Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Want Christian Fries with That?

John W. Loftus wrote an article on being a preacher that got me thinking. While I was never a pastor, I certainly was a member of many a church, and can well-recall the infighting that took place.

Both of my parents were always either a Deacon or a Deaconess. The only time they weren’t was in the required sabbatical after serving two terms, and even then they were on the missions committee, the Sunday School committee, etc. They were Sunday School teachers, VBS teachers, Awana Teachers. We seemed to attend every service there was. Sometimes it seemed they made up services, just to have something to do!

And just like every other kid, when they talked in hushed tones, and whispers on the way home from church, I listened as hard as I could, without appearing to be listening. And I was observant enough to figure out some, just by watching.

I remember one lady that everyone knew was fighting with another family and made it a point to always sit as far from them as possible at every function. God could not mark her tardy, because she was certainly THERE, but we all knew she had reserved enough of her humanity to demonstrate she was not happy about the other family being there. If I was in that family, I would not have wanted to be in her headlights in a dark alley!

I remember one Sunday the adults had to have a “joint” Sunday School, because most of the teachers called in sick in protest of the new Sunday School Teacher Superintendent’s policy change.

I knew of a church in our area that split, and my parents happened to support the “wrong” side of the split. I knew this because the pastor that stayed became the Principal at our Christian school and made our lives hell. (Funny bit. This Pastor/Principal once called in the youth pastor of our church and started to describe this “horrid” family that was in his church, and after a few moments, our youth pastor realized he was talking about us. The youth pastor was my brother-in-law! Because of the difference in name, the Pastor did not realize it!)

In my adult life, I know of a Christian college student taking classes towards becoming an accountant. So a church made him their treasurer. After he embezzled $90,000, they re-thought this position.

I know pastor’s wives that had drug habits, pastor’s that had affairs, and deacons with habits that would curl your toes.

I have sat in many a church discussion, and watched how people were unwilling to share with other Christians their REAL problems. They knew that it would go from “prayer request” to local gossip in less time than it takes to sneeze. I watched business meetings where a group of people walked out because some pictures were taken off the wall.

I have seen meanness, pettiness, craziness, and downright viciousness in churches that would make schoolyard bullies blush with shame. Christians are well-aware of it, and play their cards close to their chest, always afraid of what the next clash, or next fight or next issue will rear up. I have seen this since I was a very small child.

Yet knowing this, Christians actively seek out “Christian” things. If two business advertise, “Decks built by Christians” and “Decks built by atheists” guess which one the Christian will go to? Add a fish symbol in the corner of your yellow pages advertisement. That is enough to bring in Christians.

On Sunday, Christians would not trust another Christian with one dollar. On Monday, they will not go anywhere else! It is amusing to watch the distrust flow between various Christian groups, yet if one is going to buy a wrench, a Christian hardware store is the preferred place to do one’s shopping.

Why? We can see Christians cheat, steal, lie, divorce and embezzle just like everyone else. We can equally see Christians that work hard, are honest, and a hand shake is a promise. But simply putting “Christian” over the door does not guarantee which one we will get! Yet time and time again, we can see that having a “Christian owned and operated business” (like a local shop I know) telling Christians to come on in, everything is fine.

If Christian churches were not so filled with as many problems, fighting, and issues as any other human institution it would be one thing. But it IS filled with these problems. If you don’t trust them on Sunday, why would you trust them the other six days of the week?

I knew of a Deacon I would never, EVER let my daughter be alone with. ‘Nuff said. Yet people flock to “Christian” day-cares. Why? Because there is a reassurance in that name, “Christian.” It means that a person is safe. That only good, upstanding moral people would ever DARE operate a business with “Christian” in its name. The same people that the same Christians don’t trust on Sunday.

Do you really think that a Christian mechanic will tighten your nuts and bolts in a more Christ-like manner than a Pagan mechanic? If your child was being rushed into the hospital for an emergency, would you call ahead to make sure there is a Christian doctor with Christian nurses available? Using medicine that has solely been developed by Christians, of course.

Ulp—forgot. Medical research is partially dependant on the evolutionary theory. Perhaps the medicine is not so Christian after all.

We have Christian Songs, Christian Bands, Christian Books, Christian Movies, Christian Nations, Christian holidays, and now we are entering into Christian Businesses. Do people really believe that Jesus would have only gone to a Christian donkey-owner to ride the Triumphal Entry? Rented the Upper Room from a Christian Landlord? Bought his sandals from a Christian sandal-maker?

Look, go where you want. Listen and do what you desire. From what I observe, “God is my co-Pilot” on your car means I am just as likely to get the finger from you as anyone else.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Could have fooled me

Elsewhere I watched an interesting dynamic take place.

A Christian used a variety of names in describing an atheist.
A person questioned “why the name-calling?”
Other Christians indicated that since the Bible calls atheists “Fools,” they were entitled to do so.

First, I question whether Psalms 14, or its parallel, Psalms 53 (used to justify the claim of the right to call atheists “Fools”) were being used correctly. Paul, when referring to these Psalms in Rom. 3:9-18, seems to indicate that the Psalmist is referring to ALL humans not searching for God, and ALL humans commit bad acts. Basically, that anyone who is evil is a “Fool.”

This is supported by the numerous times in the New Testament that “foolishness” is equated to “sinfulness.” See Mt. 7:26, Mark 7:22, Luke 11:40, Rom: 1:20-23, Gal. 3:1, Eph 5:4, Eph. 5:15, and Titus 3:3.

There are, however, other instances where foolishness is NOT necessarily equated to sinfulness. 1 Cor. 1:18-25, 1 Cor. 3:19, and Titus 3:9. Paul calls himself foolish (and I seriously doubt Christians would associate atheism with Paul!) 1 Cor. 1:18-25, 1 Cor. 3:19, and Titus 3:9

The way I figure it, according to the Bible, we are all fools at one point.

But that is not what fascinated me. What did was the claim to a right to call atheists fools, and a God-given mandate to use that right!

Just because you have a right, does not mean you have to exercise it. I recognize that within the Christian worldview, my wisdom would be considered “foolish.” That my claiming there is no God is “foolish.” That my saying there is no God is “foolish.” Does it help a Christian’s position—exercising that right?

To me it makes little difference. I exist in a world where I am called much harsher names by clients, judges, and especially by other attorneys. Being just a “fool” is almost a relief.

Further, I obtain a perverse irony out of the fact that most Christians using the tern “fool” toward me, yet know less about the establishment of Christianity, and next to nothing about the process of deconverting to atheism.

I once had a “red-light” case. A car collision in which both drivers claim the other ran a red light. My client was severely injured, and did not recall the color of the light. The defendant insisted my client ran a red light. An independent witness thought they remembered my client had a yellow (caution) light.

The attorney for the other side was a flaming jerk. Throughout the case he derided me, as to my inability to practice law, my outstanding ignorance, and my ineptitude of everything, up to and including ability to dress myself.

The day before trial, I contacted the independent witness, to confirm his testimony. He said, “You know, I have been thinking real hard about that day. The more I think about it, the more confirmed I am that your client ran the red light. I am sorry, but that is how I will testify.” My case was sunk!

Right before trial, we were able to settle it. The other attorney continued to mock me, telling me it was good I was afraid to go to trial, because he would have kicked my butt. If he only knew how close to the truth he was! Of course, I could not say anything, because had he known, he would never have agreed to pay as much as he did.

As his client was writing a check for a substantial sum, I had the same sense of perverse irony as I do when someone who has never even heard of the Synoptic problem is calling me a “fool.”

There are times I don’t mind Christianity. It provides a person with hope for an afterlife, and a paradigm by which a person can live a moral life. Hey, “Love your neighbor” no matter WHO frames it, is a good thing. Christianity can provide much needed socialization for some, an avenue to receive help for others and a means in which charitable giving can be easily provided.

And then there are times like this. Where the person claims that God Himself, in a very special and limited-edition written form gave the person not only the permission, but the actual obligation to call another person a fool.

It is such a small, stupid thing, yet I get this sense it is the tip of a very scary iceberg. There is this permeation of self-satisfaction as to the ability to call another person “Fool” with not only no twinge of reflection, but that God is smiling down and nodding His head in approval.

What else does the Christian believe God is actively smiling at?

Christian: God, that guy is an atheist, He’s a fool, right? Right?
God: Right you are. Tell ‘im again. Makes me laugh.

Christian: God, that guy is a Pharisee. Can I call him names and treat him with disgust?
God: Oh, you go right ahead. Gives me a chuckle every time.

Christian: That guy is a fag. God, Can I stone him?
God: Weeeellll.. That sort of thing (to my chagrin) is no longer permitted. *sigh* Tell you what, though. If you make his life miserable, that’s just as good.

Christian: God, that guy is not a ‘True’ Christian.
God: You just do what you think is right. You know God’s got your back.

One of the freeing things about being an atheist is that we are not obligated by what some human told us God says we have to do. We can make the determination, not on beliefs, but on actions, words and statements as to whether a person is a fool or not. Whether name-calling is appropriate or not.

If it makes you feel better (or if you think it gets you in good with your God) to call me a “Fool” knock yourself out. I am not bound by such mandates. If I call you a “fool” you can be happy in the fact that you earned it all on your own. No mandate about it.

All I ask is that you really, REALLY think about what makes your God happy or not. If it stopped at “fool” we could all have a laugh. But I fear it is only the beginning. The beginning of a long laundry list of things the Christian is aching to do and say to non-believers with the firm conviction that God is smiling and cheering them on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Ask the Atheist

Sometimes I play this game I like to call “Ask the Atheist.” It always starts the same.

A former church member, or friend of a friend, or acquaintance writes me about how they had heard I was an atheist, and they always wanted to question an atheist. I don’t mind. About three years ago, I would have been doing the same. Surprised, questioning, curious, and a bit fascinated to actually talk to a real, live, honest-to-goodness atheist.

Like finding that proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We always heard of such things, just never have seen any. Invariably, one of the first questions is, “Do you mind talking about God?” It’s not very nice, but I admit I always chuckle when I read this. I blog in two places about God. I read resources every day on the issue of theism. I have debated on four or five specific forums about God. I read the Bible every single day. Mind? Not at all.

And then a few questions. The usual suspects:

“How can you believe the earth came about by pure chance?”
“What keeps you from doing whatever you want?”
“How do you get around prophecy fulfillment?”
“Since there are no proofs against God, aren’t you an agnostic?”
“Science has been wrong before, how can you rely upon the scientific method?”
“What would it take for you to believe in God again?”

Again, I don’t mind. While I have addressed these issues before, (and really should keep a file with stock answers, but don’t) I enjoy replying to each particular individual’s question or need. Being me, I tend to write long responses. They write a few paragraphs, it seems I write 6 pages! There is just so much to talk about in this realm; it is hard for me to feel I have adequately covered the ground with just a few sentences.

I have started to change my tactic, and write a bit shorter, but it always feels insufficient and a bit lackluster.

I get maybe one follow-up letter, my personal record is a total of three letters, and then it stops. Another round of “Ask the Atheist” is over.

I wonder what I did wrong. Did I provide the wrong answers? One specific participant seemed quite insistent that I had unresolved sin that was simply dying to burst out of me, and the only remnant of a restraint was this pesky belief in a God, so I discarded it to act out my wildest excursions.

The problem being, I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what this particular sin was, nor why a belief in God would restrain me.

Perhaps the person thinks I just never heard of their brand of theism, or haven’t studied the Bible, or was uniformed. And, upon receiving my answers, becomes satisfied that I have made an informed decision. (They never say that, though.)

Or maybe they hope to re-convert me. That no one else has ever introduced me to the brilliant argument of “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” and upon reading it, will abandon my atheistic ways.

Or do they think that I am angry at God? That my long responses are simply excuses for pent-up rage against something that God must have done that nobody (including myself) knows about?

Whatever the reason, the game always ends the same—an abrupt stop to my letters. No reason why. No follow-up. Nothing.

And I always wonder why. The closest I came to figuring out why, is one person told my wife they think I “protest too much” and the fact that I was still going to church meant I was still looking for God. But even he never got back to me. If I was still looking for a God, it apparently wasn’t his job to show me.

Is it that I write too much? Should I write less? But then it wouldn’t be me responding. Should I be more careful about the errors of Christianity? I do try and temper it with a bit of humor, or a light story, or an example. It may be that Christianity is seen so deadly serious, that my approach is taken as disrespect or mocking.

It is hard. There is no god. The Bible is not divine. And while I am ever mindful that my correspondent believes in these things, there are times it is difficult to converse with that same level of belief in the forefront of my mind.

Do I present issues and responses that are scary to them? That they would prefer to not even read it, even to the point of leaving their curiosity about atheism unsatisfied?

What ever the reason, I find myself once again, at the end of another round of “Ask the Atheist.” And I find myself, once again, wondering why.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to Dinner

Last Saturday, after a long day of yard work and various activities, we decided to go out to eat as a family. As we enter the restaurant we see a table of clowns.

Obviously they had been at some event, and were on their way home, relaxing for a bite to eat. Having small children, I immediately began to breathe threats of harm if they bothered these clowns. To some extent, sitting there with their wigs on, and even with their bulbous noses still attached, I could see how they shouldn’t be surprised if kids came up to them.

But, they are entitled to relaxation just like everyone else, and my kids do not need to be bothering them. Of course, fate hating me, we are seated a table right next to them.

My children were great, and other than a few smiles and waves, left the situation alone. I relaxed.

After their meal, a clown came over to the table. I have kids. Not a surprise.

“Do you want some stickers?”

Nice gesture. Clowns. Kids. O.K. She hands my children stickers that say, “God even made Frogs” with a Frog picture. Still nice and O.K.

“We just came from Knoxville Baptist Church.”*

You know that switch inside of you that tells you it is better to be quiet? No matter how much you want to say something, it clicks in and says, “Hey, maybe now is not the time.” That thermostat? I was born without one.

I have a lady in orange hair, bright red make-up, bulb nose, baggy shirt and pants, with two foot shoes saying she just came from Church. I promised to be polite to Christians, but Come ON. This was too good to be true!

I do the only thing imaginable to maintain sanity. Inflict pain on myself to keep from blurting out. I stab myself in my leg with my fork. My response must have sounded something like: “Uh…oh…OW!”

“We are not just clowns. We are Christian Clowns.”
“Oh—OW. I, er, OW…uh” and at this point I collapse into a coughing fit to cover whatever my mouth would love to blurt out.

“Do Mom & Dad want a sticker, too?”

We solemnly take our stickers, my wife daring me to say anything, me trying to find more painful areas to stab.

And the Clown just stood there. Waiting. Apparently we are supposed to respond in a more intelligent manner.

As I looked about the restaurant, I see they have all divided up, and are talking to four different tables. Now, I understood why they came to my table—I have children. Most natural. But I saw one handing stickers to a couple in their mid-60’s and attempt to strike up a conversation.

The couple obviously wanted a quiet relaxing evening, and were none too interested in being bothered by Christian Clowns. After a moment of awkward silence (which was being repeated at our table) the clowns went away.

Here I was doing everything in my power to keep them from being bothered by my kids, and they apparently did not quite have the same courtesy for others!

Lucky for me, at the table behind me, I heard a patron say (loud enough so the clowns, the patrons, and the kitchen staff could hear) “Oh, yes! I am a TRUE follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The clowns swooped in to mingle with friends.

I didn’t mind the clown approaching my table. I didn’t mind the sticker that was pro-God. I was slightly bothered by the attempt to evangelize a restaurant.

What I really thought interesting was my lack of surprise. What would Christians do, if I started going around from table to table at a restaurant with “God is Dead” stickers, handing them out? They would be aghast! Or if I handed out business cards, drumming up new clientele? They would find it rude.

Yet when Christians do these very things, it is tolerated. Even accepted in some resigned fashion. If I did it, I would be labeled a “Militant Atheist.” A Christian? Simply being a good citizen of heaven.

Yes, I know it is mandated. Yes, I know that they are trying to save people from what they think will be an eternity of torture. Seriously—the best evangelism technique would be to actually demonstrate some love for others. Let them eat their meals in peace.

Monday, May 08, 2006

So Suffer!

I have been discussing suffering elsewhere, for about the billionth time. It is the issue that never seems to quite be resolved in debates on theism.

We all see suffering about us. Some of it seems quite unexplainable. The person that has overeaten all their life, or abused their body with some type of drug and has ramifications when they are older can be written off by the theist as “results of sin.”

But the child starving to death, or being beaten for no reason is harder to explain. Diseases such as polio and small pox, which have been virtually wiped out through efforts of humans leave questions as to why a God would allow them in the first place, if He wanted humans to eliminate them.

And as I was having this discussion….again…it struck me. Many theists are resigned to suffering. If their God cannot eliminate it, with all of His power, and if their God does not want it eliminated, with all of his knowledge—who are they to do more than God?

In this respect, I have it easier than the theist. I will, desire and intend to eliminate suffering in all aspects possible, to the point of eliminating its cause, symptoms, results and effects. I understand that the development of nature IS cruel. This world was not “designed” for us to live in, we are adapting to its environment as best we can. Evolution has no “mind” to reduce suffering or pain, which is why we have knees that are more suited for quadruped, rather than bipedal, and suffer more knee injuries. Evolution doesn’t care.

In some ways I have it easier—I do not have to justify why the world is the way it is. I do not have to justify suffering. It simply is. All I have as my goal is to reduce the bad effects as much as humanly possible.

Can a theist do that? In the defenses to the Problem of suffering, I am assured that for some inexplicable reason, God has necessitated that people suffer. Either it is to protect free will, or create balance, so we appreciate not suffering, or it was a result of sin, and not even the intent of God in the first place.

God cannot step in, because it is a punishment He prescribed, or it would impinge free will, or he needs it for us to love him more when he sends joy. So….is the theist bound to reduce suffering? What if, in some way, that would reduce God’s punishment? Who is the theist to put themselves in the position of God? God can no longer send an epidemic of smallpox—was it a sin to wipe out that disease? Is that why God must continually introduce new diseases, such as the West Nile virus, or the Bird Flu, because pesky humans keep interfering with the perfectly good diseases he already had in place in order to buttress whatever he needs suffering for?

Or if suffering is necessary to appreciate joy, is the theist ruining the system? All those people that never get to experience joy, because they didn’t suffer. Or if it is necessary for Free Will, who is the theist to restrict free will by reducing the causes of suffering. Not even God, apparently, can do that.

In other ways I have it harder. See, I have to actually work at reducing other’s distress. The theist, understandably, believes they are in commune with an ultimate power. Something that can eliminate poverty, disease, even death. Theists further believe that this God actually cares enough to get involved, so if the theist prays, they do not have further responsibility; it is now in God’s hands.

I see that it requires humans caring for humans, theists believe that it is something more—a creature of unlimited power that will resolve the problem. I do not take the time to stop and pray, I must move immediately.

And as I have these conversations, where theists are defending for the umpteenth time why we must have misery, pain, and torment in this life, I wonder if they really are bent on reducing it?

I would imagine that people suffering from terminal illness and pain are not at all thrilled to hear how they are necessarily suffering for some reason because there is a God that is ready, willing and able to eliminate the affliction—just not for them.

So as we debate suffering, a small part of the back of my mind can’t help wondering. And now it is wondering out loud. If the theist believes that suffering is necessary, and that not even God can eliminate it—is their heart really into reducing suffering as well? Or are they going through the motions.

Sure, sure, I know their God ordered the theists to have compassion. But is that just a test? See how well they do, to get the biggest mansion? Are those that suffer simply guinea pigs to give the theists test subjects? How cruel is That!

Either God can eliminate suffering, and this is all just one big charade to play out some drama, or God cannot, in which case the theist could have little motivation they can do more than their own God.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

To pray, or not to pray

A stupid micro-example of what it is like being an atheist in a theist’s world.

My immediate family consists exclusively of conservative Christians. When I visit their homes, prior to the meal, they all hold hands, bow their heads, close their eyes, and provide the obligatory prayer.

A waste of time. The private evil-me would LOVE to take out a bit of raw beef, light a candle, and with a fork burn a sacrifice to Zeus, giving an obligatory thank you, with the request to hold back his lightening bolts, and then leave the blackened, smoking steak in the middle of the table to provide Zeus with a pleasing aroma, and a meal should he perchance join us.

Because “grace” has as much influence on reality as my candle/fork/heifer routine. None.

Of course, the rational, human side of me understands that my family is very well-aware of my position, there is no need to “make a point” or to say or do anything would only cause harm, offense and division. It is their home. I have an obligation, as a guest, to be polite. As it is, I get enough sideways glances that I all but hold my breath to keep from rocking the boat any further. (I am known for being slightly out-spoken, so such a display would not necessarily be out of character.)

So I hold hands, bow my head, close my eyes, and tune out. (At one time I listened, but that started an internal process of debating the prayer, and there is nothing but bad coming from that!)

But what happens in my home? I am married to a conservative Christian, as well, which only complicates things. Would my family grant the same courtesy, if we decided to not pray?

It has become a bit of a ritual. We invite family over. A bit of socializing and then the meal is ready to be served. There is a moment of awkwardness; the pause before the storm. Do I say, “Dig in?” Do I pray? I can see my family holding their breath, wondering how an atheist starts a meal.

And I punt. I ask one of my kids to pray.

O.K.—call me a gutless wimp. I was raised in a home where one defers to one’s guests. If they are hot, turn down the furnace and put on a sweater. If my dog frightens them, she can be restricted away. The people I invite are more important than the “things” I have. If their children are not allowed to watch movies my children can, I defer to them. If they need a prayer, give ‘em one.

And they breathe a collective sigh of relief. The moment passes.

This happened again. Recently. And yes, I told you it was stupid. Yet I reflect on why it has to happen at all. Why does religion have to be so divisive that literally a minor, unnecessary ritual becomes a moment of awkward uneasiness?

I could serve chicken, fish or steak, and no one would feel odd, or awkward with these choices. We go into houses where people ask us to take off our shoes, or not touch the vase, or not use the guest bathroom and think nothing of it. But introduce religion… little prayer…..and all of a sudden it drives us apart.

What, really, does it matter if someone prays before a meal or not? I know they don’t pray before every snack grabbed out of the cupboard. I never prayed between potato chips.

This is just a minor example. There are so many, other minor examples. They can start a joke with “A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister walk into a bar…” But if I did, there would be tension, not humor. We avoid discussing certain movies, certain books, certain places, and certain people, all out of fear of where the conversation would head.

We can discuss what color car we like, where we like to shop or eat, or what our kids are doing. And in the back of every mind is, “Do I tell them about---Whoops! Better not go there. Or that—Ah, No. That is best left unsaid.”

While I enjoy discussing the various flavors and nuances of religion with a variety of people, on occasion it hits home just how harmful it can be. It can be fun to debate who wrote the Gospel of Matthew and when. It gets less amusing when I see my own family cringe over a silly ritual instilled by years of repetition, and dividing us, even for a moment. Religion can be insidiously invasive into separating people because of the engulfing judgment it seems to require.