|EBON MUSINGS: THE ATHEISM PAGES||GUEST ESSAYS|
N. D. Guerre
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THE POWER OF BELIEF
Why do so many otherwise intelligent people believe in God? Why can't they grasp how utterly ridiculous it is to believe all this superstitious hocus-pocus about gods? Why is it so obvious to me and not to them?
What is the power of belief in the human psychic? Why do people feel compelled to believe so strongly in something that cannot be observed and verified as true? One explanation may be that these people carry a lot of what I would call "emotional baggage"; it's hard to think rationally about something like religion when you have a large emotional investment in it.
I have found that religious belief does not appear to be a function of intelligence but cuts across the full range of human intellect. Therefore, it is not perhaps so much a question of intelligence but of emotional dependence. Finding the truth is least productive where strong emotions are involved. Truth is inversely related to the intensity of emotions. People believe what they want to believe.
It has been said that our behavior and actions are determined primarily by the feelings and emotions of our unconscious mind and that the rational or conscious mind seeks to appease or justify those emotions. Our conscious mind will find whatever means necessary to satisfy our subconscious thoughts. Decisions are made by emotion and justified by reason. With regard to religious beliefs, I would also suggest that portions of our subconscious mind may be genetically programmed to accept or reject religious beliefs. That is to say, some of us may be naturally vulnerable or predisposed to our religious beliefs. The religious suggestion that this programming may be deliberate is supported by several passages from Judeo-Christian scripture (see Divine Communication).
Are religious people so dependent on their faith that they cannot live without it? It is as if to deny these beliefs would undermine the very meaning and purpose of their lives. In his book The Lie Evolution, Ken Ham states: "I did not know from a scientific perspective why I did not believe in evolution but I knew from a Biblical perspective it had to be wrong or my faith was in trouble."33 Religion is like a crutch to these people. It offers emotional support and meaning to their existence. It is the very foundation of their lives. To deny their religious beliefs would be like knocking out the crutch, destroying the foundation. To deny their religious beliefs would be like a death sentence. It is understandable that no amount of reasoning will sway them.
Why do so many people believe in God? They point to the universality of religion. They say that millions of people through countless generations have believed. How could so many people be wrong? Well, at one time millions of people thought the world was flat too. Just because everyone believes something does not mean it is true.
Belief in these things is also convenient. It is easier to believe what we want to believe and what makes us feel better. It is harder to confront our doubts and fears and to open our minds to all the possibilities, to search for knowledge which will advance our understanding and to observe and experiment to prove what is true and not true.
But learned religious people could talk circles around me, since they have studied these subjects all their lives. I couldn't even begin to argue with the likes of Billy Graham or D. James Kennedy. There are hundreds of religious authorities like Bruce Metzger, for example. A noted authority on the New Testament, Dr. Metzger is professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, has master's and doctorate degrees from Princeton University as well as honorary doctorates from five universities. He has authored or edited some fifty books, served on numerous boards and committees. Who am I to doubt the knowledge and wisdom of these great men?
I read an article recently by Billy Graham in which he said it was "inconceivable" that life would end upon death. He reasoned that if the laws of physics (Conservation of Matter and Energy) dictate that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, surely the same would hold true for man, God's greatest creation. (What the laws of conservation have to do with organic life, is beyond me. It is a good example of science being applied incorrectly to support a religious belief.)
Libraries are full of books on every conceivable religious subject. There are entire book stores devoted to religious subjects. There you will find row upon row of shelves filled with books on every aspect of religious belief. I'm sure that most of these authors are very sincere. Many speak of conversion experiences that were very real to them, of being "born again". They talk about finding peace and joy like they've never known before when they "made a decision for Christ". Many argue that so many people couldn't be wrong.
For some time now I have been studying the history of Christianity. It is staggering how many brilliant, educated men spent their whole lives immersed in theological study and inquiry. Most of these men experienced miraculous conversions, regenerations or awakenings that compelled them to believe there is a God and that someday, somehow, we would all be held accountable. Surely, their combined wisdom and intelligence most be millions of times greater than mine! How could I even consider the possibility that all these men were wrong!
But, each of these men saw the road to salvation in a different light, and often their differences led to violence and persecution. There are thousands of religious books which claim to tell us what God's will is, what he expects of us, what is moral and immoral, how we can be sure we'll go to heaven and so on. But they all say different things! How can these people know what God wants? They can't even agree! And why can't he tell us himself? Doesn't it seem just a little bit odd that God is nowhere to be found? In all this vast enterprise of religious preaching and publishing, all I see are humans! Why would he want to rely on mortal man to document his will? Why should my salvation depend on someone else? Why is it so obvious to me that all this is just a figment of man's imagination?
It is likely that one man, Jesus Christ, has had a greater impact on the history of mankind than anyone else. But was it Christ per se or his followers who launched the church and its teachings? The books of the New Testament were written long after Christ died. This was a movement, nurtured for two thousand years, that fed upon itself, gathering mass and momentum as it rolled along. Men (and I say men because women were largely excluded) wrote great texts, built magnificent cathedrals, painted wondrous works of art and composed inspired music. Religionists would argue that it was the divine spirit that moved these men, that this should be sufficient proof of God's existence.
Religious belief crosses all strata of society from the ignorant and uneducated to the highly intelligent and well educated. These people are always searching for answers. The bumper sticker says "Christ is the answer." But there are some things we will never know. There are many unanswerable questions. The aim of science is to find some of those answers. But what do you accomplish by making up answers? Well, for some, it makes them feel better. In their hunger for answers, some people will even change from one religion to another searching for that elusive something that will satisfy their need for understanding.
People choose to believe what they want to believe. Belief is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It feeds on itself. For example, people want to believe that there is life after death. This is perfectly natural and understandable. But just because you desperately want something to be true doesn't mean that it is, in fact, true. People want to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life, that someone is looking after us and that good will triumph over evil. Life seems at times so "out of control". Surely, people reason, someone must be "in control". All very nice, but our desire or need to believe these things clouds our minds to reality.
Oppressed people tend to believe that somewhere, someday justice will prevail, that their oppressors will be punished and that paradise will be their reward for all their suffering. But, in spite of our strong desires and needs, there is no compelling reason to believe that any of this is true.
Emotion can overtake reason. Our preconceived ideas can cloud our thinking. Hysteria can rule the human mind. We can convince ourselves that something is true even if the facts say otherwise. Here are a few examples of non-religious or secular beliefs that were not true.
A prime example is the belief in medical cures. Over the centuries, and even to this day, people will believe that some potion or procedure will relieve them of their ailments - even if, in fact, it doesn't. Sometimes we want to believe something so badly, we convince ourselves it's true. This is why scientists and responsible physicians demand controlled studies to determine the efficacy of medical substances and procedures. There is no better example of the power of belief on human behavior and response than what is known medically as the "placebo effect". There have been numerous experiments that scientifically document the tremendous power of believing. It turns out that for some ailments, just believing you'll get better enables the body to respond accordingly. Athletes know that a positive attitude and mental simulation of an event will help performance. Our perception of the real world is only a concept within the mind. There is a very fine line between reality and what we believe to be reality. Often the two get confused.
There are cases of people suing a drug company because they believed the company's product caused some physical ailment. There may not be any proof that the drug is the cause of the person's ailment, but that doesn't matter. If there is enough media attention to some suspected problem with the drug, people will come to believe they are suffering from a side-effect of the drug.
A while back there was great concern about mold in a local building. Tests were run repeatedly with no indication of any danger from mold toxicity. Yet people were still convinced that they were getting sick from the mold! I would suggest that these people were sick for some other reason and that their anxiety about the mold (their belief) was causing their symptoms. Some would call it the power of suggestion.
Still another example relates to Thomas Edison. In spite of his genius, a strong emotional investment blinded him to what should have been an obvious technical blunder. Throughout his brilliant career Edison worked with direct current. His incandescent light bulb, telegraphy improvements, motion picture projector and phonograph all utilized direct current. So it is understandable that he promoted DC for the distribution of electric power. I remember a large city apartment building as recently as the fifties that had outlets in each room for both AC and DC. I remember AC/DC radios that were designed to operate on either electric source.
Edison had a running dispute with Westinghouse on this issue. Westinghouse thought that AC was the way to go. That Edison was so dog-headed about this, or that he was able to influence power companies to install these systems, is amazing AC was always the obvious choice. High energies can only be transmitted over long distances by high voltage transmission lines. And voltage conversion is only practical with AC.
U.F.O.'s are another fine example of belief run amuck. Some people get so involved in stories of aliens invading us that they begin to imagine that it's really happening. Some even think they have been abducted by space aliens. I can assure you that if creatures from another world had landed on Earth, we would not be sitting around arguing about it! The idea that the government is somehow covering up these things is equally ridiculous. The usual argument for secrecy is either 1) it would be too frightening to the public or 2) the government wants to keep it secret so they can "reverse engineer" the technology. Do we really think all those engineers at NASA could keep still about it?
Conspiracy theories are yet another example of belief systems not based on fact or reason. There are millions of Muslims, many of whom are well educated, intelligent and thoughtful, including journalists, business and community leaders, who do not believe Osama bin Laden is guilty of plotting the 9-11 terrorist attacks. They will give all kinds of explanations for why they believe this, such as claiming it was a CIA plot, that a taped recording of bin Laden was faked or that the Israeli Mossad was in on it, since they claim Jews who worked in the Trade Center were warned ahead of time! They believe that blaming Muslim extremists for the attack is an "American conspiracy" against the Muslim world. These theories are prevalent in third world countries, but are also embraced by well educated people in the U.S. Other examples are 1) that JFK was shot by more than one person, 2) that Princess Diana was assassinated or 3) that TWA flight 800 was brought down by a missile.
We believe what we want to believe, often motivated by a strong emotional investment or popular consensus that precludes a rational consideration of the facts. People can read or hear the same thing and come to totally different conclusions. We hear what we want to hear and filter out what we don't want to hear. Or, in the absence of compelling evidence, our imagination takes over, and we make up whatever scenario is in agreement with our prejudices and experience. Thus for example, even a great mind like Percival Lowell allowed himself to believe in Martians, largely based on his perceived observation of what seemed like canals on Mars.
People can make a convincing argument about any subject in order to support their beliefs. Look at the politics of both the left and right: each side will find a legitimate point of view to justify their beliefs. In the media trade it's called "spin". Look at the gun and abortion disputes: each side makes valid arguments together with plenty of facts to back up their positions. Then there's the war in Iraq: the hawks and doves will always stubbornly maintain what they believe no matter how convincing the arguments to the contrary. The Arabs will always believe that we invaded Iraq to conquer and exploit its oil. (Then again, maybe we did.) And of course, there's religion.
A final example may prove to be the case the Bush administration made for invading Iraq. It may have been a deliberate deception, but it is more likely that top officials convinced themselves that a real threat existed. It is possible that they started out with preconceived notions about the threat based on Iraq's past history of oppression and use of weapons of mass destruction. Then subsequent intelligence was filtered by this mind set, perhaps unconsciously, to accept only information that supported their beliefs and to reject information to the contrary. In other words, they made the data fit their mind set. They believed what they wanted to believe!
Since time immemorial man has created all sorts of gods to help explain the unknown and ease his fears. Primitive people had multiple gods and elaborate ideas about how the world came to be. As far back as we can fathom, mankind has had religious beliefs and rituals. I can understand how primitive people, who could not be expected to know any better, would make up beliefs about life and creation, but why does modern man? A religious person will point to this universality of religious belief as proof of God's existence, but there is little common ground in these beliefs.
The ancient Hawaiians and other pagan cultures prayed to their gods, represented by images and idols, with elaborate ceremonies and sacred laws doesn't that seem curiously similar to current religious beliefs?
Do you notice how religious people always try to explain the unknown in human terms? As humans, we see and interpret the world through "colored glasses", as it were. We filter everything we see and hear according to our collective and uniquely human experience. We impart a human perspective to everything we observe. It is natural that primitive people, without the benefit of scientific inquiry, would attribute these unknowns to something they could relate to. Thus they would create a human-like "god" and worship him (or her) as the creator and ruler of their universe.
They would give this god human-like attributes: he would be the creator or inventor of their world or some important aspect of it like the sun, moon and stars; he would rule his subjects like a king, a supreme authority figure; he would judge them like a parent judges a child, demanding their obedience and punishing them if they didn't obey; they would judge others according to how they viewed this god; and they would create rituals to recognize and worship this god.
But, we are told that God does not think and act like humans do. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8) In that case, why does God act so decidedly human?
Gods have always been cast in human terms. That is natural, of course, if you accept that these concepts are man-made. Our gods take on human form and are prone to human emotions. We tend to personalize our gods. Events which we cannot understand are attributed to a loving god or an angry god for human reasons like reward and punishment. It is said that God created us in his own image. I submit that more likely it is we who created our gods as images of ourselves.
I can understand why ancient people believed this way. But why do we still do it in the 21st century? This is my central question why do so many people still believe these things? What am I missing that makes these concepts so compelling to almost everyone around me? Are these beliefs, like some have suggested, driven by a sort of childish fantasy that is attempting to find our lost mother and father? Or are these beliefs driven by a spiritual need programmed into our genes. (See Divine Communication)
One explanation is the human emotional need to look to an authority higher than ourselves. We cannot answer many of life's questions; we cannot overcome many of life's setbacks; we cannot correct the evils of the world; we cannot find peace and happiness. We cannot do these things by ourselves. We may make some progress here and there, but when it comes down to the truly difficult challenges of life, we're often overwhelmed and impotent. It is within that context that I can understand man's nature to find some higher order to turn to.
I always find it interesting how religious people will put a divinely positive or negative spin on everything. Things can't just happen on their own; there always has to be some cosmic or divine reason or purpose. However, there's a natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanation for everything. We may not understand it, but just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean we have to make up some explanation.
These people will take an ordinary event and turn it into some sort of message from God. These people can't or won't accept the fact that things happen for natural reasons. For example, people who are handicapped or suffering will say that God is testing them. When someone survives a terrible accident, they'll say that "the Lord saved them for a higher purpose". If someone gets the urge to do something spiritual, they'll say it's a "calling" from God.
Regarding the evil in the world, they will say it is the price we pay for Adam's little faux pas with the fruit. When a woman suffers the pain of childbirth, they will say it is the curse of Eve's transgression. And when someone dies, they'll say "the Lord has called him home". If a storm, tornado or hurricane causes death and destruction, they will say it is God's retribution for our sinful ways. Or perhaps they'll say "God is trying to tell us something."
In the Old Testament, we are told about how Israel's misfortunes were brought on by her own sinful behavior. We are told that their wondering in the Desert of Sinai for forty years, the locust plagues, military defeats and slavery in Babylon were God's retribution for not following his commandments.
Life is full of trials and tribulations. Many of our problems are beyond our ability to solve. Most of us recognize that we have limitations. So religious people turn to their God for help. They say that we cannot solve all the world's problems alone only God can do that. And when they do accomplish something significant, these people will tell you it was only by God's will. When they call upon God for help in accomplishing something, they will not accept that it was only their belief in God that provided the motivation to accomplish the task!
When someone decides to go into the ministry, they will say they're answering God's calling. They will tell you that success and wealth should not tempt a person to believe that one's own persistence, ambition and ability made prosperity possible rather than God's blessing and grace. Whenever they accomplish something, especially if it's related to their religious belief, they will defer the credit to God's glory. This is all very noble, but in fact it is always human effort, not some god, that accomplished the task.
The concept of a male god is relatively new to human history. Five thousand years ago in ancient Babylonia, our ancestors worshipped the supreme deity as the Queen of Heaven. The ancient Sumerians, Minoans and Egyptians all gave us powerful female deities. It took several millennia of warfare, oppression, genocide, holocaust, idol-smashing, book-burning and deliberate rewriting of myths and legends for the father-god Jahweh, and his son Jesus, to be finally enthroned in our minds and imaginations.20
Thus the Greek, Judeo-Christian and Islamic churches became patriarchal. Women were denigrated and repressed. The major religions of the world have supported the subjugation of women. Based on the outdated beliefs and customs common at the time the Bible was written, fundamentalist Christians still teach that a woman's place is in the home, to care for her husband's needs, submit to his sexual desires, clean his house, cook his meals and raise his children.
Virtually all the characters of the Bible are male. Most of the biblical stories were written by men. History will always reflect the attitudes of its writers and the authorities that allowed it. How can we ever know the truth about these matters? The church's doctrines became inextricably bound up with male fear of women the tendency of the masculine unconscious to equate women with evil. Sex became sinful and women were to blame for it. She was damned for doing the very thing that kept the human race alive. In the Bible, it was Eve who tempted Adam.
Anyone doubting the power of belief needs look no further than the hysteria surrounding witchcraft. Belief is more powerful than fact. Belief can totally consume a person, render him unable to see reality or apply common sense. Christians were obsessed with the devil, witchcraft, the occult, spells, etc. and the belief that the devil was everywhere and had to be stamped out. This demonstrates the influence of fear and the power of belief. Why is it that in the absence of fact, evidence or proof, people will believe almost anything with absolute certainty?
Women were especially vilified in a work titled the Malleus Maleficarum, written by two 15th century Dominican inquisitors, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, and authorized by Pope Innocent VIII. In it women caused impotence, women were weak-willed and weak-minded, women were carnal temptresses, women were unfit to rule or have professions. It became a "how to" book for witch hunters. The Malleus told how to use torture to force confession and further accusations. The common practice was to strip the accused naked, shave off all her body hair (and don't tell me the good priests didn't find just a little perverted sexual gratification in all this!) and subject her to the thumbscrews, the rack and all manner of ingenious spiked wheels and bone-crushing devices.
From the 14th through the 17th centuries, an estimated half-million people, mostly women, were executed for witchcraft. In the mid-fifteen century, the Spanish clergyman Torquemada, known as the Grand Inquisitor, is credited personally with torturing and burning more than 10,000 people. A century later, the bishop of Trier (Germany), Peter Binsfield, ordered the death of some 6,000 people.
Why the witch anyway? Did frightened men, seeking to embody their sense of danger, invent the witch? Did the poor, the disenfranchised, the chronically unlucky, the ignorant , and the helpless light candles and chant ancient syllables they did not understand in order to escape this imagined terror? Or was the church so threatened by heretical sects and peasant rebellions that it shifted the blame for bad economic and social conditions from itself to women who flew through the air, blighted crops, killed babies and brought plagues. The church could thus establish itself as the seeming guardian of the people against the forces of evil. This kind of religious excess must always be guarded against. Even today it is encroaching on us in the form of fundamentalist Islamic teachings as well as Christian efforts to suppress scientific truth by forcing schools to teach "creation" alongside evolution.
Witchcraft was not, of course, the only form of heresy. Heresy was considered to be any religious error held in willful and persistent opposition to the "truth" after it had been defined and declared by the church. In 1215, the Lateran council decreed that all heretics were not only to be excommunicated, but punished with death.
But the authorities were not satisfied merely with death. First they had to obtain a confession and evidence, and in the case of witches, the names of others, friends and associates of the accused, presumed to be witches also. This was done by torture. Of course, most of the accused would "confess" and name names just to escape the excruciating pain. How could anyone be so stupid as to believe that this was any kind of reliable means of obtaining the truth? As if that were not bad enough, when they were through with the "inquisition", what was left of the accused was burned at the stake. Nice Christians!
During the Reformation in England many religious leaders were martyred for their beliefs. These were both Catholic and Protestant, depending on the whims of whoever was occupying the throne at the time. Accused of heresy by the Roman Church, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake after refusing to recant their reformed views. Ridley is quoted: "So long as the breath is in my body, I will never deny the Lord and His known truth I commit our cause to Almighty God, who shall impartially judge all."
The United Presbyterian Church had its beginnings in Scotland during a period of religious persecution. On the Martyrs' Monument in Edinburgh is written: "From May, 1661 to February, 1688, were one way or another murdered and destroyed for the same cause about eighteen thousand, of whom were executed in Edinburgh about one hundred of noblemen, gentlemen, ministers and others noble martyrs for Jesus Christ." These were Christians murdered by Christians, all arguing about the same God.
Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, religious persecution was not limited to Catholics vs. Protestants. Even within the many Protestant sects there was constant disagreement and violence. As one group came to power, those who disagreed were forced to flee or face the consequences. Eventually, many of these people came to America, and in some cases brought their own bias and hatred with them. Case in point was the persecution of the Quakers, who were universally ostracized by most other Protestant religious groups.
Many dissenters of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages were punished for the "sin" of trying to interpret the scriptures by themselves. For many centuries, the church's position held that it was dangerous for the common person to read the Bible without the benefit of clergy. Even possessing a Bible was forbidden. The church told you what to believe. You had to accept the church's interpretations or be branded a heretic.
Today, we still hear about exorcism in the Catholic Church. People believed to be possessed by the devil are exorcised by rituals prescribed by the church. These people are obsessed with the concept of evil, convinced that the devil exists and is responsible for all their miseries. It is no different than the frenzied fear of witchcraft that spread throughout the Christian world centuries ago. People ask why evil exists, why there are wars, famine and disease. They want answers. The concept of a devil is a convenient explanation.
Most people want to be lead. Most people don't want to think for themselves. They latch onto some charismatic leader's message like their lives depended on it. You see this, especially in poorer, more ignorant societies. An example is the Muslim masses one sees on television all fired up by some cleric, clambering to expound on some religious doctrine, or beating themselves bloody with chains, for no other reason than that they blindly believe what they're told.
I can see why religion appeals to the persecuted and oppressed who would like to believe that they will be compensated in heaven and that their enemies will be punished. This is wishful thinking, of course, but powerfully appealing to someone who has nothing else to hope for. It is human nature to want revenge against people who do us wrong. Judeo-Christian religious history is rich in the concept of retribution, particularly God's judgment against those who displease him. But why is our concept of God one of wrath and judgment? This is a typically human characteristic.
When I see all the evil in the world, I want to punish those who cause it. Sometimes I've thought that if I could have one wish granted, it would be that all terrorists (most of whom are men) should be castrated! My typically human response to terrorism is to punish the perpetrators (and by castration, reduce the testosterone that fuels male aggression).
But then I ask myself: If I had any wish, why not wish that the motivation to kill an innocent person, the emotion of hate together with the idea of eternal reward, be eradicated from the human psyche; why not prevent the evil in the first place? Wouldn't that be a far better solution to the problem? Of course that begs the question: why would God, who can certainly grant any wish, choose to act decidedly human by allowing us to sin and then punish us for it?
I do not doubt that religious belief is a positive factor in many people's lives. I am sure that it brings emotional comfort and peace of mind to those who truly believe. The power of belief is very real - not only can it blind people to reality, but it can also positively affect how people respond to life's challenges. However, it does not necessarily prove that whatever a person believes is true. It does not necessarily prove the existence of God. It only proves the power of belief on the human psyche.
For many people, there is an aching need for answers to all their questions about life's many mysteries and to escape from their fears and concerns. Eighty two percent of Americans declare themselves Christian. Sixty percent believe the Bible is the literal word of God. More than 4 out of 5 Americans say they have experienced God's presence or a spiritual force close to them, and 46 percent say it has happened many times. Many people just cannot function without answers to these questions. To refute their religious beliefs would, in their minds, destroy their whole purpose in life, their reason for being and their comfortable illusion that the world about them can somehow be explained by simplistic notions of a God and his divine plan.
In moments of sorrow or tragedy, people find comfort in their religious beliefs. It helps them feel that there is a reason, answer or purpose in what has happened. It assures them that those who died are in a better place, and that they (believers that is) can rest assured that they will meet again. At a recent funeral I was thinking how would you conduct a funeral service without the religious context, especially the promise of a life hereafter? I can understand why people want to believe these things. We are emotional creatures filled with grief and sorrow at the loss of a loved one; why wouldn't we want to believe? There will probably come a day when I will truly grieve and be at a loss for comfort. I may even envy those who can take comfort in religious belief. But it doesn't prove the existence of God or a life hereafter. I cannot take comfort in something I believe is a fabrication.
In Ecclesiastes, we are told that life without God is meaningless. Mel Gibson, in an interview regarding his film The Passion of the Christ, said that there came a point in his life when he realized he needed to look to a higher authority. He had everything he could want, but it was still not enough. He was "drowning in fame, wealth, drink and despair". He needed to feel that his life had a purpose. So he returned to the religion of his youth, Catholicism. "Why do I believe" he was asked. "Because I have to believe." In other words, if he didn't believe, his life would fall apart, as in fact it had.
Many people think they have a "calling" from God, that certain events in their lives constitute a message from God. I believe they simply interpret these events according to their beliefs. Other people think they hear voices from God calling them. What are these voices and visions that people imagine? What is it about the human mind that prompts us to imagine things? Perhaps it is simply because we humans have this unique capability. It stands to reason that with all this imagination going on, some people will loose the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy.
Religious people believe that there are angels living up on top of the clouds somewhere. "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." (1Thessalonians 4:16-17) Heaven is always referred to as being "up in the air" somewhere. The ancient Hawaiians believed that the spirits of the dead ascended in stages up the flanks of Mauna Kea on their way to heaven. Yet, today we know what is on top of the clouds and far beyond for that matter. I can understand how people two thousand years ago could believe these things, but why does it persist today with all that we have learned about our world and our universe. Alternately, some believe that heaven will be here on Earth after Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom. Hell, on the other hand, is generally considered to be somewhere underground where sinners will suffer for eternity, prodded by the devil into the ever present flames. (Exactly where this place is or how he will manage to keep us alive under those conditions is never explained.)
EVIDENCE OF GOD'S EXISTENCE
Jimmy Carter writes in his book Our Endangered Values, America's Moral Crisis: "I had always understood that we didn't need scientific proof of the existence or character of God Even for those without specific religious convictions, the inner feeling of what was right and wrong (a central argument of C.S. Lewis) and the awe-inspiring beauty of starlit sky or sunset, the emergence of a butterfly from a chrysalis, the industry of an ant, or the sprouting of a seed were adequate proofs of God's hand in our lives and in creation."6
People point to the wonders of nature and the universe as proof of God's existence. Surely, they say, someone very intelligent and powerful must have created all this. They think in human terms that functional things have to be created, like an engineer creates a machine. This argument doesn't prove anything to me. Just because something's wonderfully complex doesn't mean somebody had to invent it. Just because something is beautiful or inspiring doesn't mean someone had to create it. Invention and beauty are human concepts. Just because we don't understand something, doesn't mean there has to be someone else who does.
They say "How could all of this just happen by chance?" Well, why couldn't it? Why is that such a difficult concept? Why do these people feel that someone must have planned and created the universe, like an engineer would plan and create a building or a bridge? Religion embraces the personification of natural processes. Religious people feel that a person-like thing (God) must be responsible for these processes. But planning and creation are human concepts. There is no reason to think that they must apply to natural processes. Is the concept of a universe evolving by chance according to natural processes, without the intervention of a god, so unsettling as to be totally untenable?
For me, it is easier to argue against the existence of God. Unlike the religionist, I see evidence in nature that argues against the existence of a deity. Nature is far more complicated than it needs to be. The more we discover about the how living things function, the more obvious it is to me that these mechanisms evolved.
Biological complexity argues against the existence of God, yet people point to this as "proof" of God's existence. There are untold (and as yet undiscovered) millions of complex relationships between living organisms which serve no purpose. Our bodies continually fight off invading armies of bacteria and viruses. We are plagued by disease and pestilence everywhere. Why is this necessary? Surely an infinite intelligence like God could have come up with a better design than this. Why would anyone so intelligent and perfect create a world so unnecessarily complicated and dysfunctional?
God and his creations are supposed to be perfect, and yet we are told that roughly 99.9% (some very high percentage at any rate) of the organisms that ever lived on earth are now extinct. That begs the question: if all these creatures were perfect, how come virtually none of them were able to survive?
I cannot believe that anyone smart enough to have created the universe could have made so many mistakes creating life on Earth. Why are there millions of infectious organisms which no longer serve any useful purpose but against which our bodies have had to evolve immunity in order to survive? And what about the primitive mechanisms of the mind, like fear and anxiety, which at one time would have been useful in protecting against danger but are now largely inappropriate? All these facts argue in favor of evolution, not creation.
What about human organs that serve no purpose and often cause serious problems, like the appendix, tonsils, gall bladder, hemorrhoids, etc? And why do we have hair on our bodies? What purpose does hair serve? None of us has enough hair to offer protection from the elements like animals. Of what use is hair on the chest or back? Of what use is pubic hair or hair under our arms?
Many animals exhibit vestigial organs which serve no purpose. Why do male mammals have nipples? Why do some snakes (notably pythons and boa constrictors) carry the rudiments of a pelvis and tiny legs buried inside their sleek profiles? Why do baleen whales still have the remnants of hind legs? Why do certain species of flightless beetles have wings, sealed beneath wing covers that never open? The scientist regards these vestigial structures as remnants of an evolutionary lineage. But, how would a religionist explain them; why would a perfect god create animals with parts that have no function?
And how about the recent SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic and the potential for Asian bird flu to turn into a pandemic? Why would a god "create" these organisms that threaten our lives, irregardless of race, nationality, religion or character? The virus, like all infectious diseases, is indiscriminate about who it infects. The pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 40 million people. Why would a just god punish the innocent? Why would a compassionate god create plagues and diseases like cancer that cause so much suffering?
During the great bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, church leaders herded the faithful into the churches where the disease could spread like wildfire. If these divinely ordained people had any sort of communication with God, which they claimed to have, why would they do such a thing? Why didn't God tell them that this was a bad idea? Why did God "create" such a horrible disease in the first place?
I came across a story about a baby born with a liver disorder caused by a virus acquired during pregnancy. Now he needs a transplant, or he will die. If all life (including viruses) were created by God, why would he want to punish this tiny baby? What has he done to offend God? And yet the parents, apparently devout Christians, are appealing to people to pray. They say "God does amazing things through prayer. This is part of His perfect plan, one that we don't understand; for His ways are not our own." His perfect plan? Really. And that business about not understanding God's plan is just a "cop out" - if there is something about your belief system that doesn't make sense, just say it's beyond your understanding! Let's face it: if that baby survives, it will be because of the efforts of doctors and medical researchers who struggle every day to understand and undo the mess that believers think God has created!
Another example: our body's immune system is often counterproductive. It was central to human survival at a time when the biggest threats came from wild animals and acute infection. Today pain is more likely to be a chronic condition than a warning of an injury that must be heeded. Our primitive response may no longer be appropriate, e.g. inflammation that often creates more problems (coronary artery disease) than it solves; an immune system that attacks our own bodies (rheumatoid arthritis, M.S. and Lupus to name just a few).
Aside from disease and pestilence, why would God create or cause an innocent human being to suffer or be disabled? "Who makes (man) deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (Exodus 4:11) This clearly states that God creates our infirmities. Why would a loving God want to do that?
Like the title of C. S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain - why would a loving God cause us to feel pain? What purpose does excessive, excruciating pain serve other than to torture us? The "problem with religion" is that all these things just don't make sense.
In the exodus from the Texas coast in advance of Hurricane Rita, a bus carrying sick and elderly patients from a nursing home burst into flames killing 24 people. What kind of a demented, sadistic God would bring on such a massive, destructive hurricane, forcing the evacuation of millions of people, and then on top of all that misery, allow a bus load of frail, helpless people to burn to death in such a horrible manner simply trying to escape?
Why would a God create a world so filled with disease, natural disasters and misery against which we have so little control? God supposedly created the world and controls it at every moment: he "clothes the grass of the field" and not a single sparrow "will fall to the ground" apart from God's will. (Mt. 6:30, 10:29) And why would a God create us with natural tendencies toward self-destruction, fear and violence? Well, isn't the answer obvious? All these questions assume the existence of a God! Without the God hypothesis, none of these questions are relevant. We and the world just are the way we are. Things happen for natural reasons. Why does there have to be some divine "reason" or "purpose"? Why is it that people can't seem to let go of the idea of a God causing everything to happen?
Words like "reason", "purpose", "plan" and "creation" are human concepts. It is natural that people would attach these human concepts to a deity. But there is no reason to believe that our existence, or the laws that govern the universe, necessarily derive from anything within our realm of understanding. We are familiar with only what we can see and experience. We should not expect that the universe, or an understanding of its function, can somehow be explained by concepts that are familiar to us. We should not expect there to be a "reason" or "purpose" to our existence. Convenient and reassuring yes; realistic no.
Another reason to question the existence of God (or at least the Christian God), is the fact that there is so much confusing, irrelevant and contradictory information in the Bible. If they believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God, how can fundamentalist Christians be so outspoken about conservative moral issues like homosexuality, and yet routinely ignore all the other commandments clearly spelled out in the Bible. (And besides, why would God create gays and lesbians if he didn't approve of their behavior?)
In Leviticus 20:13 we read: "If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." But how can we select only certain prohibitions in God's holy word and ignore all the rest: the Pentateuch is peppered with thou-shall-nots. There are prohibitions against getting tattoos (19:28), eating swine or shellfish (11:4-12), planting two kinds of seed in one field or using two different fabrics in the same garment. (19:19, also Deuteronomy 22:9, 11) There are prohibitions against sacrificing an animal without offering it as a gift to the Lord (17:3), being naked or seeing others naked. There are laws and elaborate rituals regarding cleanliness, especially if you touched or came near a dead body (Numbers 19). And you were forbidden to even come near a menstruating woman, heaven forbid. (Lev. 15:19)
There are laws against cutting the hair on your temples or clipping the edges of your beard. (Lev.19:27) There are laws prohibiting children from cursing or striking their parents. If you did, it was curtains for you! God says so in Lev. 20:9. And don't even think about cursing God. Cursers and blasphemers are required to be stoned by the whole congregation. (Lev. 24:14)
Elsewhere we read: "If anyone injures his neighbor, what ever he has done must be done to him." (Lev. 24:19) "But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." (Exodus 21:23-24) These famous "eye for an eye" phrases were later revised by Christ's teachings (Matt. 5:38-39, Epistle of Peter 3:9), but do nevertheless appear to have been God's law at one time.
And you wouldn't want to be caught collecting wood on Sunday! In Numbers 15:33-36 we read: "Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, "The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp." So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses." Also in Exodus 35:2 we are clearly told that anyone caught working on the Sabbath must be put to death!
All this, and yet slavery was condoned by God. (Lev. 25:44) A father could even sell his daughter into slavery! (Exodus 21:7) Go figure! I mention all this only to point out how ridiculous it is to take the Bible literally. Much of the Bible and most of Leviticus is sheer nonsense.
Now I know some religious people, especially Christians, will say that the laws of the Old Testament were given by God in the context of the prevailing culture, and that we should not take them literally. But, these same people are always quoting Old Testament scripture as if it were the inspired word of God. How can you judge someone according to one law while ignoring all the rest?
I believe that the Bible is no more than a collection of historical documents that reflect the customs and beliefs common at the time they were written. In regard to the Pentateuch laws, I believe these were simply an attempt to codify these customs as commandments from a supreme being or god.
I recently read an article about the Presbyterian (USA) legislative assembly rejecting the ordination of gay clergy and lay officers. It let stand the interpretation of church law forbidding the ordination of gay clergy. My thought is: how can you take what is believed to be God's law and put it to a vote? Should ordinary humans be deciding what God wants us to believe? It was widely believed that if the vote had gone the other way, the church would have split over the issue.
Arguing with religious people is pointless. You can carefully explain all the facts and reasoning that contradict their beliefs, and they will not hear you. Their brains will shut down and refuse to function. It's like the joke about leaving your brain at the door when entering church. If you do engage them in a serious discussion about their religious beliefs and question why, if a god exists, would this or that happen, they will typically dodge the issue by saying that it is not our place to question God!
I can hear the argument now: "We can't judge God's motives. It's not for us to understand why God does something. It is beyond our understanding." Well, I say that's taking the easy way out of the argument, an unwillingness to even try and understand what's really going on, an unwillingness to delve deeper into the question of God's existence. (Are they afraid of what they might find?)
One of the best arguments against the existence of God is the proliferation of different beliefs. Everyone has different religious beliefs. No one can agree. The arguments will go on forever. Every religious sect believes that it alone knows the will of God, that it alone knows the secret of everlasting life, what Christians call salvation. Everyone else is wrong. Everyone else is being misled by the devil or whatever. Well, what is obvious to me is: If there really is a God, we wouldn't be arguing about it.
In the correct sense of the word, we cannot in a scientific sense prove the existence of God. Such a proof requires that it be testable by observation and experiment. These matters fall into the realm of philosophy, not science.
It seems to me there are two options: either God exists or he/she doesn't. Under the God hypothesis, there are two additional sub-options: either God doesn't want us to know his will or he does. I suppose it's possible that there is a God who doesn't care what we believe, but that seems unlikely. Furthermore, the religionists tell us in no uncertain terms that God does indeed want us to know his will, that he loves us very much and is deeply sadden when we do not obey his commandments. So we can eliminate the first sub-option.
However, with regard to the second sub-option, it seems obvious that this God of theirs only wants some of us to obey his will, since he chooses to convey his message indirectly and then only to selected or "chosen" people.
But why would a loving, caring god choose not to convey his message to everyone? What sort of god would want to keep us all guessing? Why would God want us to do something but not tell us what it is? And don't tell me he does try to convey his message to everyone; that is simply not true. At least in regard to Christian belief, if you send your son to proclaim the message to everyone, but limit his exposure to a very small fraction of the world's population, fail to even put the message in writing so it can be passed on to future generations (Jesus never wrote anything as far as we know) and then drop from sight for two thousand years, you are not trying very hard in my opinion! So we can eliminate the second sub-option.
That leaves only one conclusion God does not exist!
How does God reveal himself or his plan for us? I've often thought that if there really was a god and he wanted us to follow his commandments, we would not be arguing the point. God would communicate a consistent message to all of us. If all the world's religions espoused the same beliefs, I would definitely sit up and pay attention. The clear contradiction of so many beliefs is a principle argument against the existence of a god. Who is one to believe? If you accept one, you are damned by the others.
How could a god capable of creating the universe be unable to figure out a better way to tell us what he wants us to know. What exactly is the "will of God"? Why should we depend on word of mouth and ancient documents to assure our salvation? What about all the people who don't get the word through no fault of their own? What about those who lived before Christ? And whose word is it anyway? Each religion claims to know God's word. And none can agree on what it is. How can a man's eternal salvation depend on such a confusing and inefficient communication scheme?
Some people say our conscience is God's voice for moral clarity, that our sense of right and wrong is given to us by God and only needs to be discovered. C. S. Lewis believed that this innate feature of the human mind to distinguish right from wrong was sufficient proof of God's existence. However, it seems more likely to me that our conscience is the product of our collective experiences, including those of our ancestors preserved in our genes.
Religious people accuse people like me of "willful ignorance". They'll say that I am intentionally ignoring the obvious truth. They'll even quote the Bible to prove the point: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Romans 1:18-20) Well, I guess that proves the point! Clearly, I haven't been paying attention!
I am confident that God hasn't spoken to me, but there are those who believe he has spoken to them. If that were true, and in fact there is but one God, why aren't all these people saying the same thing? I am constantly amazed at all the time and effort that has been spent for thousands of years trying to "find God", to answer the question: who or what is God exactly and what does he expect of us; what is the relationship of man and all other creatures to God; what is the nature of the human soul and life after death, sin and salvation, divine reward and punishment? If there really is a God, why do we have to try so hard to find the answers to these questions, why is he hiding all this from us; what purpose does that serve? If he wants us to know him, why does he pretend not to exist? Stop and think about it: if there really is a God, wouldn't we have found him by now? And don't tell me we have. Mankind can't claim to have found God if we're all finding something different! The answer should be obvious: we're looking for something that doesn't exist!
The Bible says that God wants everyone to be saved and come to know the "truth". (1 Tim. 2:4) But if God desires all people to be saved, why aren't they? Why are some people receptive to the message while others are not? "Why are some of us spiritual virtuosos, while others can't play a note? Why do some people hear the divine word easily while others remain spiritually tone-deaf? Isn't it one of the central tenets of religion that grace is available to everybody?"53 God loved the world, (John 3:16) but chooses to save only some.
In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren states that "There are over 6 billion people on earth, and Jesus wants all his lost children found"59. Not some select group, but all his lost children. But then he also states: "Before you were born, God planned this moment (to read the book) in your life"60 And again: "Jesus will not return until everyone God wants to hear the Good News has heard it."61 Warren says that God wants all his children found, but then he says that God plans and chooses (elects) those he intends to read his book and hear the "Good News". So which is it; does he want all of us to be saved or not? Why all this contradiction.
Warren states that God longs for us to discover the life he created us to live: "God wants to redeem human beings from Satan and reconcile them to himself so we can fulfill the five purposes he created us for ."58 So why isn't God telling me this? God turns a deaf ear to the unbeliever. God wants you to know him and do his will, but he won't talk to you unless you already believe. (Apparently he has commissioned mankind to deal with the unbelievers.) They say I should ask God in prayer to help me believe, but if he knows I'm not sincere, he won't be listening. (Perhaps it's because I hurt his feelings?)
The scriptures reinforce this idea that God chooses who he wants to save: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son " (Romans 8:29) "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." (Romans 9:11-18) "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will." (Eph. 1:4-5) "The coming of the lawless one (the Antichrist) is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12) All these scriptural readings indicate that our lives are predestined and that God makes us sin: " he hardens whom he wants to harden." How else would you read this? And then he passes judgment and sends the sinner to hell!
Dr. D. James Kennedy states: "Would you be born again? There has never been a person who sought for that who did not find it."55 And yet in the same chapter he says: "Even the seeking is created by the Spirit of God" and quotes Charles Spurgeon, "the great English preacher of a century ago" who said that "natural man unregenerate man (not born again) can no more understand what the new birth is, or what spiritual things are, than a horse can understand astronomy." Kennedy goes on to say: "Imagine trying to teach astronomy to a horse! We might just as well try to teach the meaning of spiritual things to a man who has not been born of God's Spirit."56 In 1 Cor. 2:14 we read: "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." So, how can I discern the "Spirit of God" if God has chosen not to give me the spirit to begin with? It would be like "trying to teach astronomy to a horse"
This reinforces the argument that faith must precede "understanding". One cannot come to a belief in God unless he already believes! One cannot arrive at the conclusion that God exists simply by intellectual reasoning - he must already possess the "holy spirit". Anselm, the great eleventh century theologian, believed this. He sought to reach an understanding or notion of God that would support his faith, perhaps even explain it. He prefaced his effort by saying that he longed to understand the truth in which his heart believed, adding that he did not seek to understand in order to believe, but rather that he believed in order to understand, for unless he believed, he would not understand.45
God won't reveal his plan or presence unless you ask. You must make the first move. You must first believe before God will reveal himself to you. We are being asked to accept something before we are shown what it is. This seems more like a test of one's gullibility. If God really wanted "all his lost children found", wouldn't it be far more effective to reveal himself first and then ask us to believe? Isn't this "putting the cart before the horse"?
So why do some people have this seemingly natural urge to connect with a god? Andrew Newberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has a biological theory of religion, which he believes provides a neurological basis for the great human hunger for belief in God. The theory is part of the emerging science of neurotheology, which explores the links between spirituality and the brain and how brain function can produce a range of religious experiences, from the profound epiphanies of saints to the quiet sense of holiness felt by a believer during prayer.46
Some have recently suggested that spirituality may have a genetic origin. One theory relates to survival religion and spirituality may have been the glue that held civilized societies together. "The need for God may be a crucial trait stamped deeper and deeper into our genome with every passing generation. Humans who developed a spiritual sense thrived and bequeathed that trait to their offspring. Those who didn't, risked dying out in chaos and killing."54
The genetic hypothesis is further supported by considering the comparative spirituality of Americans and Europeans. As I noted in the Introduction, 59% of Americans say that religion plays a very important role in their lives compared to 11% in France. A reasonable explanation for this disparity could be the fact that so many of our ancestors came to America in order to escape religious persecution in Europe. One would therefore expect that most of these early settlers were of strong religious conviction and that our genetic makeup would favor spirituality and religious belief.
It is a fact that some people are more susceptible to things like gambling, drinking, smoking, drugs, etc. Something in their brains, something they're born with, makes them more vulnerable. So why not the same for religion? I think that some people are simply more susceptible to religious or spiritual feelings, just as some people are less susceptible.
Dr. Kennedy, in his book Why I Believe, observes: "I have found that the arguments of unbelievers consist of one thing: emotionalism, displayed in an outburst of hostility and unwillingness to consider rationally a matter of the greatest importance to their eternal well-being."40 Likewise, in his book Are We Living in the End Times, Tim LaHaye also implies emotional ignorance: "The unregenerate minds of unbelievers resist the idea of the intervention of God in human affairs and the unbeliever remains deliberately ignorant of the truth."29
But I have studied religious matters for years, read the Bible and many Christian authors, and I still don't get it. You certainly can't fault me for not trying! One would have to conclude that God has "hardened" my heart for some reason, that God has deliberately programmed my subconscious mind and emotions to reject religious doctrine, that I am predestined to reject God. But then how can God hold me accountable? According to Christian teaching, God has predisposed me to reject him but then promises to punish me for not believing! Throughout the Bible we are told about how God punishes the sinner. But why create all that suffering? Why does God always have to make everyone miserable? Why does God make us sin and then punish us for it?
In Exodus, why did God favor the Israelites over the Egyptians? Throughout the Old Testament, God is always promising preferential treatment for Israel, together with death, destruction and suffering for her enemies. "When you go to war in your land against the enemy who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, and you will be remembered before the Lord your God, and you will be saved from your enemies." (Numbers 10:9-10)
In Exodus we are told that God punished Pharaoh and his people by, among other things, killing all of Egypt's first born sons. We are told that during the Passover, God instructed the Israelites to stay inside and mark their doors with blood to indicate to God who they were. (Exodus 12:12) Why did they need to mark their doors if God had already figured out who they were during the previous curses: "But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and that of Egypt, so that no animal belonging to the Israelites will die." (Exodus 9:4) Does this mean that he could identify the animals but not the people? Anyway, why would this loving God, who presumably created the Egyptians as well as the Israelites, want to kill all those innocent children?
Throughout the Bible, God is always speaking to his chosen people and no one else. Why should we think that God is only interested in one small portion of the world's population? Why should we think that God would favor one group of people over everyone else? Interestingly, this is a common theme in all religions: their God always favors them and punishes their enemies.
I read about the war in Iraq where soldiers were praying after a deadly insurgent attack, and I'm thinking: the Americans pray to God while the Islamic insurgents pray to Allah what's wrong with this picture? Isn't there supposed to be just one God? Why is God choosing sides if he created everyone? Aren't we all part of his creation? One opinion in America is that the Iraqi situation fits the criteria for a "just war". I'm sure the jihadists feel the same way.
Religious people believe that God teaches us through certain events in our lives. Of course, these events happen for natural reasons, but for the religionist, it's convenient to assign divine meaning to them. After some calamity, people will ask "Is God trying to tell us something?" Do they think God is incapable of any better or more effective form of communication? People talk about "discovering" God's will. Why do we have to "discover" what God is saying to us, as if it were some sort of treasure hunt? If God has something to say to me, he can say it to me, directly. No obscure "signs" or middle men. No hazy interpretation of ancient documents. He could make it very clear, if he wanted to. Believe me, I'd listen very carefully!
I hear the argument that the disaster of September 11, 2001 was God's "wake up call". They say that we had drifted away from God, that we were living in sin, that we had become too materialistic, that this was God's way of letting us know he was still in charge. They say that nothing God does is ever without a purpose, that there is a message for us in all this.
Now look closely at this argument and think for a moment. Why would God kill 3000 innocent people and devastate the lives of countless others in order to send some kind of message? If you were smart enough to have created the universe, wouldn't you be capable of figuring out a better way to communicate? Why would an all powerful God fail so miserably at such a simple thing as getting his message across reliably?
Prayer is probably the most common mode of communication with God. But it seems simplistic to think we can converse with God just by talking to ourselves. If there is a God who knows our every move and hears our every word, why go through this ritual of praying just to get his attention? The absurdity of prayer is illustrated by a short story I read recently. The author was describing the typical scenario encountered when calling a company's help line: all the usual busy signals, numbered menus and the obligatory holding. ("You can expect your call to be answered in twenty minutes!") Then he recounted how simple it was to call on God through prayer: no holding, no waiting; he was sure that God was always listening. Of course I assume he was not hearing a response (unless he was psychotic perhaps). I would suggest that he could have gotten the same results on the phone by simply talking and not listening.
Rick Warren talks a lot about the power of prayer. He asks us to pray for this or that, even for specific countries. My question is, why does he think simply talking to ourselves or to God (assuming there is a God) would make any difference. For example, he goes on to say that we should pray for, among other things, "courage to speak up, for those who will believe, for the rapid spread of the message and for more workers."64 Is he saying that God wouldn't otherwise (without the prayers) want to support evangelism, spread the message or enlist more witnesses?
The experience of conversion is the ultimate form of communication with God. For many people, their conversion occurs during a religious service or revival. They may hear an eloquent evangelist speak about sin and salvation. They may be moved by the music. They may be caught up in the excitement and euphoria of the moment. The experience may harbor back to an earlier period in their lives, perhaps to things they were taught as children and since put aside in the rush of everyday life. But in most cases, these religious conversions occur because of the influence of someone else not God, but humans. My question is: why do we have to rely on other humans to receive God's message? Why not God himself?
What is believed to be the miracle of signs is another form of communication. Religious people believe that God reveals himself through "signs", whose meanings are always open to interpretation. Why would he (or she) do that? Why would God employ such an obscure and unreliable method to communicate with us? I believe it far more reasonable that these people who see signs are taking ordinary, though perhaps not entirely understood, events and making them into whatever fulfills their religious needs.
Some people have what are to them very real experiences which they are convinced are revelations from God. It may be a personal experience like a dream or a feeling of euphoria during a religious service. Or it may be a shared experience like, for example, a comatose girl in New York through whom messages are received, or a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary in Georgia that communicates some message from God to the faithful. It is reported that over 500,000 people have visited an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a window pane of an office building in Clearwater, Florida.
Please, give me a break!
With all the evil and suffering in the world, we can take comfort in the assurance of God's infinite love revealed to us in the Virgin Mary's image! I am just astounded that reasonably intelligent people fall for this stuff. Recently I saw where thousands of people were drawn to the water-stained wall of a Chicago viaduct, thinking it was some sort of divine incarnation of the Virgin Mary. People left flowers and a portrait of the pope. They lit hundreds of candles at a makeshift alter. Numerous people were moved to tears. But it was simply where water and salt had seeped through the concrete wall from a winter run-off! Why in the world would these people think that a god, who was capable of creating the universe, would resort to some obscure, ambiguous water stain to send a message? Incredible!
Often these "signs" boarder on the ridiculous, if not insane. Recently, ordinary food items have been taken as religious icons. A fish stick is being promoted as showing the likeness of Jesus Christ while a piece of partially eaten toasted cheese sandwich, said to show an image of the Virgin Mary, recently sold on e-Bay for $28,000 after receiving more than 1.6 million hits! I kid you not.
Religious "signs" are often referred to as miracles. I heard a priest say that "miracles are God's way of showing us his presence". He went on to say that they can only be experienced by people of faith. In other words, the proof of God's existence is only available to those who need it least and denied to those who need it most, namely the unbeliever. In this regard, the proof is self-fulfilling.
Mother Teresa was beatified recently, a step toward sainthood. One of the requirements of sainthood is the performance of "miracles". Not to berate Mother Teresa, whose lifetime commitment to the poor of India is legendary, but the miracle quoted in the paper involved an Indian woman who said a beam of light emitted from a picture of Mother Teresa in her home had cured a cancerous tumor. Doctors there disagree of course, citing the fact the woman had been taking medicines for a year. A beam of light from a picture? Really?
Another supposed avenue for communication from God is through dreams. Many people think that dreams are supposed to make some kind of sense, to convey a message. This would seem reasonable except that dreams seldom make any sense at all. They are simply a collection of random thoughts. This is supported by the idea that the brain works by continually and subconsciously processing thousands of random thoughts and memories. (Computer programmers use these techniques called fuzzy logic, genetic algorithms or neural networks to simulate human thought, as well as to create new designs and even study the process of evolution.) Sometimes when I'm very tired, my mind will drift off to random thoughts, totally unrelated to anything rational. I believe people interpret what they think their dreams mean and read into them whatever they want. This is no different than how believers interpret events as some sort of message from God.
Another example of how random thoughts of the subconscious are misinterpreted is in so-called "near death experiences". I believe these experiences are more likely the result of the rational, conscious brain shutting down and allowing subconscious thoughts to come to the surface. To say that they are visions of heaven is wishful thinking at best. The human mind is capable of great deception!
Prophecy is another way people believe God communicates with us. We are told in the Old Testament that during the years when kings ruled Israel and Judah, God spoke through prophets. Some of these prophets, it seems, could even foretell the future. Some people, even today, believe that everything is predestined, that events in our lives are part of God's plan all mapped out in advance. If that is true, how can God expect us to be accountable for our actions if everything about our lives is predetermined? This is the same argument against original sin: Why would God program us to sin and then punish us for it?
For example, the greatest sinner of all is supposed to be the Antichrist. And yet, according to many Christian teachers, his existence and his deeds are prophesied in the Old Testament book of Daniel, as well as the New Testament book of Revelation. They are saying the Antichrist is part of God's plan, one of the main players in the "end times" scenario. Yet he will have no say in the matter, and for his role in the plan, will be "cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone" (Rev. 19:20)
In Revelation we read about the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse". This passage reminds us, however, that evil powers work only by divine permission. The riders "were given" great powers by God: "I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest." (Rev. 6:2) "Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the Earth and to make men slay each other." (Rev. 6:4) "I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was followed close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the Earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the Earth." (Rev. 6:8) And again referring to the Antichrist: "It was granted to him to make war with the saints." (Rev. 13:7) All this suffering is part of God's plan! How can anyone be responsible for his own destiny? Everything has been planned out in advance!
Another problem with prophecy is its obscure nature. All religious prophecy is based on old obscure texts which are non-specific and can be interpreted to predict all sorts of things. There is a book out now that claims to be able to predict the future based on "secret codes" buried in ancient scripture. These secrets supposedly laid dormant for thousands of years until the invention of the computer, which the author claims is necessary to decode these complex messages. Why would God (these are "divine" texts) create codes so complex that they would require a computer to figure out?
For example, the author claims to be able to show that such texts predicted the 9-11 attacks. That would mean that the destiny of those roughly 3000 people who died was determined by God thousands of years ago! They never had a chance! It must have been God who made the hijackers fly into those buildings! I guess that would prove that our God and their Allah are one and the same! And of course the author can show that 9-11 was only a precursor of worse things to come, that Armageddon is just around the corner.
In many places, the Bible almost seems obsessed with prophecy and predestination. Many writers of the New Testament speak of God's fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Religious people are always pointing out what they believe to be fulfilled prophecy as proof of a divine plan. However, it seems more likely that the authors of the New Testament, being no doubt familiar with the Old Testament, simply chose to embellish their stories in such a way as to make the prophecies come true.
Christians believe that the prophet Isaiah foretold the sufferings of Christ. They believe that the servant referred to in Isaiah was the future messiah. (Of course, Jews would disagree.) "Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by god, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:4-6) This was all part of God's plan, that his own son would suffer the crucifixion to somehow make amends for the sins of man.
In the gospels we are told that Jesus is the long awaited messiah. Jesus himself says that certain things must happen in fulfillment of the scriptures such as the rejection of his teachings, the betrayal by Judas and Simon Peter, and even the details of his own crucifixion! All of these things imply that the events were predestined, that they were all part of some grand plan of God's. In fact, many Christians believe that Jesus' death and resurrection, like Adam's original sin, are a central part of God's plan conceived before Creation. Paul wrote: "So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Timothy 1:8-10)
This idea of predestination was prevalent during the Reformation. John Calvin believed in predestination, as did many other Swiss reformers. The doctrine of election was a religious tenet that only those elected by God could possess faith and attain salvation. This is referred to as Calvinistic theology. Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor at Geneva, went even further and proclaimed that man's election or reprobation had been determined even before the fall of Adam, as a part of the plan of salvation. Thus, by this logic, you were either saved or not depending on where you fit into God's plan. In contrast to Calvin and Beza, Jacobus Arminius argued that man has freedom of choice with regard to faith and spiritual matters as opposed to unconditional election to salvation. This is referred to as Arminian theology.
Dr. John Walvoord, in his book Prophecy, combines these two concepts: "The plan God chose does not force anyone to be saved or lost, but means simply that He knows in advance what each of us will do." (Are you confused, or is it just me?) Dr. Walvoord goes on to explain: "While this concept is difficult for us to comprehend with our limited understanding of infinite truth, if there had been a better, more feasible plan, we can be assured that God would have undertaken it."3 (Well, that certainly clears up the confusion!)
The argument's always made that God has given us the freedom to make choices. But it's one thing to allow us to make choices, and another entirely to have already made those choices for us!
Rick Warren emphasizes that God has a purpose for each one of us. "Long before you were conceived by your parents, you were conceived in the mind of God. He thought of you first. It is not fate, nor chance, nor luck, nor coincidence that you are breathing at this very moment. You are alive because God wanted to create you!"17 He goes on to say that every detail of our being was planned by God. He also believes God decides when we are born and when we die.
This brings up two interesting questions: Is the child born to a rape victim a deliberate act of God? Warren seems to be saying that such a birth is part of God's divine plan. That is to say, the rape itself was an act of God. What other conclusion can you reach?
The second question occurred to me recently when a friend asked me to pray for his terminally ill wife. People often pray for recovery from sickness or injury. But if God has already determined our life span, along with every other aspect of our lives, how can prayer do any good?
All these complicated schemes just to communicate with us. Why all the mystery and suspense? Is this some sort of game God is playing with us? Why are we supposed to look for clues to figure out what God wants? Symbology, secrets, codes and conspiracies seem endemic to religion. We are constantly being asked to accept things on faith. In the absence of verifiable facts, everything seems so mysterious. In the absence of facts, we are free to let our imagination run wild. Codes and conspiracies are wonderfully tempting. If we can't come up with a plausible answer, than we call it a secret, something God doesn't want us to know.
How are we supposed to know how God wants us to behave? If our salvation depends on certain knowledge, why doesn't he tell us what we need to know? Why would God want to keep us in the dark, allow us to create thousands of different religious faiths all arguing incessantly about the "truth", forcing us by trial and error to find out for ourselves the knowledge and wisdom which is necessary to achieve eternal life!
If we were created by a God who cared at all about our well being (and why wouldn't he), why does he leave us to figure out what is best for us, mentally, emotionally and physically? How are we supposed to know the right foods to eat, for example, or how to avoid disease? Medical experts are constantly revising their recommendations on what foods are good or bad for us. If our health and well being depend on eating the proper diet, why doesn't our creator tell us what we should be eating? Doesn't he care? Why don't we have a body manual?
I know, the Bible is our manual (or is it the Quran, or maybe the Torah). Of course, those don't address our physical needs (other than to reflect whatever customs were prevalent at the time they were written). And we can't even agree on what the Bible says, for that matter. Much of it is contradictory. One can interpret it any way one wishes. If it is God's divine word, how come it is so confusing and open to interpretation? Couldn't he have done better than to give us an archaic collection of old, confusing documents?
And speaking of the Bible, how can anyone have such complete confidence in documents that were written so long ago. We don't even have access to all the ancient documents most of them are presumed to have been destroyed. Those that remain have been revised, copied, translated and interpreted countless times. The books of the Bible were written over two thousand years ago. That is a very long time how can anyone know with any certainty what really happened? The four gospels are believed to have been written anywhere from 40 to 70 years after Christ died. That's at least one generation. How could these writers have known all the particulars of Christ's life, even to his exact words? (See Original Sin & Christ's Salvation: Jesus Christ)
In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren states: "When Jesus told his followers to "go everywhere in the world, and tell the Good News to everyone," that small band of poor, Middle Eastern disciples were overwhelmed. Were they supposed to walk or ride slow animals? That's all they had for transportation, and there were no ocean-crossing ships, so there were real physical barriers to going to the whole world."62 Warren goes on to remark how many more opportunities there are today to spread the "Good News". So why does God still rely on documents that are thousands of years old? If conditions are so much better today for spreading the word, why doesn't he give us an updated, more currently relevant version?
People argue about the will of God as interpreted in the scriptures such things as abortion, homosexuality, same sex marriages, what foods to eat, how much to tithe, the protocol of religious services, even something as mundane as whether women should be allowed to wear pants in church! The Bible is a very large book, or collection of books! One can find something in the Bible to justify anything. Even slavery was once justified by biblical reference.
I keep coming across books that promise to reveal the nature and will of God, to explain "God's plan" for this or that or to tell us about God's infinite love, our assurance of salvation and the promise of life everlasting. One title I came across recently read: How To Be The Person God Wants You to Be. But if God wants me to be something or do something, why can't he tell me himself? (The book wasn't written by God.)I'm told I should join a Bible study group or church school to help me understand and interpret the Bible. There must be thousands of Bible references and guides to help people understand the word of God all written by human beings who feel they have some "calling" or authority from God to interpret his word. But why should I need someone else's help to understand God's word? If it's so important, why does he rely on the Rick Warrens and Billy Grahams of the world to convey this information? Why can't he do it himself? Why do we think that man can express himself more clearly than God? And why do we have to rely on the mortal interpretation of texts that were written so long ago, texts that are so hopelessly out of date?
Then there are the other "revelations" of God. What about the Torah, or the Quran. Why would the same God (he is the same, isn't he?) give us different, and in some cases contradictory, documents? Followers of the Quran, for example, have substantially different religious beliefs about the role of women in society. The Muslims can't even agree on how to treat the non-believer, the so-called infidel. Some justify their jihad or "holy war" on passages from the Quran.
History is always written by the winners. After many ancient conflicts, the documentation and history of the defeated culture were destroyed, and history was rewritten by the conquerors so as to glorify their own cause. In regard to the Christian faith, how do we know there weren't other religious books, destroyed by the early church, books containing information contrary to what the church wanted people to believe? Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in the forth century to define what early Christians should believe, no doubt interpreting the gospels as they saw fit. It is no wonder then that the Bible is so full of inconsistencies and contradictions. How can anyone consider such a confusing set of writings to be the work of a perfect God?
RELIGION AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR
Good Influence of Religion
Human behavior, both good and bad, has often been highly influenced by religious beliefs. In recent times, with religious excess constrained by secular democratic governments, we have seen a more positive influence of religion on behavior. Religious beliefs help people cope in difficult times. Many people find prayer to be reassuring and comforting. And it has been demonstrated that a positive mental outlook, often supported by religious conviction, has a beneficial effect on physical healing.
Religion often provides a framework within which people can grieve. When someone dies, you expect that there will be a religious service, a setting where people can express condolences to the bereaved family. You expect to hear assurances that the deceased is in a better place and that loved ones will be reunited sometime in the future.
Religious organizations often sponsor charitable activities such as feeding and housing the disadvantaged, poor and homeless, operating orphanages and helping with construction and education in developing countries. After major disasters, churches will organize their members to help with relief efforts. Although I'm sure most of these programs are done for purely humanitarian reasons, I also suspect that some may have a religious agenda as well.
Historically, many religions have provided us with a rich cultural heritage. In western societies, Christians have for centuries contributed to a vast human enterprise and incredible accomplishments in art, music, and architecture. I often marvel at the beauty and scale of the large gothic cathedrals of Europe. I am thrilled and awed by the power and majesty of the pipe organ, and the music composed for it, much of which was inspired by religious belief and dedicated to the glory of God.
Most religions also define and promote good moral and ethical values. Many people feel that moral values can only be taught by the church, that such rules for human conduct can only be found in the Bible, Quran, Torah or whatever. Of course, secular law covers many of these issues, but these people feel such moral values as sexual behavior, faithfulness in marriage, honesty, integrity and compassion must be taught within a religious framework. However, such values can and should be taught to young children in any home, religious or not. Such values can be carried into adulthood with or without religious oversight.
Each of us has within us, deep down in our psyche, a capacity for anger and hatred which most of us manage to keep in check through learned self-control and self-discipline. Religion has always played a role in defining and controlling our behavior - sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Believing that a higher authority is watching over us has a profound influence on that behavior.
Humans, by our very nature, need some sort of absolute moral authority. We need the idea of a power greater than us that will set boundaries for our behavior and guide us through life's difficulties, just like a parent should do for a child. Again like children, we also need encouragement to follow the rules, i.e. the threat of punishment if we disobey. This authority needs to be written down, must stand the test of time and its authenticity must be accepted without reservation. Thus it is with all major religions whether that authority be the Bible, the Quran, the Torah or whatever. The church can serve a useful purpose in this respect, but morals and ethics need not be the exclusive province of religion.
Bad Influence of Religion
Unfortunately, there are countless examples of religious oppression and opportunism (absolute power and authority of a few self-appointed religious leaders at the expense of everyone else), wars (countless examples of fighting between people of opposing religious belief), inhumanity and torture (the inquisition) and the repression of independent and scientific thought (the dark ages).
While many people find comfort in their religious beliefs, others are saddled with guilt, shame and fear brought on by their beliefs and the teachings of the church. We are human and are naturally prone to behaviors which are detrimental to ourselves and to society. It is good that we have constraints, either civil or religious. But the church's teachings are often rigid, sometimes out of date and harsh with regard to what the church considers sinful. And sometimes these teachings are not even grounded in fact. Although our understanding of the natural world has overcome many of these notions, many people still fear God's retribution for all manner of supposed sins.
Separation of Church and State
Our country's founders understood the dangers of religious extremism. Europe had experienced centuries of religious oppression. Even though the early settlers came to America to escape this oppression, they often brought with them their own oppressive practices. Puritan New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, was rife with the persecution of Catholics, Baptists and particularly Quakers, not to mention all those satanic witches.
People like Cory Burnell of Christian Exodus point out that our early leaders clearly endorsed a Christian centered government. The original South Carolina Constitution of 1778, for example, stipulated that: "one who acknowledges the being of a God, and believes in a future state of rewards and punishments shall be deemed a person qualified to vote." Furthermore, Article 38 established Christianity as the official state religion: "The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State." Although the laws are not enforced, many states still require a belief in God as a prerequisite for holding public office.
Mr. Burnell states, in so many words, that democracy and freedom are not "remotely suitable for anything other than a Christian people." He quotes John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Patrick Henry is also quoted: "It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
These people are unambiguous: If you don't believe the Christian doctrine, you are not qualified or entitled to the democratic freedoms we enjoy in the United States. Fortunately, these sentiments were not incorporated in our federal constitution. These people would have interpreted the Constitution as guaranteeing only the freedom of Christian religious expression, just as many fundamentalists do today. However, that is not what the First Amendment says. The amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof " There is no favoritism here. It should not be taken as some sort of license to promote the Christian belief over any other.
As good students of history, our country's founders understood the danger of mixing politics and religion. Government has the power to pass laws. Laws force people to behave in certain ways. Religious leaders in theocratic states enlist the government's help in mandating religious practices. People are then forced to do as the church says or face the consequences, often severe punishment or death!
Many people in this country still do not understand this lesson in history. These people would usurp the constitution by mandating certain religious practices in our daily lives. Examples are prayer in the schools, posting of the Ten Commandments and restrictions on the teaching of evolution.
Some Christians would argue that by limiting their religious expression in public, the government is discriminating against them. I have even heard the argument that Christianity is "under attack" in America. These people cry that their religious freedom is being taken away. They fail to see that what they regard as religious freedom can and does infringe on the religious freedom of other groups. According to the prevailing interpretation, we are each guaranteed by the constitution the right to practice our religious beliefs without interference by the government, but that doesn't mean we have the right to force our beliefs on someone else in a public place. Taken the sordid history of religious persecution in Europe and early America, it is clear to me that the intent of the First Amendment's "establishment" clause was to assure that all Americans are free of unwanted influence or persecution regarding their religious beliefs. One person's "right" of expression should not infringe on another's "right" to protection from unwanted influence or persecution.
Sometimes I wonder if perhaps our current administration is forgetting the lessons of the past. George W. Bush is well known as a "born again" Christian. He says things that would indicate he believes he has some sort of righteous mandate from God to bring freedom and democracy to the Muslim Middle East. He asserts that "freedom is granted by the Almighty", which somehow implies the United States has a God-given mandate to bring our version of freedom to the rest of the world, even if it means at the point of a gun. He even slipped once and used the word "crusade" to refer to our war on terrorism. He seems to be oblivious to the fact that these actions and assertions are extremely provocative to the fundamentalist Muslim. In the Middle East, the "righteous" have been killing each other in the name of God for centuries. But the United States has stood for secularism in government and has, thus far, avoided the religious strife that has historically torn apart most of the world.
A good example of government interference in religion was the Terri Schiavo matter. The Christian right was incensed that the government did not fulfill their perceived mandate of the 2004 elections and force the woman's husband to continue the artificial feeding that had sustained her for fifteen years. In the absence of an Advanced Directive, one can argue the woman's intentions, but this had already been decided by the courts. It was the religious furor and divisiveness of the issue that is so disturbing. Furthermore, it is hard for me to understand the religious argument:
First, these people believe that God has a plan for each one of us, and that we should not try to circumvent the will of God. And yet here they were, through human intervention, trying to prolong her life. Clearly it was God's intent that she die a long time ago.
Second, these people firmly believe what they are taught in their Bibles. And in marriage, the Bible clearly empowers the man to assume ultimate authority. How can they then side with the woman's family rather than her own husband?
And in regard to the political issues, I think it's odd that so many Republicans the party that has always stood for limited intrusion of government into our personal lives would be so determined to interfere in this extremely private family matter! How odd that these people were so concerned about keeping this one woman from starving when they seem content with letting millions of people around the world starve to death every day!
There have been disturbing indications lately of a willingness of certain political activists, notably the Christian Right, to usurp the constitutional separation of powers. These people are creating a climate of fear for those who try to enforce laws that religious extremists oppose. The Schiavo case is only one example. The religious right is already having a big impact on education: thirty one percent of teachers surveyed by the National Science Teachers Association feel pressured to present creationism-related material in the classroom. And there are now pharmacists who, on religious grounds, refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. Legislatures are now considering laws that will make these options legal. Laws in Illinois and Mississippi already allow doctors and other health providers to deny virtually any procedure based on the provider's religious conscience.51
In the nineteenth century, it was common for employers to require their workers to attend church, and religious institutions outside of mainstream Christian beliefs were not generally tolerated. For much of this country's early history, the concept of religious freedom was an oxymoron. Case in point was the treatment of the Mormons who suffered cruel persecution and were gradually forced westward. It has not been until recently that the First Amendment has been more strictly interpreted as protecting everyone's religious orientation. Unfortunately, recent developments have raised the concern that certain religious groups have, once again, taken the political spotlight to promote their own agenda. The Christian Right has targeted the judiciary, and in particular so called "activist judges", claiming that they are rewriting the law so as to promote an anti-Christian or anti-religion agenda when, in fact, they are simply protecting the right of all people to practice their beliefs without public or government influence.
Religious people differentiate between God's laws and man's. They believe that God "in his superior wisdom" has commanded certain things (via divine revelation). Sometimes this contrasts with secular law created by man. Judge Roy Moore believed that he was answering to a higher authority in posting his Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court Building. This argument has been used by theocratic states to justify religious oppression. Many Muslim countries are governed by laws which derive from religious belief.
Recently, a Muslim cleric in Iraq stated that "democracy is incompatible with Islam". This, he said, was because democracy allows for different views and opinions, many of which are contrary to Islamic law. I happen to agree with the cleric I don't believe democracy will ever work in Iraq, or any other fundamentalist Islamic state.
An extreme example of religious persecution by the state is the treatment of the early Christians by the Romans. Countless innocent men, women and children were fed to wild animals as entertainment for the good citizens of Rome. Other examples are the persecution of Protestants and Catholics by governments of the opposite persuasion during the Middle Ages and the current persecutions of religious minorities in Muslim countries.
As I have pointed out numerous times in this writing, a fundamental nature of almost all religions is their intolerance of other beliefs. Many Christians preach tolerance; however, Christianity is by definition an intolerant religion. Religious tolerance and Christian fundamentalism are mutually exclusive. "Religious tolerance" is an oxymoron. There is the basic tenet of "I'm right and you're wrong; my beliefs are true and yours are false; I'm in God's favor and you're not." In addition, a good Christian is supposed to believe that unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour, you're going to hell. Period. So how can you just accept someone else's religious beliefs, knowing that person is destined to suffer eternal hell, especially if they're a friend or relative. How can men like Billy Graham speak to world religious leaders - including Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus - about religious tolerance while believing that all of them are destined for hell?
Why do religious people so often feel they have to demonize others or view unbelievers as inferior or worse? Does it make them feel better about themselves? Does it help to reinforce their own beliefs by putting down someone else's? Recently I picked up a book in a "Christian" book store about the Mormon faith. It said in no uncertain terms that all Mormons are living in sin and will go to hell! Salvation was not an option. In fact I found dozens of books explaining how every faith, except that of the evangelical Christian, is wrong and its believers destined for hell. How's that for "religious tolerance"?
Oftentimes religious intolerance spills over into violence. These people are not content to keep their opinions to themselves but feel the need to threaten others either verbally or physically. Why is that? Are they so insecure in their own beliefs that they feel they have to criticize or suppress other people's beliefs? Do they feel threatened by these other beliefs? Are they afraid someone might prove them wrong?
One example is the experience of a Wiccan woman in Great Falls, S.C. Wicca beliefs are rooted in pagan rites that antedate Christianity, which of course are very un-Christian! It seems that this woman challenged the prayer used to open the town council meetings, which included references to "our heavenly Father" and Jesus Christ. She sued in U.S. District Court and won.
Well, the locals got very mad. She's been ostracized. Her home and truck have been vandalized numerous times. Hoodlums beheaded one of her beloved parrots, an African Gray, and hung its gutted body with a note that read: "You're next!" Others have killed several of her cats and beat one of her dogs.
I don't believe Wicca any more than I believe Christianity, or any other religion, but I can't understand this kind of behavior. Why are these people so upset? What are they so afraid of?
Unfortunately, this kind of behavior toward people of different religious beliefs is actually quite common. Look at the medieval inquisitions and the persecution of non-believers. Look at the way that Jews have been treated by Christians for centuries. During the Crusades that began in 1096, Christians massacred Jews and Muslims by the thousands. Later, when Martin Luther founded Protestantism, he tried to convert the Jews. When that failed, he equated the Jews with Satan and urged the burning of their synagogues, the seizure of their books and their expulsion from Germany.
One would think that such behavior would be outdated in the 21st century. But such prejudice is spreading again, especially in Europe where the Inquisition's dark legacy still reaches into our times as irrational fear and prejudice relegate one group of people to a hated status.
I have already examined this subject in regard to the events of September 11, 2001. Here are some other examples:
Eric Rudolph was convicted of bombing two abortion clinics, a gay nightclub and the Atlanta Olympics. He had a long association with the Christian Identity movement, which proclaims that whites are God's true chosen people. (Sound familiar?) The group believes Jews are descendants of Satan and that people of color are subhuman! They consider abortion a Jewish plot to destroy the white race! Yet he read the same Bible as every other Christian worshipper in the pew on Sunday morning. His interpretation of the Bible told him that it was alright to kill people! Likewise, the Ku Klux Klan was a radical Christian group that justified their actions on biblical interpretations similar to Rudolph's. To kill a black person was only fulfilling a biblical mandate in their minds.
Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister turned anti-abortion extremist, was recently executed for killing an abortion doctor and his bodyguard outside a Pensacola clinic because "the Lord told him to". Before his execution, he told reporters he expected to receive a grand reward upon arrival in heaven!
Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese religious cult obsessed with the apocalypse. In 1995 some of its members released sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. Another group near San Diego a few years ago was so obsessed with the end of the world that they interpreted the passing of a comet as a sign that the end was near and committed mass suicide.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings in Israel. They consider this justified by their religious beliefs. Why else would someone purposely kill themselves unless they thought it would make them a martyr and guarantee a place in heaven? Like the Jews, they feel that God gave them a right to the land. Some of their holiest shrines are in Jerusalem. Now the religious violence has spread to Iraq, thanks to U.S. intervention there. Numerous radical groups, both from inside and outside Iraq, are waging a "holy war" against the infidel, consisting of suicide bombings and kidnappings. Beheadings of innocent civilian contractors have become common place. Many of these bloody executions are even shown on Islamic web sites. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is quoted as saying: "cutting the heads of the criminal infidels is implementing the orders of our lord."
Why are all these people so insecure about their beliefs that they feel they must put down, change or destroy anyone who doesn't agree with them?
The Y2K hysteria a few years back is a good example of belief run amuck. In the months leading up to January 1, 2000, Christian bookstores were doing a brisk business in the numerous books predicting the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. There were dire predictions of what would occur when computers failed worldwide because of the highly publicized year 2000 glitch. They saw prophecies coming true (wars, weather changes, disasters, etc.) and were sure that it would all culminate in the so-called end times as the clock struck midnight on January 1.
Even without the much publicized Y2K problem, religious people had long believed that the millennium change would bring about apocalyptic chaos. This also happened in the year 1000. Why they would think that a number like 1000 or 2000 had any particular significance is beyond me. What if our numbering system had been based on 5 (counting the fingers on one hand) instead of 10?
Another example of a religious cult that believed in the millennium second coming was a group in Massachusetts which believed that they alone were God's chosen people and that they would be saved if only they followed God's instructions. These instructions were conveyed through commandments they received directly from God. They even wrote their own version of a Bible. They believed that God required complete obedience to these commandments. Some of these commandments were seen as a test of their faith. One such commandment was to essentially starve one of the children, requiring that she be fed only breast milk. Unfortunately the mother was not producing milk at the time, so the child died. The father and mother were convicted of various crimes, but the rest of the group is still praising God and looking forward to their reward.
For government to condone any religious practice is to invite further incursion. This is the slippery slope that leads to state religion and oppression. A good example of this is what happened around Salem, MA in the seventeenth century. People were obsessed with the devil and Satanism (a concept derived from the Bible). Young children began to tell stories about perceived evil acts by certain women in the community. These people were then questioned, a process frequently supplemented by torture or the threat of torture, until they were forced to "confess" their sins and implicate others. Then those people were questioned in the same manner to procure even more names. It apparently never occurred to these religious people that a human being will say almost anything to avoid pain and suffering! Before long it seemed that the devil was rampant in their midst. Panic set in and everyone became suspect. Dozens of innocent people were tortured or put to death to stamp out this perceived evil, when in fact it was the church and its religious perversion about Satan that was causing all the evil!
In Europe, often the very accusation was enough to see one branded a witch, tried by the Inquisitors' Court, and burned alive at the stake. Estimates of the death toll during the Inquisition worldwide range from 600,000 to as high as 9,000,000 over its 250 year long course. These are chilling numbers. Nearly all of the accused were women who consisted primarily of outcasts and other suspicious persons - old women, midwives, Jews, poets and Gypsies. Anyone who did not fit within the contemporary view of a pieous Christian was suspect, and easily branded "witch", usually to devastating effect.
Another good example of this took place in Gilmore, Texas a few years ago. I may not have all the facts just right, but this is the gist of what happened: It seems that a young girl was abducted. (She was never found.) Soon after, several children living in squalid conditions some distance out of town, were removed from their families and placed in foster homes. Rumor started that the families had been practicing satanic rituals in the woods at night. One of the foster parents, believing they were doing God's work, began to badger one of the children, a seven year old boy, into "confessing" what he had seen going on. Physical and psychological pressure was applied by the foster parents until they got what they wanted.
A special prosecutor and a team of "experts" were appointed to look into the matter. As it turned out these people were religious extremists who were hell bent on finding the devil at work. The boy's "confession" ignited a rash of hysteria and more high pressure questioning of the now accused Satanists until two of them also gave gory descriptions of things that had gone on in the woods, including the torture and murder of the missing girl! Even the town's sheriff was implicated in the scheme. Conspiracy theories about satanic cults spread like wildfire. A mob mentality set in.
The team went to the woods and the site of the supposed rituals. Yet despite months of digging and searching, no evidence was found that anything unusual had happened. (One bone dug up was later found to be from a pig.) Yet these people were not deterred. One even later said that the lack of evidence only proved that it was the work of Satan!
When finally the state attorney's office got involved, the whole mess was revealed for what it was - mass hysteria driven by a belief system, a belief in the devil gone amuck. It was an excellent example of what can happen when religious beliefs are allowed to trump due process, when fact finding becomes a fear driven inquisition and, most importantly, why you cannot mix religion and government.
As is true with any belief system, you can present the believer with a dozen hard facts which clearly disprove his belief and he will ignore all of them. He will, in fact, ignore anything and everything that doesn't fit the mold. His mind will filter out any incoming fact which contradicts his beliefs.
Sometimes religious beliefs can be downright silly. Take the Harry Potter craze for example. Although it's toned down somewhat, many religious people still feel that the books promote witchcraft and the occult. Of course such things exist only in the minds of vulnerable and ignorant people. The books have been a tremendous boon to children's reading. And I'm sure most children can tell the difference between fact and fiction.
I was also amused (but not surprised) to read a letter to the editor that expressed the opinion that schools should curtail Halloween activities. "Public schools that embrace that holiday create an unfair and uncomfortable situation for the families whose religions seriously frown on occult celebrations Public school policies should apply equally to all religious activities, including Halloween." Halloween is now a religious activity? Really?
All this occult stuff also plays into the hands of the fundamentalists, who will claim that it is another sign of the second coming.
Religious leaders use religious dogma to control the masses. Troubled, unhappy, unfulfilled people want to believe there's more to life than their own miserable existence. They want to believe there is a reason for their suffering, that something better awaits them after death. So they are told that they must follow the teachings of their church, believe their leaders. In historical times, it was considered unwise to educate the masses, to allow independent thought. Most people could not read. It was the place of religious leaders to interpret the word of God, to tell people what they should think. People are still willing to be indoctrinated in this manner.
As I have pointed out elsewhere in this document, I agree that religion plays an important part in the moral upbringing of many children. But I also wonder if another reason religious parents start their children so early in religious instruction is to assure that certain ideas are firmly rooted at such a tender age so as to reduce the odds that they will be open to other ideas later in life. Otherwise, why not wait until the person is old enough to understand the issues. Are they afraid that their beliefs won't stand on their own merits? Like the song says: "You have to be carefully taught."
Religion and War
One can find numerous articles and references to religious strife throughout the world today: Northern Ireland (Protestant and Catholic), Israel and the Palestinians (Jew and Muslim), India and Pakistan (Hindu and Muslim), The Balkans (Christian and Muslim), Indonesia and Philippines (Islamic separatists and the secular state). And yet, I find it amazing to also read that in the wake of September 11, we should find solace in our religious beliefs, that we should turn to God. Isn't this belief in God a large part of the problem to begin with?
Countless wars have been or are being fought today over religious differences. The Jews have been at war with someone for the better part of three thousand years. Both Jews and Muslims believe they have a God given right to their land in the Middle East. Likewise, Hindus and Muslims in India have been fighting for centuries. The Catholics and Protestants of Medieval Europe were constantly at war with each other, and in Northern Ireland it's still going on today. So many wars have a religious element. It is a common tenet of all religions that only their beliefs are right and that everyone else (the enemy) is wrong. As they march into battle, each side believes its God will lead them to victory Onward Christian Soldiers, as the song says. Our "war on terror" is essentially a religious war, although most people don't want to admit it. Certainly from the terrorists' point of view it's a religious war.
Problems come about when man takes the words (written by man) of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Torah, Quran or whatever literally as divine revelation. This is the essence of fundamentalist belief. Anyone with an agenda can find some passage in these books to justify just about anything. Some Muslims say that the Quran is against violence and the murder of innocent and unarmed people. But other Muslims say it justifies killing non-believers. Man interprets religious texts to suit his purpose.
Thousands of good, God fearing, Christians were sent to the Middle East during the Crusades to conquer the Muslims. For in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says uncharacteristically "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on Earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
The Old Testament in particular is full of stories of wars that God condoned. God is always playing favorites with his "chosen people", granting them special providence to defeat their enemies. And not just defeat God seems to condone horrendous cruelties and plundering: "They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled as well as all their camps. (Numbers 31)
But apparently that was not good enough for Moses. Upon hearing of the victory, he was angry that they had not killed the women as well. He commanded them to kill the boy prisoners and every woman "who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man." Now tell me, why would a God, who had also created the Midianites, want to treat them this way? Why would he condone sexual slavery and rape? Presumably it was because they were sinful; but so were the Israelites. And as far as we know, God never appeared to the Midianites or gave them commandments. How should they have known what was sinful?