Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Agnostic Front

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him" - Voltaire

I tend to buy into Freud's assertion that religion was created as a result of man's fear of his inability to escape death.  Nevertheless, I love a good argument.  Debating facts and differing opinions is sport to me.  After a spirited debate, both parties (if I'm one of them) usually walk away without animosity and hopefully enlightened by each others' position on the topic just deliberated.  But even I know that there are some topics that are probably best left alone.  Sometimes people get so passionate and take their self-designated righteousness so seriously that they can't help but hold a grudge after a discussion that ends in disagreement.  Politics is a prime example.  I occasionally work with a guy whose politics are completely opposite of mine...and most everyone else I know for that matter.  I can always tell when such a discussion has gone south for this guy because he starts arguing on emotion rather than fact and the discussion becomes heated and peppered with cursing and personal insults.  I find it easy to smile because it's clear to both of us that I won the debate.

Another prime example is religion.  The point of this post is not to debate religion because even I can't win that argument.  I'm not even sure why I'm posting this.  For some reason, I'm frequently asked my opinion on ecumenical topics.  I've found that most often, it isn't my opinion that is sought; rather, it's my agreement and compliance with the opinions of the person doing the asking.  I'm betting that there will be some people who will choose not to associate with me after reading this and if so, I suppose we're both better off.  Few people are as judgmental, hypocritical, and condescending as Christians.  My favorite quote in this respect is from Brennan Manning and reads as follows:

"The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

I was not raised in church.  In fact, most people who know me know that I am a born again agnostic.  But there was a time when I could thump a Bible with the best of them. My grandfather was a Methodist lay preacher, but my mother, sisters, and I only attended church on Easter and sometimes around Christmas.  I got involved with and joined a Baptist church when I was in high school after my eighteen year old sister was killed.  I was angry and full of questions and my best friend's family was there to lend compassion and spiritual guidance.  They were great people who were compassionate and genuinely concerned.  This Baptist church was relatively new and had split from the Second Baptist Church, which of course had split from the First Baptist Church.  Even as a teen, it didn't take me long to realize that schisms were commonplace in the Baptist community.  By the time I left this particular church, it was in the process of splitting yet again.  All these splits would be fine if they were  seed-planting exercises to extend the reach and service of the church in the surrounding community.  But these weren't efforts to spread the Word and reach out to other neighborhoods.  These were reactionary acts of spite which divided the congregations and in some cases, split lifelong friendships.

Many years later, I was married with two sons, had separated from the Air Force, and was on track to a promising telecommunications career.  I figured it was time to get my spiritual life in order.  A neighbor had invited us to visit a small Bible church not far from our home.  We accepted the invite and felt very comfortable there.  In a short amount of time, we were regular attendees, although we held off on formally becoming members for a couple of years.  We eventually joined and became deeply involved with this church.  My wife and I taught a Sunday school class for kids starting at two years for a couple of years and then eventually stayed with a group as they aged and moved up in grades until they were four years old.  We were leaders in a children's youth ministry called AWANA (which emphasized Bible Scripture memorization), I was a Deacon, and I also played drums in the "progressive" worship service.

I don't recall any specific event that led me away (or astray as some claim) from this church, or from church altogether.  I do remember several events that most certainly influenced my decision.  After teaching Sunday school for almost five years, we decided we needed some adult fellowship and following an exhaustive search for replacement teachers, we joined a group of married couples near our age.  As adult Sunday school classes typically go when newbies arrive, we were inundated with warm and sincere greetings from the other members on our first Sunday in the "Boomers" class.  Although I recognized the greetings and introductions as sincere, I was struck by the fact that these people were introducing themselves to us as if they had never seen us before.  The fact was, we had been teaching their kids in Sunday school for years and they had no idea who we were.  Later, when the Church's pastor was "called" to lead a church in California, the congregation became angry and spiteful as they embarked on a search for his replacement.  Interestingly enough, the youth pastor was also "called" shortly thereafter to join the senior pastor in California.  This really got the congregation steamed.  The political maneuvering that followed would have been annoying anywhere, but it was especially disturbing to me given that it was a church.  Overall, the blatant hypocrisy demonstrated by both the general members of the congregation, the elders, and even the pastoral leadership became more than I could stand. It didn't take long for me to take my exit from this church and from church altogether.

Most people who know me know that when I want to really understand something, I will research it fully.  The Bible church I attended was blessed (pun intended) with several members who were professors at Dallas Theological Seminary.  In fact, Charles Ryrie was a member of this church.  Many of these professors offered in-depth one-on-one Biblical study sessions that the church called discipling. The idea was that the more time Christians spent truly understanding the Word, the better-rounded, secure, and devout they might be in sharing their faith.  I spent time with one of these professors, but the result was my becoming more skeptical than devoted.  The in-depth verse-by-verse study accompanied by detailed explanations uncovered more contradictions and generated far more questions than it did any sense of security that the Bible was the infallible word of God.  I grew especially impatient with the standard answer of "it would make more sense if you approached it from a position of genuine faith".  For years, the "have faith" line has been the catch-all for television evangelists and other religious scam artists and here I was being handed the same tripe from so-called experts who were considered to be above reproach.

There was a time when publicly stating the above would land a man in prison.  Fortunately, faith is optional today with no legal penalties for publicly arguing topics like the divinity of Christ, creationism, and the infallible nature of the Bible itself.  Still, few allow themselves to even privately ponder the reality of God, much less make public statements.  I've not only allowed myself to face the questions in my mind and heart, I've arrived at a place where I can state my agnostic position in complete confidence with no concern for the opinion of others.  My head and my heart are open and yet I feel nothing, which tells me that it's all bullshit or I'm just not wanted.  I can do nothing about either.

What follows here is a series of thoughts on various topics that continue to embolden my stance on (or the lack of) what are generally believed to be religious facts.  I should state that I by no means look down on those who enjoy a faith based life.  If their faith makes them happy and gets them through their day - much less their lives - I'm all for it.  I simply don't share it.  I've been told by more than one seriously devout Christian that in some way, they admired the fact that I lead a life of confidence, motivated by a sincere belief that my success or failure in life is totally up to me.  If I fail at something or if things don't go my way, I simply accept my own shortcomings and seek to resolve them rather than claiming that it was not God's will for me.  When it comes to personal achievement of any sort, they can pray like it's totally up to God.  I'll work like it's totally up to me.

I couldn't care less about the faith of politicians, teachers, and civic officials.  I believe that many of the moral principals taught by Christianity lend themselves to a more civil and compassionate society in general, but I couldn't care less whether or not my President goes to church.  I really don’t care that Mitt Romney is a Mormon anymore than I do that Barak Obama was a twenty year devout member of a white race-hating black liberation theology church.  Given that my only real option in the upcoming election is to vote against someone, I will likely cast my ballot for Romney.  He seems to possess strong business acumen and to be a generally well informed guy.  I just find it odd that such a bright guy actually fell for the whole Mormon bullshit story.  But I digress...

Christianity teaches us that God wants each and every one of us to be saved and that He has a place for all of us in heaven.  Taking God’s salvation goals literally as we are taught raises too many questions to ask, much less attempt to address.  If I were such a God and had similar goals for each and every one of those I created, I think I would have taken care to make the story more believable or at least leave behind a scientifically viable clue or two.  Instead, we are handed a plethora of religious sects, many of which espouse doctrines that are in direct contradiction with each other and we are taught that our souls are condemned to hell for not buying into it.  We see thousands slaughtered annually in the name of religion.  We see hard scientific evidence that lends far more credibility to evolution than it does to “intelligent design”, a term recently employed to replace “creationism”.  Perhaps opponents of evolution see this new term as appearing more palatable to the scientific community than the old one.

What little research I’ve done on evolution leaves at least as many unanswered questions as does religion.  My primary question of evolution is that of the mistakes.  For a species to evolve as many would have us believe we have, there ought to be signs of mistakes, malformations, and physiological failures that failed to make the evolutionary cut.  We have dinosaur bones and cave wall illustrations, but until recently, nothing to indicate that anything between they and us ever existed.  The discovery of the Burgess Shale in Canada might shed serious light on the subject. The relics uncovered there undoubtedly have the intelligent design crowd readying retorts to the claims of undeniable proof of evolution from archeologists who have studied them.  I believe an answer lies somewhere in the interpretation of the construct of time as we know it.  Biblical scholars insist we consider that the seven days referred to in Genesis was not an equal span of time to what seven days today would be.  These same scholars insist that our planet is only about seven thousand years old.  Regardless of its true age, our planet still has a molten core that is still cooling and a surface riddled with faults and cracks.  The Global Warming crowd's insistence  that man's earthly actions affect the temperature trends of the planet is as ludicrous as to say we as a species have the ability to hasten the cooling of the molten core.  I realize I’ve gone off track again and will stop now with a declaration that the global warming myth is as unbelievable as the myth of religion.  It’s interesting to me that even though proponents of religion and global warming are generally on opposite sides of the political and scientific spectrum; both topics are founded in myth and opinion.  The failure to capitulate and espouse a belief in either results in personal excoriation and eternal condemnation. Neither can be scientifically proven.  In fact, objective science actually refutes both religion and global warming.

Back to the topic at hand.  Of the three primary monotheisms, Christianity and Judaism have at least attempted to address the inconsistencies in their writings. Islam, however, has not, despite the fact that there are many more inconsistencies in Islam than there are in Judaism and Christianity. Islamists don’t ask these questions publicly.  If you wonder why this is, ask Salmon Rushdie.

To gauge how the accepted religious teachings stack up against some of the more strange cult teachings, ponder the following scenario.  Allow yourself to imagine that you are a modern adult with reasonable cognitive skills and the ability to rationalize the events that take place around you.  Imagine further that you have reached this point in your life without the slightest notion whatsoever of religion and the concept of eternity.  Somehow, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses never made it to your door and you never saw Joel Osteen’s polished presentation (and even more polished teeth) on television.  One day, you answer a knock at your door and the visitor offers to tell you about God and His plan for your salvation.  In doing so, he tells you that God is in a space ship rocketing through space hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.  He explains the concept of eternal salvation and adds that you can have it if you simply give up all your worldly possessions, castrate yourself, live in servitude designing Internet web pages in the visitor’s commune, and end your life on his terms.

The next day, you answer another knock at the door and are greeted by a different visitor with a similar message of salvation.  In this version, the savior is not piloting a space ship.  Instead he is a man born thousands of years ago from Immaculate Conception to be the earthly embodiment of his father in heaven.  In an effort to atone for the future sins of all mankind, this man was murdered and subsequently entombed for three days after which he was spotted by many people just before he ascended into the skies and into heaven.

Which of these stories is more believable?  After all, it’s a fact that we have space ships, the Hale-Bopp comet is proven to exist, and the Internet has been around for years.  Compare these facts to all the other examples of Immaculate Conception, the dead rising, and eye witness accounts of these risen dead defying gravity and catapulting into the skies.

No, I’m not a follower of Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult.  At least their bullshit story was rooted in elements that were scientifically provable.

Divine Communication
I find it interesting that people of faith don't consider the possibility that God would bother to communicate with people on earth today.  For some reason, only people of Biblical times were worthy of such divine intervention. Even more interesting (to me anyway) is the fact that these same people of faith totally discount the possibility that interstellar aliens have reached out to earthlings.  The amount of available proof for either event is pretty much equal.  I was told once that since the Bible didn't mention it, it isn't possible.  The Bible didn't mention airplanes or the Internet either, but I'm pretty sure those things exist.  The Bible also never mentioned Jesus taking a dump, but we all pretty much agree that he probably did.  But I digress.

"I Was Just Following Orders"
We all know the story of Dena Schlosser, the Plano, Texas woman who murdered her daughter by cutting off her arms claiming God commanded it.  We also all think she's nuts.  No one in their right mind would believe God would command such a thing.  Would we?  Would He?  Consider the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:5).  The same devout Christians who shake their head (and probably their finger) at Schlosser have no problem believing that God told Abraham to bind and murder his son Isaac in a symbol of sacrifice.  Dena Schlosser is a real person. People knew her.  We saw her on TV.  Nobody that anybody knows ever saw Abraham.  His existence is solely based on writings which were transcribed countless times over thousands of years by scribes who were largely unaccountable for their translations.  Yet to the faithful, Abraham was following God's orders and Schlosser was just crazy.  For what it's worth, Schlosser is crazy too to at least one unfaithful blogger.

The Covenant of Circumcision
Genesis 17:10 details the reported contract between Abraham and God requiring the circumcision of Abe's descendents. It's probably a good thing God doesn't communicate with His people anymore.  First, He commands painful penile modification of Abraham’s descendents, then he commands that Abraham kill his only son.  I can see Abraham finally yelling up to God "I've had just about enough of this shit! Go pick on some other family!  Job seems pretty content these days.  Why not ring him up?"  Again, I digress.  Why would an intelligent designer not pay more attention to the creation of male genitalia when those genitalia are responsible for the procreation of the race that the designer put such effort into creating? The biblical statement that we were made in God's image makes me wonder if God Himself was circumcised and if He was, who performed the procedure?  I for one am glad that I am cut, but I find it odd that such a thing should be mandated by a religious covenant.

I have little to say on this topic because the existence of gay people is neither of interest nor of issue to me.  It was obviously a thorn in the side of those who framed the Bible as they picked and chose which books and passages would be included.  If homosexuality were so bad, wouldn't it have appeared in Moses’ top 10 list of sins?  Some argue that it is included in the adultery commandment, but coveting a neighbor’s wife is specifically called out apart from adultery.  I find it interesting how religious fundamentalists declare that AIDS is a punishment dished out to homosexuals by God.  If that’s the case, why don't lesbians get it?  God must be a guy who like most mortal men, finds lesbianism cool.

Masturbation & Sex
The Biblical reference for this one is difficult to pinpoint.  Perhaps it falls under the rules regarding lust.   Catholic teaching goes out of its way to convince its youth of the sinful nature of, well nature.  Isn’t it odd that we are forbidden by our Creator to satiate instincts which were instilled in us by that very same Creator?

I used wonder if the sins of child rape committed by priests are the result of Catholic doctrine or of sexual oppression.  I’ve come to realize that sexual oppression itself is a Catholic doctrine.  If God had intended for us not to do all the things His commandments forbid, perhaps He should have taken better care to design a different species.

Third Party Intercession & Forgiveness
The topic of Divine forgiveness through salvation is one that always ruffles feathers.  We are taught that our sins are forgiven if we accept Christ as our savior.  It's one thing for me to forgive you for stealing from me or vice versa. Still, I find it odd that Christ, as a third party, can forgive me for sins I commit against another. No man in his right mind would accept a court of law forgiving a crime against another after acknowledging the offender's guilt to the victim.  Jesus might have gotten away with it in His day as He did with the prostitute in Luke, chapter 7.  I challenge even the most steadfastly devout Christians to allow it to be done to them today.  I imagine that after Christ told the hooker to "Go and sin no more" that there were a few local wives who didn't feel duly compensated.  To that end, imagine this scenario:

Judge:  Did you steal and do you still have the plaintiff's $1,000?
  Defendant: Yes, your Honor.
Judge:  Are you sorry?
  Defendant: Yes, your Honor.
Judge: Did you vote for me?
  Defendant: Yes, your Honor.
Judge: Then you're forgiven and free to go.
  Plaintiff: WHAT THE FUCK!

Whether or not people will admit it to themselves (much less speak publicly about it), religion has clearly done more harm to the world than good. This is irrespective of whether or not the Deities represented are real or not.    All anyone with even a partially objective mind has to do is consider the wars, political strife, suffering of the innocent, and general mayhem that has occurred throughout history, which were brought about because of man's childish inability to accept responsibility for the course of his life.  The idea of a happy place in the sky or the opposite in the bowels of the earth is so simple minded it's worse than child like.  This line of thinking (or lack of) has spawned a competition of religions in a sort of "my invisible friend can beat up your invisible friend" mindset that makes the Teletubbies look like Einstein.  I suppose it's easier for most people to just hedge their bets, get up early on Sunday, and "worship" their God.  It makes me wonder why such an omnipotent God capable of designing the entire universe would command something like worship from the mere mortal beings it created out of dust.

I tell myself "I'm not an atheist", but the more I read and think, the more I find I'm leaning that direction.  I have a hard time thinking that the world just happened, but religion offers no help if you really look into it.  The story we've been told is a loosely translated compilation of stories which were carefully selected to coerce a behavioral pattern out of those who choose to (or have a need to) follow them.  Religion is politically influential and it's big business.  Still, we're given the brains to ponder our existence, but told not to use them if doing so includes asking questions and raising thoughts I've written here.  Well, I've stopped asking questions.  I believe that when we die, we rot in a box (assuming we're foolish enough to actually pay for one, but that's another topic altogether).  I use "we" lightly because I know people who are terrified of the prospect of post life incineration, even though they aren't really religious or spiritual.  Nevertheless, I plan to either be cremated or to donate my body to an all-female urology college.

Few people who disagree with my sentiments have either the knowledge or the guts to engage me in a discussion over them.  I'm not that bright, but I have a deep resolve and I argue from a position of fact rather than emotion.  Still, I have been asked many times "what if you're wrong?"  My usual response is "I'm not" or "What if you are?"  But, I have pondered the possibility and as such have come to the conclusion that if upon my death I find myself face to face with my maker and am asked why I was not a follower, I believe my initial response would be "you never provided any evidence." If given the opportunity to elaborate, I would follow that up with "I believe that a God who created so many inconsistencies and contradictions in His infallible text - presumably given to us as a road map for salvation - would prefer honest and unconvinced non-belief over a hypocritical and self-interested profession of faith done so out of coercion or from a hedging of bets".

As much as I love being studying this stuff, I like being entertained even more.  If after reading this, you have the stomach, take a look at this online video.  You can find it here, on Netflix, or just click the play button below.  It's takes a humorous approach to agnostic questioning.  Not being the type to accept one side of an argument simply because it's on my side of the issue, I've read numerous articles debunking the filmmaker's statements.  Interestingly enough, most all of them cite their proof that the Bible is fact using the Bible itself as their evidence.  It reminds me of a parent responding to a child's question with "because I say so".  Nevertheless, I recommend researching both sides of the issue and making up your own mind.  Don't take my word for it!   

The piece above is long and semi-serious, albeit sprinkled with humor.  If you want a real laugh, check this out!