About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Atheists are Fundamentalists Too

Warning: this post is going to be a bit different in tone than my previous ones.

Anyone who has visited this blog should have figured out by now that I have problems with narrow-minded people. But not all such persons are equally to blame for their short-sightedness. Many, especially religious fundamentalists, are simply the products of factors outside their control. These include the brains they were born with, the homes they were raised in and their opportunities, or lack thereof, for education and intellectual enrichment.

An individual with limited mental faculties, who was reared in a home with few or no books in it and who was never encouraged to pursue academics has quite frankly been handed a raw deal. Such unfortunate persons are, on the whole, unlikely to ever be counted among the world's academic giants. This is no fault of theirs, and I hold no animosity whatsoever against them.

However, not everyone who is unlearned fits this stereotype. There are millions who were born with excellent cognitive abilities. They have supportive families and access to outstanding educational facilities. Yet despite these advantages they have chosen willful ignorance about subjects which they hold strong opinions of.

What's worse, some of them pretend to speak authoritatively on these topics. When called on their errors they ignore their critics and continue to spread nonsense. Worst of all they do this while declaring themselves to be champions of science and Reason.

The Economist magazine's website recently held a debate on the question "is religion a force for good or evil?" Representing the latter position was a rather uptight gentleman named Sam Harris. He is known in atheist circles as one of the "four horsemen," popular writers who attack religious faith. Other members of this fraternity include Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," Christopher Hitchens, who penned "God is not Great," and Daniel Dennett, most famous for his tome "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."

Personally I feel that comparing these fellows to the apocalyptic images in Revelation is a bit of a stretch. I refer to them as "The Four Stooges." (Yes, I know what you're saying: there were only three stooges. But that's only if you don't count Shemp).

Anyway, the following were some of Harris' salvos in what proved to be a rather heated exchange:

"The truth claims of the world's major religions are not merely strange, they are patently ludicrous. The paradise promised to devout Muslims in the Koran is a garden complete with rivers of milk and honey, and enough silk brocade, almonds and virgins to go around. This vision of sublimity is so time-bound and provincial as to leave no doubt as to its origin. It is analogous to a modern cult organised around the promise of an afterlife in which every soul gets to drive a new Lexus."

"There is no question that people can transform their lives for the better, and many of these experiences are generally considered "spiritual", in that they can seem to confirm some of the core doctrines of the world's religions. Of course, they do nothing of the sort—because, as has already been conceded, the world's religions are mutually incompatible. The fact that Christian and Hindu contemplatives can both experience devotion, ecstasy, compassion, rapture, self-transcendence and other remarkable mental states proves, beyond any doubt, that such phenomena do not depend on the truth of any religious doctrine."

"Given the antiquity of the world's religions, their mutual incompatibility and the frequent barbarism enshrined as wisdom in their canons, there is no chance whatsoever that any one of them is the best possible description of this range of human experience. Whatever is true about us in "spiritual" terms can be discovered in the present and understood in the context of a maturing science of the human mind."

"When we doubt that science (and reason generally) can apply to questions of morality, meaning and spiritual concern, we are essentially saying there are truths that resist honest observation and clear reasoning, but which yield their wonders to minds that have been sufficiently prepared by lies (re: religious teachings)."

The above quotes are typical of remarks made by the Four Stooges. Some observations about them:

1.) They display a dismal lack of knowledge about the subject they criticize. For example,
consider the egregious errors Harris commits in this portion:

"The world's religions are mutually incompatible. The fact that Christian and Hindu contemplatives can both experience devotion, ecstasy, compassion, rapture, self-transcendence and other remarkable mental states proves, beyond any doubt, that such phenomena do not depend on the truth of any religious doctrine."

This statement conveniently ignores the many areas of agreement between the major world faiths. Hinduism and Christianity differ in many respects to be sure. Yet there are also numerous points on which they concur. Each affirms that the physical world is transcended and supported by a greater Reality which is eternal and spiritual in nature. Both religions tell us that the Universe is governed by benevolent deities.

Yes, Hindus do believe in a pantheon of gods. However, the majority of them acknowledge one God who is supreme above all, usually referred to as Vishnu, who, like the Christian Trinity, manifests Himself as three different persons.

They also have roughly equivalent moral codes. They acknowledge wrongdoing causes suffering and they teach that through faith, self-denial and practical compassion, humans may be united in sweetest fellowship with God, the source of all good.

These commonalities are shared by Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and practitioners of lesser known faiths. Even Buddhism, which does not address the idea of God directly, proclaims the reality of the spiritual world. It also urges its adherents to practice charity, self-control and detachment from materialism and sensual desires.

An honest look at the major world faiths shows that Harris' charges of incompatibility are vastly overblown. To the contrary, they display remarkable agreement in many areas. This has lead many reasonable persons, including myself, to believe that they are akin to thirsty pilgrims, each of whom has found sustenance by drinking from the same well of divine truth.

Because of this, Christian and Hindu mystics are united with the same transcendent Reality in their metaphysical quests. They both experience the ineffable joy of touching the One who is ultimately beyond the power of language to describe. This affirms rather than denies the truth of their respective faith traditions. Harris' dismissal of these things is not only wrong-headed, it's pathetic.

2.) They reveal themselves as not only ignorant but also obscenely arrogant, judging the past by 21st century standards and making no attempt to understand or appreciate the rich subtleties and symbolism in sacred literature.

For example, Harris writes:

"The truth claims of the world's major religions are not merely strange, they are patently ludicrous. The paradise promised to devout Muslims in the Koran is a garden complete with rivers of milk and honey, and enough silk brocade, almonds and virgins to go around. This vision of sublimity is so time-bound and provincial as to leave no doubt as to its origin."

To rebut this claim one need only realize that to the ancients symbols such as rivers flowing with milk and honey were never meant to be taken literally. They are poetic devices intended to convey truths too profound for words to fully express.

To those interested in learning more about this subject I heartily recommend Karen Armstrong's outstanding book "The Case for God." In it she demolishes Harris' objections.

3.) While they speak incessantly of science and rationality, in the end they abuse both Reason and the scientific method for their own agendas.

Consider these words from Harris:

"When we doubt that science (and reason generally) can apply to questions of morality, meaning and spiritual concern, we are essentially saying there are truths that resist honest observation and clear reasoning, but which yield their wonders to minds that have been sufficiently prepared by lies (re: religious teachings)."

Implicit in this statement is the notion that honest observation and clear reasoning are beyond the capabilities of people with spiritual convictions. But history reveals just the opposite. Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King - all of them, and countless others, were keen observers of the world and excellent thinkers. Each of them also believed in God or some other form of spiritual reality. To say that their minds were "prepared by lies" is not only puerile, it's silly and stupid.

Regarding science, it's benefits to humanity are obvious. It has done a marvelous job of explaining how the physical world works, by carefully observing physical processes, developing theories to explain their workings and then testing those claims through experimentation.

Yet like all disciplines it has its limits. For example, how one one test the truth of this statement: "it is morally wrong to murder elderly women for their pension checks?"

To begin with one would first have to observe a valid moral standard then compare the act against it. But where in Nature do we find moral standards, valid or otherwise? The very concept of morality is a result of intuitive notions that cannot be verified by observing the natural world. The same is true of our ideas of beauty, our appreciation of music and the insights we gain from reading great literature, or from simply watching a sunset. These things are beyond science's ability to address.

Nor can the scientific disciplines shed any light on questions such as whether people have rights, if there is an ultimate purpose for existence or if there is anything beyond the world of our senses. Like it or not, these issues are the province of artists, philosophers and theologians, and the answers they provide are at best well thought out leaps of faith. On these matters science is mute.

After spending much time reading their words and listening to their vitriolic diatribes, I've concluded that it isn't love of truth that drives the Four Stooges and their fans. It's something much more crass: a hatred of those with different opinions mixed with the urge to feel superior to those same people. To nurture these desires they have embarked on a campaign supported by a mountain of rhetoric, half-truths and outright lies.

They are as ignorant and intolerant as the most narrow-minded religious bigot. In their case, though, it's a willful ignorance, which they hold to in spite of their intellectual gifts and access to knowledge. Thus in the final analysis they are the worst fundamentalists of all.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Anti-Christ is Among us Again

The 1990s was a time of intense speculation. The year 2000 was looming in the minds of virtually everyone. Cottage industries devoted to foretelling what the dawn of the new millennium would bring popped up everywhere. Anyone who remembers the Y2K hysteria knows just how much anxiety people were feeling about the events that lay just beyond December 31st, 1999, 11:59 pm.

This effect was not unfelt by those who insist on treating the Bible like a fortune teller’s crystal ball. Theologians amateur and pro were trying to line up the words of Daniel and Revelation with the headlines in the daily news. I had an extended dialogue for a while with a very sincere fellow in an AOL discussion group. He was convinced that he had identified the Anti-Christ as none other than then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He had studied the career of the vicious dictator in depth and found in his biography unmistakable parallels with prophetic verses. He was convinced that by the year 2000 Hussein would reveal himself as the long awaited false messiah who would usher in the final seven year tribulation culminating in Jesus’ return to the planet Earth.

I recall trying to persuade this obviously nice and rather intelligent person that he was
most likely in error. When confronted with my posts, though, he had a pat answer: “just wait. You’ll see I was right soon enough.”

It’s now the year 2010, and, alas, Saddam Hussein failed to live up to expectations. The deposed despot was found cowering in a farmhouse on December 14th 2003 and executed in 2006, paying the ultimate penalty for his lengthy list of crimes against humanity. I thought about my old friend on that day and wondered how he was dealing with being shown the error in his thinking. I’ve long since lost contact with him, but I wish him well.

Not to worry, of course. Those who insist on reading the biblical text in a hyper-literal fashion have fresh new candidates for the position of Anti-Christ. The expansion of the Internet since the 1990s allows them to publicize their theories to a worldwide audience. As of the time of this writing the current favorite appears to be President Barack Obama. Trying to pin the label of Christ’s ultimate enemy on our first African-American chief executive is practically an obsession with many.

Googling (is that a word?) the words “Obama Anti-Christ” returns well over one million results. One that caught my eye is www.antichristidentity.com. The site’s owner claims to have examined over 4,000 pieces of documentation regarding Obama’s link to a conspiracy to establish a one-world government. In addition he and his “research staff” have listened to 5,000 hours of Obama’s speeches, combing through them for cryptic phrases and code
words that demonstrate the president’s connection to unnamed anti-Christian organizations.

The best part: he will gladly send you his full report for the low, low price of $19.97. Better hurry, though. As the site owner warns, his page may disappear from the Internet at any time if “they” have their way.

Dissent is the sign of a healthy democracy, and disagreement with a president’s polices is not only acceptable but vital to public discourse. The insanely irrational hatred many people feel for the current occupant of the White House goes far beyond this, however.
Many of those suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome have openly declared that our 44th president is the Anti-Christ. Others, while not directly assigning him that label, say that there is a 90% or better probability that he fits the bill. Still others deny that he is the one the Bible calls “the man of sin” but believe that he is paving the way for the end of the world. I recommend Googling the words "Obama verichip" for a wild and amusing trip down conspiracy lane.

A hall of fame could be devoted to the persons in the 20th century alone that were accused of being the Anti-Christ. John F. Kennedy was suspected because he was wounded in the head, as Revelation says the Beast will be. Hitler was pegged as well, though not without ample justification in my view. Henry Kissinger was a suspect. Even Ronald Wilson Reagan didn’t escape suspicion. After all, he had three names, first, middle and last, each with six letters. As if more proof was necessary! But my favorite of all comes from the 1988 book “Gorbachev: Has the Real Anti-Christ Come?” If you’re interested in studying the writer’s case you can pick up a copy of his earth-shaking tome at Amazon.com for a penny.

Whence comes all of this nonsense? Personal prejudices and our all too human tendency to demonize those with whom we disagree surely play a role. But in my opinion blame must also be assigned to a way of interpreting the Bible which fails to respect its status as an ancient yet timeless masterpiece that conveys moral and spiritual truths to its readers. Modern fundamentalists, along with many evangelicals, have torn the scriptures out of their historical and literary context, in the process trying to turn them into a Christianized version of the daily horoscope or a psychic hotline.

Jesus’ first lengthy discourse in the New Testament is the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapters five and seven as well as in the other Synoptic Gospels. In it he declares the value system that his movement would be based upon. When viewed in their historical context
his statements are nothing short of radical:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.’
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

The world in which Christ lived was ruled by the Roman Empire, which held itself together for 600 years through the swift and unmerciful use of force. The Romans never asked anyone's permission before conquering them. They simply marched in and claimed whatever territory caught their eye, slaughtering or enslaving any who opposed them.

Their response to dissent was as effective as it was simple: mass murder. They imported both humans and animals by the thousands into Rome itself, to be slaughtered in the Coliseum while thousands watched and cheered. There was nothing about the Romans that was merciful, peaceful or meek.

Jesus fought Rome in a way that was as brilliant as it was subtle. He didn’t attack its armies, its leaders or its wealth. He went after its values. This approach was identified correctly, albeit scornfully, by Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals.”

After his Resurrection and Ascension Jesus’ followers continued his mission. In short order they caught the attention of their Roman oppressors, who disapproved of the troublesome new sect and its message of peace. The book of Acts chronicles key events in this struggle. Paul as well as other New Testament writers used the powers of faith and of the pen to undermine the glorification of cruelty and martial strength that the culture of their conquerors was based upon.

What does any of this have to do with our topic? Simply this: the prophetic writings of the New Testament were written within the context of this struggle initiated by Jesus against the dominant values system of the world. They should be understood within that context.

The literal Roman Empire fell fifteen hundred years ago. It will not return. But the worldview that underlay it is alive and well. It reappeared in the religious wars of medieval times, in the struggle for wealth and power between the Vatican and Europe’s secular rulers, and in the battle cries of despots like Napoleon and Hitler. It rears its ugly head today on every continent and in every nation and every community. Wherever one person or group seeks to exploit and control others, wherever those in authority abuse their powers for self-enrichment, wherever an adult torments a helpless child, wherever workers are denied a fair day’s pay, wherever corporate and political bosses conspire to cheat the public, wherever an animal is mistreated - there the spirit of the Empire rises once more.

So my old friend was right. Saddam Hussein was the Anti-Christ, in that he embraced the values and practices opposed by Jesus. In that sense so was Hitler,
and Idi Amin, and every major and minor tyrant in history. And where such evil tries to assert itself, God’s Spirit is present as well, moving within the human heart to resist and overcome the spirit of ancient pagan Rome, to lay its ghost to its long overdue rest.

This is the crucial message of all the New Testament: that God, through Jesus, has overcome the evils of the world, not through force, but by the sacrifice on the cross. The message of a man nailed to a tree has the power to overcome a billion swords. This struggle will continue until the time of the End, which, as Jesus himself said, is known to no one but God (Mark 13:32).

So then, who is the Anti-Christ? Simply put, whoever embraces the values of a world where power is the ultimate determinant and people are treated as the means to an end. This truth is at once liberating and troubling. For we may find that, rather than living in presidents or politicians, he dwells instead in the person in the mirror. God grant us the wisdom and courage to see ourselves as we truly are.