I love learning about various religions. One of those I'm least familiar with is Islam, a religion which offers the lives of ~1.4 billion people meaning, ritual, joy, structure, and answers to their ultimate existential questions. Despite owning a Qur'an I've always been discouraged from reading into it for two specific reasons. The first reason is that the copy I have (at least) seems to begin with a bit of a grave warning, saying that if you read the Qur'an and choose not to accept and follow it, you're screwed (I forget if this meant death, misery, something akin to hell, or what). Being of somewhat good conscience it didn't seem right for me to continue reading the Qur'an if I couldn't agree to its terms. It felt a bit like a software EULA I was being asked to accept, when I knew there was a clause in it I had no intention of agreeing to. I had to hit the decline button. My learning about Islam has thus been somewhat indirect, in the form of summary and analysis by others who supposedly have read it. Out of that comes the second reason I've not delved into much related to Islam. I love dogs, and Islam is the only religion I've ever heard of that has teachings against dogs. I found a site which list many of the specific hadiths prohibiting dogs and outlining how dogs annul prayers, decrease your heavenly reward, and prevent angels from visiting; and how all dogs except working dogs should be killed. The site is certainly biased, written by a Christian trying to convert people from the Islamic faith, but it still presents citations of the relevant portions of the hadiths as well as variations in the teachings as they are interpreted by various Muslim scholars. I tried to find a less biased source (hoping to find a site run by a Muslim) with a similar list, but found none as comprehensive in my searches. I do understand that there are many faithful Muslims who own and love dogs, but they seem to be very much in the minority, and I'm somewhat unclear on how (given the very specific nature of the passages in the Qur'an) anyone could believe in the Qur'an and simultaneously own and love dogs; I'm somewhat of a literalist, if I'm going to bother believing a particular work has divine authorship I would struggle to literally believe some portions while figuratively disbelieving other portions. Dogs have been good friends to the human race, arguably giving us the edge in our war of displacement with the Neanderthals, so I hope the Islamic faith does not continue to discount the value of our furrier friends.
I want to make clear what is surely already clear: I am not a biblical or religious scholar. I am just a regular guy who tries to understand the universe around me and my place in it. My beliefs are fluid and based on the information to which I am exposed. The best I can say is that it seems unlikely I will be swayed from my present position of agnosticism, unless I find new information that shifts my understanding. Given that I have been exposed to so much already, truly new information of real significance is hard to come by.
As for my background, I was raised a Christian (Episcopalian/Protestant), attended an Episcopalian grammar and high school school, served as an acolyte for a few years, went weekly to services through high school, was also exposed (through my dad) to a syncretic new-age church during visitations with him. I have read most (if not all) of the New Testament and much (but not all) of the Old Testament (all in my youth). I have read a few books on Christianity, but only a few. I have read quite a bit more about unusual faiths (e.g., my dad's church/cult, Scientology, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Ramtha School of Enlightenment, etc.). My favorite religion, the one which feels most true for me, is Zen Buddhism, but though I have read several of their books, and attended several of their services, and dabbled in some of their meditations, I cannot call myself a Buddhist. Religion, it's meaning and influence on people, has always been profoundly interesting to me. If you disagree with me or find fault with what I say I encourage you to respectfully tell me where I have made any factual or logical errors. I am always eager to correct errors, or my own thinking (if I feel it is necessary).
While my present position is that I do not believe in God, I am not what you'd typically consider an atheist. Atheists by common definition know with absolute certainty that there is no God. They have a confidence about their position that can only be described as religious. As for me, I do not know if there is or is not a God, I know only that I have not found sufficient reason to believe in one, and instead found reasons not to. I fully acknowledge that there is ample space within the framework of physics and quantum physics for Him to operate, I simply find no proof that He does.
I enjoy discussing these topics with all people who are confident enough in their own divergent views to find our discussion enjoyable rather than frustrating and heretical. Despite what some may think, I see us as all looking for the same answers, trying to resolve the same mysteries. If you've found your answers, congratulations! I am still finding mine.
These blog entries are not meant to de-convert anyone, they are simply my exploring my own thoughts and observations in the public view. Greater minds have covered these topics, covered all topics, but that doesn't mean we lesser minds don't enjoy our time in the sun.
The other day I stumbled across the site JesusNeverExisted.com and was blown away. The site is fantastic! It puts the words to my own rejection of Christianity and backs words with facts I only vaguely knew/suspected. The site and its author brilliantly attack the foundations of Christianity and its many claims through logical and historical arguments, most of the time using the church's own writings/teachings to make the points. The site also offers fascinating contextual information about how the bibles were shaped, and upon what other documents and religions they were based.
I wanted to hate this site, when I first clicked the link to get there I expected the worst, the title being so "in your face". Arguments against Christianity (from atheists, especially) usually feel exhaustingly and frustratingly religious (in their own way), without any real facts, but this site instantly had me hooked because it lays out the arguments and the facts so well (and the facts are often conflicting quotations from the bible).
This site is unlikely to convince any true believer that they have been mistaken, but it surely would give a nudge to someone already on the fence.
If the Old Testament is divinely inspired by God, even a little bit, then I do not understand how it can sanction and promote so many egregiously wrong ideas, such as slavery:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness. – Leviticus 25.44
How can a "good" book say such a bad thing. How can a modern day Christian, many of whom purport to believe in the bible as the divinely inspired and (to many) inerrant work of God reconcile these words with our modern opinions on slavery. These (and others) are the words which emboldened and succored southern slave owners up to and during the American Civil War; these are the words which kept the "coloreds" in their place, separate and unequal.
The bible advocates many ideas and policies which we have (thankfully) long ignored, including stoning people to death for things such as working on the sabbath. If this work is divinely inspired why do the faithful not follow it more closely? If this work is divinely inspired by an omniscient God, how could it become so quickly outdated?
Christianity (in particular) puts quite a lot of emphasis on "faith". Preachers love to talk about how faith is a requirement, that we cannot require or expect proof from God, at least not in the same way we might expect and require proof from a scientist talking about his new discovery. To be a true follower of God you must believe in Him, largely on the basis of faith.
But what seems so odd to me is that few of the figures mentioned in the Old and New Testaments were required to have the sort of faith we are now expected to. The key figures in both Old and New Testaments all had direct and unambiguous contact with God, Jesus, and angels. This direct contact was not made only to the deeply faithful, it involved those who had no faith, those who had only marginal faith, and those with whom the concept of faith didn't even apply. God proved Himself to Moses by His appearance through the burning bush. God spoke directly to Abraham. God (as Jesus) proved Himself to the Apostles and many an average citizen by walking among them and performing indisputable miracles in their very presence. God (as Jesus) proved Himself to Saul (who became Paul) by converting Him through a personal appearance. God appeared, sent angels, or sent visions to most of the other major figures in the Old Testament (Adam & Eve, Cain, Abraham, Job, Isaac, Mary, etc.). How could these people in the Old and New Testament not believe in God when He was directly interacting with them, proving Himself to them by His words and His deeds? If Jesus appeared before me today and raised someone from the dead I, too, would absolutely believe. If God appeared and spoke to me tomorrow through a burning bush (that was not consumed) I would surely believe. If God spoke to me from the heaven's to ask me where my brother was, I would believe. How could anyone doubt what was so self-evidently true? But why are we now expected to forgo the proof and/or validation provided to all these figures we are taught to respect, emulate, and admire? Why did God or religion change these requirements? Why are we expected to be more "faith"-ful (in the sense of believing without proof) than the Apostles, than Saul (Paul), than Moses, than Abraham. I do not believe I can or should do that.
Mainstream Christianity's reading of the New Testament says, "You can only get to heaven if you've accepted Jesus Christ." If this had come in the form of an announcement delivered in a booming voice from the heavens to every living creature back in 32 AD, fair enough, but what about the billions of people who were born and died since 32 AD without ever having been exposed to a Christian, let alone Christ's message? God would have known how fast and far His message would spread, having only introduced it to one specific region (the middle east) at one specific time. He could have set and explained the new rules to Noah and his family during their time on the ark, so that all people would be informed and could choose their fate with full knowledge of their options and consequences. He could have set and explained the new rules to Adam & Eve in the garden so they could instruct their children and thus all humanity. God is all knowing, so how could he not know he would want to implement these rules at a future time? I find it hard to believe in a God who would knowingly create a situation in which large numbers of his beloved children would be doomed as a result of geography and a lack of world-wide communication networks.
(From what I understand, some believe that on judgment day everyone gets a second chance at giving their final answer about whether or not they accept Jesus as their lord and savior. If this is true then that is marvelous, and alleviates some of my concern, provided those souls are allowed to make an informed choice, presented with information which would reasonably allow one to conclude Jesus truly is real. Regardless, what puzzles me a bit is that if anyone can accept Him at this final moment, why then is it important that people accept Him during their life here on Earth. It would be preferable, sure, but so many Christians seem truly frightened when the relatives they love die (or look as though they may die) without having accepted Jesus.)
Christians (including the apostles) have been proclaiming the end of the world since the very early days of the church. Jesus' return, and the apocalypse He'd bring, was expected within a generation of His resurrection.
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.
—1 John 2:18
But the end of the world hasn't yet come, despite the many dire predictions of mainstream and splinter groups over these last two thousand years. Most Christian groups have now wised up and stay well out of the prediction game, but some still swear it's going to happen any day now (next prediction for the end of the world is May 21, 2011).
The fact that the original church was wrong on this profoundly important point, and that many generally accepted as legitimate (as well as wacky) derivations of the original church have been wrong about this profoundly important point, makes me question how right they can be right about the less important issues.
It seems reasonable to me to expect that people who love and follow the Lord would be happier and better people than those who don't. If God was real, and His laws were real, and His lessons were real, and faith in Him manifested changes, and prayer to Him worked, and His love was powerful, then how could His people not enjoy better lives and be better people? If His intervention was not a factor then simply their living a life in sacred resonance with a universe He made and they better understood would seem to guarantee some improvement.
And yet, I can find no significant evidence of this. I've known bad people of every faith (and lack therein). I've known unhappy people of every faith (and lack therein). All I've noticed is that the happiest and best people seem to be those who question and explore their religious beliefs (whether they believe or not). I certainly can't argue that the atheists or agnostics might be barred from entering heaven upon their death, but here on this good Earth God seems to show them no particular disfavor in the form of excess misery, death, poverty, etc. This lack of a strong difference between the lives lived, in or out of accordance with His wishes, does not encourage me to believe.
The God of the Old Testament made his presence directly and unambiguously known in many people's lives. He spoke directly to various Biblical figures, sent angels to speak on His behalf to various others. He was a very hands-on God. And while He changed His interaction significantly in the New Testament (sending Himself in the form of His son to directly interact with people), he was still very hands-on. But for the last two thousand years His approach has been decidedly hands-off. Now admittedly it depends somewhat on which faith or at least sect you subscribe to. There are Christian sects who believe in the visitations of other prophets, visitations of angels, and miracles, but even among these groups I think it's fair to say that fellow parishioners would look askance at any one arriving Sunday morning claiming a previous night's visitation by an angel bearing a great revelation. Something changed in God's interaction with us, or perhaps in our interaction with God. In either case I find the change hard to reconcile, and belief discouraged as a result.