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.
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.
One trouble I have accepting Christianity as truth-based is the stark differences between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. These differences seem peculiar to me. I would not have imagined an omniscient God would experience dramatic shifts in expressed personality over a span of a mere few thousand years. Our human personalities evolve greatly over our short lifespans because we acquire knowledge, we come to understand that knowledge, and we struggle with hormonal fluctuations that accompany the delicate process of growing and dying. God would have seemed immune to those issues, being both omniscient and omnipotent. And yet He seems to change.
This Old Testament God did a lot of punishing. For their disobedience Adam & Eve were cast out of Eden with all of us now suffering decay and death as a result. For man's growing wickedness all but Noah and his kin were killed in the flood. For their impenitent sin, everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah was killed except Lot and his two daughters. And for their enslavement of the Jews, all the first born males in Egypt were killed. And beyond all the punishment there is an awful lot of testing of men, including the horrible tale of Job and Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac. And there are ever so many rules laid down in the Old Testament about the behavior we adherents are required to keep lest be kept out of heaven or deserve to be stoned to death. And of course there is the curious fact that Old Testament God is not described as a trinity.
The New Testament God is markedly different. God does not engage in widespread punishment, does not kill those who transgress upon Him or His son, Jesus. And God seems little interested in testing people's faith, except perhaps that of His son. And the New Testament seems to relay a doctrine primarily about love, tolerance, and the need to focus on the core Biblical principles (e.g., love thy neighbor) and less on the minutiae (e.g., don't eat shellfish). And somewhat surprisingly, God also revealed Himself to be a trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How can these two very different experiences of God be reconciled, without either admitting God Himself radically changed over a period of a few thousand years, or if God is the same then admitting that man's account of God must be wildly inaccurate? Both possibilities strongly discourage my belief.
If thousands of years ago the Old or New Testament had descended slowly from the heavens as a blinding light, settling on the ground and revealing itself to be universally intelligible words (readable by all men of every language) printed on indestructible paper as yet unexplained and unreproduced by scientists, then I would be strongly inclined to believe its contents are the unerring truths and wisdom of God. That's not what happened, however. Instead the Old Testament was thought to have been composed over some thousand years, from the 12th century BC to the 2nd century BC, passed down for much of that time by word of mouth. Not surprisingly subtly and significantly different versions of many of the stories/books exist, and various churches have different opinions about which books are valid and can be included. Thus it's very hard for me to imagine the Old Testament is the inerrant and factual testament of God. The New Testament has a similarly complicated history, not having been begun until well after Jesus' death, and then composed of varying, evolving books coming into and out of favor for some 1500 years or so, until stabilizing somewhat in the 16th century. Again, hard for me to see an evolving text subject to the apparent whims of various ages being the inerrant and factual testament of God. I cannot understand, knowing what biblical scholars do about the creation and evolution of the bible, how anyone can believe the bible is literally true.
One of the curious things about many religions is their ability to interpret events to fit a positive outcome. No matter what the event.
A woman prays to God asking that her father be spared from the infection ravaging his body. If the father gets better, God is credited. If he dies, it's okay, because his dying was part of God's unknowable divine plan. Not every religious tradition couches things in exactly these terms, but they all have in them the very same conveniently indisputable doctrine of optional but universally positive involvement. People are encouraged to ask God for things, but He is never expected to act. How very convenient that is to preventing one from easily disproving His existence. We could similarly invent and then be unable to disprove the existence of anything else we might wish; and I can't help but find that style of existence deeply suspect.
Two related accounts:
My father went on a road trip recently, and very near the end of his 3,000 mile journey, about 50 miles from home he was pulling up to a light, and one of his front wheels fell off. His reaction, as he related it to me, "We passed through canyons, along cliffs, and at 75 MPH on highways and we would have died if the wheel had fallen off then! God was protecting us!" But the many other people who recently died in car accidents along the same route he took, God apparently chose not to protect them. Such subjective selection in which acts are credited to God I find frustrating.
I remember a while back watching a story about a family escaping unhurt from a terrorist bombing that killed dozens of others, and their statement was something like, "We just knew that God was protecting us, that we'd make it out, that he still had plans for us." The other people had apparently outlived their planned usefulness on this Earth (and were needed in Heaven). I am troubled by this woman speaking so confidently about how her family was so deserving of God's protection while seemingly not recognizing that others were equally deserving, just not as fortunate.