what you believe and what you know.

Removing the labels to reveal the truth

Labeling is one of the most effective tools of debate. An the US, the debate over abortion does not come down to science or morality. It comes down to reductionist labeling. Pro-life is defeated by pro-choice. For Americans, life is good, but choice is better. Reduce your argument to a winning label, and more often than not, you win. The reverse is also true. Reduce the other side to a losing label, and they lose. Ronald Reagan did not lead the battle against another nation with different ideas about governance. He fought a holy war against the evil empire.

To be honest, non-believers like myself use the word, “religion” as a pejorative. In all fairness, religious people use “atheist”, and even “science” in the same way. A religious person might say, “Your science leaves you cold and without answers in matters of the spirit.” A non-believer might say, “If we used religion to launch rockets, we would have never left the atmosphere.”

But what happens if we remove the labels? If we are forced to talk about science without using the word, we would be left with other words like observation, measurement, experimentation, repetition, and falsification. Take away religion as a word, and what we have left are other words like faith, hope, believe, wish, invisible, spirit, and miracle. One ounce of repeatedly observed measurements outweighs a ton of invisible spirit miracles. Not the same!

Conclusion

Declaring a thing a difference of opinion assumes that neither side has the facts. Arguing over the number of bedrooms in my neighbor’s house is a difference of opinion because neither of us knows for sure. My opinion is probably better than yours because, at least, I’ve seen the outside of his house. You, most likely, have not. However, disagreeing over the number of bedrooms in my own house is not a difference of opinion. It is your opinion against my fact. It is your magic mind weapon vs. my nuclear bomb. You can try to say that it is just a difference in weaponry. But once both are deployed, you probably wouldn’t finish the sentence.

Agreeing to disagree is weak sause. Unprovable opinion is never equal to repeatedly observed fact. Religion and science are not on an equal playing field. Religious education is oxymoronic: a subject I will write about at another time. I will not sit idly by and have my laws, social mores, and human rights be determined by people who believe that the bible is on a par with Isaac Newton’s Principia. Nor should you!

David Johnson

Net effect of good

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Allow me to start with my conclusion, a conclusion I didn’t have when I started this series. I suppose this is why I write. Goodness is a dangerous thing, best avoided by amateurs. That does not mean that one should intentionally be bad. One should just be, and allow good to flow as a natural byproduct.

There is a saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is so often, tragically the case because so many people are convinced that good is something that they can do, or even be. It is a little like love. You cannot purposely conjure it. It either exists or it does not, You cannot intentionally make it or do it or be it. Love is a byproduct of favorable circumstances. The best you can do is try to recognize it, and cherish it when you have it. When people make a concerted effort to fall in love, or do loving things, the consequences are often disastrous.

The same is true for goodness. It is a condition of favorable circumstances, not an activity. You cannot “do” good. There is no action that is inherently good. Every action can lead to positive or negative results. There is nothing about feeding a hungry person that is inherently good, or ignoring her that is inherently bad. The intent can be known. But the action, itself, can only be judged according to its outcome.

Feeding a hungry person might end up being a good thing. Once back on her feet, she might remember your act of kindness, and devote her life to the discovery that ends hunger throughout the world. Or, remembering how easy it was to get a free meal, she may have a half a dozen babies she can’t afford, knowing that there will always be someone who will come along and take care of her needs for free. Which is least beneficial: the tragic death of one starving woman, or the creation of an entire community of entitled beggars? I don’t know.

The problem is with the religious formulation of doing good. It is a bit like the boy scout trying to fill out his merit badge by finding a little old lady to help across a street. The catalyst for doing good has nothing to do with eliminating the suffering of geriatric women. It has to do with the boy’s need to do something good. His doing good is more important than the good being done.

The little old lady most likely does not want, or need help crossing the street. I have encountered no news stories about old ladies being run down during their attempt to cross a street. Very likely, you make the elderly woman nervous. You might also end up making her feel older than she really is. If she is old, and happens to be crossing a street, she is exercising a bit of independence that has probably become very important to her. The last thing she needs is for some presumptuous youth to come along and take that away from her. In her attempt to avoid your good deed, she may cross prematurely, and meet her grizzly end. The net result is anything but good.

Good vs. beneficial

When we attempt goodness, our focus is always inward. It is about what we do or who we are. It is about the act that we do, rather than about the consequences visited upon someone else. Benefit is all about the net effect of what we do. When considering benefit, we have to think one step beyond the self-gratification of the act. Is it a good thing to put a coin in a beggar’s cup? That is the wrong question. A better one would be, is it materially beneficial to the beggar for me to toss him a coin.

It may make you feel good to place a coin in the cup. But tomorrow, you will still be rich, and he will still be a beggar. The unhealthy cycle continues. At least you feel good about it. What happens when we think about the net effect of our actions? If a coin would not benefit the beggar, what might we do that would? Might we offer him a ride to the nearest DHR? If you are of the belief that everyone is capable of contributing, why not get to know him a bit, and help him find a way to contribute? If you believe that what he really needs is a good coat, a bath, and a dry place to sleep, why not offer that? If you believe he would be better off not begging for pennies, why keep filling his cup? All too often, the beneficial thing is not the easiest thing, or the thing that makes us feel good.

Between the last paragraph and this, I encountered the perfect, horrific example of what I’m talking about. While walking along a downtown sidewalk, I walked passed a very interesting, high-tech beggar. It was a person in a tricked-out, motorized wheelchair with all the trimmings. The person in the chair was contorted in a position that bespoke a disfiguring disease. As I approached, a very clear, artificial voice called out to me in an attempt to sell me candy. It was the modern equivalent of blind people selling pencils on the street corner.

I have to reiterate, this was a very high-tech and expensive operation. I could hardly wrap my mind around the irony. Any person who could afford to purchase such a setup would have no need to beg. Anyone else would have had to go through some type of government program or charitable organization. The tens of thousands of dollars that went into this setup served to do nothing more than to turn a hopelessly handicapped person into a hopelessly impoverished, terrifying beggar.

Somewhere in this process was a person who was bound and determined to do something good. Who knows; they may have even received an adult-sized, merit badge. No doubt, the organization can use this triumph of goodness to raise even more money to do even more good. Left unnoticed in their wake, was the disfigured shell of a human being, bereft of all human dignity: an object of fear and pity, but not enough pity for an honorable existence, or a meaningful death. Goodness be damned!

In some person’s mind, every atrocity started out as an act of goodness. Today, what passes for goodness is selfishness in disguise. We do the good that does us the most good. We give money to the local church, though less than 5% of it ever serves a charitable purpose, much less. Even if that money mostly goes to support a boy-buggering bishop, we sleep well at night because we contributed.

As a nation, we feel good about ourselves because we fund social programs for the less fortunate. Never mind the fact that with that good, we produce more people who need social programs than we had before we started. Never mind the fact that the most likely outcome of giving money to a pregnant 16 year old is that she becomes a mother of three by the time she is eighteen, just in time to drop out of school, and become a full-time dependent of the state. Never mind that the daughters she produces will almost certainly follow in her footsteps, only younger, and her sons will be a menace to society, with a police record by the time they hit puberty. Can we please stop pretending that it will turn out any other way?

Around the world, the good done by America is either driven by revenge, or conveniently coincides with our political or military interests. There is a reason why we spend so much of our time and resources in the Middle East, and so little effort rooting out the little Hitlers in Africa. We are less interested in the good that offers the most benefit to the most needy recipients, and more interested in the good that best serves our agenda.

I am tired of intentional, conspicuous acts of goodness. This is my call to action. Before engaging in any overtly good deed, stop, think, and follow the chain of consequences resulting from those actions. Before you place that unwrapped gift at the base of the community tree, ask yourself if the toy does more for you or the child. Will her life become materially better because of the doll you anonymously gave her this year? What is her real need? Exactly what are you doing with that spare bedroom? Didn’t you put a toy under the tree last year? Won’t you be back to do it again next year? Every year, you are in a position to give a toy to a stranger, and she is in a position to need a toy from a stranger. Where is the lasting benefit? Has it ever occurred to us that children need more than one toy a year? When the good deed is easy to see, but the benefit is hard to describe, it may be time to stop being good, and start being beneficial. It makes all the difference.

Conclusion

Is capital punishment an obvious good? Is goodness defined by the fiat of a deity, or the consensus of the community? None of it makes a bit of difference. No formula for goodness produces less pavement for the road to hell than any other formula. The only measure of goodness that matters is the net result at the end of the day. Did your good deed result in a meaningful benefit to another human being? If not, no matter how well intended, it was not a good deed at all.

Those who are trying to do good or be good, do so for dangerously selfish reasons. They are trying to earn merit for themselves from a scout leader or god. They are trying to make others regard them with higher esteem. They are trying to boost their own self-image. They have a self-motivated agenda. The person on which the good is perpetrated is of secondary concern.

Benefit, however, cares nothing for motive. A philanthropist who unloads his ill-gotten fortune in an attempt to rehab his tainted image, will likely benefit more people with his cynical aid, than a stadium full of fasting monks devoted to acts of goodness. A hungry person receives more tangible benefit from a hateful meal than a loving prayer. On the other hand, a beggar may be one rejection away from hanging up his tin can, and signing up for Labor Ready. Our good intentions be hanged! Let us measure goodness not by our actions of the moment, but by the results of those actions at the end of the day. Only then should we adjust our activities accordingly.

David Johnson

Obvious good

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On the one hand, we have religion, and religious frameworks that are morally certain about what is obviously right in any situation. On the other hand, real life. In the context of life as we live it from one moment to the next, from a current local, to a historical global perspective, the right thing to do at any given moment is anything but obvious.

Today, it is obviously good to support the freedom of all mankind. The very thought of slavery produces a feeling of disgust and revulsion. Not so very long ago, it was obviously good to hold men and women as slaves, who were too weak to maintain their freedom by force. So, which is true? Which is right? Which is obviously good? History, it seems, has no moral certainty about anything.

If we only focus on the religious side of the equation, we find that the way isn’t any clearer. Members of the same family, separated by a few generations, who practice the same religion, are on opposite ends of the spectrum of what is obviously good. The fundamentalist in the 1800s has no doubt that both the letter and spirit of God’s will is for slavery to exist as an institution. The progenitor, a few generations removed, could not be more certain that slavery is an obvious evil, and that freedom is the obvious good. Both rely on their knowledge of God, the bible, and the natural law.

Hitler was not the only one who thought his actions against the Jews were obviously good. The people of Germany were fairly convinced that it was the right thing, as well. They had no trouble sleeping at night because of the atrocities. The leadership of the Catholic Church also had undisturbed dreams over the torture and extermination of the pesky Jews. America also had no problem turning a blind eye to what was going on. At the very least, we did not find the morality of the situation very obvious. It was an internal matter, and not our problem.

Speaking of the Church, at one point in our history,, it was obvious that certain types of infidels should be put to the sword. It was obvious that eccentric men and women should be labeled warlocks and witches, and as a result, burned at the stake. Obvious! To those who had a hand in writing the Jewish scriptures, it was obvious that disobedient children should be stoned to death, alongside adulterers, fortune tellers, homosexuals, and countless others. To the Psalmist, it was obvious that the babies of the enemies should be taken by the ankles, swung about, and smashed into rocks with their heads. All, obvious good!

No religious person considered sane, believes any of those things are good things. Neither do they believe those things were ever good things. For all people, at all times, were those things obviously bad. The irony is that both groups claim to worship a god who has made his opinions of good and evil, well, obvious.

God’s moral law is supposed to be obvious. We may have trouble carrying it out due to our sinful nature. But we should never have trouble knowing what it is. Yet, it seems that throughout the better part of the bible, God’s actions, and those of his representatives were not obviously right or good. Our prayers reveal the disconnect we have with our religion and life.

In the bible, we read about a god who had no interest in cultivating peace between all the warring factions. He had no problem taking sides. Yet our prayers, today, are peppered with requests for world peace. We tend to think of world peace as an obvious good for someone with the power to achieve it. God didn’t. The same is true for disease. While the modern religious person prays for a cure for AIDS and cancer, the one who could have brought such cures about, never considered doing so a good thing, as he didn’t cure a single disease. To be clear, Bill & Malinda Gates have eradicated more diseases than God and all his men.

The challenge is even greater. According to the bible, the one who has an opportunity to do good yet does not do it, has sinned by omission. That places even more pressure on the individual to know what good is, especially the obvious good. If I see a beggar on the street, is it a good thing for me to give him the pocket change he asks for, give him considerably more money than he asks for, or give him no money at all? I don’t know. I’ve done all three, and more. Yet I have no idea which act is good, if any. I simply made it up as I went along.

In the above example, goodness was based on my mood at the time. It was never based on what Jesus would do. I do not recall any examples of him and his disciples giving money to beggars. Does that mean that it is not good to do so? I don’t know. My point is that there is nothing obvious about good. The right thing to do is a complete mystery. Religion is no help. To understand why, we need to break down the problem even further.

Three types of good

Based, solely, on my own experience, I can talk about three types of good: There is personal good, tribal good, and social good. All three are distinct, and often work at cross purposes. In practice, the highest level of good is of the personal variety. “Looking out for #1” is not just a figure of speech, but a fact of life. Very seldom do we intentionally act contrary to our own self-interests. If things are good for us, then for the most part, the world is a pretty good place to be. The first way we determine if a thing is good is by deciding whether it is beneficial, or detrimental to us.

Tribal good extends to whatever in-group we happen to be considering. Is it good for my family, my community, my state, my country, my race, my political party, my tribe. If we see a beggar with whom we have no affiliation, we are highly unlikely to extend aid to the point of inconveniencing ourselves. If, however, that beggar happens to be our son or daughter, we will be more inclined to clear our schedule, open our homes, and invest considerable, financial resources to solve the problem.

Social good is far more abstract. It is most likely to get our rhetorical backing, but least likely to inspire us to act. It is the activist who speaks out for the ethical treatment of animals, while caked with makeup rendered from some animal’s remains. It is the tree-hugger who prefers a wooden, baseball bat. It is the one who preaches that we should be kind to beggars, while devoting no rooms in their own house for sheltering strangers. It is what is most good for society, but is often least good for ourselves.

Slavery was not an issue of good versus evil, but of good versus good. It was social good versus personal good, with a bit of tribal good thrown in. For people who owned plantations, slavery seemed like a pretty good idea. Even if they didn’t like the institution, it was in the best interest of tribal good. Those plantations supported several generations of families, and were the backbone of the economy of an entire region. Slavery was most definitely in the best interests of personal and tribal good.

However, there was social good with which to contend. People who’s livelihood and communities were not dependent on slave labor, had the freedom to consider a more abstract kind of good. They could be social activists, acting on behalf of the good of others. They had no plantations to lose. It might be said that future, Northern, robber barons stood to benefit from the influx of strong-backed, cheap labor. That is not to take away from those who sacrificed much for the cause. It is only to acknowledge that it is much easier to join a social cause when it does not violate our personal good. It was not plantation owners fighting to free the slaves.

In some ways, social good is the most dangerous of them all. It is the kind of good that fuels wars. We did it for their own good. Such excuses have justified all kinds of atrocities and abuses. Parents beat children for their own good. Husbands beat wives for their own good. Settlers attack and subdue the native Americans for their own good. Popes order conversion by sword for the infidel’s own good. Drug addicts are criminalized and punished for their own good. This was once done for everyone who drank adult beverages. That failed because personal good outweighed social good. Social good run amuck, is indistinguishable from evil.

And there lies the rub. The same can be said for personal good and tribal good. But there is still more nuance. I am the arbiter of personal good. My tribal leader determines tribal good. But no one can define social good with any certainty. When we disagree on tribal good, we elect a new leader, When unsure about personal good, we flip a coin. But where there is disagreement on social good, we go to war, or at the very least, experience social unrest.

I will leave this post on a cliff-hanger: One person is bullied and taken advantage of by a hundred. The one cries out for help. A thousand take notice. After diplomacy breaks down, the thousand frees the one, by subjugating the hundred. Ten thousand are offended. After diplomacy breaks down, the ten thousand decide to annihilate the thousand. Here’s the question: was it right to do the good of aiding the one? It was a good thing, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? I’ll write the second part to the post when I can answer that question.

David Johnson

The old, old story: Part Two

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In part one, I summarized the story in a single paragraph. Here’s the recap:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and humans, and everything else, and it was all perfect. Then, one day, the humans messed it all up. They did such a bad thing that God was forced to make them die, and ultimately, burn in hell. This made God very sad. So he devoted the rest of his life to rescuing the humans from their plight, and restoring the perfect relationship he had with them. To accomplish this, God had to make the ultimate sacrifice, which involved killing his perfect son so that we wouldn’t have to die or burn in hell. This, in turn, makes us so happy, we want to devote the rest of our lives to doing all of the things he likes, and none of the things he doesn’t. Eventually, we will all live happily ever after.

This story is embarrassingly weak, and should hold no sway over any, thinking person. However, as already pointed out in the previous post, this story is not for thinking people, but for emotionally vulnerable people.

If, however, you find yourself in a place where you can think through the story, the lynchpin is, in fact, the weakest part of the story. The whole thing depends on a literal interpretation of the fall. There can be no good news without the bad news. The story of rescue is meaningless if we were never in any danger. We must be convinced that we are on the outs, and that our situation is both dire, and unrecoverable, at least, not by us, or anyone like us.

The failure of the fall

Evolution tells us, however, that we did not fall down from heaven, but climbed up from the earth. The bible has evolution going the wrong way. People have never lived upwards of 500 years. Animals did not lose the ability to speak like humans. They never had it. No rational order of events give us seed-bearing plants before the sun, required for photosynthesis. All this, and so much more, leads a thinking person to understand that the creation story, whatever it is meant to be, should never be taken literally. The Eden story is a part of the creation story, and therefore, cannot be taken literally, either.

If all of the details of the creation story are not literally true, then no aspect of the fall of man is true. No fall, no redemption. During the last decade of my religious life, I met more Christians who did not believe in a literal interpretation of creation and Eden, than those who did. They did not believe in Adam and Eve, the talking serpent, or forbidden, magic trees. Yet, they clung, tenaciously to the idea that they were fallen victims of original sink desperately I need of a savior. These are victims of emotional abuse. No amount of reason can free them from the trap in which they find themselves.

A bloody mess

Another part of the story that simply does not logically hold together is the notion that salvation could only be purchased with blood, not just a pin-prick, but quite a lot of it, and innocent blood, at that. The whole story of redemption is drenched in innocent blood.

It starts with God demanding that Abraham make a human sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. Though God stopped it at the last moment, it is important to note that the father of Abrahamic religion was the type who was perfectly willing to perform human sacrifice on a child at the behest of a voice in his head. Equally important, his god was the kind of god who would order it. Though the boy was spared that day, another innocent animal was slaughtered without cause, in the name of useless sacrifice.

Moses set up a whole institution of animal sacrifice, where only the most perfect of the innocent would do. This, of course, was foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, the most perfect of them all. Positioned as the son of God, more than that, God’s only son in human form, Jesus became the ultimate, human sacrifice. I find it repugnant that even one, innocent ant should have to die for something wrong that I did. That a father would murder one son to save another son, is unbearable. I want no part of any salvation at that price. If he sacrificed the perfect one for me, how long before he sacrifices me for an ameba?

Thing through this logically. You are told that you have committed a capitol offense. Yours is the death penalty. But, the one against whom you committed the crime, also the judge in the case, wants to exonerate you. Rather than just forgiving you and closing the case, he comes up with a plan. Instead of killing you, he murders your brother who did nothing wrong. Lucky you. Now, all you have to do is wash in the blood of your dead brother, and take a sip of it every week or so, you know, just as a reminder. Oh, and the plaintiff and judge is also your dad. Guess who’s going to be father of the year. Who, but the emotionally damaged, would possibly want to take part in that story?

We’re still here

The final point I will make about the old, old story is that it does nothing to explain why we are still here, still suffering, still dying. Part of the Jesus story is that he is the god and conquerer of disease, nature, and death. We are even told that the Holy Spirit, himself, indwells within us like an old fashioned demon possession.

Unfortunately, none of those claims stands up to a cursory glance at the evidence. Consider only the most faithful and devout believers throughout the world. They are just as afflicted with disease as the atheist. They die in the same, stormy fits of nature as the unbeliever. And not a single one has risen from a single grave. Of those that remain, none are truly righteous. They all suffer the same temptations, and give in to them just as frequently. The indwelling Spirit is not enough to avert a single, lustful thought.

More difficult to explain, we’re still here. The world has not come to a glorious end. The saving work of Jesus has been long completed. He went to prepare a place for us a long time ago. I’m pretty sure all the sheets have been turned down, and mints placed on each pillow. What’s the hold up? On the cross, he said it was finished. Yet, we’re still wearing designer crosses, and waiting for it all to come to an end.

We are the bride, head full of promises, left at the alter by the groom who assured us he would be right back. He just had to check on the reservations. 2,000 years later, we’re still at the alter, still assuring ourselves that he’ll be right back… any minute, now…

Emotional abuse.

As it happens, the old, old story is indeed, one of the oldest stories of all. It is the story of abuse. Make them feel guilty and vulnerable, present yourself as the only way out, then take them for all their worth. When you’re done with them, leave them hanging. Make them think that you’ll be right back. Give them no sense of closure.

I know this story all, too well.

The only question remaining is, how does one ever get free of such an abusive relationship. That will be the subject of part three.

David Johnson

My Thoughts on Homosexuality

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As if homosexuality needed me to weigh in on the subject, I have a few things to get off my chest. There has been a lot of recent news about gay marriage gaining both popularity and support from unexpected places. This post, however, is not about gay marriage, but about homosexuality, itself.

Them

The first thing that troubles me about the discussion surrounding homosexuality, is the language we use to talk about the subject, and the people at the heart of the subject. I fully admit that I have not come up with a better language. It seems all the words we use to describe the practice and the people who practice it, are pejorative. Very little of the language we use for this topic is judgement neutral. I believe that the reason for this is rooted in the fact that we feel it necessary to identify the behavior at all.

We do not have words that are negatively associated with heterosexuality. We never speak in those terms. We just talk about sex, in general. Heterosexuality is considered to be implied. It is the same reason that, in stories, “man” is assumed to mean “white man”, while every non-white has to be described in terms of race or skin color. There is no negative, judgmental, or even descriptive language about being white. Being anything other than Caucasian requires some kind of modifier.

It demonstrates a real problem when we have to qualify a person before we can acknowledge him as a person. This is a subtile, but pervasive form of dehumanization. He is not a man, but a black man, an asian man, a Jew, (not even a man) a gay man, lesbian woman. In this way, certain types of people are only viewed as people through the narrow filter of socially acceptable prejudices.

Identifying people by a particular characteristic is a way of putting distance between ourselves and the person who’s humanity has to be qualified. It is a way of saying, “them”, rather than, “me”. Once we have identified them as “them”, then we feel somewhat more comfortable talking about them. It is important that we are not associated with a group that we find distasteful, or that we believe others in our in-group find distasteful.

Disgust

For some reason about which I am not even qualified to speculate, hetero men seem to have a particular disgust for gay men that is not carried over to lesbian women. I cannot explain it, only observe it. For whatever reason, many men seem to be threatened or fearful of what a homosexual man represents. To me, that seems an odd reaction given that a homosexual male represents one less competitor for choice females. By that measure, hetero men should be happy that so many are voluntarily taking themselves out of the running.

It is almost as if we fear that what can happen to one man, can happen to any man, including ourselves. At least, subconsciously, we seem to be aware that our exceptionalism is a myth. We see someone do something distasteful, and immediately tell ourselves, and anyone else who will listen, that we would never do such a thing. We want to convince ourselves that we are not like “them”. But in truth, we are not exceptions. If it is within the species of man to do, it is within you. Our violent denial of certain traits might point to a secret fear or knowledge that the trait is within us, and only waiting for the right circumstances to manifest.

We reserve some of our most unrestrained hatred for those who have sex with minors, as if we could never be attracted to any human a day younger than eighteen, under any circumstances. It is as if we gain this special sensitivity to age the moment we, ourselves, turn eighteen. Bollox!

We pretend that petty theft is the ultimate crime against humanity as if we could never imagine ourselves in a situation that would lead us to steal. We view murder as the blackest of deeds as if the ability for one person to kill another is an alien trait, incompatible with our DNA. But buried deep inside us is the truth we dare not speak: That which disgusts us in others is that which we fear most in ourselves.

I feel reasonably certain that the act of homosexuality, itself, is not the thing that disgusts us. It has been my observation that men do not have any problem with the idea of a woman having sex with another woman. In fact, if the truth were to be known, we are rather fond of the idea. Being a part of a ménage à trois is a common fantasy among men too proper to ever admit such a thing. While it does not serve us for women to be gay, our desires would be well served if they were bi.

It is also not the act of sodomy that turns our stomachs, as many wives and girlfriends can attest. It is only sodomy in the context of two men that elicit the gag reflex for many. Whatever the reason for the disgust, it is strong in our culture. That forces us to practice a type of self-preservation by publicly distancing ourselves from the behavior, and the people who engage in it. That is why we have so many, pejorative terms for describing it. It also explains why we behave In such over-the-top ways to let society know that we are not like them.

There is actually social pressure placed on us to be uncomfortable with homosexuality. From an early age, boys learn that the worst thing to call another boy is, gay. The boys, themselves, never engage the question of why that is an insult. They just accept the assumption, and learn to show disgust and discomfort around anything opposed to hetero masculinity. This is why so many boys start learning about their sexual identity from the position of confusion, denial, repression, and self-loathing.

Unnatural

Another way we dehumanize people with characteristics we find distasteful, is to deem that characteristic as unnatural. Early on, brown-skinned people were considered unnatural because brown skinned subservience was a punishment for the sin of the head of a particular tribe. Left-handedness was also considered unnatural. Red hair and dwarven stature were viewed in the same way. Almost all prejudices have, at some point, been justified by labeling the object of that prejudice as unnatural.

Homosexuality is no exception. Surely, it must be unnatural. After all, two of a kind do not procreate. That reasoning presumes that procreation is the primary reason for sexual activity. I have always found that line of thinking to be suspect. Only a small fraction of hetero commingling results in healthy reproduction. If all, or even most sex resulted in birth, the earth would be overrun with humanity in a matter of days. It would be unsustainable. It would also stand to reason that all people capable of having sex would also be capable of reproducing. Obviously, this is not the case, as demonstrated by the people who have to go through extraordinary means attempting to procreate, unsuccessfully. Infertility clinics are in no danger of going out of business. There is nothing unnatural about sex that does not result in procreation.

Homosexuality used to be considered unnatural on the basis of it being extremely rare. I contend that the perception of rareness was always a lie. The perception of rareness is an artificial construct. We built it by persecuting homosexuals into silent submission. For a long time, gay men and women, especially teens, were too afraid to acknowledge their sexual identity, let alone, openly explore it. With so much of the gay population in hiding, there may seem to be very few of them. But as the population becomes emboldened and empowered, it has become abundantly clear that homosexuality is anything but rare. Therefore, it cannot be considered unnatural on the basis of rareness.

Unnatural, is a one-word oxymoron. That is because nothing that occurs within nature can be considered unnatural, even if it only happens once. The most one could say about a thing is that it is not normative. But the fact that a thing happened at all means that it is natural. The only unnatural thing that can happen is that which happens outside of nature. As beings bound by nature, we would have no access to any such activities.

If only one man falls in love with another man, it is still, 100% natural. The only way for it to be otherwise is if the men were not really men, but alien creatures from outside our reality. That would still beg the question of how we gained access to such unnatural creatures within the confines of our nature. Falsely labeling something unnatural is to falsely dehumanize the person who commits the act.

Harmless

In closing, I want to add one final observation about homosexuality. Having seen it a number of times in a shocking variety of combinations: old and young, black and white, submissive and dominant, straight laced and freak-flags flying, I have observed no societal harm from the practice. Even if the homophobia was directly tied to some vestigial, evolutionary imperative, there is no evidence that there was ever any material harm to the species.

I have come across no evidence that crimes against children are higher among homosexuals than heterosexuals. Just the opposite seems to be the case. There is no evidence that homosexual relationships are shorter lasting. There is no evidence that one is more likely to receive an unwanted, sexual advance from a homosexual as opposed to a heterosexual. Even AIDS is a poor case against homosexuality, as there are more STD’s common to heterosexuals than there are diseases specific to homosexuality. As for diseases exclusive to homosexuals, to my knowledge, there are none. And the group least likely to contract AIDS is homosexual women. Clearly, it is not a punishment for bad behavior.

This is not an advocacy piece for any sexual orientation. I am simply calling for a bit of sanity and thoughtfulness for an issue that is all too often, lacking in both, and is ruled by emotion. I will stop just shy of blaming religion for all atrocities committed against homosexuals in this world, but religion cannot except its role in shaping the negative sentiment against gay people.

The bible, and probably other holy books, clearly labels homosexuality as an abomination to god. It goes so far as to call for the execution of homosexuals. Though many have tried, the bible’s position on the matter simply cannot be redeemed. Since it has been widely available, many people have learned to read, with the bible as a sort of text book. Even if those people do not grow up particularly religious, some of the ideas sink in and take their tole. If you believe in god, and believe that god hates fags, or at least the behavior associated with the pejorative, then your view of homosexuality will be negatively effected.

Would there be homophobia without religion? Most likely. But that brand of homophobia can be addressed with reasonable argumentation. The kind fueled by religious fervor is beyond logic’s reach. That kind of homophobia is born of religion, and can only be combatted with the death of religion. I look forward to the day when we no longer feel the need to identify and categorize people on the basis of sexual preference, or other physical characteristics.

David Johnson

Another Bad Week for Prayer

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Two things happened this week that gave prayer yet another black eye. One of them is personal, but of little consequence. The other, though not personal, is far more impactful. I had eye surgery last week which seems to have gone well enough, all but the seeing part. It has been nine days as of the time of this writing. There should have been immediate results. Unfortunately, my vision is blurry and distorted. Those are two words that would not have been used to describe my vision before the surgery. I include it in this piece, only because the surgery was thoroughly covered by prayer from some of the most devout and concerned people in my life. The other event involved the death of an infant.

After some consideration, I decided not to link to the story because it is such a common tale of woe, it can hardly be considered news. It is the story of another child dying an unnecessary death thanks to the religious choice of Christian parents to provide prayer as medical care instead of medical care. Making this ever worse is the fact that this is the second child in this family lost to prayer.

After the first death, the parents were placed on a ten-year probation by the judge. Taking the approach that they ought to obey god rather than men, they returned, not that they ever left, to their prayer-as-treatment ways. The story and outcome are the predictable, and logical conclusion of what happens when faith and science are conflated, or otherwise, confused. Bad things happen, and people die, usually, the innocent ones.

I know that the initial reactions from the mainstream, Christian community will condemn the actions of the parents, or lack thereof. They would say that, of course, the parents should have provided medical care for their children. They might say things like, “God invented medicine”, or, “God is the one who led us to advanced, medical discoveries.” But this random fit of pragmatism from the Christian community rings a hollow note of dissonance in the symphony of faith teachings. In fact, on the basis of biblical and traditional teaching on the matter, in a contest of groups that most closely in-flesh the doctrine which they profess to believe, I would have to side with the parents.

The pragmatic arguments proffered by mainstream christendom do not stand up to close scrutiny. God invented medicine? Really? If so, his invention has been sorely lacking throughout most of human history. If we were still working with what God gave us, people would still consider thirty a ripe, old age. Adults would still be dying in the millions, from diseases that are now, easily inoculated against in childhood.

God’s invention of medicine did not account for leprosy, the plethora of cancers, nor AIDS. Were it not for mankind’s contribution to medicine, humanity would very likely be extinct. But, of course, the argument retreats to safer ground when the believer reveals that God invented medicine through a process that is indistinguishable from the efforts of humans. In other words, he directed us to the relevant discoveries. Unfortunately for the believer, that argument also does not survive logical examination.

If God is the one controlling the pace of medical discovery, then he has a lot of history for which to answer. There is no guarantee that, even now, we have reached our observational potential. God may be hindering the pace of our discovery efforts in the same way he has hindered previous generations. What else explains why it took so long for us to discover germs? Why would god, even for a moment, allow us to ascribe to evil spirits, what was nothing more than a chemical imbalance? If our medical knowledge comes from God, why is it so inexact, and why did it not come much sooner?

As an aside, If God is the one directing our scientific discoveries, why has the church, historically, been so in opposition to every major, scientific discovery? Does God just dabble in medicine, or is he also the one behind all that evidence for evolution? The church wasn’t so keen on God’s helping hand in the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. The church was not so eager to embrace the discovery that the earth and universe were billions of years in the making, rather than days. If God is guiding our discovery of medicine, and doctors are his prophets in that arena of endeavor, then why do we not consider physicists his prophets in the field of scientific inquiry?

God has never had much use for physicians or pharmaceuticals. When a person in the community was sick, they either died, or were miraculously healed. There is no mandate for the man of God calling for the doctor during a time of medical distress. If a person died from their injuries, it was God’s will for them to die. Though Paul implored his friend to take a little wine for his stomach, James directly commanded the faithful to call on the elders of the church for an anointing ritual as a substitute for medical care, and led them to believe that such ministrations would be efficacious. Prayer, not penicillin, has always been the bible-endorsed prescription for physical ailments.

That is why I am confused by the reactions of mainstream Christians. When a man of faith obeys the literal and direct command of God to call the church elders instead of a doctor, why is he pilloried rather than praised? Had his victims… err… children taken a turn for the better instead of the worse, he would be hailed as a paragon of faith, and an example to be followed. At the very least, no one would be calling for his other children to be placed in protective custody, and for him and his wife to be thrown in jail. But why? Why does the outcome change the nature of the behavior?

Why is nut-job religion tolerated up to the point that someone dies? Indeed, this wasn’t even the first of his children that died because of this lunacy. Yet the courts allowed him and his wife to continue raising children. I believe they had seven in all. Anyone who is known to substitute prayer for medical treatment should have the kids taken away, and they should be tried for neglect. He and his wife have been doing this the whole time. Their other children lived. God only chose to take two of them. Our policies allow crazy people to do crazy things until someone dies. Only then, do we step in to save the remaining children, and not always, even then.

We are all culpable for the death of these children. We knew these churches were teaching this poison in the name of all things holy. We can read the sermons online, that instruct parishioners to seek treatments based on faith, not science. We know where they are. We know what they’re saying. We know the outcome of the teaching. If we had so much information about a mosque where the believers were plainly directed to, and instructed in the ways of assassinating the president, that place would be shut down with extreme prejudice. Make the victims innocent children instead of world leaders, and we call it freedom of religion. Damn them! And Damn the moral cowardice of America that allows us to watch, doe-eyed, while it goes on under our apathetic gaze. God-damned us all!

David Johnson

Onward, Muslim Soldiers… Er… I Mean, Christian Soldiers

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In case you follow world news as infrequently as I do, you may have missed the events in Bangladesh where protesters called for the death of 100, atheist bloggers. If you know as little about Bangladesh as I do, you may not know that Islam is the national religion. You know, Islam: the religion of peace. To be clear, the crime of these bloggers was not their atheism: though, that is sort of a crime, there. Rather, it was specifically, blasphemy against Islam. In an Islamic nation, the death penalty for blasphemy is a reasonable expectation.

But you already knew that, didn’t you. Islam is a violent religion born of conflict. It is the offshoot of an Abrahamic religion born of, and bathed in violence and conflict. Today’s tirade has nothing to do with the cesspit of violence and terror that is Islam. It has to do with the fact that Christianity: the more civilized, Abrahamic religion, is not so terribly far removed.

When I came across this story, the song playing in the background of my mind was, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. You see, though the Christian scriptures lack the overt militance of the Hebrew and Muslim texts, the undertone is there, and comes through loud and clear.

1. Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
forward into battle see his banners go!
Refrain:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.

2. At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.
(Refrain)

3. Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
(Refrain)

4. Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
but the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
we have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.
(Refrain)

5. Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King,
this through countless ages men and angels sing.
(Refrain)

You can’t help notice passages such as, “Soldiers marching as to war” and “like a mighty army”. The militaristic nature of the song is unmistakable. The original tune was quite sedate. It had to, later, be enhanced to the marching song we know, today. Originally, it wasn’t quite militaristic enough.

What you may not know is that the song was written as a children’s song. It was specifically composed for a youth event where kids would be walking to a church in another district. Even later, the song was popularized as a youth song rather than one for the general assembly. The little tykes were to be little soldiers, marching off to their little, holy war, with their little crosses and banners that represented their little tribes. It was meant to evoke an image of the Hebrew soldiers preparing for a bloody conflict with the enemies of god. Doesn’t that just warm your heart?

Of course, Paul didn’t help matters:

Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Ep. 6:13-17

Thing is, this isn’t the only militant language used in the Christian scriptures. There are plenty of other examples were the writer wanted to draw a clear connection with the Christian call, and military duty. There are many Christian hymns that pick up this theme in song. Many Christian churches do not just have people who are faithful to prayer; they have prayer warriors. Rather than being appalled by the connection between faith and militarism, modern-day Christians embrace it.

That is the real scandal, and the true threat that mainstream religion poses. Like muslims, Christians are convinced that their religion is a religion of peace, while blinded to the conflict at its very roots. In their minds, Christians take up arms against their imaginary enemies in the name of their imaginary god. It is inevitable that this crystalizes into real arms against real people from time to time. We may say that the enemy is sin and Satan. But in reality, sin is committed by humans, and Satan, all too often, takes on human form in the minds of many believers.

It is not inconceivable that a mind that is troubled enough to accept the marching orders of an imaginary god, would see someone like me as the personification of their, spiritual enemy. Such a person might even wish me dead, at least, in their secret heart. No, the modern Christian is not so removed from the Bangladesh muslim seeking the death penalty for blasphemous bloggers.

For well over a hundred years, we have been raising our children to march to songs like, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. I bet those Bangladesh muslims were raised to something very similar. Can we at least agree to stop doing that?

David Johnson

Beyond Marriage

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It’s time. We simply have to talk about this. There is a crisis in marriage of epidemic proportions. We have a problem, and there is no sign of us fixing it. There is a war on marriage, and we are all losing it. No, I’m not talking about same-sex marriage. That is a side-show distraction that steals our focus from the real issue. Make no mistake about it. With regard to the issue of gay marriage, the focus is never truly on the marriage part. It is always on the gay part. I could care less about the gay part. Marriage was in trouble long before same-sex marriage became an issue. It is two-party, heterosexual marriage that is suffering. And that is what we ultimately have to address, and what we keep avoiding.

Stated as succinctly as I can, here is the problem: We have allowed religion to define marriage for so long, that we cannot conceptualize it in any other terms. Even more problematic, the purveyors of religion have an agenda that does not align with human happiness or social realities. Put a slightly different way, we maintain marriage based on the unclear will of an iron-age god, rather than on how human beings actually work.

Statistics

Before fleshing that out any further, here are a few statistics on marriage and divorce: 95% of both men and women have been married at least once by the age of 55. That’s almost everybody. Though almost all of them promise to be together till death, around 50% part ways before reaching that milestone. Most marriage takes place between ages 25 and 35. If we are just talking 1st marriage, the divorce rate is about 50%. The divorce rate of those who go back for seconds clocks in as high as a whopping, 67%. For the true, gluttons for punishment, the third marriage ends in divorce 73% of the time.

Many stay married because of the children, but far fewer than you might think. Only 40% of failed marriages have children involved. Marriages without children die at a staggering rate of 66%. Those with children beat the average, but not by enough to declare that adding children to the mix will make for a lasting union. If you know your marriage will not produce children, you might as well retain a divorce attorney on the way to pick of the rings.

If you can wait till you get to age 35-39, you’ve got a pretty decent chance of making it. The divorce rate for that group is in the single digits when the rate for both men and women are averaged out. If you want to multiply your chances of divorce, get married between ages 20 and 24.

I need to give you one more set of data points before providing any analysis. It has to do with infidelity. At least one spouse admits to infidelity in 41% of marriages. The percentage of men who admitted to committing to infidelity in any relationship was 57%. Women were not far behind. 36% of men and women admit to having an affair with a co-worker, and about the same percentage admit to having an affair on a business trip.

The most telling stat is that 74% of men, with women not too far behind, admit that they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught. Infidelity in marriage is already rampant from both sexes. The only thing that holds us back is the fear of getting caught. It has nothing to do with a higher ethic, or religious conviction.

The Four Pillars of Marriage

For most of the developed world, marriage is easily recognizable, with a great deal of uniformity across the globe. This is a testament to how long and how thoroughly the religious establishment has defined the institution. Ironically it is an institution largely defined by men who have been denied access to it. This goes a long ways towards explaining the mess it is in, today. There are four things that make marriage so recognizable, all of which are problematic:

A Union of Two: Though the hebrew god was one of the greatest champions of polygamy the world has ever known, as depicted in the Hebrew scriptures, marriage is generally accepted as a union made up of two, and only two people. When the bible is not flogging polygamy, handmaidens, and concubines for the wealthy, it pushed an agenda of strict monogamy. But as the stats suggest, along with out own personal observations have taught us, humans are not cut out for monogamy. With or without the church’s sanction, most relationships are with multiple, sexual partners. We can continue to deny it at our peril, but it will continue to be the case.

Between a Man and a Woman: Not only have we been in denial about our propensity, even preference for multiple partners, we are also in denial about our sexual proclivities. In a society where we cannot even cop to a foot fetish, there is no way to approach honesty about attraction to persons of the same sex. Many are stuck in traditional marriages because they are hiding, or in denial about their true preference. The artificial limitation of cross-gender marriages adds to the misery and instability of marriage as a whole.

Till Death Do Us Part: Since fully half of all marriages never make it to that point, it seems ludicrous to push this unrealistic timeframe as the sole metric for success. The vast majority of marriages make it to five years. Ten is pushing it, and things really fall apart at fifteen. Why not offer a five, ten, or fifteen year contract marriage that can be renewed upon completion?

Be Fruitful and Multiply: Finally, too many still make the argument that marriage is the only institution through which procreation should occur. Nature, however, has placed no such limit on us. In a related matter, some say that procreation is the reason for the institution. This argument is used to fight gay marriage. It quickly falls when applied to the millions of heterosexual couples who cannot produce children, at least, not without bringing in a third-party.

The only reason these four items remain pillars of marriage is due to the influence of religion. Limiting marriage to two, isn’t even the bible’s default position. It is just one of the options. Monogamy was reserved for unimportant people of little means. It made perfect sense for the low-class, impoverished ravel that made up the early Christians.

The bible is rather consistent about the evils of same-sex relations. It goes so far as to demand capitol punishment for those who engage in it. Nature does nothing to forbid or restrict the practice, however, even going so fare as to make some to its orientation. The only objection is religion-based morality. It is gratifying to see that in the US the majority are now in favor of same-sex marriage. It is only a matter of time before god follows suit.

As time progresses, marriages are not lasting longer or getting more stable. The more pressure we place on marriage to be an everlasting institution, the shorter the time marriage lasts. This is actually a good thing. The only places where marriage tends to last are those where women have few rights and fewer options. They are more slaves than wives. Men have the option to cast them aside, but they have no option to leave. That means that in those societies, men can have as many partners as they wish, and treat their wives as little more than property. Where equality exists, so do short marriages.

This tells us that given the option, and all things being equal, we actually prefer short-term relationships. Ten years is about the outer limit to what we can comfortably handle. We do not mate for life. We mate for about eight years. Children give us an added incentive to hang in there a little longer than we normally would. Where did we even get the notion that it should be any other way? What god has joined together, let no man put asunder. Oh, yeah, now I remember. Religion.

Let’s face it. The only one who prioritizes procreation as a motive for sex is god, and those who claim to speak for him. I can assure you, men are almost never trying to create little versions of themselves that will, one day, grow up to compete with them. Men have sex because they like it. If sex was not fun and addictive, we would never reproduce. Reproduction is a byproduct of sex, not a purpose. If all we needed to do was reproduce, nature provides far more efficient models.

In many parts of the world, it is still taboo to have sex outside of marriage. You want to convince a young man to marry? Just deny him the right to sex until he does. Instant marriage. Is there any wonder so many young marriages end in divorce? They married because society told them they had to. They endure it for as long as they can. They seek other partnership opportunities when they can do so without getting caught. And that is the foundation of the mess we know of as marriage, and are trying so desperately to defend.

The men who oversee the religious establishment are not only restricted from marriage, but live counter to the pillars they have established. Priests do not restrict themselves to a single, sexual partner. They have no hesitation when it comes to sampling same-sex relations. Their partnerships last only as long as they need them to. And they are certainly not motivated to stray because of a desire to procreate.

In other words, they live out their sexual lives just as we do, except, without the legal strictures of marriage. I only ask that the rest of the population be given the same rights in relationships as they, themselves, enjoy, except without the hypocrisy and shame. I ask that marriage be as dead for us as it is for priests. Isn’t it time we start living out relationships as humans, rather than as empty vessels trying to live out the dictates of an indwelling spirit from another realm?

Conclusion: Beyond Religion

Marriage is a ball and chain that no longer fits us as a species, if it ever did. When half the population can’t manage it, then we can no longer pretend that it is a sacred rite: a sacrament, that cannot be altered or reconsidered. The heterosexual requirement will fall in our lifetimes, but the church still has a stranglehold over the institution. That is why we will never get beyond marriage until we finally go beyond religion.

We are already there in our behavior. It is past time we stop calling relationships, failures, that last five and ten years at a stretch. What kind of god looks at an accomplishment like that with disappointment? The only thing I regret about my last marriage is that we couldn’t have ended it when it more naturally should have. But we were both trapped in a marriage that had long since become an institution. We did not feel like we were in control of our own relationship. We suffered for that.

I call for the suffering to stop, for everyone! I am not here to defend the institution of marriage, but to destroy it! There is a war against marriage, and I am sleeping with its enemy. Understand, I have no desire to destroy loving relationships, just marriage. As it crumbles around us, I plan to rebuild it in the image of mankind, and not in the image of god: a god who never even bothered to give marriage a try.

David Johnson

Three Things Religion Offers that Atheism cannot Address

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I used to be one of them. I recognize Mr. Comfort’s arguments as the types of things I used to say in defense of my beliefs. I am not a stupid person, yet I accepted stupid, indefensible arguments to bolster my position. I and a friend, also a former Christian, have been struggling with the question of how we allowed ourselves to be so completely taken in by fundamentalist religion. I believe I have some insights that may help shed some light on the matter.

The first thing to understand is that religious faith is not a matter of rational belief in reasonable principles. If it was so, then all that is needed to de-convert the Christian is a reasonable, counter-argument. Once exposed to reason, the religious person would instantly abandon his faith, grateful for the enlightenment. But that is almost never what happens, because a rational belief in reasonable principles is not the cornerstone of faith.

I believe there are three things that sit at the heart of all religious belief, indeed at the heart of all metaphysical acceptance: First, there is the need to believe that life is fundamentally fair. Bad things happen to good people for a reason. We are constantly trying to find meaning in suffering and death. If we find sufficient meaning, then the suffering was not arbitrary or capricious. If things seem unfair right now, it is only because we must lack perspective. Therefore, in this life or the next, and for things to balance out, there must be a next, life ultimately is fair. Otherwise, we are without hope or help.

Second, our lives have meaning. Why are we here and what is our purpose? These are the timeless, existential questions. These questions are based on the assumption that we are here for a reason. In an ordered universe, (another assumption) everything has a purpose. Whether the result of an existential crisis or extreme narcissism, some people are compelled to believe that they matter in the grand scheme of things. For them, there is a grand scheme, and they play a vital role in it. The creative force of the universe singles them out for his love and attention. He has a special job for them. One of the greatest attractions to religion is the idea that you are singled out, and called for something special. You, among all people, really matter.

Finally, death is not the end. It only follows that if life is fair, and our lives have meaning, then three score and ten cannot contain the sum of our existence. Unlike plants and animals that are here for a moment and gone the next, we can’t die. We have a purpose. The universe loves us. It bends events around our sense of fairness and propriety. We are the pinnacle of its achievement. It gives its life for us that we might live. The very stars were invented just so we might have something nice to look at on a sleepless night. We are not just god’s gift to the universe, the universe is god’s gift to us. The idea that it could all be over after a few, brutish years of toil on this plain is laughably absurd.

And there you have it. Life is fair, at least, for us. We matter to the universe, and cannot possibly die like rats. Religion appeals to the narcissist in all of us. All metaphysical beliefs do to some degree. But religion covers all the bases like no other. When people defend religion, they are not assenting to rational beliefs of reasonable assertions. They are defending their self-image that places them at the center of the universe. Atheism is an active assault on those core beliefs. By declaring atheism, you are asserting that life is not fair, you are not special and do not matter, and your beloved dead are not dancing with King David just beyond the pearly gates. In time, you will be as dead as the grass you are standing on. That is more than a declaration of reasonable principles; that means war!

As long as a person clings to the childish belief that they are at the center of the universe, they will cling to metaphysical beliefs that place them there, regardless of how disconnected from physical reality they are. Reason is the wrong tool for changing the mind of a person who, for whatever reason, needs to be disconnected from physical reality. Determining the right tool has become a part of my life’s work. To that end, I continue to listen to, and thoroughly enjoy the show.

David Johnson

Hope: The Essence of Emotional Immaturity

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“Now remains faith, hope, and love.” So says the writer of 1 Corinthians 13. While much ink has been sacrificed to the cause of faith and love, not enough has been allocated to hope. While I believe that faith is the retreat of the undisciplined mind, and love, the fundamental ingredient for all productive, human association, hope is the essence of emotional immaturity.

Hope is the optimistic anticipation of a more favorable outcome than that which a rational assessment of the situation predicts. It is replacing the rain clouds we see overhead with the blue skies we conjure in our minds. It is choosing the emotional attachment of desire over the rational assessment of what reality presents. No matter how we dress it up for intellectual exercise, hope is little more than wishing, intently, for that which reason suggests is highly unlikely. When hope is one of only three things that remain, there had better be more substance in the other two.

For many, hope is the fundamental building block of reality. They believe that if they hope fervently enough, they influence reality to bend in their favor. They go far beyond merely wanting a thing, and escalate to believing it to be true based on nothing more than hope. Set up for failure in this way, the only thing left is to be crushed by the cruel reality that the universe does not care about your hope. The only other possibility is that the holder of unrequited hope doubles down on hope, believing that the hoped for reward has simply been deferred to a later time. When faith and hope combine, no amount of reality can intrude on the fantasy that hope will, one day, be fulfilled.

Fantasy is a compelling retreat from reality. I engage in it myself from time to time. When reality becomes too oppressive, I sometimes imagine a different one where things turn out better. If the fantasy is particularly good, I might even try and come up with ways to make that imagined outcome a reality. However, I never confuse the two. The ability to separate fantasy from reality is a critical part of the maturation process.

Small children do not have the facility for distinguishing fantasy and reality. They are easily deceived by fanciful tales. They are constantly inundated with the message that good things will happen if they only believe hard enough. Hope is the active ingredient of faith.

More to the point, children desperately want to believe, especially when things are not going well. Magical thinking is the only tool with which we equip our children for dealing with difficult truths. Children have almost no control of their world. For them, faith, hope, and love are the only things they can control.

As we mature, we gain more control over our world. Faith and hope must give way to reason and reality. Those who do not manage that transition, write checks they hope will clear, without rational assessment of their funds. They hope the cigarettes do not adversely effect them without regard to the empirical evidence. They hope the next, unadvised relationship works out better than the last, or that the unprotected sex does not end up in disease, or an unwanted pregnancy, and that god will put it all to rights in the end.

Like drunkards, we stagger from hope to hope. One false hope barely has time to be crushed before we more on to the next. We are addicted to hope in the same way that a gambler is addicted to another spin at the wheel. We just can’t imagine living life without it.

But is it really so bad to live a life without hope? I think not. It is true that a person with cancer is most likely going to die from that cancer unless she dies of something else first. But is that reality really so bad? Why would you think so? Is it not a given that we are all going to die? If the goal is to avoid the ultimate endgame of life, then the situation is hopeless. Whether or not we beat the current bout of cancer, we’re still going to die. Denial of that fact is a sign of emotional immaturity.

We are sometimes tempted to ask why a particular thing happened to us, as if we believed that we were supposed to be immune from such things. It is as if we believe that all of the bad things in life are meant for other people. That somehow, if we exude enough hope for a better outcome, we will have protection against the things that happen to the people with less hope. That is childish, narcissistic, and delusional.

Many people use hope as a treatment for depression. We believe it is better to have people lie to themselves about unpleasant realities than to face them. A person with late-stage, inoperable cancer, and hope, will most likely die in a hospital surrounded by machines in and expensive, and futile attempt to postpone the inevitable. The same person without hope, but armed with knowledge and emotional maturity, will also die, but in a hospice situation, without pain or fear, and surrounded by loved ones. Trading hope for reality has its perquisites.

Finally, it is my observation that hope and help are too often confused. I am without hope, but not without help. My life economy is not based on a requisite amount of luck. Serendipity is a welcomed event, not a plan. I do not waste a lot of time hoping that things happen. If I want something to happen, I do everything in my power to make it happen. I am hopeless, not helpless.

Only the emotionally immature spend much time fretting over, and hoping for things that are beyond their control. The Christian treats hope like a magic substance. If you hope hard enough, it will come true. Placing hope in matters of faith is not substantively different than wishing on a star.

The non-believer does not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. We cannot afford to hope for the best. We must work for the best. If you hope that your child get’s over her cold, you give her medicine; you don’t indulge in childish hope. False hope simply deprives a person from making real plans. A person with the false hope of a quick recovery may put off making proper arrangements for his passing, leaving his family in a difficult position.

I have been to the brink. I can say with absolute conviction that for the emotionally mature, there is no reason to call a priest to issue last rights, to renew your hope. Where there is no fear, there is no need for hope. Religion creates, or at least, exacerbates the fear that requires the hope in the first place. Ridding yourself of the one, eliminates your need for the other.

Now abides faith, hope, and love. I say that with enough of the latter, there is no need for the former two.

David Johnson

A More Perfect Human

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts called Mission Log. It explores every episode of Star Trek, one show at a time. The hosts take a deep dive into the meaning, morals, and messages of each episode, as well as provide some great trivia. If you are a Treker, stop reading this and subscribe to the podcast. I’ll wait.

I have been considering a theme that I have wanted to explore for a while, but this weeks podcast really put it over the top for me. The hosts were discussing Dagger of the Mind, with a lot of references to What are Little Girls Made of. Both of these episodes addressed the issue of using different means to create a more perfect human. One has a well-intended, but misguided scientist creating android bodies into which a human’s personality can be stored. With this invention, the scientist hopes to eliminate sickness and death, as well as war. In the other episode, a great scientist runs a prison colony where, through the aid of his mind-wiping machine, he can remove negative impulses from a person’s psyche. In both cases, the scientist are endeavoring to create a more perfect human.

It strikes me that we do not have to explore science fiction, or even fiction, to discover other efforts to create a more perfect human. Criminal rehabilitation is one such effort. One could argue that formal education is another. The church is primarily engaged in trying to fashion a better being, though not completely human. The church eschews humanity in favor of the benevolent, spirit being that inhabits our bodies. Politicians are also about the business of crafting a more perfect human. They believe that through laws, they can redirect our behavior to overcome our worst impulses. Though politics is set up to form a more perfect society, society is made up of individual people who need to be perfected.

With so much energy being poured into perfecting humanity, it seems prudent to ask the question, does humanity really need to be perfected. I’m leaning toward, no. All of the efforts I have mentioned, both real and fictional, start with the premise that humanity is deeply flawed, and in need of fixing. Surely, that must be true. After all, we lie, cheat, steal, and take advantage of people weaker than ourselves. We are full of greed, lust, and petty hatred. Certainly, those are problems that need fixing, right?

I think not.

Before exploring that any further, I want to mention what does bear improving. Earlier, I mentioned that the government, through politics, is there to form a more perfect society. I definitely believe that society could use some work. Whenever two or more people live together and share resources, there have to be rules to regulate the interactions between them. The more people who share the resources, the more stringent the rules have to be for maintaining order. This is further complicated when we ad cultural diversity into the mix. To create a better society, we do not need better people; we need better social contracts. A law is essentially a social contract. It does not address right and wrong, but right and wrong for the best  operation of society for this particular place and time. We can definitely do better than what we are, in my opinion.

While society could use a little work, people are just fine the way they are. To claim that humanity is imperfect is as myopic as complaining that a baby is imperfect. When a mother is presented with her child for the first time, she often proclaims how perfect the newborn is. How can that be. The newborn is messy with afterbirth, drool, noise, and most likely, a mixture of unpleasant odors. What could be less perfect than that. Additionally, the child is infinitely self absorbed. She will do anything within her power to get her way. This trait lasts for quite a long period of time. Some people never outgrow it. Yet, as the child gets older, the trait becomes less perfect.

The reason the child is considered perfect is that the child is exactly the way she is supposed to be at the time. She has more development to do, but anticipation of future development does not make her any less perfect. So it is with humanity. Like the newborn babe, we are already perfect.

There is an even bigger issue when discussing the perfection of humanity. It is the presumption that there is a state of perfection available for us to reach in the first place. To be sure, there is maturation and evolutionary development, but that is a far cry from some ideal state of wholeness. Perfection is not the attainment of an ideal state of wholeness; it is the state of being exactly what one should be at a particular time and place. The newborn is perfect, not because she has a broad vocabulary and an enhanced social consciousness, but because she is exactly what she should be at the time. We count her fingers and toes, not her ability to fend for herself and contribute to society.

I feel like the standard of perfection many want for humanity is equally unrealistic. Religion is the worst offender of unrealistic expectations. The bible has The Lord saying, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Falling short of that perfection is the definition of sin that deserves no less than an eternity in the fires of hell. Religion’s standard of perfection is the suppression of most of what makes us human. In mainstream Christianity, humanity is irredeemable. It is our souls, not our humanity that must ultimately be saved.

I contend that we as humans need a certain amount of greed, lust, envy, bigotry, hatred, conflict, and depression in order to be fully human. There is no such thing as a person who is completely selfless and cares only for the needs of others. Who determined that to be the most important attribute? Why is it better that I help you become successful rather than helping myself? The universe does not know the difference between you and me. If only one of us can live, I choose me. Is that wrong? I don’t know or care. I do know that it is human.

I am just as perfected in my humanity when selfish ambition drives me to write the next, great opera, as when I donate a kidney to a stranger. Neither act or motivation makes me more or less perfect as a human being. While it would be nice if we could put an end to sickness and death, I don’t think I want to see us put an end to lust and greed. In fact, sickness and death also serve a purpose. I definitely do not want to see everyone who is currently alive, live forever. I reserve eternity only for me and a few of my closest friends.

The only reason one would meter the, so called, negative attributes is to form a society more conducive to general advancement. Unfortunately, there is still an open question about what constitutes general advancement. What is the endgame of a perfect society peopled with perfect humans? Is it the elimination of hunger, sickness, death, greed, envy, lust, and hatred? If we eliminated these things, what exactly would be left? Compassion? How does one even show compassion to a person who has no needs? Forgiveness would also be eliminated with the absence of anything to forgive. Ambition is meaningless with no more goals for which to strive. Hope is unnecessary when all is fulfilled. Where would procreation be without lust for motivation, and death, pushing us to pass on our genetic material to the next generation? Without the attributes considered by some to be negative, we would no longer be human.

That said, I’m sure evolution is not quite done with us. The human of a hundred years from now will be different from the human of today. Just consider how different humans and our societies are from those of a hundred thousand years ago. Those humans and their societies were no less perfect than our own. As we are no less perfect than humans in our distant future. We are exactly where we should be in our current stage of development. There are always a few outliers who straggle behind the herd, as well as the ones who are several strides ahead of the pack. Outliers notwithstanding, the pack is definitely progressing apace.

I find it fascinating that many an enlightened soul can look upon nature with a sense of awe and declare it good, but look at humanity and conclude that it needs improvement. This self-critical tendency ignores the fact that we are a part of the very natural world we extol as perfect. We are as perfect as a sunrise. As something of a futurist, I like to speculate on the path human evolution will take. What wonders will we behold, and accomplishments achieve? Whatever the future holds, it will not be a more perfect human. I am fine with the state of humanity as it is. I mostly look to the future to provide me with more interesting toys.

David Johnson

Social Activism: The Religion for the Non-Religious

For a long time, I wrestled over the title of this post. My first thought was to call it, “The Cult of Social Activism”. I decided to tone it down out of the realization that one person’s cult is another person’s orthodoxy. Although, I must say, having attended sever social activist meetings, there is definitely a cult-like vibe in the air. Cult-like or not, it is most certainly a religion by any definition I can come up with.

Religion is one of those words that is greater than its entry in any dictionary. Defining it becomes a personal matter. Just consider how we use the word. We might say that a person is religious about this or that, or she practices her music religiously. Neither of these uses have to do with epistemology, or creeds, or ancient texts. They have nothing to do with gods, or priests, or parishioners. It has to do with a fervent dedication to some goal or cause. It suggests a sort of imbalance. It is one thing for a person to be a supporter of something or someone, or serious about a task; it is quite another to be religious about it.

Escaping formalized, bible-based creeds does not free one from religion; it just opens the door to different options. Being religious has no more to do with the bible than being addicted has to do with drugs. It is more a personality disorder. Clean the drugs out of a person, and they will soon find another addiction. With luck, it will be less destructive. Take away a person’s bible and he will replace it with other sacred texts. Take away his church and he will find another kind of assembly. Take away heaven and he will create a new one. Religion is something we carry within us; it is not external to us. Yes. I’m looking at me.

Without that realization, it is possible to exit one religion while falling, headlong into another, without realizing it. It is a bit like waking from a dream and starting your day, only to realize that you are still dreaming. These can be among the most disturbing types of dreams because they challenge your ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. This type of nested dreaming can be recognized while in progress, but it takes practice and intentionality.

I have attempted to apply some of these methods to my dance with religion, and found that it is no less difficult to break away from religion than it is, a nested dream. In the case of dreams, one must recognize he is still dreaming. Sometimes, just asking the question is enough to break the spell. When assessing my progress beyond religion, I finally asked myself if I wasn’t still within the framework of religion. I found that I had made much less progress than I thought.

Social activism has all of the earmarks of religion. There are tenets of faith: doctrines, if you will, that are almost as inviolable as any creed. There is a definite priesthood who are keepers of the vision, and interpreters of the doctrine. There are most definitely prophets who herald the message. There are important texts, stories, and songs that make up the sacred liturgy. Remember, though, religion is not something external to you, but something that you bring with you. Perhaps this is a good time to examine the contents of that bag of religion we schlep around so mindlessly.

First, there is the obeisance we pay to something greater than ourselves. God is not the only candidate for this role. There is humanity as a whole, some great cause, and even the universe. All make great god substitutes when trying to identify the irresistible something that is greater than ourselves. Then, there is the mission. Every religion needs a mission and a calling. You are not just a crusader; you were destined for this great work. Some would call this sense of mission a messiah complex. You are convinced that something or someone needs saving, And without you, it just wouldn’t get done.

There are a few other bits in the bag, but the big one, I think, is the sense of elitism. If elitism was detectable by the olfactory senses, then you could smell religious elitism from a mile away. It is that note of superiority and moral certainty. I am suspicious of anyone who exudes too much moral certainty. This should come as no surprise since I do not accept the traditional view of morality. The religious of all stripes believes themselves to be in the know. They have discovered some truth about the world that feeds this sense of moral certainty.

This certainty leads to evangelism. A person can engage in direct or indirect forms of evangelism, but even the quiet evangelist gives herself away in time. They can’t help it. Their messiah complex requires them to fix something, most likely you. Sooner or later, they will give themselves away. You will be confronted for the greater good, by someone who is convinced that they have a better version of it than you do. When you apply these tools to social activism, you have one powerful religion.

It is easy to fall sway to the religion of social activism. I find that having awaken to its true nature, I am left with many of the same misgivings that I had with the religion of creed and faith. The thing is, I am genuinely interested in participating in activities that bring about change for the greater good. I have to remind myself, though, that my idea of the greater good cannot be elevated above anyone else’s vision of our utopian future.

And there lies part of the problem. Everyone has their own ideas about how things should be for everyone else. Everyone’s vision is a little different, and no one can accomplish any significant part of it alone. That is why the religion is made up of loosely held coalitions of people with special interests. I have met three types of people along the way. The first is the specialist who only cares about one or two things. But collectively, the list of things one needs to fervently care about is much too daunting for one person with one lifetime. Unfortunately, spreading your efforts over too many activities means you get nothing done. The specialist, however, is not very good at forming lasting coalitions because they really only care about the one thing they care about.

Another type of person who is numbered among the faithful is the generalist who is zealous about everything. This is the person who counts the number of times one has been arrested in the name of civil disobedience, as the true test of worth. The issue doesn’t seem to matter, just as long as there is an issue to rally around. They live to protest, and they can never protest too much. If utopia was ever achieved, they would be most miserable in it.

The last type of person is the seeker. Sound familiar? This is the person who is wandering from one group to another in search of a cause. I suspect this person is also searching for themselves. I have befriended a few in this category, and am most comfortable among their number. But a perpetual seeker is seldom a long-term finder.

In other posts, I will talk about some of the doctrines of social activism. I will wrap up this series by taking an introspective look. I will try to figure out exactly what it is I believe and care about the most. That is a lot harder than you might suspect.

David Johnson

Beyond Tribe

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This is the time of year when we revel in our tribal comfort.  Once a year, we set aside our differences to join hands in unity.  But this is a little like the sons of Abraham joining hands in unity and pretending they do not represent a tribal religion.  Ironically, when they join hands in unity, they represent the ultimate in tribal religion.   Americans are seldom more tribal than when we are united under the red white and blue banner.

While it is true that tribal impulses played a part in our evolutionary progress, that time has long passed.  We have graduated from caveman school, and a lot has changed.  There is a lot of psychological baggage we need to jettison for us to successfully advance to the next stage of human development.  Tribalism is one of them.

The Pledge of Allegiance:  a doctrine I have long refused to publicly proclaim, is America’s ultimate statement of tribal dedication.  It, like all such tribal creeds, is full of hidden contradictions and self-deception.  There is nothing there that inspires confidence in one who calls home, any square of land outside of these blessed borders.  I am left to conclude that even if we achieve this mythical union that we hold so dear, we would not necessarily have promoted a greater humanity.

I pledge allegiance to a greater humanity.  It doesn’t have a flag.  The United States does not represent humanity.  It’s flag is too small.  My allegiance includes the idealism of an empowered citizenry.  However, that republic remains only an ideal.  It does not yet exist.  What passes as a republic of empowered citizens in America is a lamentable joke, and receives no portion of my pledge.

One nation under god is a target for war.  I will go to war against such a country.  To hell with such a country.  When nationalism becomes Zionism, becomes theocracy, your time has past, if it ever was.  When one nation under god is replace with, one world under humanity, sign me up.  Till then, one nation under god can only survive as long as it does not encounter a stronger nation under a stronger god.  We know how that story ends.

As far as the rest, indivisible, liberty and justice for all, who really believes that we have achieved all that, or that the flag represents all that?  Outside of this holiday, we are as divided as any country in the world.  We do not offer liberty and justice for all, even when limited to our own borders, nor have we ever.  This has always been more fantasy than fact.

Today, I wear my Repeal HB56 T-shirt, with my LBGTQ button binned to it to remind me just how far from the mark we are.  At the Unitarian Church where I attend, when the pledge is spoken, (if it is) I will not just remain silent; I will walk out.  It is my intention to do the same wherever this action is feasible to do.  I will not be seen as joining in while my tribe pounds their chest in defiance against other tribes.  I separate myself from such behavior.  I will stand outside of, and beyond tribe.  This is my protest.  This is my pledge.  This is my prayer.

 

David Johnson