Sunday, April 29, 2007

Right back at ya!

Even as a Christian, I was surprised at the blurring of the distinction between Christianity and the American concepts of “Rights.”

I recall a Sunday School teacher talking of how the government was questioning one of his contributions to the church and whether it was a legitimate deduction. What I remember so vividly was his outrage followed by the statement, “This is a form of persecution on Christians.”

Excuse me?

Let me get this straight—something unheard of under both the Bible and U.S. Constitution, yet if you don’t get it, it is some sort of “persecution”? I am sure all those martyrs in Fox’s Book of Martyrs would go pale in the shock of how abusive this concept is—to NOT get a tax benefit for doing something you should do doing anyway. Shocked, I say!

A “Right” is a benefit conferred upon citizens by the will of the general populace, usually reduced to writing in the form of a Constitution. While “inalienable human rights” may be referred to, try convincing cancer you have a right to “life.” Or your boss on a sunny Friday afternoon that you have a right to the “pursuit of happiness.” Sure you have that “right.” You would also discover the “right” to find new employment!

What surprised me, and continues to surprise me is that Christians in America elevate their rights under the Constitution to at least the equivalent of the Bible, if not eclipse it. The First Amendment under the Bill of Rights is considered pragmatically more divine then the Song of Solomon.

How many times have we heard, “As a Christian I have the right to pray in school”? Or “…have the Ten Commandments in the Courthouse”? or “…practice my religion by doing _____”? Here’s a news flash—you obtain that “right” as a citizen of your country; not because you are a Christian.

In America, this confrontation over religious rights rests squarely on the first clause of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…
And the perpetual question we have wrestled is the meaning and limitation of what “establishment of religion” is or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Clearly, in reviewing our history, we HAVE limited the free exercise of religion. Ask the Mormons how polygamy is going. If I started a church in which one basic tenet is that we do not pay taxes in any way (property, state or income) I may have a large membership, but I would quickly find the government impinging our “free exercise thereof.”

Rather than focus on the legal machinations that have wended our way through this minefield, I would like to ask a more simple, basic question—with all the competing theistic beliefs, can we as humans manage a system by which we respect the other’s beliefs?

Let’s get two things out of the way. First, I understand that every person reading this blog entry has the correct theistic belief. I also understand that the simplest method would be to impose the correct theistic belief, which coincidently is yours. However, I hope you understand that many people with…slightly…to greater to even vast differences in belief also say theirs is the correct one.

If we say, “Use the correct belief” and then try and determine what “correct” means we are right back to where we started. Which is nowhere. We are all going to have to concede the fact that others believe differently than we do. Oh, sure they are wrong, but if we don’t respect their ability to be wrong, they will fail to respect ours.

Secondly, the reality is that not every situation will be to your liking. In fact, you are going to actually have to suck it up and realize that, on occasion, you will have to self-limit your own belief.

We often see the claim that atheism is a religion in the context that by not acknowledging any God, this results in the “establishment of religion.” A no-no. For example, if the courts determine that no prayer can be given before a football game at a public high school, a Christian may shout out that by NOT allowing a prayer, the courts have established the “religion” of atheism. (The poor agnostics never get a break in the “rights” department.)

Assuming that is true, we are left in a Catch-22. Allowing the prayer will impinge the non-theist’s “free exercise.” Prohibiting the prayer will impinge the Christian’s. Either one, somebody is not going to be happy.

If you are a parent, you learn that it is easier, sometimes, to follow Nancy Reagan’s advice and “Just Say ‘No.’” It is easier to draw a hard line in the sand and say NOBODY is getting ice cream, rather than hearing the bickering back and forth as to who was good enough, or who does not deserve the ice cream.

The courts have, in essence, flopped onto this policy. If the Christians get a prayer before the football game, then so do the Muslims. And the Jews. And the Branch Dividians. And the Moonies. And the Catholics. And the Baptists. And the Lutherans. We could never play football! While these groups may not be asking for the opportunity now, if they do, and we have allowed one…

It is easier to “Just Say ‘No.’” to all. However, I am talking about how WE need to get along, not what the Courts have done.

We could claim that the majority rules. That the minority must defer to the majority belief until it becomes the majority opinion. There are two significant problems with this.

First, it is not courteous to the minority position. Nor loving. If we start to lord it over the minority position, it is quite possible that someday our own position becomes the minority, and we would regret this policy. We learned in the schoolyard that just because you are the biggest and can beat the smaller, this only makes you a bully. Not better. I would hope we would want to be “better.” Not bullies.

Second, determining “majority” position becomes a difficulty. Is it the majority of people in the city? In the County? In the State? In the Country? In the World? And what do we do—keep taking surveys and votes to determine what religious belief happens to be the majority at that moment?

Even with “majority” difficulties arise. If we use the Abrahamic God, do we lump in all the Jews, Muslims and Christians, and claim that God as “Majority”? Or are those separate categories? Or do we use a method by which we label the categories in a way which best helps us? Like including the Jews (but not the Muslims) if we need their numbers to take us over the top.

And within each belief—what is the majority? For example, do we include the Catholics in our count of Christians? But a prayer to a saint! The Protestants may NOT want to include the Catholics. Unless they then lose their majority…

We all know what we would see. If convenient, certain theistic beliefs would be included in order to obtain a majority. If not, they would be excluded.

We non-theists are smart enough to play this card as well. See, the Muslims agree that the Jesus was not God. We could include them and the Jews and every other belief to “Oust” the Christians from their majority. Because a majority does NOT hold Jesus as God. Or we could join the Christians and Jews to “oust” Allah from being the majority.

Determining a majority would become a battle similar to what we have now. (And Perhaps the non-theists would be the constant swing vote! O.K. I can dream!)

Can we do better? Can we find a way by which we agree to self-limit our theistic belief, for the greater good of getting along? Oh, I still encourage all parties to go to the court system. (Have to pay the bills, ya know!) It is what is it there for. If you think that it is of vast import and having some person in a black dress tell you how to act with your neighbor—go for it!

I would prefer that we could rise above it as humans and not need the court to give respect to each other. Let me give an example.

Our American currency, from each coin to every bill in circulation contains the statement “In God We Trust.” I don’t trust in a God. There isn’t one. I am forced to use currency by virtue of living in America. Each day, I am passing around little statements that tell the world something I would prefer to not tell the world.

So what.

I mean REALLY—So What!

As actions speak louder than words, what I am actually saying is that I am relying on these little bits of green ink on paper to obtain those things that sustain me. In fact, the use of every single penny, every nickel is NOT saying “In God We Trust” but quite the opposite—“In Gold We Trust.”

By obtaining money, I am saying that I don’t expect God to provide for me—I expect this money to do so. By saving it, I am saying quite a bit about my anticipation for God to take care of me in the future—I think more of Alexander Hamilton doing so than God. By spending it, I am saying that God can’t get it for me—but Abraham Lincoln can!

Being a person that appreciates irony wherever I can find it—I truly enjoy it every time I see “In God We Trust” on money. Come on, Christians—do you see Jesus teaching how to pray:

“Our Father who art on the Ten Dollar Bill,
Unwrinkled be thy name,
Your picture come,
Your crisp smell done,
On earth because we ain’t in Heaven.

Buy us this day our daily bread.
Your portrait for debts
Both Public and Private.
Retain your present value compared to the Euro,
But deliver us from that blasted penny!”

Do you think God is excited about having his name on—of all things—money? I can see “In God We Trust” on Bibles. On Churches. Even on homes and plaques and pillows. But money?

O.K.—it is important to you for some inexplicable reason. As if that has some meaning. Can you take what you dish out? In England, Charles Darwin is on the 10-Pound note. Any Christian have a problem with that?

Christians: there is no prayer in school. Is it THAT important to have prayer? Yes, I know it impinges your free exercise of religion. (Sorta. You can pray to yourself, of course.) But in order to get along with your fellow humans—can you give it up? Could you have voluntarily given it up for the betterment of humans?

Non-theists: our money mentions the “G” word. Yes, I know that impinges on your theistic belief. (Sorta. You can write checks.) But in order to get along with your fellow humans—can you not care? Can you use it voluntarily for the betterment of humans?

Perhaps it is just me, but I am seeing a polarization of beliefs. We are DEMANDING that how we believe must be imposed on others. I want prayer--give me prayer! I don’t believe in god--remove it from my coins! If we can’t rise above this, we are but two short steps from the sectarian violence we see in the Middle East.

Can we be better? Rather than insist on our “rights” can we suspend that demand, and allow others to exercise theirs? It may be someday, we will realize that the group that can do that is the most Christ-like.

(Posted on as well.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Want Ads

In our discussions we occasionally hear the claim, “But you atheists are trying to convince others to become atheists just as much as Christians are trying to convince others to be Christians. You are an atheist missionary. Why are you complaining about our evangelistic efforts?”

Probably because if Christians would stop proselytizing, so would most atheists. Let’s look at this idea of “convincing others.”

First of all, I will make I perfectly clear—I am out to convince others to be atheists. What is so unusual about that? I am an atheist. I think atheism is correct. I want others to be correct. But it doesn’t unpack quite that simply.

I always found it funny when someone tells me, “You think you are right.” No surprise here, Sherlock! Obviously, I think I am right. If I thought I was wrong, I wouldn’t think it—I would change to thinking I am right. However, I am also bright enough to review my history and see that, at times, when I equally thought I was right, it turns out I was wrong. Therefore, while thinking I am right, I am open to the possibility of being wrong.

Further, if the other person wants to be wrong and disagree with me—what do I care? They are free, as a human, to choose to do so.

I have traveled to my current office for almost seven (7) years. I think I know the fastest route to there from my home. If someone asked for the quickest route, I would attempt to convince him or her of my route. ‘Cause I think its right. Now, they may argue with me. They may disagree with me. Fine by me. If they don’t want to take my route—take another! Plenty of roads for everybody.

And, there is a slim possibility they may just find a quicker route. Since it is only to my benefit to discover such a thing, I would be very tempted to listen to them…

What is so terrible, so shocking, to declare that we are trying to convince others of something we believe? We do it all the time. We think that hot woman at the bar would have a much better life if she dated us. We saddle up, put on our game face, and use every word in our repertoire to convince her how “wrong” she is to think otherwise.

We try to convince our kids that they will be so much happier if they ate broccoli. We try to convince our spouses that we need some particular item found in a catalog. (And often attempt to convince our spouse they don’t need some silly item found in a dumb catalog.)

We even attempt to convince complete strangers without saying a word! Ever have a driver zip past a long line of cars waiting for construction, only to attempt to merge at the last minute? He (or she) is attempting to “convince” drivers to let him (or her) in by “nudging” the corner of the front of his car in-between bumpers. And some cars “convince” him (or her) that they are asking for an accident by firmly planting their bumper about 3 millimeters from the car in front of them.

Persuasive speech in real-time action!

All day, every day, we are in a constant state of attempting to convince someone, somewhere that what we think is correct. Why, then, would anyone be reduced to a state of abject shock to discover that (gasp!) Christians are attempting to convince others to be Christians and atheists are attempting to convince others to be atheists?

The difference may be a matter of scale, but that, too, should not make our heads pop or eyes bulge with surprise. (Too many kids’ cartoons, I fear.)

Due to the wonderful variety of humanity, an issue that is compelling to some, and causes them to be anxious to persuade others, may be a matter of complete indifference to others. If you happen to flip off some comment about the poor system of justice that America provides, I am likely to roll up sleeves and proceed forward with numerous bullet points, arguments and twelve Russian experts, all to convince you of how wrong you are.

But mention the sad state of Lifeguard training, and I may paste that polite look of “I’m listening” on, while my mind is racing with far more weighty matters like, “Do I need to organize my sock drawer by color or by size?” Frankly, I could care less about Lifeguards, and you will get no opinion from me one way or another.

Likewise, I am sure there are some theists that their particular beliefs are of such import, that to challenge them, or to question their “rightness” opens us up to a long dissertation as to how wrong we are. Some theists are out looking for such discussions.

And, certainly there are atheists who are equally vehement.

However, it is nowhere near my highest priority. If I had a “highest priority” of what I desire to convince others, it would be to start implementing that “love” thing. To start caring other humans. Yes, it would be grand if we gave of our riches and helped those less fortunate, but there is so much more we can do besides.

How about common courtesy? “Please,” “Thank you” and “You’re welcome” have gone by the wayside. To hear those words (outside parents teaching small children who promptly remove that part of their brain upon becoming teenagers) is becoming a rarity.

Holding the door for people. Being patient in line. Hanging up the cell phone once in while. Allowing that driver in.

Part of the reason that I do appear adamant in this debate is that I see such discourtesy among the participants. People who dig in and refuse to even be polite to other person. How many times have you seen someone say in a blog discussion, “Oh I am sorry. I misunderstood you. My fault”?

OR do we see, “YOU did not describe YOUR position ADEQUATELY. YOU need to learn how to WRITE!”

My second priority is just to get theists (and non-theists) to recognize that the other side is NOT a complete idiot, and they actual have some valid points. Sure, they may not be convincing to you, but the other person is convinced by them. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

I have priorities about explaining the law is not completely stupid. Priorities about helping others when they need a hug. Getting a hug when I need one. Priorities about being the best parent, best child, best brother/sister/relative. A huge priority about being a good friend.

There are so many things I want to convince you that I am right. I can understand for a Christian who believes in eternal torment how convincing me to be a Christian would be a priority to them. The opposite is not for me. Please don’t presume that YOUR priority is mine.

I have a friend who is very interested (read “completely obsessed”) with farm tractors. No kidding. (Do you think I could make that up?) We all know to avoid that topic like avoiding a root canal. In fact, going to the dentist for a voluntary root canal would be preferable to getting into a conversation with him about this topic. He can tell you the history of John Deere from the very first tractor to today’s newest model. Every engine type, every body model, every thing you never wanted to know about tractors.

And if you dare ask which is the better tractor, be prepared for a long speech as to the comparisons of various models, years and what-not. Not to mention about 50 places to obtain each distinct tractor.

I once made the mistake of telling him I simply didn’t care about tractors. His face froze with terror. I think if I had stood on his coffee table, unzipped my fly and proceeded to pee on his brand-new sofa--he couldn’t have been more shocked.

He presumes that since he loves tractors—so too must the rest of the world. To not is…well…unthinkable.

Christians—just because I say I want others to be convinced of the viability of atheism please do not presume that means I have the same depth of commitment to that endeavor as you do to yours.

In fact that reminds me of another priority—that others will realize we all don’t have the same priorities. Can we respect the other person’s difference?

Yep. I want you to be an atheist. I also believe you should have at least 16 songs from ABBA on your iPod. So what do I know? *shrug*

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Judge Not; Lest Ye be Judged

In my, what seems to be perpetual, wandering, I came across a parable of what a theist felt judgment day would look like. How God would dispense justice. Let’s look at that for a moment.

We have a complete absence (as I previously discussed) when trying to determine what God’s Justice looks like. It is a void. A blank. And, since we all feel like there is this thing—this concept of “Justice”--we fill in the void as best we can. With our own personal sense of Justice. What is right and what is wrong.

Imagine being at Judgment day. God busily doing what God needs to be doing. You are observing. Then God turns to you and says:

“Hey, I’m going to go grab a bite to eat. Can you fill in for an hour or so? It’s easy. We have your hell on this end, heaven on the other and whole world of possibilities between. I don’t have a certain set of rules I follow rigidly. Kinda gut thing, if you know what I mean.

“Sit right here. This is my computer, it gives you complete access to the person, including their true thoughts and motives (don’t listen to what they say, ‘kay?) and if you get into real trouble, Gabriel will come get me. Never fear, use the sense of justice I gave you and it will be fine. Back in an hour…

Case One. The first person you get is a murderer. (Thanks a LOT, God!) This man is a white supremacist that helped a group of his club lynch a black man. You see on the computer he really didn’t want to, and was caught up in the peer pressure of the group. He felt guilty and in fact God’s computer says that it was this guilt that cut 10 years off his life from worrying. But still and all, he is a racist murderer…you dispense justice.

Case Two. Another murderer. (Did God do this on purpose?) This is a woman that was high on crack, and desperate for a fix, held up a convenience store. She stole a grand total of $46. God’s computer informs you that she didn’t know what she was doing. Her brain did not even record her pulling the trigger. But still and all, she voluntarily began to take drugs, and she did kill someone…you dispense justice.

Case Three. Another murderer. Sorta. (This cannot be a coincidence. That tricky God!) Bit of a twist on this one. This is a woman who hated her neighbor. With good reason as near as you (and God’s computer) can tell. The neighbor was one of those miserable people that the whole world hated. Yelled at the neighborhood kids kicking a ball in his yard. Never joined the neighborhood picnic. Picked up each leaf that blew in from her yard with a grimace and condemning glance.

One day, she noticed that he had crumpled over in his lawn chair while monitoring the neighborhood. For a passing moment she thought of calling “911” but the stronger, second thought was, “if he WAS to die, all the better. Maybe a better neighbor could move in.” He did die. She never had a moment of remorse. God’s computer says that if she had called “911,” they would have saved him and he would have lived another 10 years. This one is tricky, but…you dispense justice.

And over the course of that hour, as you make your ruling, a pattern would develop. What we would see is that you provide justice based upon your own experience. Perhaps, if you were a minority, you would be less compassionate on the first person. If you had been addicted to drugs, you may be more understanding on the second. If you had a particularly rotten neighbor, you would be more forgiving of the third.

Or not, depending on who you are. See—our sense of justice has a great deal to do with the era in which we lived, our surroundings, and our upbringing.

If God (the lazy bugger) kept having different people filling in for Him, we would see different justice dispensed. In our current century, we would consider a slave trader a most reprehensible creature. Yet a person from 400, 500 years ago may not even bring it into consideration, other than it was the person’s occupation.

Depending on the person; when and where they came from, some would be harsh on prostitution, others would shrug. Some would be aghast at polygamy, others wouldn’t notice. Smoking pot? One person would dispense justice, another would ignore it entirely.

Remember that TV Commercial where the Native American sees the garbage dump, and a tear rolls down his face? Imagine, with our consumerism and “throw it away” mentality, what his hour would be like. The hour before, the fellow that tossed Fast Food wrappers out the window would be overlooked. That Native American would be tossing him in hell for a very, very long time.

All of which is a long and round-a-bout way of saying that our intuitive sense of justice varies dramatically from person to person, from time to time and from place to place. It is derived from our different experience.

If this is how we derive our justice, would a God do the same? If God’s sense of justice was established prior to creation—what experience did God draw upon to determine what was right and wrong? The only thing that existed would be God. He couldn’t interact with anybody but…God. He couldn’t punish anyone but…God. He couldn’t reward anyone but…God. He couldn’t even conceptualize of a person not doing what God says—no one ever had before. There was no one to do so.

If I ask, “is it O.K. to hit someone?” your mind starts to crunch and analyze. What are the facts surrounding this hitting? How hard? What is the relation of the people involved? What led to this hitting and what was the reaction. And, as our brains are processing, we are comparing to past experiences and knowledge in our life.

God wouldn’t have that luxury. Nothing to draw from to answer the simple question “is it O.K. to hit someone?” ‘Course we could say that he looks into the future as to what could happen, but by virtue of that, God’s reflection on what happens in the future becomes an event in the past. God sees the future, but thinking on that is based on something that happened in the past—God’s seeing the future. (Bakes one’s noodle a bit, eh?)

But God would have to create that future (at least the possibility) first. That, too, is in the past. How can God create something that he has no knowledge of, in order to review it, and after that reflection, create justice, to learn how to implement it on the future event? Good luck with THAT one!

I often read what theists propose God will do at justice-time. Many, horrified (rightly in my opinion) at the concept of eternal torture, do not hold to an everlasting Lake of Fire. Yet in this discussion, what I see is a description of what God’s justice looks like, premised with the two-word qualification, “I think…”

How persuasive is it? This “I think…”? Sure, we “think” that human sacrifice is a reprehensible concept. Our “intuitive” justice would say that this is a problem. Yet, if within that hour on the Judgment Seat, an Aztec sat in that throne, they would not consider human sacrifice anything more reprehensible than a necessary event, like clothing or eating. Over the extensive course of history, that “I think…” would be extremely different between different cultures and different times.

This is one of many areas that I see humans making god in their own image. They determine what they think justice should look like and voila—so does their god. They cannot image a god dispensing justice in a manner they would not and voila—neither does their god.

Seriously, we could not have a clue. We can’t verify what God’s justice is, AND we cannot share with God the basis of our own. Thus it is useless to imagine any such justice is similar to ours. We have experience. God wouldn’t.

When I see a theist indicate what God’s justice will look like; two thoughts come to mind. First, dependant on the type of justice is often a reflection of who that person is. I see some gleefully proclaiming an everlasting torture chamber and wonder if, in life, they equally feel a sense of revenge in punishment. Not retribution, not rehabilitation. Revenge.

Secondly, I wonder if the theist realizes that their imposition of their own sense of justice on god is another nail in god’s coffin. If God is a human construct, it follows that God’s justice would be a human construct as well. If humans cannot agree as what is “just” it equally follows that the god(s) they create cannot agree either.

It’s nice to have an idea of some sort of “ultimate” justice with rewards and punishments for rights and wrongs. But what are the chances, in reflection of history, that God’s sense of justice happens to correlate with our very small vision of our time? Our place? Our culture?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Can't Relate

As humans, we can only relate to what we have experienced. It is possible that, due to some similarity, I can partially relate to an experience. Other things I couldn’t come close. For example, having been in pain, and having been a parent, I can partially relate to the experience of labor.

But upon talking to my wife (and other mothers) I come to realize that my concept of pain is miniscule as to what the pain of labor is, and my feeling of fatherhood is not at all similar to the maternal instincts and rush of hormones/adrenalines that accompany motherhood. I can talk with mothers, I can attempt to correlate with my own experiences, but in the end I recognize that having a baby is something I can only truly relate to about 2% of the their experience.

I have never been to war. I cannot even begin to fathom the idea of living in rough conditions, fear of one’s own life in an almost constant basis, while attempting to kill other soldiers from another country bent on killing you. In digging through the past experiences of my life, there is simply nothing that comes even remotely close to that reality. I can read their stories. I can watch films. I can talk to soldiers. While I may gain some head knowledge to what they have or are going through, I cannot relate to their experience in any way.

Even so, when humans meet, we attempt to relate to each other. Find common ground. All of us have been at the proverbial party, in which we reach a point of initiating a conversation with someone we have never met. We nervously start a list of twenty questions, until we strike on a similarity:

“What do you do for a living?”
“Watch the game last night?”

“You did! Oh, man, wasn’t it great when they got that break away, with only 1.5 seconds on the clock and…”

We have found our relation—the affinity by which we can both relate.

In fact, our brain words so hard to make sense of the world about us, we will find relationship even when there isn’t one. If I say, “That tasted purple” we know that “purple” is not a flavor—it is a color. Yet our brains will translate that, in order to understand it, to the flavor most associated with purple. We will relate that statement to tasting like grape. While most of us have never tasted crap, by the same token we understand the phrase, “That tastes like crap.” We can conceptualize that whatever that taste may be--it isn’t good.

The problem with a God, is that our mind is left constantly attempting to find some relational base by which to understand the concept, and never able to reach it. It is as if our mind is running at full tilt, but never can quite make that connection.

What does it mean to always exist? How does one create laughter? Does God ever need a hug?

We can strive and compare and give analogies, but in the end our mind is unable to grasp. Unable to relate. Might as well be a soldier asking a college boy to truly understand what it means to go to war.

Recently (due to other discussions elsewhere) I was thinking about an afterlife. One common disgruntlement with naturalism is that there is no afterlife. Somehow this is automatically equated with hopelessness while living. (Talk about not being able to relate!) As humans—can we truly relate to this concept? Or is it outside our grasp?

First of all, let’s take the Judgment idea. You know—where God lines up the human race, sitting on a throne, and each person takes their turn to appear before him. In some manner they are weighed and either found wanting or deemed worthy. Of what depends on the particular theist’s vision of judgment.

Some theists inform me the Scales of God’s Justice are weighted on belief. It is not what you do, nor how lived, but what you believed. Believe the correct item, the scales tip in your favor. Do not, you are condemned.

I have no way to relating to that. To me, as a human, I would take opportunity, and knowledge, and understanding and information, all into account. And other theists inform me that God does as well. I still can’t relate. What of a person that strived to believe the right thing all their life, but was denied due to their location? Or their community? What of a Mesoamerican that strived to know of Jesus, but couldn’t until the Europeans brought news of such an individual one and a half millennium later?

I can’t relate to a pass/fail based upon possibilities. In fact, it is often at this point that theists shrug and say it is up to God as to how much a person is held accountable for their belief. So a God I cannot understand is dispensing justice in a manner I cannot envision, and I am supposed to understand this?

Other theists tell me the Judgment will be on what I do. Fine—by whose standard? Imagine the ridiculous nature of attempting to determine God’s laws. We have no way to confirm them, no way to deny them, and no way to look up what we should do at a particular moment. The Christian idea of Jesus’ appearance doing away with portions of Mosaic Law, specifically the food limitation has always been amusing to me. The claim is that, at one moment (whenever that is) the food laws are in effect, the next they are not.

A Jew, in the First Century, is eating a ham sandwich. Between bites, he stopped sinning!

Does God approve of slavery? Polygamy? Masturbation? Violent Video Games? 12-year-olds in PG-13 movies?

Sure, it is possible God is no list of Do’s and Don’ts. Perhaps there is a sliding scale that for one person smoking pot is a sin, yet for another it is not. How, exactly, does this help us relate to a Godly Justice System?

Now I am told that I will be judged on what I do, but no one can determine what one needs to do, in order to be judged!

Is there universalism? No Judgment at all? While this may seem pleasing at first, it does cause one to wonder why, then, God is playing hide-and-seek now. If we all get in anyway (or all get torched anyway—works both ways, you know!) why the charade of three-card Monte as to which one has the correct God? Out with it, man, let us see the God we should have and be done with it!

Secondly, a heaven. Not sure how that one works either. It is supposed to be a happy place. But if there is a hell—how can I truly be happy? Due to the variety of humanity, regardless of the process of judgment, there is bound to be someone I personally know in Hell. Someone I would prefer not. That does not sit easy on me now. I can’t relate to it sitting easy on me in heaven.

Perhaps I will be so thrilled to get in, I won’t care about the poor sods that didn’t. Again, though, that is not who I am, so I can’t conceptualize it now. I did not know a single person effected by Hurricane Katrina. Just don’t know anyone in that part of the country. Yet my heart went out to them in their situation and I gave as best I could to correct the situation.

If I (and billions of other people) do that for complete strangers now—do we all lose that in heaven? In order to get in, we are commonly informed that we must be selfless to the poor, the needy and the hungry. Apparently once in, though, we can become selfish whores! “Too bad for those other blokes; pass the champagne and caviar—we’re in, we’re in, we’re in.”

As humans we bore. Over the course of billions of years, trillions of years, will God have to keep coming up with new ways to entertain us? At what point does God get tired of providing new creations for whiney teenagers? Or does he wipe our minds every morning, so each day is a new mystery to be discovered.

The reality is that I cannot relate to the concept of endless time stretching before me. Sure, it would be fun for the first 100 years or so. But how much of time can one take?

Thirdly, what of a hell?

Any Baptist worth his or her salt has had the image of hell tossed their way enough that some of it sticks. We get the concept of pain, fire, loneliness, torture. Again, though—for all time? Human bodies accommodate pain. (Imagine the pain threshold one could develop!) Even if the new bodies were designed to not be damaged by the implements of hell, only the experience of pain, within a short period of time, our brains would go mad.

Have you ever pounded your hand with a hammer? What do you do? You start shaking your hand in the air. Do you know why you do that? Your brain, as wonderful as it is, can only process so much. By shaking your hand, you are sending an overload of signals through the nerves to your brain. You are drowning out the pain in your thumb by sending so much information down a narrow highway that the pain can only take up so much of your brain’s time.

From what we know now, Hell would be such an overload for our brains, they would shut down. Of course, God could step up the program, and keep our brains from overloading, or wipe our memories like those in heaven. But now we have created a creature that, to what we can relate, is a sadistic monster. This goes way beyond punishment.

Further, within our human minds, we equate punishment to fit the crime. Here, we are uncertain of the crime, let alone a punishment of such monumental proportions. As much as we can each comprehend punishment and justice, if I told you I tortured my two-year old child because they wet the bed—can you relate? You understand punishment. You understand an imposition of justice. You understand wetting the bed. Yet even putting all those concepts together, your human mind says, “What a minute. Something is not right here.”

Even theists inform me that my puny mind cannot process the ideas of God, and his Justice, and an afterlife. O.K. If I cannot relate, then why should I bother? Haven’t they just undercut their arguments on the existence of such things?

How am I to spend my life worrying about things that I have no basis, no way for my mind to fit into a slot and say, “I may not fully understand it, but at least I have a slight grasp”?

I am planning a trip this summer. I have no control over whether it will rain, whether it will be sunny or hot or cold. It is useless energy to worry about such things. Whatever will be; will be. I feel much the same way about any afterlife. I seriously doubt any exists—but if it does there is nothing I have by which I can understand what it would be like.

And I find that makes my life here on earth very hopeful indeed. Rather than worrying about getting it right, or avoiding getting it wrong, or what it will be like, or what I need to avoid, all on things that are completely unknown I can focus on tomorrow. Here. On earth. And what better things I can do for others, and what good things I will happily receive.

If you think atheists are hopeless, I can vehemently assure you this is ONE atheist that is very hopeful indeed. Right now: for a bit of sun on a particular week in August, if you want to know the truth.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

I Lost a Blog Friend this week

Luckily not the blogger themselves. Just the blog. I do not have to provide a link to it; it is already in my blog roll under “Zoe.” (I use my blog roll for sites I find interesting. So I name them as I see fit. I am trying to do better at naming them the blog name, but I’m not perfect.)

When I first met Zoe, I was a fresh deconvert, literally wet behind the ears. She was far ahead of me in the process. So I read her story. She started at a different point than I did, went about it a different way, and ended at a different point than I.

Sounds like we should relate quite a bit. Not! Yet through it, I have always felt that she did a better job of describing the humanity of it. To give an inadequate comparison, it was like I was describing a paint-by-numbers by explaining how “2” really meant “Azure Blue” and who drew outside the lines, whereas she described the reality of discovering it was a picture of a garden.

She often summed up in a few words what it seems to take paragraphs for me to say.

And so her blog will be missed. I was not alone in enjoying what she wrote, and was often surprised at the various people that commented on entries that she posted.

The world of blogsphere is truly “publish or perish.” If we don’t regularly post soon the blog fades into oblivion. Only to be seen by some person who happens to click on “Next Blog” and then quickly dismissed when the last entry is more than six months old. “A Complicated Salvation” deserves more than that—because it was a full, rich story.

I am glad for Zoe, and hope she picks up the torch elsewhere.

Zoe’s blog provided a wonderful insight. Its passing should get more from me than just a comment.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Can’t Lose (or “Can’t Win – Part Two”)

In reviewing my last entry, I am left with the impression that it was a bit melancholy. To balance that a bit, I thought I should write a post-deconversion entry.

All of us, at a summertime party, have played volleyball with “that guy.” The one that shows up with the shirt “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the ONLY thing.” The one that brought his own volleyball. In its own bag.

That guy fully intends the guests to play as if the World Cup, the Superbowl and the World Series are on the line.

“Double hit!”
“Well, gee. We’re playing backyard volleyball, don’t ya think—“
“Look! The game has rules. We have to abide by the rules, or it isn’t a game anymore, is it? Our point!”

“That Ball was IN!
“Uh, it hit outside our string—“
“But the string is crooked! We need a tape measure! I can show that your side is smaller than our side! And why can’t you have proper lines like a regular volleyball court?”
“Because normally we have a patio set—
“Let’s Play!”

The phrase “There is truth in every jest”? With him it is only about 1% jest. Every “funny” (in the loosest term) comment is made with a stinging bite:

“My grandmother can hit harder than that!”
”You call that a ‘spike’? Might as well hand them the ball!”
“I hope you serve hot dogs better’n you serve a volleyball!”

Worse, that guy is invariably pretty good. He played in college or the city league; most likely his team will win—thanks to his brilliant moves. We know the afternoon will be spent with his regaling us play-by-play with his dazzling performance, and repeated articulation as to our pitiful efforts.

If you dislike playing with that guy as much as I do, then you would like playing volleyball at our parties. We use two shoes for a back/side line. Long ago, among my friends, we agreed that bickering over whether a ball is “in” or “out” is destructive to our friendship. So we play by the rule, “if it is close, it is in.” The instant a person starts to debate about whether it was in or out; that means by virtue of the argument itself, it will be considered in.

We don’t care about double hits. If two people dive for the ball on the same team (since that cracks us up) we always let four hits go. If you flub a serve, you get a do-over. If your eight-year old wants to play, they are welcomed in. (That guy would tell his child, “Let the adults play. You go play with the other kids.”)

Most likely the eight-year-old will be up on someone’s shoulders so when someone conveniently tosses him the ball he can make a fabulous spike which will be fantastically missed by the opposing team.

Oh, we still have rules. Once the ball hits the ground; that is a point (otherwise we might never rotate.) And if it goes in my wife’s tomato garden; that is most definitely out! It would still resemble a volleyball game, of sorts.

2 minutes after finishing the game, we could tell you the score. 10 minutes later, the best we could do is say which team won. An hour later, all we would remember is that we played. (And who made dives, ‘cause that always cracks us up.)

I have played volleyball with that guy. I have been in situations where I was that guy. I have played volleyball casually. I will take casually every time. To me, deconversion is playing life like a casual, backyard volleyball game.

As a Christian, I wanted to get it “right.” One of the terrible dimensions of having a God who sees the past, present, future, as well as your thoughts, motives and possibilities, is that I was in constant danger of not getting it “right.”

Part of that was “morally” right, but we had the Bible to guide us, so most questions could be resolved by its review. No, by “right” I mean what do I do on a Saturday morning? My church was having a clean-up day, my (unsaved) neighbor was roofing his garage, my daughter has a soccer game, and I wanted to read a book.

Growing up in a Baptist church we were taught at the young age; “If you want to have joy, you must put Jesus first, then Others, then You. J-O-Y. Jesus, Others, You.” I crossed off my reading a book—I got it that this would not be right.

But in putting Jesus first, did he want me at the church, or helping my (unsaved) neighbor? And others? Is that my neighbor or my daughter? Do I put more money in the missionary fund, the building fund, my children’s college fund, or my retirement fund? Do pray that a person gets well, that their sickness causes someone else to be saved, to be released from their pain?

While I thought practically I had Christianity well in hand (I knew the rules); pragmatically I was not so sure—how well was I at following the rules? I got the distinct impression, as I made my choices, that sometimes God was cheering my picking the best route, other times he was shrugging because I had done O.K., just not the best, and still other times he was clucking his tongue, correcting a situation where I had chosen the worst possibility imaginable.

In talking over with my friends, I found that we ALL were walking our way through Christianity as best we could. We all were making choices that we were a bit uncertain as to whether God was smacking himself on the forehead, saying “He did WHAT?” or God was smiling with approval.

Of course, my deconversion brought me to sharply focus whether I even had Christianity or theism practically correct.

I could no longer find grounding for where the line was, let alone if I was hitting the ball in or out, or even if there was a ball involved!

Afterwards, in reflection, I found great peace.

What is the score?

At the end of every game there is a score. A win or a loss or a tie. For the first time in my life, I could play volleyball just to play volleyball. I could study theism just for the pure unadulterated love of the study. I didn’t have to worry about whether this person’s theism was correct, or that person’s was incorrect. I could study it for what it was—not where it fit in some paradigm of correctness.

In the same way I can enjoy life. The here and now. One thing that Christians who believe in an afterlife will never be able to fathom (I’m sorry, they just can’t.) is how much we enjoy the few years on earth with nothing but nothingness after death. Because this is no longer a game where the score is not everything—it is the only thing. Where I have to fight for every point, and argue for every bad call, or I have to push myself to the limits just to get that ball across one more time, in the hopes of the final call the referee points to me and says, “You win!”

I can actually take a break, go get a drink, sit in the shade, and not worry about a few points this way or that. In the end the referee will not say a thing. I can play, enjoy the game, and not worry about the score.

This is no tournament. This is a summer afternoon which to enjoy the sun.

You can be on my team

Now, when you miss a point, or make a bad serve, I can laugh with you. You are human. I expect you to make a mistake or two. That is what makes the game interesting. If we all played volleyball perfectly, nothing wonderful would ever happen. Think about it.

It is our human frailties and mess ups that allow us to love, and communicate and enjoy each other and the human experience to the fullest.

When you screw up, or offend me, or call me names—it is not an “affront to the almighty God.” It is your humanity. It is who you are. I may not appreciate it. I may ask you to stop. But I am not assuming some mantle of a higher authority and indignantly proclaiming you are a sinner.

I enjoy people so much more. I enjoy interacting with them so much more. I want to play volleyball with all of ‘em.

I can play my game

I can finally allow my mind to think. I do not have to twist and mold some thought to make it go away. I can dwell on it, and contemplate it, regardless of where it leads. If I have doubts—that is a signal that perhaps something is incorrect. If I have questions—I can ask them. If I want to read another person’s point of view—I am allowed.

If something makes more sense to me, I do not have a creed or a doctrine that demands I suppress it. I can fully imbibe.

I still play volleyball. I still play with most of the same rules, even. My morals haven’t changed a bit. But now I play with freedom and abandonment that makes the game enjoyable.

Do not get the impression that I felt inhibited or repressed by Christianity. Not at all. I enjoyed that game, too. I just had no idea that someone would introduce a new set of rules and I would enjoy this side as much.

I was a happy Christian. I was a miserable deconverter. I am a happy deconvert.