Category Archives: Beagle’s Books

Living in the Questions

From the time I first heard the phrase as a young man, I have struggled to understand why “living in the questions” would appeal to anyone. Aren’t answers the entire point?

As I’ve written elsewhere, I derive much aesthetic satisfaction from my molecules having finally aligned themselves so that they have some clue of how the universe works. The answers — at last!

Or so I thought, until I read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene speculates about nine plausible ways that parallel universes (“the multiverse“) might exist. In fact, most of them entail an infinite number of universes.

Just when you think you have one universe down pat, along come infinity more.

It’s unlikely that I will live to see any of those multiverse theories proven or disproven, but who knows — when my grandparents were born, the existence of other galaxies beyond our Milky Way was not even known. If our knowledge could expand from one galaxy to over 176 billion in less than a hundred years, maybe one additional universe will show up any day now.

We made this progress because we never stopped asking questions. When we found an answer, we said, “Fine. What’s next?”

What if we hadn’t done that? We would be living in the same misery as pre-scientific peoples throughout the world. Misery? Yes, misery: ravaged by disease, driven by superstition to sacrifice their own children, and orders of magnitude more likely to die in war.

So there’s a question for us to ponder, and then ponder more deeply: To what extent do we owe our happiness to ceaselessly asking questions about the world?

 

 

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible

The image of God I received during my 40 years in evangelical churches was overwhelmingly positive. The central message was, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was our Good Shepherd, faithfully leading and caring for his flock. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach us.

I knew of darker passages in the Bible, but those were not emphasized. I was confident that God was good, so there must be reasonable explanations for the God-ordered genocides, enslavements, and all-around harshness that characterize some stretches of the Bible.

Liberal Christians can chalk up these passages to a not-yet-developed understanding of the divine. Evangelicals like I was don’t have that luxury. We believed that the Bible is God’s Infallible Word, and does not change. So, if God ordered genocide, then the pagan tribe on the receiving end must have deserved it. Biblical slavery? It was more like indentured servitude. God’s punishments were harsh? That’s because he is so holy.

After the upheavals described in Parts 123 and 4 of this series, those explanations did not rest as easily as they once had. I had learned that godly, well-meaning teachers could be gravely mistaken, or even lie.

Once I began to ask questions with a more open frame of mind, the flaws in the old answers were obvious. Also, I started to notice just how many troubling passages there were. I do not wish to catalog them all here. I won’t even refer you to any of the many Websites that list Bible atrocities. You can find them yourself if and when you’re ready. All I want to do is briefly mention the few passages that hit me particularly hard, and how my take on them changed.

Job

I think the first passage where I said, “Hey, wait a minute!” was the entire Book of Job. Through misfortunes ranging from boils on his skin to the deaths of all his children, righteous Job refuses to “curse God and die” as his wife urges him to do. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” the faithful man says.

In my evangelical circles, discussion of this book usually centered on why God allows the innocent to suffer. The somewhat unsatisfying answer is given by God’s extended discourse at the end of the book. After poetically saying, “You’re only human and I’m God. What do you know?” several dozen times, it ends with, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

OK, but that that doesn’t really answer my question. Why did this innocent man suffer?

Then I noticed that Job’s whole tale of woe got started when God made an entirely gratuitous bet with Satan. God bragged to Satan that Job would be faithful no matter what, and then invited Satan to take everything from Job except his life. Satan hadn’t even been bothering Job until God dared him to afflict him in every way imaginable!

Particularly appalling is that Satan killed Job’s children with God’s permission. We’re supposed to be happy at the end of the book when Job gets replacement children, but, speaking as the father of six, I feel qualified to say that hardly counts.

Why would a just God — to say nothing of a loving one — invite these calamities on a man whom the very first verse of the book calls “blameless“? And do so just for sport! Sport with the devil, no less! And then expect Job to love him without question!?

This article really hit home for me: The God of Abuse. If you only have time to read the rest of this post or that article, please go read the article.

Noah

The story of Noah brings to mind images from Sunday School: happy pairs of animals boarding the Ark, or maybe the rainbow God created after the Flood.

Does anyone care that this was also the story where God exterminated all but 8 members of the human race? Allegedly they deserved it, but did they really? How about the six-year-olds who died in frantic terror as the flood-waters swept them away from their familes? Were they so different from the first-graders who died this week in the Newtown school massacre? Or how about the babies at their mothers’ breast? Were they more evil than your baby? For more on the righteousness of God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors, see my post, Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

And let’s not appeal to a happy ending in heaven. The Bible doesn’t — not for these wicked people.

Jephthah

Jephthah is a lesser-known hero of the faith, but his story has even more pathos. He promised God that if God would grant him victory in battle, then on his return he would sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever first came out of his house. He was probably figuring it would be the family goat, but his young daughter — his only child — was the first to run out and greet her daddy.

Jephthah allowed his daughter a month to mourn the fact that she would never marry, but then fulfilled his vow, offering her as a burnt, human sacrifice to God.

Sad, right? Too bad he made such a rash vow, right? But, you know, you gotta fulfill your vows to the Lord. Right?

Wait a minute! God could have stopped him! He had done it before, when he tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, then staying his hand just as he was about to slit his son’t throat. (Another nice story, by the way.) Why did God do nothing while Jephthah sacrificed his innocent daughter to him? For that matter, why didn’t God prompt the goat to come through the doorway ahead of Jephthah’s daughter? He had marshaled thousands of animals onto the ark. Was it too much to ask for one goat to come through a doorway? Was there no limit to the dispassionate cruelty of this God?

This YouTube video made quite an impression on me. Like all good satire, it goes a little overboard, but not much.

Slavery

It is a common but false idea, spread by lazy apologists who have not done their homework, that the Bible does not condone slavery. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, God directly commands Israel to raid distant cities and capture slaves. He even gives specific permission and regulations for sex-slavery.

I have written at length about biblical slavery on this blog and solicited responses from professional apologists and pastors. Although in some cases they promised to reply, none ever did respond for the record. The scandal is simply denied, excused or ignored. Here are links to my posts. As a set, it’s a lot of reading but they will give you an in-depth look at the lameness of the evangelical apologetics I encountered in all the issues I’m only touching on here.

The Handicapped

Compared to the atrocities above, the passage I’m about to cite is minor. However, it was very personal and happens to have been the last straw for me.

In Leviticus 21:16-23, God prohibits people with various physical injuries and deformities from approaching his altar. Huchbacks, dwarfs, the lame, and other people with “defects” would “desecrate” it, he says.

When I read that passage, I thought of two of my children. One of my sons was in the Marines. If his foot had gotten blown off by an IED during service to his country, he would have been a hero to any decent American, but a second-class citizen at God’s Temple.  One of my daughters has a genetic condition that would have made God consider her presence a “desecration.” I’m sorry, but if there’s anyone whom God should welcome at his altar, it’s these two wonderful young people.

I asked some Bible-believing Christians about the passage and they had the predictable excuses but by this time the excuses rang hollow.

Conclusion

Although I had always thought of God as good, the Bible also showed him to be a monster. I saw three ways to resolve the contradiction:

  1. Evil is actually good when God does it.
  2. The God of the Bible exists, but the Bible represents him imperfectly.
  3. The God of the Bible was created in the image of man — specifically, in the image of a superstitious, tribal people who were trying to do right, but had significant moral blind spots.

#1 was a non-starter.

After all I had been through over the previous four years, #2 was too close to more-of-the-same. I was not going to believe anything without evidence, and I didn’t see enough evidence for anything close to the God of the Bible.

#3 seemed by far the most likely. In fact, I felt as if I had no choice to admit it was true.

I was done with evangelical Christianity.

Next time: How it felt to leave my faith.

The Feeling of Knowing

Harold Camping Predicts the End of the World - Again

Harold Camping Predicts the End of the World - Again

I just finished a book called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, by Robert A. Burton, MD.

To put it in a nutshell, certainty is not a thought in itself, but a brain-state.

Using drugs, electrical stimulation of the brain or other techniques, it is possible to elicit a feeling of knowing independent of any rational thought process. Conversely, it is possible to reason correctly to a conclusion yet not feel that you know the answer. Thus we see that a feeling of knowing is at least somewhat independent of rational thought.

If it’s only a feeling, what good it it? Our rational thought process, left to its own, could dither forever. We need something that says, “You have the answer now. Time to act.” That something is the feeling of knowing.

It feels good to believe you’re right — so good that some of us can become addicted to it. And if you’re waaaay right and everyone else is waaaaay wrong, that feels even better. It’s no surprise that our nation is so polarized right now. Too many of us are addicted, and media personalities make a lot of money by keeping us that way.

You don’t have to be particularly opinionated to fall prey to occasional spasms of the feeling of knowing. I recall one night in college when I was chatting outside with some of my friends about nothing at all. Suddenly, I just knew someone was in trouble and I had to go help them. I hurriedly told this to my friends and dashed off into the dark. I found…nothing. Evidently my feeling of knowing had short-circuited.

Dr. Burton concludes his book by imploring us to couch our convictions in more humble language. Instead of saying, “I know…” say, “I believe….” even if you’re 99.999% sure. This would acknowledge that even our strongest feeling of knowing is only a mental sensation.

I’m not sure what I think of that advice. The feeling of knowing is so hard to deny!