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The Continually Evolving God

An interesting article was brought to my attention today by a good friend of mine. It was from a blog called “The Christian Left.” Their “Our Mission” page says that they are a politically liberal or left-leaning group of christian believers, and they believe Jesus was more left-leaning than not. The article was a biblical study of when life begins. Of course when you hear the phrase “when life begins” your mind immediately turns either to the age 40, or to the ongoing controversy on abortion rights. You can read the article here, and I highly recommend it. The article makes some great points and if I WAS a christian, I would have a lot to think about as it pertains to the abortion debate. That being said, I’m not one, and this was my response to Frank, (also an atheist.) who posted the link as food for thought.

This is interesting, Frank, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, this is the kind of thinking that helps draw religion forward into a more compassionate and realistic co-existence with humanity, albeit kicking and screaming. Just as religion once planted it’s flag in any number of incorrect scientific claims, and then subsequently abandoned those claims long after they had become laughable, it may do so on the issues of homosexuality and reproductive rights. That should make life easier, and politics and philosophical discussions more rational and bearable.

On the other hand, this is the kind of adaptation (from a God who continually claims to never change.) that allows religion to continue skittering across the kitchen floor and into the shadows and away from the bottom of our boots. The moderate, loving, respectable believer is truly the problematic one because they defy identification as irrational, give safe harbor to their fanatical brethren by being an example of “positive religion,” and all while poorly living out the violent and nonsensical demands of their petulant Father.

I understand that I’m preaching to the choir (strange choice of metaphor, I know, lol.) when I say this, but if it turns out that this is true… that in reality the Bible tells us that a fetus becomes a living soul at birth and breath, wouldn’t that mean that God has allowed us as a people to kill one another, to ostracize one another, and to demonize one another, all for a belief that was actually in error? A misinterpreted belief that he could have easily clarified for us either through his word, or through revelation, or through the mouths of the preachers he directs… and he just… umm… didn’t? Slipped his mind? Perhaps like with Abraham he just wanted to see if we’d kill each other for him? Just chalk up one more in the uncountable list of plain-as-day, clear-as-the-nose-on-my-face examples that IT.JUST.AINT.SO.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, (you out there.) both atheists, agnostics, and believers on two things. First, your thoughts on the article itself, which I know is both controversial and thought-provoking for any christian that would read it, as a former believer. Secondly, how do you as a believer especially, reconcile this changing, evolving God with the understanding that God is unchanging and has both the power and the will to be near to us, but continues to allow his message to be confused, misinterpreted, and debated over the years? If you agree with the article, then as I said in the comment, God has been allowing all this bloodshed and anger and sadness over a misinterpretation. If you don’t believe the article, then, at least for these people, God is allowing them to believe murder is okay, and not communicating to them the truth in a way that they can understand. It will lead them and others to murder.

Over the years God has allowed his believers to believe and preach that:

-slavery is okay.

-Segregation is okay.

-Crusading (Holy War.) is okay.

-The world is flat.

-The world is the center of the Universe.

-The Sun is the center of the Universe.

…and that’s really just off the top of my head. And I was nice enough to not pick on the Young-Earth Creationists for once, but they’re in there too. Sometimes for hundreds of years believers and churches have preached both the truth of the above things, and the evils of thinking otherwise. Then ‘poof’ the church just changes. The church, which is supposed to be in touch with God, who loves us, knows all, and wants a close relationship with us… just… changes. How can you reconcile that?

I couldn’t.

-JWAH.

The New Hell: God’s Holy Fangs

Goya’s famous painting of the god Saturn devouring his son.

Hell is, to me, the second most concerning aspect of religion (most religions have some “punishment” built in for negative reinforcement.) right behind Heaven. To me, Heaven is a greater concern, because it stands next to this world and diverts the attention of those waiting for it. It makes our most prized possession- our existence here- seem like a terrible thing to many believers. To those who would believe in Heaven, this world we have here is a trial. A test. A pain-filled experience that was not meant to be a home for us. It is a place of half-truths, and struggle, and it is temporary. You should look away from it and “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full on his wonderful face/and the things of earth become strangely dim, in the light of his glorious grace.” To me it is sad that so many people are turning away from all that we have. Which is a lot.

But Hell is what I want to talk about today. Religions evolve naturally the same way that organisms do. If they do not, they fade away. Survival of the fittest. Zoroaster just couldn’t cut it. So his religion is gone. I want to talk about this more in another blog post, because it’s one of the most interesting things about religion to me. But anyway, religions evolve in two main ways. They evolve to meet the basic needs of people (comfort, control, community, etc.) and they evolve to gain and keep followers. Some of the tools they evolve can be very sweet. Like a cute dog that has been bred to be adorable. Or like a fruit tree developing delicious fruit so it will be eaten by an animal and the seed will be spread by said animal. (The world’s true pooper-stars…) some evolutionary tools of a religion can be very powerful and scary. Just like the fangs of a snake or the claws of a bear. They can do damage.

Hell is not a real place. Anyone who has read our blog should not be surprised that we don’t think there’s a lake of fire that has been set aside for those who don’t love God. (Because God wants to know so badly that we really do honestly love him that he gave us free will… but he’s a little concerned we might not, so he created a big burning lake just to seal the deal for us.) But “Hell” is really just an evolutionary tool of religion meant to help it thrive and survive against other religions and grow in size and influence. (Why do you think almost every religion contains some version of “Be fruitful and multiply in the same way that many nations call upon their people to do their civic duty and have many strong children to insure the future of the glorious country of ____?”)

Hell exists to scare people into conversion, and to scare people out of leaving. And it’s incredibly effective. One of the most famous sermons ever is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. It compares the average believer to a tiny spider, being held by a tiny silken thread by a furious god over hell’s flames. That’s good evolution. Those are sharp fangs. Many people have been converted in part by that “fire and brimstone” sermon or others like it. And we’ve already discussed Pascal’s Wager HERE.

And it scares people into staying in as well. As “out” on religion as I am, and as sure as I am that I’m not going to suffer the flames of hell, it still pulls on me every now and then. The other night I watched a movie in which the protagonist is assassinated at the end. When he was shot and killed, my mind wandered to the idea of the last moments of your life. I thought about the last moments when I may have some time to reflect and realize that this is the end. And that eternity does not await me. (Thankful for that. Eternity can’t possibly be a good thing.) And then I thought about dying. And then I thought about how I would feel, if just after dying, I woke up. I had passed through a “door.” Afterlife was beginning. Uh-oh. I imagined my realisation that God was real and I was wrong and the abject horror that would overcome me upon realizing that I was now quite literally, a sinner in the hands of an angry god.

Now I have a very active imagination. I actually have to listen to podcasts to fall asleep to keep my mind from just endlessly wandering at night. I’m very ADD and my friends know that I’m constantly in my cell phone or online trying to continuously stimulate my mind. (I blame excess television during my formative stages.) But still, it’s remarkable that I can be so at peace with what I believe and even write and evangelize against my former beliefs with assuredness, but even still, an occasional thought will creep in… my old imaginary friend, waving his gun in my face, gnashing his teeth at me.

It only lasted a few moments. But it was and is proof of a powerful psychological tool.

So this is what I refer to as the “New Hell.” The Old Hell is the mythological place most religions teach about some form of where the non-believers will have their comeuppance. The New Hell is simply the consequences religion is actually capable of delivering on for those who leave it behind. The true fangs that can bite.

I want to hear from you on this by the way. I’m calling on our atheist/deist/agnostic readers to join in this conversation, and I’m calling on my co-author, Jon with no H, to join in as well. Tell me your stories of your “consequences” for leaving. How did religion “bite” you? Did it “bite” a loved one who you had to tell, or can’t tell? I feel like it would do us good to read each other’s stories, and for believers to read these stories as well.

I’ll start… This weekend I’m at a destination wedding, seeing many of my friends from college. Some of them I haven’t seen in five or ten years and it’s awesome to reconnect. I went to a christian school and majored in ministry though, and I have many former friends here who are active ministers. I decided that without making myself a big center of attention, which is never a good idea at a wedding, I would privately let a few of my friends know about where I am now. I told them about my journey, about leaving faith behind (not “losing” faith, mind you. I haven’t “lost” anything. I willfully left my faith. I didn’t “fall off the horse,” I just bought a car is all.) They are good friends and no one has condemned me, or been angry or belittling. Just the opposite, actually, the response has been heartfelt, respectful, and not at all dismissive. I’m really grateful to have friends like that.

But this morning I overheard one of my oldest friends talking to another person who was in on the conversation last night. He described the news of my deconversion as “heart-wrenching.” He didn’t know I could hear him.

That’s an understandable response. He’s been taught that I’m going to burn in hell for eternity now. Instead of taking pleasure in that, it pains his heart. I can understand that. It means he loves me. God is using that love. He is using it to bite him with His holy fangs. He is biting him in front of me, and blaming me for it. And I feel pain. Pain that my choice that I see as perfectly logical and legitimately freeing is hurting my friend. That it’s breaking his heart. That’s the holy fangs of God biting me.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

When the stars threw down their spears, 
And watered heaven with their tears, 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

-William Blake (First and fifth verse)

Now tell me your stories of the holy fangs of God. And believers, you’re of course welcome with your opinions as well. But I really want us to share, so that we can acknowledge that this a testable, repeatable phenomenon. That God truly bites.

-John with an H.

Hades Stands Alone

Hades Stands Alone

Religion in its earliest forms seems created to gain power over the unknown. Complex systems such as weather patterns, crop harvests, and neighboring societies were all less fearsome given their subordinate position to the gods who created them. This was the ambition of the early religious, to find power and control over the physical world. It was not a spiritual, inner quest, but an outer confrontational one. The soliloquy undiscovered, only the dialogue of a man and a chorus. Man against Man and Man against Nature. Dominion over the unknown, by befriending the personification of unrevealed life altering variables. It gave courage by limiting the inherent fear of limitless potential. Fear like a child in the impetus of dark, its imagination full of inertia, unable to curtail possibilities. The courage it engendered was successful for some societies, a failure for others. Ultimately, we face the ancient religions with a wry smile and the confident words of the parent, convincing their child that there is no need for heroes in a world with no monsters.

Lately, spirituality is an end to itself. The firing gun and the finish line. This is a natural evolution. As science encroaches on the unknown, the gods lose dominion. So many outer otherness garrisons and forts falling to data, so that only the most complex strongholds are left for the gods to take refuge. What is more complex than ourselves? Here a god could still make a stand. Issuing edicts of fired synapses to cover their retreat. An inner dialogue alone, for we are the last bit of complex tools available for the gods to do work. But for how long? Doctors surround this stronghold as well, and are finding cracks in the wall. Would you have a friend struggling with depression visit a priest or physician? Both? Will the gods then lose even the brain, to reside only in an unquantifiable soul?

If gods were to be evicted from even this location, there will always be a home for them in death. The greatest of the unknowns, where, like a black hole, no bit of data can emerge. This god is the landlord of the dead, alone, and perhaps happy to receive the company.

The Creation Museum: A God That Can’t Be Killed

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How hard would it be to kill a god? Let’s take the big one. The god that calls himself God. The great I am. How hard would it be to convince the majority of those who currently believe in him and live according to his word to the best of their abilities, that he is not real? We started this blog with the famous Time Magazine cover lamenting the potential death of God. What would it mean to successfully bring the human race to an agreement that the idea of HIM is silly?This weekend I found out.It’s disheartening. It’s also astonishing.The human mind is capable of incredible things when it feels threatened.We know that religion was conceived in the minds and hearts of people who were afraid. Afraid of nature, afraid of death, afraid of losing those they loved. Of being alone. Of a life that has no large scale purpose. If you look at virtually any of the world religions, they attack all or most of these fears. Any religion or world view that fails to attack these fears on behalf of the poor mind it has infected is not long for this world. This is why deism/atheism/agnosticism have all struggled, but also why I’m cautiously optimistic about our future. Science is helping us, more and more, to understand these fears, the mind, and the world, and our knowledge is increasingly giving us an understanding that fills some of these needs.In the beginning, science began rooting out some of our simpler fears, like thunder. Eclipses. Storms and the oceans.The more we understood these fears, the less we feared them.And consequently, the less we needed hundreds of gods to represent each of them. Now science and philosophy are beginning to give us a better understanding of the greater fears. Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about our bodies as “star dust” and see science begin to assuage our fear of being meaningless. As we begin to better understand the state we assume when we die, we are only now starting to realize that it is not a state to fear. Our brain activity slows and ceases, and while we will be alone, we will have no concept of it. We will be at peace, because we simply will cease to be. The real terror is the concept of eternity. Living forever, unable to die or cease, even existence must become monotonous. Anyone enthusiastic about eternal life hasn’t given it enough thought.My co-blogger, Jon wrote a beautiful short piece on this concept of knowledge on the march, and I hope he’ll publish it here, as it is more eloquent than I’m capable of. He  it as science chasing and overcoming the many gods as they retreat to the deeper, murkier, more mysterious places. But as science continues on the march, these gods have fewer and fewer places to hide. I’ll stop there, as I’m essentially plagiarizing at this point. Thanks, Jon.

This weekend, I had a friend in town, and I decided to take him to one of the best kept secrets in Louisville, Ky., the fantastic Muhammed Ali Center. It’s a museum dedicated to the Louisville native, cultural icon, and three-time heavyweight champion of the world. Ali is arguably the greatest boxer in modern history. He was a powerful puncher, but not overwhelmingly so. The way that Ali defeated his opponents was by out-thinking, and being much, much faster than them. Watching him fight was fascinating.As his often more powerful opponent would chase him through the ring, Ali would dance and bob, and circle away. His opponent would plod forward, as Ali danced and skipped around, seeming to have unlimited energy. If he was cornered against he ropes he would slip away, or he would do the “Rope-A-Dope” and block as his opponent fired away, with punch after punch. As Ali withstood the storm, his opponent became exhausted. His head would dart back and forth like a hummingbird. It was rare to see anyone ever land a clean shot.

During some matches, if he had particular disdain for an opponent, he would talk to them during the match. During his title match with George Foreman, he was pummeled during one exchange, and then as he and Foreman locked up in a clinch, he whispered “Is that all you got?” Foreman later recalled the bout and said “Yep. That was about it.” Another fighter, Ernie Terrell had famously refused to call Ali by his newly adopted Muslim name, instead referring to him as Cassius Clay, his birth name. During the bout, Ali pounded Terrell, and repeatedly shouted “What’s my name?” at him.

The next day Jon, myself, and our friend Aaron all travelled to the Creation Museum in Northeast Kentucky. As I said earlier, I was amazed at the ability of the human mind to ignore evidence, delude and confuse itself, and maintain a belief that it sees as self-preservatory in the face of overwhelming evidence. When I began to see atheism as not just the unfortunate, undeniable truth, but as a beautiful, preferable alternative to religion, I began to understand that religion can’t just be ignored, but should be dealt with. It has negative effects on people and cultures. It distracts us from the people who love us and divides us in favor of a non-existent god. It creates rifts in families, friendships, and marriages. It is the impetus for war. It points to a “heaven” that serves only to make this amazing world around us seem tedious and broken by comparison. I was convinced that a good punch in the mouth with a balled up fist of reason was all most people would eventually need to come around. What the Creation Museum has taught me is that thought, like most of my initial thoughts about things, was foolish.

Here we saw a multi-million dollar altar of self-deception. In the face of overwhelming evidence, this museum created an expensive, colorful, interactive argument that was paper-thin and full of holes. But it serves it’s purpose. The majority of it’s attendees desperately want it to be true. They have taught their children based on it’s truth, they have lived based on it’s truth, they have given up very much, and stand to lose very much, should this paper-thin argument full of holes ever break to pieces inside their mind. They are rooting for the Creation Museum to work on them. God help them (literal translation) if it fails.

So when the PHD from Vanderbilt who’s either the master of self-deception or an outright snake-oil salesman (I’m not sure which. Perhaps both?) tells them that fossils are virtually worthless as sources of evidence, they laugh and nod in approval. And later when he builds an argument against the real greatest story ever told, Jurassic Park, by listing all of the systems of dinosaurs that would need to change for them to become birds, like the respiratory system, the digestive system, and the scales on their skin; no one reminds him that all of those assumptions he’s just made about respiratory systems and scales all come from, well… fossils. We are told that the theory of an earth merely 6,000 years old is just another interpretation of the evidence, augmented of course by an important source of information, the Bible. Of course in their mind, the Bible is a primary source, written by a single entity (God) who was present for all of this. Cave-drawings that resemble dinosaurs prove that men lived alongside dinosaurs. How could a man draw something he’d never seen? We can know dinosaurs existed just like we know Spiderman and Calvin & Hobbes all existed. Because no one can ever just imagine anything. Except here at the Creation Museum, we’re experts in imagination. It’s holy fan-fiction, as credible as the tightest, most thoroughly researched argument from the most unbiased scientist on the planet, as long as both sides, seller and buyer, are working together.

Now, let me turn my attention for a moment. You there. Yes, you. The christian in the corner. I see you. You’re the one who’s forward-thinking. You with the liberal interpretation of the Bible, seeing Genesis as figurative, and likely enjoying this read. The simple-minded literalists are nothing like you, right? Yeah, I see you over there. How can you laugh at this? This is all being presided over by your god. Your perfect god who provided the perfect book, and has the perfect plan, and never leads one of his sheep astray, has allowed his message to become so convoluted and open to interpretation, that he reigns over the lives of literalists and liberals. Fanatical abortion-clinic bombers, and humble charity workers both do so under his obscure guidance. Where is your god when this Confusion Museum and it’s patrons are fooling each other with convoluted twists of logic to make a god-shaped peg fit into a logic-shaped hole? When the world stands by and mocks them because it’s just so foolish, where is he? How can you believe in God when he presides over this kid-centered funhouse of deception as his kingdom? He created it all. You’re ignoring just as much basic evidence and simple common sense as the literalist. I was right there with you. I understand. But reason is calling you, calling you home.

You look away. Maybe you roll your eyes, but you can’t tell me why. You sheepishly (double pun!) mutter that God isn’t responsible for the behavior of his followers. That you can’t let bad christians divide you from God. And now you’ve chosen your side. And herein we find why I was so foolish to think that a mind could be changed so easily. God living within our mind is Muhammed Ali between the ropes. He is brilliant. Stunning to watch. Mesmerizing. Our basic understanding of science and history can swing at him with an iron-fist and his head will dart like a water bug out of the way. We will chase him, track him, and cut off the ring, but we will find that in most minds there are no ropes. Nowhere god can be cornered. He backpedals from our arguments, popping us in the mouth here and there with cliches and logical fallacies. The home crowd is rooting for the champ, and they cheer as we stalk him with our better and better understanding of this world, aiming to deliver a blow that will turn out the lights on his reign. He is laughing at us and mocking us. “What’s my name? I AM THAT I AM.” He derisively shouts. He throws weak jabs at us that don’t really sting, but the audience is enthralled with his skill. Once we’ve discussed carbon-dating, and fossil evidence, and rock layers, and the size of the universe, and string theory, and simple psychology that explains your love affair with this false savior, we find ourselves out of breath. God whispers through the delusional mouth of the trapped fundamentalist… “Is that all you’ve got?”

We shrug our shoulders, and sigh. “Yup. That’s about it.”