About Me

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

Sunday, June 26, 2011

So you say you want heaven on earth...

Challenging one’s assumptions is an excellent mental exercise that I try to engage in occasionally. Recently I’ve been pondering the problem of evil, which, in a nut shell, works like this:

1.) God is supposedly both all-good and all-powerful.
2.) But evil exists.
3.) If there were truly an all-good and all-powerful God, He/She/It would not allow that to be the case.
4.) Therefore, there is no all-good, all-powerful God.


Are we absolutely sure about # 3? Theologians who defend the traditional idea of God have formulated a number of responses to it. For example, they have argued that there can be no free will without the possibility of evil, and that without evil there would be no way to develop our moral character. CS Lewis uses a combination of the two responses in his book The Problem of Pain.

Others have taken another tack, arguing that, yes, God is all-good, but is not all-powerful. Thus He (forgive my use of the male pronoun in reference to the Deity; it’s an old habit) is doing everything He can do to prevent evil, but some tragedies slip through anyway. That is the approach Rabbi Harold Kushner uses in his work When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

These approaches, as well as others, have much to commend them, and they have brought peace and comfort to many. But underlying the whole issue is an unspoken assumption: that a world without evil would be better for humans than the one we have now.

“Of course!” we are tempted to respond. “The world would certainly be better without pain, disease, suffering, death, car wrecks, toothaches, cancer, ingrown toenails, war, etc., etc., etc.” This seems so obvious that it’s almost never questioned.

But what if it’s wrong?

I was watching The Matrix recently when I noted something one of the agents said to the character Neo…

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Matrix, it’s that the world we see around us is an illusion created by a massive network of computers that send signals to our senses, fooling us into believing that what we see, taste, touch, feel, and smell is real. We’re all actually held immobile while nutrients are pumped into our bodies.

Back to what I was saying. An agent (sort of a computer generated government spy) tells the hero, Neo, that originally the illusory world created for the human race was a perfect one. But our brains rejected it. In order to keep us happily deceived, the computer network had to introduce a degree of pain, toil, and trouble into the images it feeds us. It seems we humans couldn’t stand living in an ideal society.

That may sound silly. Maybe it is. But I invite you to try a little experiment. Imagine waking up tomorrow and finding out that overnight all nations had disbanded their militaries and renounced the use of force. The soldiers are leaving Iraq and Afghanistan and are on their way home for good. Down at the army base they’re fitting tanks with bulldozer blades and tossing all the guns into a giant pit. Fighter planes are returning to their home bases to have their bombs and missiles removed. Battleships are throwing their shells in the ocean to make room for relief supplies to hungry people.

Sound good so far?

Let’s carry it a little further. You soon learn that there is no more crime. All the crooks, from petty thieves to corporate villains, have reformed and are now devoting themselves to good works. The jails and prisons release all the former bad guys, who immediately go about making amends for all the wrong they ever did. Police officers have little to do besides direct traffic and give directions. No one even speeds anymore.

Still with me?

Follow this line of thinking a little further. After war and crime have ceased, a group of scientists discover a simple chemical formula that eliminates all disease and death. Pharmaceutical companies manufacture it and sell it at cost. “How could we even think of making a profit off of something that can help so many persons?” declares the president of Johnson and Johnson. He then announces that he is turning his posh mansion into a homeless shelter.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? There would surely be lots of tears and hugs and church services. At first.

What would things be like a year from then, when people turn on the news only to hear that all is well throughout the world? What will conversations be like when the government is run entirely by true statesmen and women who never take bribes and who think only of the common good? What will Letterman and Leno use for material, when all Hollywood celebrities are clean and sober and stay happily married forever?

What would you do if that right-wing/left-wing pundit you despise came up to you, admitted they had been in error, and told you they would be fair and balanced for real from now on? Would you rejoice at their turning over a new leaf? Or might you be a tad disappointed that you no longer had a reason to resent them?

Imagine everyday life in this idyllic society. “How you doing tonight, Jim?” says someone to their neighbor, who is walking his dog through Central Park at 3 a.m., while a group of Crips hands out candy to children and tells them to be careful crossing the street. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a man loses his wallet, only to have it retrieved by a fellow in a Heaven’s Angels motorcycle vest, who runs after him to give it back.

When the sun breaks people turn on their TV sets, while a cheery announcer tells them that everyone is well fed and safe, that the climate has balanced perfectly across the globe, and that the musical recording artist Big Nice Guy has just released a CD entitled, “Life Sure is Swell.”

Would you really want to live in that world?

You can quibble with parts of this scenario. You can say that we could still have songs about the ghetto and social injustice and broken hearts and movies filled with violence and mayhem. But how silly would they seem in a world where nothing like that existed? We could still have alcohol and illicit affairs, yes. But why drink when there’s nothing you’re trying to forget? Why cheat on a perfect spouse? Why have television, when all Jerry Springer can put on his show are well-adjusted families talking about how much they love each other? Would anyone even bother to watch?

What would humans do in a world where there was no death or disease to remind us of how precious life is, no abhorrent evils to fill us with moral anguish and outrage, no common threats to make us forget our differences and band together?

Might we grow desperate for relief from paradise? Might we use our human ingenuity to invent imaginary wrongs to be angry about, fictitious insults and injuries to pick fights over? Would we take a world where all the gentle, peaceful creatures are happy and safe, and turn it into a nightmare for them and for us? Was the script writer for The Matrix right?

What is 1st Thessalonians, chapter five, verse three talking about when it declares, “Just as people are saying, ‘Everything is peaceful and secure,’ then disaster will fall on them...And there will be no escape.”

I have always thought that verse was a reference to divine wrath pouring itself out on Judgment Day. But what if it’s not? What if it's simply an astute observation of what we will do to ourselves, once diplomacy and science and education have done all the things we wish they would do?

What if this really is the best of all possible worlds, at least for creatures like us? Given freedom from the Devil, would we turn into demons? Could we live in Heaven, or would we make it into Hell? And if we would, what does that say about the kind of people we really are?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

And Now for Something Totally Different

When I started this blog I intended to comment solely on matters of faith. Recently other issues have been on my mind, however. One of them is the state of the American mind, and of the educational system that is supposed to enrich, inform and enable it.

We’re a very smart people. We have the highest level of technological development on earth. Devices that would have seemed hopelessly complex to scientists and technicians a few decades ago are today considered archaic and useless. We launch shuttles into space, immerse ourselves in virtual gaming worlds, and converse with people thousands of miles away as casually as we talk to someone sitting beside us.

And we’re a very stupid people. We’re ignorant of basic facts about our history and our heritage. Many Americans have no idea how many houses of Congress there are, what the significance of the date 1776 is, or why we’re a republic instead of a democracy.

Our ignorance grows more abysmal when it comes to seperating valid arguments from pure BS. Consider the following:

“His opinion about the budget can’t be right. After all, he has a degree in history, not economics!”

“Does this pill really make you lose weight? Well, ask yourself: would millions of people be buying it if it didn’t?”

“Obama wants to tax the rich and give the money to the poor. That makes him a Socialist!”

“Conservatives like to talk about family values. So did Hitler. Doesn’t that make you suspicious?”

“Homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry. After all, look at what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“Studies show that every year since 1950 the number of children killed by guns has doubled.”

All of the above statements are seriously flawed. I don’t mean that they’re not true. I mean that they employ faulty logic that any person of average intelligence should be able to see through without trouble. In the case of the last one, what it says is simply impossible.

Yet how many times a day do we hear things like this said by politicians, salespeople, and pundits? That’s because there is something deep within us that prefers feelings to facts and wants to believe that our prejudicial attitudes and personal hatreds are morally justified. And there are very clever persons on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as advertisers, spin doctors, and opinion makers who earn very good money catering to this part of our nature.

Why does this fact worry me? Because I love my country, and because for it to remain free its people must be able to critically and intelligently examine the claims they hear, and decide what they believe based on facts and logic, not hearsay and hysteria. Furthermore, they must be able to listen to the opinions of those they disagree with in a civil fashion and consider what they say, instead of automatically assuming it’s wrong.

Without these abilities a representative government cannot properly function. And it is those very abilities that are not being nurtured in our society.

When was the last time you read a book or watched a program where multiple sides of an issue were presented, and you were left to make up your own mind which was right? Despite the claims of some to be “fair and balanced,” there simply is no market for that kind of presentation. Fox News and MSNBC sift their broadcasts through their chosen ideological filter.

Add to that the misinformation foisted on us by commercials and ads and the barrage of propaganda flowing from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and NPR. Almost never are we motivated to challenge our pet beliefs or engage in open dialogue with our ideological opponents.
When we do encounter those form the “other side,” the usual result is a shouting match marked by insults and fallacious reasoning.

Our society cannot be healthy so long as this is the order of the day.
Idiots can’t govern themselves. Those in power know this quite well, which, in my opinion, is why they make no attempt to encourage truly free thinking or civil, rational discourse between people with differing beliefs.

When I watch shows like “Meet the Press” I see a skilled liar from one political party matched against an equally skilled liar from the opposing party. They don’t answer questions, they evade them. I suspect that, deep inside, the important thing to both sides is keeping the people acting like sheep, even those in the opposing shepherd’s flock. The one thing that the monied interests fear above all is the American public demanding to be told the truth, whether it’s what they want to hear or not.

Jesus knew that we have these tendencies. That is why he was such a strong proponent of self-examination. We worry more about the speck in our brother’s eye than the wooden beam in our own. That’s because it’s always easier to point a finger than to look in the mirror.

Yet real, honest self-examination is a habit all of us need to cultivate. We need to challenge ourselves to justify our beliefs, our actions, and our motives. It is terrifyingly easy for human beings to wrap our worst instincts in robes of righteousness. Do you think that the people who burned the “witches” of Salem thought of themselves as murderers? Hardly. In their minds they were protecting their children and their community from a horrid menace. They were following the only course of action acceptable to decent people – or so they thought.

Fast forward from those times to the early 21st century, and what do you hear? “Those damn Republicans don’t care about the poor; that’s why they oppose social programs.” (Reality check: many conservatives are passionate about helping the less fortunate; they simply don’t think the government does a very good job of it).

Another common accusation: “Liberals don’t love this country like we real patriots do; that’s why they criticize it so much.” (Reality check: most people who are left of center do love America, and it is that love that leads them to criticize its faults, in the hope of making it a better nation).

Our enemies aren’t those we disagree with. The ones we should fear are those who profit from keeping us pitted against each other, who spoon feed us selected facts that reinforce what we already believe, and who encourage us to think of the other side as morons, traitors, bigots, or fascists.

Consider these book titles: “Stupid White Men, and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation;” and “Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government.” Each is authored by a man who is so convinced he is right that he feels free to demean and demonize those with whom he disagrees. And both men have grown filthy rich off of whipping up the fears and prejudices of their particular followers.

In my humble effort to combat their influence, I want to recommend a couple of books myself. Below are their Amazon links:

Here’s one.

And here’s the other.

Yes, I know I’m pimping for a megabucks corporation by referring you to Amazon. If you like, buy the books from another source. Or check them out at the library. What matters to me is that both be read by as many people as possible.

I’d also like to encourage anyone reading this to commit to critically thinking about EVERYTHING you read or hear, including this blog. Season your faith with a healthy dose of skepticism and your trust with an urge to verify. You, this country, and the world will all be better places for the effort. Peace.