Being Anti-Religious Gets Us Nowhere

© David Teachout

When faced with the question of “Do you believe in God?” the immediate response should be “Which one?” This query goes to the heart of the inherent ego-centrism of the initial question. Let’s face it, the person uttering it is not at all interested in getting into a long and winding philosophical discussion about metaphysics, the nature of knowledge and the degree to which personal experience is relevant to claims about reality. No, they’re asking whether you belong with them, and by them of course is meant those who believe in their particular deity. The quizzical look that passes at the response is an indication of just how myopic their vision of human experience is, that of course when that funny three-letter word is used, particularly when capitalized, it can only mean the god they believe in. Any others are but pale human-made facsimiles.

 

The term “god” has no inherent content, it’s like a Platonic form waiting to be filled in by actual experience. At best, “god” can allude to some transcendent principle or being or experience, but beyond that there’s no details as to what any of those actually entails. As when we hear the term “chair” or “table” or “car,” we have an immediate framework for what such means and our minds supply images. Utilizing the proximity principle of cognitive heuristics, the images that come up are often what we saw last or are most often interacting with. Similar occurs then when we hear the term “god.” The mere ability to come up with an immediate image or idea in no way proves the legitimacy of that image or idea, it just points to the tendency of our minds to fill in the gaps of uncertainty. As such we can utilize god to mean anything from a transcendent principle like love or purpose (“god is love”), to a panoply of deities (Hinduism, pagan traditions, etc.), a monolithic supernatural person (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and as synonymous with the holistic quality of being in the universe (Ernest Holmes, Jerry Goldsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson).
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Personal Journey Series – Faith to Freedom, Religion to Humanity

© David Teachout

Growing up there was never a question of going to church on Sundays, attending Sunday School as a child and eventually graduating to the “adult” experience of sitting in pews, singing old songs and listening to a sermon. Beyond Sundays there was mid-week youth group of some kind, attempting to instill the bonds of faith with other believers of my age group.

 

I was “saved” at an early age, internally pushed into it out of fear of death. Later, as a teen, I “rededicated myself to Jesus,” a fact of life for many evangelicals who grow up in the church. Finding myself living a life having “backslidden,” the fervency of “getting right with God” cannot be overstated. I went after this feeling with a dedication reserved for the self-righteousness of the teenage mind or reformed sinner. Being a Christian was more than a statement, it was a living ideal.

 

College brought a host of new experiences I’d been wishing for. I’d studied philosophy before, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, but never to the extent I was now. Similarly with theology, I was introduced to the history of Christianity, studies in biblical literature and the changing history of theological ideas. I ate it up even as more and more the questions I was coming up with were increasingly not being answered. The boy who had written in his senior yearbook picture caption that “to live in Christ is gain” was now beginning to grasp at straws.
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On the Necessity of Apostasy

On one of the “atheists vs. Christians” Facebook pages that I occasionally haunt, one of the contributors recently raised an earnest question that deserves a sincere, considered response. I’ll begin by quoting him:

“You are asking this generation of Believers to put aside their beliefs in their Savior, after 2,000+ years of dedication Believers gave their lives to pass the legacy to each generation, per the Christ’s request?”

 

Garbled though it may be, this is one of the better questions I’ve seen raised in that forum. Without making it crystal clear, he seems to have broached two issues, one of which I responded to briefly with an observation about “throwing good money after bad” but now would like to address at slightly greater length: Yes, it’s true that the history of Christianity is strewn with martyrs who died for their convictions. And on some level, I’ll admit that’s impressive – just as it’s impressive when a Muslim fanatic dies for his beliefs, whether he’s put to death by the zealous defender of a rival faith or blows himself up in a crowded marketplace imagining it to be the will of Allah. But that doesn’t make his religion true, any more than being martyred for the Christian faith makes that religion true. All it means is that some people are willing to die for their opinions, and that others are willing to kill those who hold what they imagine to be the wrong opinions. No matter how many people die for a faith, the faith is not thereby validated.

 

Consider the violent end of that unfortunate first-century Palestinian prophet around whom the Christian religion is built. For the sake of argument, I’ll assume that such a figure as Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and was put to death by the Roman Procurator for inciting rebellion. That doesn’t make him the Son of God: it makes him the victim – one of many such victims – of an empire that wasn’t keen on having its prerogatives questioned. It happens all the time, and doesn’t make Jesus or any other martyr divine. For that matter, it doesn’t even place the stamp of validity on his message: his message – assuming we can find it somewhere within the opacities of the Gospels – stands or falls on its own merits.

 

I mourn for those who, like Jesus, are executed unfairly. I mourn the unjust death of Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethyl Rosenberg, Joe Hill and Mohandas Gandhi for the same reason. But that martyrdom doesn’t make them special: their lives made them special. Like Jesus, the five martyrs I named died for causes that I can get behind, but the thing that makes their message “true” and their causes worth fighting for is not the martyrdom of the messengers.
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Do You Swear to Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing like the “Biblical Truth”

I’ve been seeing the expression “Biblical truth” bandied about on several fundamentalist Christian Facebook groups recently, and I want to address that weird and rather disturbing notion.

There’s a point every semester when I broach the subject of truth in my classes: it happens when we start our survey of African-American music, a unit that begins with a consideration of the Blues. The author of the textbook we use launches into a rather incoherent and saccharine discussion of the Blues as a vehicle for truth-telling. I think he mostly gets it wrong; nevertheless, it is a useful point of departure so we do read the section and discuss it. I always begin by telling my students that, just as the infinitives to hear and to listen don’t mean the same thing, so the nouns “fact” and “truth” are not by any means exact synonyms, although there is clearly a relationship between them (as there is between hearing and listening).

To help them understand my meaning, I have them do this thought experiment: go to the neonatal unit of the local hospital and choose your newborn. Become an omnipresent observer: follow that person all his life; record in your notebooks everything that person ever experiences, says or does. Omit no detail. At the end of that person’s life, you’ll have a mountain of notebooks – and a mountain of facts. Will you have in those notebooks the truth of that person’s life?

Of course not. There’s only one way to discover the truth of that person’s life: ask the person who lived the life. Truth is the synthesis we make of the facts. Facts are objective; truth is subjective.
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