Monday, December 28, 2009

Church is Ruined for me

Having grown up in a Christian environment, it is unsurprising I continue to find comfort in many Christian traditions—including many Christmas trappings. I like Christmas Carols. I say, “Merry Christmas” with abandonment. I find angels and stars and nativity scenes pretty.

One thing I always enjoyed was the Christmas Eve service, where typically one sang Carols by candlelight. I announced plans to attend a former church’s Christmas Eve service, and the rest of the family piled along.

We sang Carols by Candlelight; I joyously joined in. Watched the band play Christmas songs; liked that too. Saw a skit about the innkeeper; I chuckled at the appropriate moments.

But there was something else—something that didn’t exist in my memories of tradition. Too much knowledge; too much information.

When referring to the innkeeper from “No room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7), my mind, unbidden, immediately thought of how this wasn’t a “hotel” as we envision, but rather a large gathering room at one of Joseph’ family member’s house. How the author of Luke uses the word kata luma rather than a pandocheion (Luke 10:34)—a place for strangers to obtain lodging.

Or when it was mentioned how terrible to be born in a stable, I remembered how animals typically stayed in the same lodging as humans, especially in winter. A running gag involved how exciting the census was, and I had to clamp my lips shut from saying, “Not at all! This census so infuriated the Judeans, it led to the Jewish Revolt and the complete destruction of the Temple!”

This nuance would pop up, or this platitude would be spoken, and each time my mind thought of all the things unstated. Incorrect. Unknown to the vast majority of the audience.

I realized an analogy would be watching a magic show. But a magic show where you already knew how every trick was performed. As much as you would try to enjoy yourself in the moment, your eye couldn’t help but wander to where the magician was palming the handkerchief at just the right moment. You can appreciate the mastering of the trick, yet your mind was anticipating how the box would fold, or when the girl would appear, or how the mirrors were not solid.

In some manner it would be regrettable, because you can’t quite suspend your disbelief to enjoy the magic show for what it is; you know too much. You can’t enjoy it as MAGIC--it is parlor tricks.

I felt the same way. I know what the Pastor was trying to say. I understand the points being made. I understand the rest of the audience “oohhed” and “aahhhed” at the wonderment of magic being displayed before them. Yet it is no longer magic to me.

I still enjoyed the singing. I enjoyed seeing people I haven’t seen in some time. I could see how I would enjoy the socialization of church.

I could do the Christmas Eve service again next year without hesitation. I just cannot re-capture the naivety of the nativity anymore.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lovin' Franken

If you are from Minnesota; I simply envy you unabashedly.

If you don’t watch the video, here is a synopsis.

Lieberman: Pontificating.
Franken: Your 10 minutes is up.
Lieberman: Can I have unanimous consent for extra time?
Franken: No.

McCann: [huffily] In all my years on the Senate floor, I have NEVER seen such outrage.
Franken: Duly noted. Now move on.

Here is why I love it. First of all, there is a reason for a 10-minute rule. It would be one thing if Lieberman was making some necessary points, and was in the middle of a well-framed argument. But no, he is merely blathering with no proposed solutions. This is the reason for the 10 minute rule! The idea is, “Take your best shot. Make good, strong points. Lose the rhetoric and sophistry. Be prepared.”

Even more importantly, I loved the response to McCann. Notice what McCann does NOT say. He does not list a rule Franken is violating. He does not even indicate what important statements Lieberman was not allowed to say. All he says is, “this is the way we always do it.”

For a “maverick,” you would think he (of all people) would understand, “This is the way we always do it” is not the best justification.

Occasionally, I am faced with similar situations in my practice. I come across attorneys who say, “In all my ___ years of practice I have NEVER seen anyone do that.” To which I love to reply, “Great! Today you get to learn something new! Today you get to do something you have never done before! Isn’t it fun to learn?”

Monday, December 14, 2009

Control of what I say; Control of what I do

A religion (or a religious belief) may have the best of intentions, yet by its very nature and the eagerness of people to follow, it is susceptible to being used as a control device. The “True Christian” defense is often employed to explain this very problem away. To explain why some particular leader manipulated the follower’s beliefs for the leader’s own gains. The defender will proclaim, “They weren’t a ‘True Christian’—they utilized Christianity’s methods, words and means to obtain their own ends.”

Even followers of religious doctrines recognize that in the wrong hands, the very techniques, beliefs, creeds and statements of their religion can look so very similar—yet with vastly different motivations and results.

Simply put, religion is an extremely pragmatic tool—effective to exert control.

Further, even without a nefarious motivation, religions naturally entail control through prescription of values. If a God (master of all time, space, energy, etc.) was interested in establishing a particular religion here on earth, it makes sense there would be a reason to do so. That reason results in exercising limitations and restrictions. The reason is the foundation for establishing the rules and regulations of the religion.

The reason is the justification for implementing direction and controlling the behaviors of the followers. Offer the correct sacrifice; the pleased God rewards. Offer the incorrect sacrifice; the angered God punishes.

By searching and proclaiming the reason a God would bother intervening in the world; one creates the rules to satisfy the reasons. If God intervened to make people happy—the religion explains what the person must do to make the God happy. If God intervened to be worshiped—the religion explains how to worship God. If God intervenes to save humans from themselves—the religion provides the means by which the God does so.

Christianity initiated during times when religious prescription was in full force. The Roman Gods required certain acts and sacrifices. The Jewish God required certain acts and sacrifices. Even the mystic religions had secret rituals.

The first Christian writing we have—1 Thessalonians—continues to follow the typical religions dictates. If you read through the book, you will see the focus on doing--not believing “walk worthy of God.” (2:12) “how you ought to walk and please God.” (4:1) “abstain from sexual immorality.” (4:3) “don’t defraud your brother” (4:6) “lead a quiet life, mind your own business, work with your hands.” (4:11) If you read through the entire book (it doesn’t take very long)—it reads like a list of Do’s and Don’ts of any variety of religions.

In fact, it doesn’t emphasize faith or believing, but rather uses those doctrines as tools of encouragement that the believer will continue to follow the rules.

But something changed. What that was, we can only speculate from piecing together the Christian documents we have and our little knowledge about the First Century Mediterranean. Christianity became a religion of belief. As long as one believed correctly, the actions could be forgivable.

“….if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)

What is the inherent problem here? Well…if all one has to do is have a certain belief, this can be easily made, and then there are no more limitations. Heaven is assured whether one acts a certain way or not. Christianity becomes a one-time thought, and then Blessed Assurance.

Paul recognizes this problem, and spends some length in Romans 6 attempting to justify how Christians were dead to sin, and shouldn’t keep on sinning because they no longer should want to, but what Paul doesn’t explain is why.

The result is a muddled balance whereby a person must believe AND that belief must be evidenced by works. (James 2:17-18) For all the claims about Christianity being “different” because it is not a works-based religion, it necessarily integrates works within its belief. (Go back to the top of this blog entry. Remember those “No True Christian” arguments? Was that as a result of what the person said they believed or what works were present? If one claims they were not a “True Christian” because of their works, then Christianity must be a works-based religion.)

Christianity’s retention of Do’s and Don’ts retains religion’s control over the believers. A comment was made in the last blog entry as to reconciling the concept of immediate justification (salvation) yet subsequently disappointing God. Was the act of salvation insufficient to completely satisfy God?

In short: yes.

Therefore, while God may be 90% or 99% or whatever percentage you desire to pick, pleased with one’s choice, there was still that remaining percentage, no matter how small, where you could still disappoint him.

So Christians spend an inordinate amount of time, effort, and funds to avoid that percentage (whatever it may be) chance of making Jesus cry. That small percentage is area the religious focus 99% of their lives.

If one’s own personal belief was enough—what would it matter if Adam and Steve were married? If one’s own personal belief was enough—who cares whether there was a strip club down the street? Or liquor is sold on Sunday? Or people wear certain clothes or say certain prayers or do certain acts?

By their nature, religions control. Christianity (despite its protests otherwise) is no exception.

(Title of Blog credited to Janet Jackson, of course.)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sin…what is it good for?

Growing up, we were intimately familiar with the concept of “sin.” We knew the biggies—the ones we would never commit, but could gain a certain amount of satisfaction realizing we weren’t that bad:

1) Murder.
2) Rape.
3) Kidnapping.
4) Sex with farm animals.

There was the category of sins we didn’t want to do, but did anyway to avoid problems:

1) Lying.
2) Cheat on a test.

And finally there were sins we wanted to do, but knew we shouldn’t:

1) Disobey our parents.
2) Not share our toys.
3) Go to Movie theaters.
4) Get to second base.

We were taught the reason we sinned is because…(and this is obvious)…sinning was fun. It was what our [sin] nature wanted to do. No one sinned because they had to, or did it reluctantly. We did it because it was such a temptation to do the thing our very being craved most at the moment.

We sinned because we liked it. (Not the big ones, of course. No one was allowed to enjoy those!)


We were also taught over and over how sin was a disappointment to God. Yes, our sins were covered by Jesus’ blood or atoned for or paid for by His death or _______ [insert appropriate Christian platitude] and we wouldn’t lose our salvation just because we didn’t clean our room when Mom asked us to. Yet every time we sinned—we were repeatedly informed—this hurt God. This bothered God. Jesus cried tears ‘cause we wanted to kiss before we were engaged.

Nobody wants to be a disappointment to their parents. We don’t want to hear the “Sigh” and see the long look on their face. This drives a stake of guilt right into the child’s heart. Even worse, we were disappointing God—the one who loved us, and died for us. Imagine how big His “sigh” would be, and how long His face could get!

And so we entered a cycle:

1) Be tempted by sin.
2) Say “no.”
3) Try not thinking about the sin.
4) Think about the sin.
5) Say “no” again.
6) Think about the sin.
7) Ask God to take away the temptation.
8) Think about the sin.
9) Remember the guilt you felt last time.
10) Say “no” again.
11) Remember the fun you had last time.
12) Justify doing it just this once.
13) Sin.
14) Now the fun is over, feel terribly guilty!
15) Ask forgiveness for the sin.
16) Vow to never sin again.
17) Go back to step 1.

We lived in an almost constant state of wrestling between wanting to sin and not wanting to sin and feeling guilty about sinning and talking about the sins we shouldn’t commit and thinking about sin. This creates a bit of inner turmoil, as you can imagine.

Then we would look at non-believers. We understood their conscience had been suppressed. Muted in some way. They didn’t feel quite the same guilt as we did when we sinned. In fact, one of the mandatory, necessary steps in converting the non-believer was to make them recognize they were sinning! If they didn’t realize they were disobeying God; they would never see their need for God to save them from disappointing God.

We also understood that deep, deep down, they secretly knew there was a God. That there were higher morals they should be following. (See Romans 1 & 2.) What we needed to do was reach past that guilt-free sinful exterior and pull those feelings out, so they could see how bad they were.

In other words, we needed them to feel the same guilt and turmoil we did when it comes to sinning.

Realize we were not envious of the non-believer for their non-guilt feelings. Oh, no—we pitied them. They were going to eternal torment in hell; who envies that? They were angering the creator of the universe; who wants to be in that position? We were light; they were darkness. We were salt; they were tasteless. We were fruit; they were despair. Every good analogy (life, light, salt) we were; every bad analogy (death, darkness, eventual agony) they were.

We felt empathy with the non-believer. We fought with and desired to reduce those inner battles over sin; we assumed they did at one time as well. We simply figured they took the wrong route. We faced up to our demons, and (with God’s help) continued to war against the evil sin nature. They had succumbed to it by claiming there is no God. Or that there are no morals. Or believing in the wrong, namby-pamby type God.

This is why many believers tell us deconverts we stopped believing in God so we could sin; it makes perfectly logical sense to the believer. They want to stop the inner discomfort; they assume we do as well. They think not believing in God will do so; they presume this is the choice we made to suppress the internal feud. “Remove God from the picture and one no longer has to feel guilty about disappointing God,” is how they reason.

They think we are convinced in the theory of evolution because it gives us an excuse to sin. They think we find contradictions in the Bible to allow us to sin. They think we look for any excuse in the world to disbelieve Jesus walked on water so we can cheat on our taxes without the same feelings of guilt the believer has.

This is why telling these types of believers we deconverted because of evidence and reasoning is a waste of time. They have already transferred their own motivations and desires on us. They believe we think just like they do, and the only reason they can possibly see for giving up God is to sin.

I wonder if this is why atheist-to-Christian stories often include tales of sinning, but feeling terrible about it. This is exactly the stereotype many Christians have in their mind regarding non-believers. It fits perfectly. That the only reason we don’t believe is to avoid the inner conflict the believer so righteously engages when wrestling with sin.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No Going Back

I enjoy casually reading Christian apologetic sites. Some include tales of how the Christian used to be an atheist…just…like…me. So they know what I am thinking, apparently. We read the following stories:

My name is Todd Pitner and if you happen to be a non-believer, I used to be one of you – an intellectually fulfilled ‘good person’ who had a pretty good run for 42 of my 45 years. Although born into a Catholic family and lovingly forced into church attendance, after high school I couldn’t get church in the rear-view mirror fast enough. Other than the obligatory annual Christmas and Easter services, I was “godless and doing just fine.”

Upon joining the Church of NarcissistianityThe Gospel According to Me, the next twenty-plus years served me pretty well. I compiled quite an impressive non-believer’s resume. My credentials:

– Made a lot of money, lost it all (bankrupt)
– Got married, had kids, all-work, no pray (divorced)
– Tried drugs, drank enough to kill a moose (alcoholic)
– Broke all Ten Commandments* (could never fix ‘em)
– Decided to kill myself (too much of a wimp)

* See Matthew 5:21-26 and 1 John 3:15 if
your left eyebrow went up on this admission.

Yes indeed, my life sucked. But as God is so prone to do, He brought me to my knees so that I might look up. In my utter despair, I gave up on Todd 1.0 and prayed for a Divine reboot, “God, if you’re there, if you’re really, really real…would you please help me?!”[emphasis all in original]

Humanity had become nothing more to me than an organized network of molecules and enzymes. I viewed people as mere organisms going through their daily routines of metabolizing nutrients and expelling wastes, ovulating their eggs and ejaculating their semen. I knew the psychology of humans almost as well as their anatomies. The hidden things that pulled them this way and that were very evident to me. They were like guinea pigs, only more predictable, and my chief form of entertainment was to see how skillfully I could manipulate them. I knew that I was supposed to care about them, but I didn't. I couldn't. If mankind's goal was to alleviate its own suffering, a bullet to the head was more efficient and made more sense in my thinking than screwing around with medication or disease control.

What was the point of prolonging any one life? What difference did it make if a girl didn't live to marry or her mother live to see it? Of what value were temporary emotional experiences? They were simply the biochemistry of the brain reacting to sensory input and, upon that individual's death, any remaining memory of that experience would be thrown away along with the person who had experienced it. My extreme point of view had reduced people into throwaway metabolic units; I had become as cold and indifferent as the logic that I exalted.

I was an atheist for most of my life. I thought that the idea of an all powerful, all loving God was just silly. I learned in school that evolution was where life came from, so what do you need God for? And I had a lot of self-motivation for living an atheistic lifestyle. I was living a very immoral life and a drunken life, life that was really a hundred percent focused on journalism.

Right from journalism school I went to the Chicago Tribune, which was unusual; but I had so much experience for a kid...because I knew since I was a little kid what I wanted to do. So I started as a general-assignments reporter. I went to Yale to get my masters in law, came back as a legal editor, covered federal courts, covered criminal courts, covered the Illinois Supreme Court and really enjoyed it but without God, without a moral framework, my personal life was out of control, the drinking, the carousing. I had no moral framework of how to do journalism so I would do whatever it took to get the story. I would steal; I would commit a federal crime by stealing federal documents from the courthouse. I made friends with the court clerk, and he allowed me to go by myself into the court files; and so I would go in there, and I would beat the competition all the time by finding all this wonderful stuff in the court files that no one knew about. So when I would find something particularly juicy, I would slip it under my vest, and I would steal it so when the story broke, the competition couldn't find the documents. Then I gave it a day or two, then I put it back. I figured it was worth it because I never got caught.

I would lie. I remember covering stories at the police headquarters, I would call the witness to a crime and I would say, "Hello this is Lee Strobel calling from police headquarters." Well the implication was that I was with the police department. I intentionally mislead and deceived them, because I figured they would tell me more than if they knew I was a reporter. There was nothing that I wouldn't do in pursuit of a story. I would step on my colleagues, in a very Machiavellian way. I, behind the scenes, destroyed the career of one of my colleagues because he was in my way. By the time I was done with him, he was fired from the Chicago Tribune. That's a terrible thing to do, to destroy someone's career; but I did it. And I didn't care. It didn't bother me one iota, because he was in my way. Get rid of him, destroy him...and I was able to do it. He got called on his honeymoon to be informed that he had been fired from his job...a terrible thing. But, as I said, I had no moral sense of right or wrong. If something was in my way, I got rid of it.

And as I read these tales, I realized I could never go back to being a Christian. It would seem I do not qualify to be “atheist” enough.

I haven’t gone bankrupt. Haven’t cheated on my wife, nor been divorced. Not a drunk. The closest brush with the law outside of my job is speeding tickets. I haven’t destroyed someone’s career—I don’t lie and steal to frustrate my competitors. I don’t consider humans to be “guinea pigs,” nor do I think suicide is the solution is suffering.

Evidently, according to these Christians, there is quite a bit more to being an atheist and I am simply not getting with the routine.

Only a cynic would think these are horrendous straw-people, designed to impress other Christians as to how “atheistic” a person REALLY was. Only a scoffer would think these testimonies aren’t intended to relate to atheists, but are intended to tell Christians how miserable atheists actually are in the deep down inside.

I guess, until I qualify as a “True Atheist,” I will never have such great stories to tell of being so despondent, rich, and sexually immoral.