Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.

wsbc

This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. :)

Religion and Violence

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

This post is a continuation of my learnings from the 2013 American Atheists Convention. The next speaker I will discuss is Hector Avalos, and his ideas on how religion can be a cause of violence.

I always brace a bit when the subject of religion and violence come up, as I have from time to time heard some hyperbolic statements about how all wars are caused by religion. Such statements are not true historically or in any other way, and Dr. Avalos made it clear that he was not proposing that all violence is caused by religion or that religion does always leads to violence.

With that being said, Hector rejects up front the claims of the moderately and liberally religious that the violent fanatics are not following a true form of their religion, on the basis that this is merely a faith-based claim and not grounded in any evidence. You could make just as valid a case to say that the more violent version of the religion is the true form, and that the peaceful members are hertics and hypocrites. It is a wonderful thing for religious believers to be peaceful, but this in and of itself does not prove that it is the ideas of the religion lead to their peaceful behavior.

The core idea of Hector’s talk is that when religious ideas cause violence, it is because they have created a scarce resource. Things like water, oil, and diamonds are normally what people think of as resources over which wars may be fought; however, the scarce resources created by religion are usually much more ethereal then any of those items. Here is a short list.

  • Salvation
  • Sacred Space/Land
  • Group privilege
  • Access to God’s will.

As an example of how violence can be caused around “access to God’s will,” read Deuteronomy 18:20.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I [God] have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

One has to wonder how would anyone else, not themselves being privy to what God might have spoken to this person, would know which prophets are true and which were lying. And of course anyone speaking in the name of one of those other gods was automatically out. And notice that the penalty against such people who spoke for God without proper authorization was the ultimate in violent acts. They will be put to death.

Dr. Avalos also cited a similar text from the Koran.

For an example of how sacred land can be a scarce resource over which the religious wage battle, one only needs to look at the current and ongoing situation in Israel/Palestine. The fact that rival religious groups hold sacred claims to the same land, on which they are therefore unwilling to compromise because the claims are sacred, is clear enough to demonstrate that religion can cause and perpetuate violence over such a scarce resource.

Salvation, at least as taught in non-Universalist Christian churches, is a scarce resource as it is considered vitally important to a person’s temporal and eternal well-being and is not evenly distributed. Christian teachings (which vary depending on the sect) teach that one must do and believe certain things in order to obtain it. One kind of example of violence brought on by belief in non-universal salvation can be seen in the behavior of certain parents who abuse or abandon their non-believing children. And not even necessarily because the parents don’t love their kids, but due to the idea that if the kids do not believe the parent’s religion they are in danger of eternal damnation if drastic and harsh measures are not taken by the parents. Even in less drastic situations, differences in opinion about religious claims can lead to tremendous amounts to hurt and anger. If it were not for such uncompromising and “sacred” claims about the ethereal and unknown, much suffering could be avoided.

In response to the ways religions can and do cause violence, Dr. Avalos recommends that we totally repudiate and reject any and all scriptures that advise or excuse violence, and not try to reinterpret them as the moderate and liberal religious do. For the record, I think he is right.

Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

What I Want for Christmas

Christmas TreeThis speech by Robert G. Ingersoll was printed in 1897, and is as fresh today as ever. Unfortunately Ingersoll has not yet gotten his Christmas wish, but perhaps this next year we can get a bit closer to attaining it.

WHAT I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS.

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next
Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow
the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their
lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his
tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not
acting for God — is not infallible — but is just an ordinary
Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops,
priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology,
nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the
human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would
have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be
manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to
increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers
in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree
that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm
off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen,
— to men who long to make their country great and free, — to men
who care more for public good than private gain — men who long to
be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines
agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all
slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of
the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both
abolished.

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in
every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and
prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and
ennobles.

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust
for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital
and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little
June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in
which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be
disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect
peace.

I would like to see the whole world free — free from
injustice — free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I
may want more.

The Arena, Boston, December 1897.

from: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/for_christmas.html

Thanks for the text goes to the Bank of Wisdom for converting the text to electronic form, and The Secular Web for posting it online.

Don’t Question Me!

“Stop questioning me!”

“What do you mean by ‘questioning’?”

“STOP IT!”

I don’t know how my times I was warned against questioning growing up. The first time I heard the word, I didn’t even know what was meant by “questioning,” so naturally I questioned further to get more information. As you can imagine, that conversation did not go well. I don’t recall any time in my upbringing where questioning was extolled as a good and positive thing, except occasionally in a movie. It seems to me that there was an unspoken assumption that to “question” someone was to impune their integrity and to imply that you don’t really trust them or their judgement.  “Questioning” was the thing that TV lawyers did to the opposing witnesses to try to extract the truth that the witness was clearly trying to hide. And if you are questioning an idea, it means you must be rejecting it.

Communication between humans is complicated, really complicated. One would think that merely transferring an idea from the head of one person into the head of another person should be a relatively simple task, but in reality is is fraught with danger. We all know this, because miscommunication happens all the time. Sometime there is noise in the area that prevents the receiver of the message from hearing clearly. Sometimes the receiver of the communication doesn’t hear the message because of noise and distractions inside their mind. Or the sender of the message might have unknowingly chosen poor words or mumbled their statement.

When it comes to questioning, problems with miscommunication occur when the receiver is not sure of, or is suspicious of, the intentions of the sender. Is the sender asking a rhetorical question, or do they really want an answer? Are they sincerely requesting information, or are they trying to catch me in ignorance and make me look the fool? Are they casting doubt on my integrity? It’s not that the receiver necessarily goes though this checklist consciously. It’s mostly happens that the questioner has brought into doubt one of the receiver’s unquestioned assumptions, and the immediate visceral response to the questioner is to take offense. How DARE they ask that!

It’s an issue with communication that all skeptics have to deal with. It is, I think, at the root of why skeptics are often branded as cold and heartless cynics. Supposedly many people’s unquestioned assumptions bring them happiness, so how dare you go and question them! But does it really lead to a happy and more fulfilled life to never have your assumptions brought into question? Maybe, if this unquestioned idea in your head has absolutely nothing at all to do with how you live your daily life. But most assumptions that people really care about are not like this.

Here are a few examples of a assumptions that all human beings have made at some point in their lives.

  • My memories are accurate and complete.
  • I know what I saw.
  • Anyone who hallucinates is insane.

If you really want to offend someone, just question their eye-witness testimony. No one in the world likes to think that the way that they remember an event might be flawed, but both experience and modern brain science tells us that our memory is not even close to a flawless recording of what we have seen and heard. Whenever we remember something, we actually reconstruct a story in our minds that emphasizes certain details, leaves others out completely, and is strongly influenced by our preexisting biases. It is unnerving and incredibly humbling to realize that maybe, just maybe, that event did not happen just the way I remember it.

Sometimes we need to question ourselves and seek out evidence that things really did happen the way I remember, or find out what  actually happened if they didn’t. And, importantly, to remember that when someone questions your story they may not actually be accusing you of lying but only trying to get at the root of what really happened.

Questioning, Offense, and Atheists

The issues of questioning and offense can be particularly vexing for atheists who would like to try to engage in dialogue with religious people. For instance, if a religious friend or family member says something like “God spoke to me this morning and confirmed that my beliefs are true” it’s usually a forgone conclusion that the person will get offended if you ask them things like “How do you know it was God?” or “What about all the people in the world of other religions report having the same experiences?” There’s just something about religious testimony that strongly discourages any sort of digging for more information. I’ve played out a scenario in my head to figure out what I would do or say if I got on an airplane and some little old lady sat in the seat beside me and asked me if I would like to hear what God has done in their life. Awkward…I could see myself asking back if they would get offended if I questioned their story. One of the things that worries me with trying to talk with religious people is that the conversation will either become one-way with them preaching to me and me just mutely nodding or with me questioning what they said and them yelling or stomping away angrily. Or they might not like my “tone.” Or they might be a level headed person who can take questioning coolly, but you never know when you first meet someone. Is it even worth the risk to try and engage the religious in conversation when they try to “witness” to you?

Don’t need God to tell us what is good

“How do you know what is good without God?”

This is a question that one of the visitors to the Louisville Atheists booth at the Ky State Fair asked me after he read our banner slogan “Millions are good without God!” It was not hard for me to come up with a quick answer. “We define ‘good’ in human terms. We don’t need a God to tell us what is good.”

I’d like to expand on that answer a bit. After spending 10+ years as an atheist, it still shocks me a bit that some religious people seem to think we require supernatural revelation to tell us what is good.  When you eat a delicious and satisfying meal, do you need someone to tell you that it is good? When you feel wonderful about yourself after helping someone in need, do you need someone to tell you that your action was good? If you are angry and lash out at another person in your anger, do you need supernatural revelation to tell you that your action was not good?

I think not, and it doesn’t matter if you believe in any gods or not. We know that there are certain things and actions that bring love, and happiness, and fulfillment, and we call these things “good.” Others bring fear, and hate, and disgust, and we call these things “bad.” A large number of things and actions bring a bit of both good and bad into the world, and there we need to made a judgement call on whether the good is worth the bad.

During my conversation with this state fair visitor, I asked him if he saw any problem in the bad things in the Bible that God reportedly commanded. In particular, about the genocides described against the Amalekites and other “pagans” that God commanded the Israelites to destroy. His answer was the usual “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and I think this simple yet mind-boggling phrase highlights what Christians means when they say we cannot know what is good without God’s help. Everyone knows that delicious food, funny jokes, and helpful actions are good, but what about all those things we would never guess could be good expect by divine revelation?

Things like:

  • Genocide (1 Samuel 15)
  • Sexism (1 Corinthians 11:7-12)
  • Homophobia (Romans 1:18-32)
  • Blood Sacrifice (recurring theme, specific examples probably not needed)
  • Substitutionary atonement, or the punishment of an innocent victim to pay for the wrongdoings of the guilty. (See also: scapegoating). This is the theological principle underlying the Christian notion that Jesus “died for our sins.”
  • Hell (need I say more?)

Even today, on the fringes of Christianity, there are parents who sincerely believe it is bad to take their sick child to the doctor, and good to beat their child for disobeying them.

There are things that under normal circumstances, any reasonably intelligent and honest person would see as harmful and bad. However, when it is presented to a person as part of their inherited or chosen religious tradition, that person will absolutely bend over backwards to justify these things and make them “good.” After all, God’s ways are higher, right?

So, we don’t need a God or any authority outside our own minds (individually or collectively) to tell us what is good, unless there is some motivation to present things that are really bad as good.