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.

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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. :)

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I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why.

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Over the past few weeks, the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville held a fundraiser called “Send an Atheist to Church.” Here is the basic idea. There is a fundraising jar for four different religious groups: Baptist, Mormon, Muslim, and Catholic. Anyone could “vote” for groups with their dollars and whichever group had the most money in their jar at the end of the fundraiser would get to have some atheists attend a service at their place of worship. The money the fundraiser will be donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy.

The chart below shows the progress of fundraising from the start to the end of the fundraiser. The line at the top is a total of funds raised, and the other four lines correspond by color with groups listed below. End the end, $170 dollars was donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy and the Baptists came out on top. Tomorrow is the planned day for a few members of the SSA at UofL to uphold their end of the bargain and attend  Sunday services at a local Baptist church.

SendAtheistToChurchGraph

I graduated from UofL several years ago, before there was a Secular Student Alliance there, so I am not a member of the SSA myself. However, as they have invited members of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers to participate I have decided to join in. I have pretty clear expectations for what the service will be like, because I was raised in The Church of the Nazarene which is very similar in service style to the Baptists. I expect the service will go something like this: announcements, then song service, offering, about a 30-40 minute sermon, prayer, and benediction. I expect the people will generally be friendly and welcoming. What will make this church visit different than all the previous times I have gone is that I will be going as a known atheist and I expect that will have some effect on the tone of interactions with the people there. I wonder if the paster will make any changes to the sermon in light of the fact that there will be a handful of open atheists among the congregation. In fact, I expect the people will probably be extra friendly for that reason in order to put on a good impressions and make sure we know that Jesus loves us.

I’ll post an update tomorrow on how it goes.

 

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.

Presupositionalism: Shackles for your reason

I listened to a Thinking Atheist podcast last week. The title of the podcast was “Proof that God Exist,” which is the title for the website of the Christian apologist who was the guest speaker, Sye ten Bruggencate. The guy is a presupositionalist  who fully expects unbelievers to not understand his arguments because unbelievers have rejected God and do not accept the authority of Christ over their reasoning. Yes, Sye, you can keep your mental handcuffs to yourself. And he says he could prove that everyone really believes in God, even atheists, because God (though Paul) said so in Romans. It’s just that atheists are suppressing the truth though their wickedness or something like that. And people accuse atheists of being arrogant? What utter bullcrap. I’m amazed how Seth and his other guest stayed so polite to this guy. They must have been fully prepared for what this guy was about to spew.

There was another interesting thing the apologist said, and that is that God is not really all loving, but he is all good. And that this god does not intend for everyone to go to heaven, because he is sovereign. This is consistent with the idea Romans Chapter 9 that is was perfectly just for God to have loved Jacob but hated Esau before they had even been born or done anything. (This passage was the source of much doubt for me when I was studying this book for Bible Quizzing. Jesus loves all the children of the world? Perhaps not so much.) And  according to Sye,  the original sin, Eve’s sin, was not eating an apple (or whatever kind of fruit would contain knowledge of good and evil) but was rather her desire to be autonomous and make her own choices rather than just blindly obeying god. So, desiring to make our one’s own choices in live is evil. The ultimate in “anti-choice” theology.

Another big whopper he said was that a real Christian cannot reason out of Christianity because they have surrendered their reason to God. Like what he clearly has done. Don’t think outside the box, don’t question the box, just believe and obey. Therefore, there are no true ex-Christians. Voilá.

If you would like to listen to the podcast itself, you can access it on the web here:://www.blogtalkradio.com/thethinkingatheist/2012/04/14/proof-that-god-exists. It is also available via iTunes. I recommend the other podcasts by The Thinking Atheist as well. It is one of my favorites podcasts ever.

How could a 12-year-old girl deserve hell?

WARNING: Things will get a bit personal in this post.

I will be talking about my experiences with religion as relates to my self-esteem and self-confidence. Will I be blaming all my insecurities on religion? Well, no, though I think there are areas where religious messages I received as a child took advantage of and exacerbated my natural insecurities. It’s probably only in very recent years that I’ve realized how much some of these messages have messed with my head.

Lets start at the natural starting point, the Christian sum-up of the human condition: Romans 3:23 : “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Yes, I know there is context around this one, but this verse was very often quoted on its own so I will leave it that way. Feel free to look it up if you like.)

So, what could a 12-year-old girl (as this is about the time I started really paying attention to this) have done to “fall short of the glory of God”? This is the message I was just starting to absorb, right in the midst of developing my personal identity. I would think and think and try to remember what I had done wrong so I could confess it, because believing you had not sinned meant you were a liar and full of spiritual pride. (see 1 John 1:8) Oh, there it is. It’s just inescapable…it was almost a relief to be able to name some way I had sinned because then I would at least not be guilty of pride. Oh, and if you didn’t feel bad about your sins your repentance wasn’t genuine right? So my religious reflections were often reflections on my guilt and unworthiness.

I can just see Christians out there saying “Wait, no! You misunderstood the message!” But really, I was only absorbing what I was told and carrying it to its logical consequences, and could you blame me for taking what I was told both seriously and literally? I didn’t have a lot of extra-curricular activities growing up, so I spent a lot of my time in quite thinking and reflection and when I thought of these messages I got from church I could come up with no other conclusion.

I was told that I shared the blame for this. Something that supposedly happened 2000 years before I was born? It makes no sense. But what a guilt trip!

But, you might say, Jesus took care of that right? “God loves you!!!” Still, the idea that “God loves you” doesn’t help confidence if it is coupled with the idea of “you are sinner and deserve punishment.” What is it when someone says they love you but also tells you that you are unworthy of love? I knew I would never really measure up. And just about every Sunday morning, this message would be reinforced. Both in the weekly altar calls and in testimonies from others in church services who talked about how when they tried to take control of their lives everything fell apart and nothing was right until they tearfully came crawling back to God.

I determined I would never make their mistakes.

In the midst of trying to erase my doubts about God, I was being filled with doubts about myself. My own ability to succeed and thrive, and to get though Middle School with my sanity intact. I never did well socially at school, partly to do with my fear of doing anything wrong or breaking any rule (to step out of line was sin!). And also partly because my parents didn’t have a lot of money and it violated my sense of fairness and justice to beg them for expensive designer clothes as some of my friends advised. I feel the need to mention that my religious upbringing was not totally bad. While I never understood the stupid status games played in Middle School, and was never popular there, I found plenty of acceptance among my mother and her group of friends from church. They didn’t care if I didn’t wear makeup, or curl my hair, or wear the tight jeans that were in vogue at the time. When I was a teenager, I got along much better with adults than with my own peers. This was, no doubt, one of the factors that kept me from sinking into serious mental problems.

As you can see, the issues I had with the Christian theology was with the message itself and not with the people. The people, at least the mature ones, were generally wonderful. But this message: That I messed up because I was inherently evil and depraved and not because I was immature and still learning how to behave? And that my guilt is tied to some act of independence and rebellion that my first grandmother once committed? I now know that when a child tells a lie or behaves selfishly it is not because they are evil, but because they are immature.

This concept of sin gets in the way of personal understanding of why we do what we do, and how we change ourselves when we do things we do not like or that have bad consequences. Modern psychology (and honest reflection on one’s own mind for that matter) reveals that quite often we just don’t understand the real causes behind what we do–we do it, and then come up with the rationale after the fact. This is why people so often make the same mistakes over and over and over. It takes a lot of work and self-reflection to overcome the negative patterns. Merely attributing the wrong to “sin” and being sorry for it and resolving to repent is not good enough, and only results in believers getting caught in a cycle of “sin,” guilt, and repentance, and keeps them chained in whatever religious tradition they happen to be in.

And you know what? It’s ok to trust your own reasoning, because your mind is not depraved and sinful. The human brain is imperfect–since we are always stretching it beyond its evolutionary purpose (survival and reproduction). So we should always we willing to consider that we could be wrong. It takes courage and self-confidence to risk being wrong. But it is not a sin to be wrong, and if you find out you are wrong you can always change your mind. Don’t like your behavior? Don’t be mired in guilt, but try to understand your patterns and behaviors so you can make changes. And get help if you need it…this stuff can be hard. There are real solutions to these problems.

And one final point: there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make a 12-year-old child deserve hell, whether literal or metaphorical. For a trusted adult to teach a child otherwise is, frankly, abusive.

EDIT: Just to make sure I am absolutely clear on this point, no one ever personally threatened me with hell when I was a child or teenager. I did have experience one or two pastors and sunday school teachers who seemed to be fascinated with “hellfire and brimstone,” but the fact that my parents openly rejected that sort of fear tactic lessened its impact on me. However, even when it was not discussed, hell was always a part of the Christian belief system I was raised in, always lurking in the background as what was waiting for you after death if you did not commit your whole heart and soul to Jesus. So it was always an issue, even if it was not discussed often. 

Here is the talk from Dan Barker from Skepticon IV. If you do not know Dan Barker, he is a former Evangelical Christian pastor and missionary who is now an atheist. His talk is not exactly what I am saying in the post, but it is very closely related and he says it so well. :) (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the main point starts about the 20:00 minute mark.)

Upcoming Series: Why I am an atheist.

“Why are you an atheist?”

“Why don’t you believe in God?”

I have gotten these questions before. I actually have quite a lot of reasons that I am an atheist, but I’ve found that when someone just asks me point blank I freeze up because I can’t think of where to start. Because I’m not always sure of which reason would be the most effective for the asker to understand, because I don’t usually know their background or what their concept of “god” looks like. While considering this situation, I thought maybe instead of trying to jam my reasons for being an atheist into a single post why not have a series of posts where I can address each reason one by one? So, over the course of the next few months I will be writing and posting a series of essays on the various reasons why I am an atheist.

As a preview, here are some of the reasons I am looking forward to explaining:

  • The conspicuous absence of God, and my repeated observations of God being “given the glory” for human actions and chance events.
  •  The historically dubious origins of Christian doctrines, including early church disputes about the nature of Jesus himself.
  • Moral philosophy and the “Divine Command” theory.
  • The soul: how I became convinced that mind=brain and that the idea of the soul is superfluous.
  • Sexism and injustice in the Bible (probably other holy books too, but I don’t know the other books well enough to comment on them.)
  • The constant replacement of supernatural and religious explanations with understandable scientific ones.
  • Evolution, the origins of life, and creationist lies I was told when I was young.

And this list may change during the series, as I think of other things. If any of these intrigues you, make a note in the comment section and I will try to get to that reason sooner rather than later.

Thoughts on The Chronicles of Narnia

I just read Bill Hampl’s book review of The Magicians Book by Laura Miller in American Atheist magazine. It brought back memories of laying up in the top bunk of the family RV, with the whole box set of the Chronicles of Narnia that my Mom gave me just before a long trip. The books were my childhood and teen favorites, and it was not until the Harry Potter series came along that the series were displaced in my mind as the best books in the world.

Unlike Laura Miller, when I was a child the Christian symbolism of Narnia was the most obvious and natural thing in the world to me. Continue reading