Religious (and other canonical) texts are not all bad. In fact, many of them contain profound moral insights and wisdom consistent with humanism. In discussions on morality, I find it disturbing when people say “if only everyone believed Religion X…” then the world would be a better place. Gross simplifications of this kind are just not good.
The challenge given below is to match each moral statement with one of the religious figures. Many of these statements are similar or the same, but each statement has a unique author.
|1. “Love means giving selflessly, excluding none and including all.”
2. “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.”
3. “Do not get angry or harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all.”
4. “Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first.”
5. “Be not partial towards them in love above many others, but let thy love be for them as for thyself; and let thy love abound unto all men.”
6. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
7. “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love. This is the eternal rule.”
8. “Practice truth, contentment and kindness; this is the most excellent way of life.”
9. “Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.”
Easy? Hard? Feel free to comment on this quiz. But don’t cheat! I’ll post the answers in a few days.
The point of this is that it isn’t clear that the world would be a better place if we only followed one religion. Love and kindness are not Catholic values or Protestant values or Muslim values or Hindu values. These are human values, and it is about time we recognize them as such and work to make the world a better place together.
Having been a student of almost three years at the University of Chicago, a place known for its commitment to living the “life of the mind” and its receptiveness to rigorous, intellectual debate, I never would have thought that I would be criticizing the very “business” of the people who make up such a community.
I’m writing this for two reasons. One is because I was especially intrigued by Hawking’s claim that the philosophy of science is dead. Hawking’s argument is that philosophers have not caught up with the latest advances in science. I think his argument, which may be true, is nonetheless a very bad reason for why we should regard the philosophy of science to be irrelevant. However, I think his claim may have some truth to it.
Note that this is coming from a big fan of the philosophy of science. My favorite writers on this topic include people like Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kuhn, and of course, David Hume. Many problems—important ones in philosophy—are still in the air, and I doubt they will ever be conclusively solved. After all, it was C.D. Broad who noted that induction, the basis for all scientific inquiry, remains “the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy.”
Yet, science as we know it today is largely separate from philosophical circles. Scientists in general are not involved in ceaseless debates over predictive models and Bayesian inference. They work overtime not in philosophy discussion groups but on labs and journals, and they follow the most practical standard: do the theories work, and are the results consistent? That’s it. It matters not if we can’t prove the existence of cause and effect in the philosophy department. Science will continue, and it will keep working.
The separation between the philosophy of science and science itself is a healthy one, and it resists the academic tyranny of well-meaning thinkers of philosophy. These are people who often clog the practical, real-world side of things. Even the venerated Karl Popper, for example, had to ruin it for everyone else by arguing that Darwinian evolution was on the level of psychoanalysis, a sort of untestable, wishy-washy pseudoscientific paradigm. Note he wasn’t arguing from the point of view of a scientist (looking at the evidence); instead, he was arguing from the standpoint of somebody who wanted to solve problems of epistemology. Fortunately, he retracted his criticism later on.
The second reason I’m writing this is that there’s a real academic tyranny going on, and that’s in the field of religious studies. It goes something like this:
4 Claims of the Academic Tyrant:
1. Academia, and western academia in particular, is one of the best and most enlightened places to understand religion and religious texts.
2. You most likely don’t have an informed opinion of religion without participating in the academic activities of the circle above.
3. Religion is often practiced in an unenlightened, fundamentalist, and narrow-minded way by those who are outside academia.
4. The existence of disagreements within academia should stop all others from reaching any practical conclusions about religion.
Let’s take a trite example. There are many people who warn me to not even talk about this, at least not in a way that paints Christianity in any broad brush.
I would argue that in all practical circumstances, the idea that God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac makes God an cruel murderer. It directly implies that Christianity, as represented by this god, is a immoral religion that celebrates credulity and the willingness to kill your own child to show your love for God. It’s a call, in other words, to religious insanity and violence.
Not so fast, says the academic tyrant. After all, there are disagreements about how to interpret this, aren’t there? Have you read the latest opinion from [fill-in-the-blank] theology school? Have you read the latest philosophy? How about older writers like Kierkegaard, who argued that there’s a vast difference between the transcendental morality of the Bible and worldly morality that we judge God by? What about people who don’t take this literally, people who just think it is a nice metaphor for the intensity of love and faith for God? And what about all the other love and peace stories from Jesus?
Oh, and there’s more. We must read all the other theologians, people who are all incidentally part of the same westernized, liberalized academic circle before we should even mutter anything about Christianity. We just shouldn’t say anything. Really.
I hope you are getting the picture. There’s a very large disconnect between people in academia and religious people in the real world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, confusion, and misunderstanding too:
A. Religion is supposed to be an individualized conception of lived experience and religious texts, but academics often see religion only through the lens of peer-reviewed debate and critical textual analysis. They don’t acknowledge the possibility that people can get real and valid conclusions by reading it outside of the academic environment.
B. Religious texts, as you may know already, are self-contradictory and inconsistent sources of information. Yet, academics are often confused by this when they assume that there must be differing valid opinions about interpretations. They think these differing opinions come from differences in people, not from the contradicting, man-made nature of the books themselves.
C. Academics rashly insist that fundamentalism is not a valid way of understanding religions and texts. They assert this, saying that there should be context, but they provide no context of their own. They think the Koran is a historical document, for example, just like any other. They read it in their academic sort of way, ignoring the fact that, as Ibn Warraq notes, “the Koran remains the infallible word of God, the immediate word of God sent down, through the intermediary of a ‘spirit’ or ‘holy spirit’ or Gabriel, to Muhammad in perfect pure Arabic; and everything contained therein is eternal and uncreated.” Academic tyrants, in other words, want to bind the hands of people who want to criticize Islam on its own terms.
I really want to ask my fellow readers: what kind of world do most people live in? A world dominated by liberalized theology schools and enlightened philosophical circles, or a world of real darkness and superstition? There are people who willingly look at religion through a glass darkly and can’t really understand why there are so many fundamentalists, why so much is wrong with the world precisely because of religion.
I think we need to step back a little and open our eyes, not as westernized academics but as human beings.
There’s nothing more entertaining than watching people say what they believe. Pastor Mark Driscoll tells it as it is.
My job is to tell you the truth. Your job is to make a decision.
Yes, apparently as a human being, he knows such incredible details about what happens after we die and what thoughts we must have in order to not get roasted for eternity, and he holds a job for telling us about it. As for the rest of us, we just have to make a choice between keeping ourselves sane and believing in some God who can only forgive you if you believe in a human sacrifice.
But my point is that Pastor Mark Driscoll is absolutely right.
If the Bible is the Word of God and if Jesus was the Son of God, the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived are in Hell. Most people on Earth will probably end up there too. I’m also sick and tired of new-age Christians who want to metaphorize this reality away. I also don’t want to hear my fellow atheists tell me I’m not studying enough theology, I’m taking the Bible out of context, I’m being as bad as a fundamentalist, or any other excuses that I’ve heard.
My job is also to tell you the truth: the Bible’s message of salvation by faith alone is real, and this message will not disappear no matter how hard you try to study history, theology, philosophy, etc. The only thing people can do is to ignore it and live with the cognitive dissonance.
I tell the truth, and you make the decision. Either you accept Christianity as Jesus says (and live with all the immoralities and absurdities that it entails) or you take my position: religion is a human invention, and it shows.
We are all shocked and saddened by the death of David Kato, a marked gay rights activist in Uganda who bravely fought for change in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Lately, there have been many questions about the influence of U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and Scott Lively in Uganda, all of whom have had deep and long friendships with prominent local religious leaders and government officials.
What we absolutely don’t need now is more religious rationalization and apology for the explosion of ignorance and hate in arguably the most Christian country in Africa. As I’ve written about before, religious moral arguments aren’t arguments because they have often have nothing to do with the reality of the objective world. Turning to the Bible or any other religious text for guidance on moral issues at a time like this is as useless as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy advice.
In fact, I don’t actually think that someone like Scott Lively, who actually organized a conference in Uganda to oppose homosexuality, added that much fuel to an already burning fire. What I want to point out, however, is irony of his position: Lively might have thought he was washing the people of Uganda with the blood of Jesus, but who thought that he might soon do it with the blood of actual people?
You see, the only source of inspiration I can find in this mess is never covered in the media and always ignored by the religious. I’m talking about the secular community of Uganda, which is a very real thing, and a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. After all we’ve seen on the news, shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say?
As a tribute to the community and as something to remember Kato by, I’ll post some of the official core beliefs and goals found on the website of the Uganda Humanist Association.
We believe in human rights for all people including the despised minorities.
We believe in the right of human beings to make individual choices as they determine the course of their lives.
To oppose religious, racial and ethnic fanaticism and fundamentalism.
To educate people about humanism as a free, rational, humane, skeptical/scientific, liberal and democratic life stance and approach to human life challenges.
To carry out projects that promote social welfare and environmental concern.
To building a non- superstitious, rational and scientifically minded society in Uganda.
To promoting unity and tolerance among people.
To instil a culture of human rights concern and activism.
To build confidence in our fellow Ugandans to live the one life they have, purposely and with dignity.
If every Ugandan could hear these simple words, I’m sure they’ll be more beautiful than anything they’ve heard from their pastors lately. That’ll be the inspirational material for the day.
Let us remember that we can always rebuild and change societies. One person. One idea. One day at a time.
It is not rare that whenever someone tries to convince me about the apparent truth of Christian claim, he or she begins with a plethora of apologies: apologies for things from the Inquisition to sex abuse to Galileo’s torture to Pat Robertson. And after this long line of apologies for things I haven’t even had time to bring up, he or she then tells me that I should really direct my attention not to what humans do “in the name of religion” but only to what the true essence of the faith really is.
Of course, there’s nothing that excites me more about discussing what the true essence of Christianity really is.
As a prelude, I want to address those people — I call them pseudo-Christians — who say they are Christian but don’t actually believe there is any history in the Bible. They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that he even existed. I’ve met only a couple of these people in my life, and they say that Jesus, whether he existed or not, was a good person and a exemplary role model, that his message was to love one another and to treat each other well.
Of course, even I take issue with this because Jesus was certainly not the revolutionary who somehow discovered human kindness. Confucius, for example, taught the Golden Rule centuries before Jesus. The values of tolerance, generosity, selflessness are all found, arguably in stronger forms, in many Eastern philosophies. Personally, I think that morality comes not from prophets and tablets, but from a continuing dialectic, a conversation and debate between social creatures that, thanks to evolution, are innately inclined to show empathy and love. Of course, that’s another topic.
What I think is the true essence of Christianity is the composed of the following ideas:
1) We are born sick and imperfect, and commanded to be perfect.
The human condition, according to Christians, is a result of Genesis account of the Fall of Man. Why are we all “really really bad people” as many Christians claim? Because our very distant ancestors (dating back to a couple thousand years ago, as Young Earth Creationists say) decided to sin against God and to disobey him by taking fruit from, of all things, the Tree of Knowledge. As descendants, we all share in the guilt and responsibility for this condition resulting from this egregious rebellion. We are born sinful and imperfect, but in the light of God, we must strive to be perfect.
This is a cruel and unusual set of circumstances to be born into. First of all, children are never responsible for actions of their parents. Also, if it is the case that a person is born a certain way, then he or she is not responsible for that condition. If you are born imperfect, you are not responsible to be a perfect person, although you can and should be expected to be a decent person, which is very different, and much more realistic.
I often hear Christians assert that God can rightfully demand that we be perfect because God himself is perfect, but I think this is a morally bankrupt argument. Having a quality does not enable you to rightfully demand that others have it: I may be able to communicate better than people with autism or walk better than people born without legs, but I have no right to command or even expect people who are born a certain way to be like me.
2) You can suffer an eternity in Hell, depending on what you think.
In the Christian worldview, why is God’s command for us to be perfect so important? Because if you are imperfect, God cannot accept you into Heaven. For your few decades of imperfectness on Earth, you are headed by default to a very very bad place for eternity.
What really shocks me is how Christians rationalize this concept. In a Q&A session called Stump the Chump at UChicago, the speaker said that Hell was an eternal place for those who deliberately say “no” to God; God then merely grants you your wish and leaves you alone, forever.
I personally have never met an atheist (or a person of another religion) who has said “I want to go to Hell and leave you. Grant me this wish.” There is all the difference in the world between saying “no” to someone and not believing in the existence of that someone. The atheist (and non-Christian theist) simply does not believe in the existence of Yahweh or the divinity of Jesus or Hell, similar to how Christians don’t believe in Thor or reincarnation.
But to Christians, this difference doesn’t matter. Children are still going to be taught that they will end up in a place of eternal suffering with no way out if they don’t believe as Christians do.
3) God can wipe you clean, but only after a human sacrifice.
Yes you should know by now that, for the few billion seconds that you have left to live, your private thoughts and opinions about religion matter, and they matter a whole lot. According to Christians, you can only escape this cruel and unusual circumstance by somehow changing your thoughts to a less sinful one: by believing and accepting that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you. In short, the story is that God sent himself in human form to Earth, and then allowed himself to be tortured to death by other human beings. Only then are we washed clean, and this shows God’s forgiveness of our sins across the boundary of time.
This very story shows: how sins can be retroactively and vicariously dissolved, how forgiveness is only possible by punishment (or self-punishment), and how people can only partake in this deal if they are part of the Christian circle, that is, if they don’t have a different opinion about religion.
Most striking is the conditionality. Forgiveness and the cleansing of sin can only come through physical torture, and this torture and pain is not in any proportion to the crime. It does not matter if you are a vegetarian Buddhist or a homicidal Stalinist; either way the correct and just punishment for your very nature is extremely severe — far more severe, interestingly, than what Jesus himself supposedly experienced for a limited time on Earth.
Which brings us to the method. The method for which you may release the responsibility to God for being sinful is by putting the blame on someone else, who is himself God. Christians automatically assume that this process is morally sound and possible, although one can’t deny that this is what Christopher Hitchens calls “scape-goating,” the piling of sins on another object. The other issue with this is the questionable scale of the punishment. If it is true that we are bound for torture in Hell forever, how is it that a temporary period of torture of Jesus can relieve us of this debt? It must be bluntly noted that what Jesus went through was, for example, nothing compared to what victims of the Holocaust or Unit 731 experienced. Christians may argue that a divine being like Jesus deserves less torture, but why then does God need to torture (himself) at all to forgive humans for being imperfect?
Last is the exclusivity. For Christians, it is not enough to say that what is done is done: that Jesus saves all of humanity, and that’s it. Instead, we have a religion that compels you take that leap of faith and believe, on pain of eternal damnation. So exclusive is this arrangement that about 70% of the people on Earth right now are not Christian. Whenever I ask by how much Hell overpopulates Heaven, I never get a serious answer.
Perhaps this is why Christians disagree on what happens to people who never had the opportunity to hear about Christianity (e.g., very young children, people in isolated tribes, etc). The default position in the Bible is that these people will not be saved. Of course, there are countless Christians who protest and insist that this can’t be the case, saying that they trust God that there is actually more fairness in the system (ignoring the fact that the system is stacked against you in the first place). What we have here is the classic case of Christians unable to reconcile what is written down on paper with their common sense and reason. The existence of so much cognitive dissonance amongst Christians, I believe, is not evidence for the soundness of their ideas, but of their problematic nature.
4) Human Beings Can Know the Supernatural
By no means does Christianity have a monopoly on this idea, but it is certainly at the center of Christian thought.
It is always to me a profane and repulsive idea that human beings can claim to know amazingly accurate details about the nature and commands of God. Religious people in general, whenever they run out of arguments, go into “assert” mode, asserting that God wills this and that, that the nature of the after-life is a certain way, that God says this is wrong and that is okay.
I’m being too general, of course. What really happens is that people read their books and find out that God intervenes in this world in all kinds of ways: in the real estate market by promising land to certain groups of homo sapiens, in marriage and relationships by defining sexual boundaries and marriage rights, in dietary habits by making some animals sacred. This of course leads not to greater wisdom or knowledge, but greater conflict and ignorance. So much is at stake in the world that we cannot afford to quibble about theology while ignoring reality.
In conclusion, the true essence of Christianity is compared to the world of science, secular humanism, and reason.
Christians say that, even when lacking reasons to believe, the act of knowing things by faith is a great virtue. In direct contrast to this, Socrates argued that true wisdom is acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. In other words, what atheists do admit that Christians cannot is that we do not know. We do not claim to know anything about God, including facts about his existence, because no human being can know so much. The moment that human beings claim to know what they don’t actually know is the moment they have religious disagreements.
The true essence of Christianity has at its basis a fanatical obsession with the fantasy of purity and perfection. It holds people responsible for the way they are born, and proposes that a just punishment for this condition is eternal torture in the afterlife. It claims that you can wipe your debt clean and join God in Heaven, but only if you believe and accept the torture of Jesus, who was also God himself. Lastly, it demands that you spread this good news and grow in Christ, that you go out and proclaim proudly to the world that Christianity is real and knowable.
I ask you kindly to think about the alternatives: Humility in the face of uncertainty. A demand for sound reasons and evidence over faith. A real commitment to true fairness, justice, and responsibility instead of the moral outrages in the Bible. That, my friends, is the true essence of secular humanism.