Monthly Archives: November 2011

Divine Clarity

A few weeks ago, a friend asked a question that has stuck with me. “Why do we think that the divine is shrouded in mystery? Isn’t it more likely that the divine exhibits clarity?”

History suggests she’s onto something. In most realms, experience has proven the wisdom of Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanations, with the fewest new assumptions, are most likely to be correct.

Retrograde Motion of Mars and Uranus

Loopy Paths of Mars and Uranus as Seen from Earth

At one time, people insisted that the Earth was the center of the universe. They were then forced into increasingly complicated explanations for why the planets traveled in strange, loopy paths in the night sky. The need for mental gymnastics should have been the clue that they were on the wrong track. Then along came Copernicus with his simple explanation that all planets, including Earth, orbit the Sun. He proved for the thousandth time that the simplest explanations are the best.

Even life itself is subject to increasingly simpler explanations. Our DNA specifies our physical traits with an alphabet of just four letters. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, was inspired to call this The Language of God.

So why do we accept the idea that the divine (however each of us understands that term) is mysterious and beyond our understanding? Isn’t it more likely that we have not yet discovered the Simple Truth?

Life: It’s Only a Game

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

The Curse of the Bambino is Broken

To play any sport well, you must want to win. At a minimum, you must care about playing well. But even the most competitive, dedicated athletes lose from time to time. The healthiest response?

“It’s only a game.”

On one level, sport is a showcase for much that is important about being human: commitment to excellence, training hard to achieve a goal, teamwork, intelligence, and so on. A champion team can boost the morale of a whole city, and a perennial loser can give the entire population an inferiority complex. I should know: I lived in greater Boston when the Curse of the Bambino was finally broken.

On another level, sport is just a way to have some fun and it doesn’t matter who wins. On yet another level, it’ some guys trying to whack a ball with a stick and it’s absolutely pointless. When we say, “It’s only a game,” we’re adjusting our view to regard one of these other levels instead of the level where everything is so darn important.

I think it’s helpful to be able to live like that in all areas.

Sometimes the everyday level where most of our dedication is focused doesn’t work out so well and there’s nothing we can do about it. At those times, it can be healthy to adjust your level.

Some people go up a level to “Everything happens for a reason.” or “This is all part of God’s plan.”

Others go down a level to “This is just how the molecules bump sometimes.”

For me, going down a level works better. Invoking the metaphysical just prompts more questions and more anxiety as I try to figure out what that mysterious reason could be, or why God’s very best plan (what other kind would he have?) had to include this particular element. Other people are by nature less troubled by these questions and for them going up a level works best.

Either way, we’re saying life is only a game: either a training ground for the Great Beyond or a curious and playful phenomenon that emerges from the laws of physics.

If we live every waking moment thinking life is only a game and therefore unimportant, we won’t play well and we won’t be happy. On the other hand, if we can never adopt that perspective, life can be pretty hard.

So, enjoy the game when you can. When you can’t … it’s only a game.

Life as Art

71: Into the FireIn the Korean War movie 71: Into the Fire, a few dozen high school students who barely know how to hold a gun bravely defend an outpost against an overwhelming North Korean force for 11 critical hours. In the end, the students are all dead but the time they have bought allows the main South Korean army to achieve an important objective. (It’s based on actual events and very stirring. See it!)

Why did they choose to fight and die when the North Korean commander offered them life in exchange for surrender?

Our lives are works of art. We get to choose whether they will be beautiful or ugly. I think we all know at some level that a noble death is more beautiful than an ordinary life.

For those of us whose actions are not 100% guided by a guru or a holy book, I think beauty is a good guide. Faced with temptation or dilemma, a good questions is, “Which choice would make me more proud to display my life as a work of art?” Beauty calls out sacrifice rather than selfishness; tenacity, not torpor; harmony, not hatred.

Nobody likes to look at the ugly, least of all in oneself. The most important artwork we’ll ever see is in the bathroom mirror.

Beauty on Its Own Terms

Beautiful and Spectacular (sawdevcin / Flickr)

I walked for over 2 hours today, mostly with my head pointed to the sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off the leaves.

It has actually been a dull autumn here in Massachusetts. Most of the leaves are going directly from green to brown, and the flaming red colors are almost absent. We are left with the more subdued hues.

Beautiful and Subtle (Nat Nunn / Flickr)

Yet, I was amazed at how beautiful they all are when taken on their own terms. I would look at some leaves against the sky and if I initially thought the colors were dull I would look a little longer until I entered into the spirit of that particular color combination. When I saw it for what it was rather than wanting it to be something else, it was gorgeous.

Better yet, it offered a mood I had not been seeking. I came across a large, fallen branch whose leathery leaves had turned a dark, reddish brown. The branch itself was a dark grey. It was dead. Boring, right? So I thought … until I had looked at it long enough to realize that the colors were right out of Edgar Allan Poe. When I received them as they were, they were just as exciting as the yellows and reds you see on New England postcards.

I was feeling good about my aesthetic appreciation when I realized: Why don’t I feel this way about people?

What’s to keep me from appreciating each person on his or her own terms, rather than expecting them to be someone else? If someone has a personality quirk that could be irritating, why not appreciate that little tile in the fascinating human mosaic for what it is? Why not marvel at the miracle of sentient, human life in all its forms?

I’ll be working on that….

Why I Care About Biblical Slavery

We finally arrive at the end of this series on biblical slavery. I’d like to tell you now why I bothered. Bible-believers don’t enslave anyone these days, so why not just be happy about that and move on? There are three reasons.

  • This has been an act of penance.
  • This serves as a window to why I left evangelical Christianity.
  • I want to make the world a better place.

Before I get to them, I want to mention a question that more than one evangelical has asked me: Why do I care about anything at all? If I’m nothing more than a bag of chemicals, why don’t I just maximize my pleasure-of-the-moment until my chemical reactions cease? I’m sorry to say that I won’t be answering that question here. It deserves its own series of posts. (Stay tuned!) [Done, here.]

An Act of Penance

For about 40 years, I believed that the Bible was God’s Word. It was his primary way of bringing us into relationship with him. I read it frequently, often daily, but I now see that I did not read it in an honest, responsible manner.

I did not blink an eye when God commanded people to be enslaved. I did not care enough about them to think of what that really meant. I believed that they must have deserved whatever they got.

I breezed over passages where God commanded women to be distributed to Israel’s soldiers as the plunder of war. I did not stop to consider that those women were real people just like my mother, sister, wife and daughters.

If I had kept my bigoted opinions to myself, that would have been bad enough, but I taught others that the Bible would lead them into a relationship with a loving and just God. I now know that this doctrine is not just false, but can be harmful.

For these failings and more I am truly sorry. As an act of penance, I feel compelled to correct my mistakes somewhat publicly. Out of consideration for those in my family who are still Christians and may be embarrassed by my apostasy, I do not use my real name on this blog, but a few key people know who The Beagle is and it’s easy enough to find out if you’re determined.

A Window on a Deconversion

It is rare that an adult finds his way out of evangelical Christianity. It is so unusual that most evangelicals don’t know what to make of it. Even my spelling checker chokes on “deconversion.”

I have been told that I must have been in rebellion against God, that I didn’t pray enough, that I wanted to indulge in sin, that I read the wrong books, that I was prideful, and even that I must not have been a true Christian in the first place. Some of these accusations came from people who know me well, and ought to have known better. It hurt.

To those people, I offer this series on biblical slavery as a window to my thoughts as I wrestled with my faith. “Why did God command slavery? was only one of many show-stopper questions I had, but my experience in resolving it was typical of all the others.

In what way was it typical? Here I’m afraid you’re in for a short rant. I’d like to state up-front that what I am about to say applies only to professionals who hold themselves up as answer-men. It does not apply to the many ordinary Christians I know and admire. As Jesus did with the religious authorities of his day, I hold the professionals to a higher standard, and it’s appropriate to do so publicly.

In this series, I hope I have shown that the arguments of evangelical apologists are worse than poor. They are dishonest. (Review Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves? if you don’t believe me.) The worst lie is the claim that I have heard and read many times: “The Bible never condones slavery.” That lie is either ignorant or cynical — take your pick — as I showed in Did God Command Slavery, or Merely Tolerate it?  Either way, professional apologists ought to know better.

This level of dishonesty on the part of Bible-advocates pervaded every single issue I looked into. I found that brand-name evangelical apologists were ignorant of readily available facts, misrepresented their opponents, twisted quotations out of context (even from the Bible!), reasoned poorly and told bald-faced lies. By contrast, the arguments from the secular side were generally better-informed, better-reasoned and much more honest.

This was doubly devastating to my faith.

First, I found no answers to my questions. These were questions that I could not just hang on a peg for now, like a coat out of season, but got to the very heart of who God is and what it meant to have faith in him. Without at least provisional answers to those questions, I did not see how I could continue in faith.

Second, I was forced to admit that evangelical Christians, even those most respected in the evangelical world, were no better than anyone else. In fact, when it came to making a wise, perceptive, informed and honest case for their position they were worse. Not just worse in logical soundness, but worse in character.

For all my adult life, I had believed that the Holy Spirit gave Christians an edge. The Spirit motivated and empowered Christians to live right and be honest. So why, I had to ask myself, do the books of the most reputable evangelicals contain so many lies and distortions? In fact, the more sold-out someone was to evangelical Christianity, the more lies he told. (The young-earth creationists are the absolute worst of the lot. I feel my blood pressure spiking right now, so I won’t get into that sub-rant.)

I saw that the Holy Spirit was not improving the honesty of some of his most devoted followers, let alone giving them any supernatural wisdom. That was one more pebble on the scale that eventually tipped away from my faith.

If you are one of my friends or loved ones who doesn’t know what to make of my deconversion, I hope the foregoing makes it a little clearer.

Making the World a Better Place

The Bible contains many worthy precepts. The message most people take from it these days is to care for the less-fortunate, to give without expectation of return, and to live with integrity. Just yesterday, I combed through the very inspiring Website of a charity called The Time is Now to Help the Children and the Elderly. The founder was definitely motivated by his Christian faith. If we would all live by those precepts, the world would be better place.

On the other hand, here in America a large portion of us also absorb not-so-positive messages from the Bible. They make the world a worse place.

Because the Bible says (and repeats!) that people who don’t believe in God are fools, corrupt and vile, Bible-believing Christians tend not to trust those who don’t share their faith. That was certainly my prejudice when I was a Christian. According to a Gallup poll, 49% of the American electorate would not vote for an atheist for president — making atheists even less trusted than homosexuals (32%).

If it were warranted, that would be one thing, but it is not. For example, while atheists’ fraction of our population is somewhere in the mid-teens, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that less than one-quarter of 1% of our prison population is atheist.

In addition to sowing needless division and mistrust, the Bible impairs the moral judgment of those who are committed to its infallibility. I saw a powerful video this morning in which evangelical-preacher-turned-atheist Dan Barker asks an audience to imagine that an otherwise nice person tortures a family and kills the children and animals. Further, the victim had done nothing to deserve the living hell he suffered. Finally, the criminal gives the excuse that he didn’t really have a reason for his actions except that the devil had put him up to it. All agreed that even a nice person who did that would deserve moral condemnation. But then, as any reader of this series on slavery will guess, there was a twist: the criminal is God himself, as reported in his own Holy Book. (Listen to at least the first few minutes of the video to learn which book of the Bible that was.) Because the story was reported in the Bible, and about God, only 20% of the audience would admit that the actions were wrong. The moral judgment of the majority was impaired by the Bible. This is similar to the point I made in the post, Biblical Slavery: Are God’s Ways Higher than Our Ways?

So why do I care? I want us to flourish as a species. I want my children to grow up in a world that is more free of bigotry and prejudice. I want their moral judgment to be clear so they can make wise decisions. In some ways, the Bible serves those goals. In other ways, it does not.

We cannot unite and solve the problems that our country faces if half of us have vowed to uphold the moral standards of a book so flawed that promotes slavery.

We cannot arrive at a moral consensus if good people cripple their moral sense by defending the morally indefensible.

We will not solve America’s problems if the religious majority of the electorate demonizes the minority who do not believe but are generally law-abiding, intelligent and eager to work for the good of all.

Our shared moral core — the values that will enable us to get along, flourish and be happy — is our inheritance as humans. It is our common treasure, hard-won through centuries of struggle by believers and unbelievers alike. It is not to be found in a book that promotes slavery and genocide. It is within us.

Postscript to this series: Where Were the Apologists?