But why?

So I was watching the new episode of Creation Today and I just… Am so sad at what they think of how lowly they think of other human beings. The episode itself is about pain and suffering, but for the most part they focus on the low hanging fruit, ignoring what others would consider the real issue.

They talk about how pain is important for our survival, citing a child with CIP (does not feel pain) who constantly injures herself as a result. “Obviously,” their reasoning goes, “pain is important. Case closed.”

What’s really funny is that they opened the episode with Stephen Fry asking why God would give children bone cancer, but ignore that point. “Christianity is the only religion that explains why pain is important.” They never touch on how children with cancer improve our world, but they do argue that general pain does. I mean, often the YEC will resort to misdirection, but they are the ones who brought up Stephen Fry, they are the ones who highlighted this clip of him lamenting children who live short, painful lives, then die, and then they are the ones who completely ignore the point they brought up. That is quite odd, even for them.

The weird part is where they get into ethics; “Atheists just think we are matter doing things to other matter, and why should that matter? Atheists really believe there is nothing wrong with murder!” Why do you get to say that? Why do you think there are no scientific reasons for morality and ethics? Why do you so strongly think you know what I believe more than I do?

I am sad that they think so little of people who are not Christian. They will tell you that they love all people, that they want to spread the word, that they want to convert people… And it works on some, but their methods are so insidious. “You are worthless except to God,” goes their logic, “Your morals are bad, your ethics are bad, you are going to hell, you are ignoring science, facts, and knowledge, you are looking at the world wrong, your thoughts are wrong. So join us, and all of that goes away!”

Wow. I am glad you think so highly of me. I am glad you are so reasonable.

They go further, in the episode; “Forest fires kill hundreds of humans, destroy life, damage habitats. So we should stop them, right? WRONG! Ecosystems require forest fires to thrive!” That is correct, of course; many lives, many trees, many ecosystems rely on forest fires for their regenerative purposes, for clearing out the old to make way for the new. We cannot stop them, and many will die in the future, many homes lost, many lives destroyed, because there is a greater good that comes from it.

But why?

Why did God create the ecosystem, as they would assert, that requires the destruction of so much, the death of so many? Is that pain good? Is it required? Did He have to create it that way? They tackled the question of forest fires from only the first level, assuming they are a given, but why should they be a given in a world created by an all loving, all caring creator? I am not attacking the fact that God did create these forest fires, the true question is “Why?” Why did God create an ecosystem that not only kills His Chosen people, but requires killing.

To me, it is always odd when people cite The Exodus as a reason that God loved his Chosen people. “He went to bat for us! He destroyed the Egyptians! He helped us escape oppression!”

First, he helped you escape after 400 or more years of oppression, by your own count. Second, once you escaped, he didn’t give you a home–you wandered for 40 years in the desert. Not only that, but He, the God who loves you, put strange, almost crazy restrictions on the Chosen people, the people that He loved. Dietary restrictions? You know it! Restrictions requiring the painful and occasionally horrific modification of male genitalia? Absolutely! How about we go back even further, because right out of the gate, even long before this, He cursed all women to monthly menstrual cycles and the pain of child birth, due to them eating a fruit! And, if one thinks about this at even the shallowest level, you have to remember that Eve did not know it was wrong. She and Adam had not yet eaten of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which means they would not have known their actions were evil. Oh, they may have found it odd that they were going against something God said, but all people go against their parents via our apparently God-given instincts. What do you do if your child disobeys you for the VERY FIRST TIME? Do you punish them slightly? Ground them? Get unhappy with them?

I am going to assume you would not curse their entire gender. I would say their entire species, but that isn’t true, is it? God is not good at targeting His curses, for He hit the females of every animal species because of Eve. Those are not the actions of a loving God. Those aren’t the actions of a stable God. Those aren’t the actions of a sane God.

This might seem an unjust attack on Christianity, or on a loving God, but that isn’t what I intended. I wanted to build context. “Why do you believe God loves us?”

Is it the Exodus? We covered that, the Exodus took his “Chosen” people from 400 years of slavery into 40 years of starvation and thirst. During that, His people were subjected to harsh Laws and restrictions. Hell, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he calls what God did “The curse of the Law.” That’s right, God saved His chosen people… Then immediately cursed them. Did He curse the Chinese, who did not know of him? The North American Native peoples? The Mayans? No, He did not curse those people. He cursed His chosen, but not any of his non-Chosen, except for the Egyptians… But thinking about that, they rebounded FAR BETTER than the Jewish people.

During any point in history prior to, and for several years after, Jesus Christ, being a Chosen Person of God was TERRIBLE. It was a curse, a hamper, it required pain and suffering. Pain and suffering of the kind that no other people had to suffer.

Hell, even after Christianity was accepted as the official religion of Rome, being a chosen person of God was awful. Right up through World War 2, where Hitler killed so many Jews, following that ancient religion has been a burden more terrible than God has set out for His non-Chosen. Being a Christian was not flowery, either, for there was the wars with the Muslims, the Crusades, the Inquisition. I hope you were born believing the right version of being God’s Chosen, because even being a Christian could get you killed by other Christians. There is a saying that I love that goes back many decades, and I do not know the original source, but it basically states that prior to the eighteenth century, Muslims were more tolerant of Christians than Christians were tolerant of other Christians.

“But for our pain, we are granted eternal paradise!” But why would God require you to suffer for the blink of an eye, for 10 or 20 or 70 years under oppression and pain, then give you eternal life? That seems such an odd choice.

And then, of course, come the odd questions–if someone has never heard of Christianity, will they go to Heaven? There is an old joke about African Missionaries converting pagans to Christianity. A pagan woman asks “If I become a Christian, will I go to Heaven?”

“Yes,” replies the Missionary.

“But,” continues the woman, “Would I have gone to Hell if I had never heard of your Christianity?”

“No,” the Missionary answers, “You would have been judged by your works, since you had never heard of God, He would not have punished you for it.”

“Then why,” the woman says, exasperated, “Did you tell me about your God?”

It’s sort of funny, but it’s more sad. Do you not read the implication there? In what the Missionary said? “You would have been better off had you never heard of our God, for you would not have had to Believe this particular story to go to Heaven.”

Again, not only are God’s own people punished, but people who are not of His own flock are rewarded for never having heard of his flock. And God loves His Chosen?

It sounds like He loves everyone except His Chosen.

So why?

But why?

Why?

Why do you believe God loves you? Why do you believe God cares? I simply do not have the tools at my disposal to answer that question for myself.

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We Aren’t Smart Enough for God

Such a small thing that kicked off this train of thought in me. In reply to a video from Penn Jillette, a reddit user posted the following: “Penn Jillette literally went to clown college and believes he is more capable of interpreting holy texts than religious scholars.”

The video from Penn was a 6 minute interview, if you haven’t had a chance to watch it. Basically, he states that the thing that moved him to atheism wasn’t books by Dawkins or Hitchens, it wasn’t people around him, it wasn’t media… It was the Bible. Penn said it was when he read the Bible from cover to cover that he became an atheist. I think my story is somewhat similar, though my deconversion did not begin with the Bible; my deconversion ended with it. I don’t want to be an atheist, not really. I like the more romantic ideals of religion, whether or not there are any adherents that can actually grasp them. I like the idea of Heaven, even if so few people have actually studied what Heaven will be like. But still, an afterlife — that is a nice thought.

The ideas that you can only get to Heaven via love and kindness, via humility and charity — those are romantic as well, but so seldom practiced. It is an odd thing, to read interviews with people in the American Bible Belt. Even if they do not actively preach hate, so many of them seem so bitter towards so many other people, towards homosexuals, towards atheists, towards peoples of other Churches, or (God forbid) Muslims. Listen to the replies to Coca-Cola’s frankly beautiful multicultural rendition of the American National Anthem. You may say that those people aren’t Christian, but in a country that polls nearly 80% Christian, it would be a statistical anomaly if none of those people were Christian.

So where does the rampant racism and feeling of superiority fit in with your Christian values? For those that did not click the previous link, it references Matthew 5:5, a verse in the beatitudes, and I think you know where I am going with this–blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the Earth. So go on, patriots, tell me how your country is the country God chooses, that your country is the greatest in the whole world, that your race is the greatest in the whole world, that your morals are unimpeachable, go on. Keep telling me how awesome you are and how much I suck, but please do it humbly, if you could. That would be nice.

Now that I have gone off on that tangent, back to the original point of the commenter. It has been said that God is not a God of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), but even though the Bible is available in my native tongue, even though God could certainly have inspired a perfect work of literature (what with the omnipotence), I should not be allowed to read it without someone to tell me how? To tell me what it means? It was so bad that many councils in the middle ages forbade owning a Bible at all, and translating it was anathema. Why is that? I think Penn is on to something; too many people now sit in Churches and listen only to the verses of the Bible read to them prior to the sermon (or during the sermon, depends on your denomination). If God is not a God of confusion, why are there such a huge number of Christian denominations in the world, all with slightly differing or outright competing views? Why did alternate views on the Bible tear the world apart not once, not twice, but three times? (Once, twice, and three times are all separate links to historical schisms in the Church.)

And even though men who study the Bible their whole lives fail to agree on a translation, and even though God is not a God of confusion, a lay person should not be able to form their opinion through careful reading of the Bible in the privacy of their own thoughts? Am I not smart enough to read it? Is that what it is?

Do I need someone to tell me what it means when Elisha kills 42 (children or men, depending on translation) via two bears, because they called him bald? Do I need someone to tell me why it is a good thing that a woman was raped to death in the service of a priest? What about drunken, incestuous rape? What about cursing an entire nation, for all of history, because of a drunken stupor that ended badly? (It should also be noted that the person who drank himself unconscious and naked was Noah.) Maybe I do need someone to tell me why that was a good thing, maybe, maybe. Certainly, in my own reading of the Bible I cannot see why a God of love and justice and tolerance would do such a thing.

My point is this; while I may not have all of the answers, I am willing to say that I have read a great deal of the Bible. I have more to read, and I am currently reading it again, and it has not brought me closer to God. It pushes me away from God, into atheism, with its sheer repulsiveness (or outright weirdness). It pushes me away because all of the powers that men attribute to God are the making of man; in the Old Testament, God seems neither omniscient nor omnipotent. He seems confused often, quick to a killing rage, unhappy, racist… I think Richard Dawkins said it best: “[God is] jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

I may have given up ground by quoting Dawkins, but only in theory. You may think you have points now, but if you’ve read the Old Testament, I challenge you to prove any one of those accusations wrong. I think that’s another part; a debate between an atheist and a theist could literally devolve into the two posing contradictory Bible quotes to each other. The Bible says many things, and it says so few of those things clearly. Oh, you have all the answers? Or your priest does? Or someone who holds a degree or PhD in theology does? Well, tell them to step forward, and we can have ourselves a universal Church.

Until then, let’s all tone it down where it comes to defending our Holy Books. For me, the Bible is nothing spectacular, a hollow bastion of hope. For you, the writings of Dawkins or Hitchens or Harris may be nothing but wastes of blasphemous paper. I don’t think we will convince each other. But before you tell people that they shouldn’t have an opinion on the Bible, perhaps you should step back and read it cover to cover. Every word. Don’t just pick and choose passages; read everything, read Deuteronomy, Leviticus, read the Book of Numbers, where it says that everyone should be killed except virgin women; read that this includes the children and the animals, any woman who has known a man. If you are offended that terrorists killed 3000 civilians on 9/11, remember that your God himself wanted to kill all of his own chosen people, that the Crusades were done in your God’s name, and that in response to the death of 3000 civilians, the United States has killed at least 18000 Afghani civilians (and that is a very low estimation by most accounts).

If you want more references, I could go on for days. For months. For years. Somehow, I feel like I could make more references than there are pages in the Bible, and I feel like that should be worrisome.

My story of deconversion is obviously not unique. As I said in a long previous post, it seems to me that it is the atheists and the skeptics in my life with the deepest knowledge of the Bible–and I think that is because so many of us were faithful and turned to the Bible in our time of crisis. And in the Bible we did not find our faith, it was in the Bible that we lost it.

What was Meant

There are two versions of this blog post, one short, and one long. I’ll put the short version first, so you can skip all the words without losing the overall message. EFFICIENCY!

Today, many people will tout that they know what the Bible means, or how to interpret the stories in it. Some will use that knowledge to preach love, some will use it to preach hate. I hope that statement isn’t overly controversial, the Westboro Baptist Church has the same Bible you do, at the very least.

But really, no matter your confidence, do we know what the people who wrote the Bible down, from Old Testament to New Testament, really wanted us to learn?

Short version answer: Nope.

Long version answer: That is a complicated question, and certainly you require a redefinition of terms at the very least to even begin to unravel the ball of yarn that is historical interpretation, translation, and intent.

To start, before the books of the Bible’s Old Testament were written down (and yea, before they could be written down) they were oral traditions. How long were they oral traditions? Well, to pin that down with any high degree of accuracy, we’d have to rely on either asking them, or having them write it dow… Wait. Nope.

So we don’t know exactly how old some of the stories are (though they do have historical markers in many of them, which help to date them). Then we continue to walk down the road of history as far as oral tradition can take us. Well, how do we know the stories that got written down were anything close to the original orations?

Well, the common rebuttal is that there were professional oral historians whose sole job was the maintain and recite history. We can see Hebrew mnemonics in certain areas of the Old Testament that are evidence of methods in use to improve recall of the stories. Certainly, a person whose sole job is to remember would do better in such an arena than would your average person off the streets… But they would have no error checking, no oversight. What would happen if or when they make a mistake?

And if you are going to tell me that stories survived 800 years orally, without any errors, I have some pieces of the original cross to sell you. Or maybe the Shroud of Turin is more up your alley?

Let me make a few modern examples to show you the flaws in that logic, in any case.

A banker’s primary role is in dealing with money. I would say the bulk of it is counting money, and ensuring accuracy in tallies and counts. They have the money in front of them, concrete, physical, unchanging. They will double and triple count money at the beginning, end, and during the day. And yet bank errors occur, despite the fact that the banker’s sole (and some would say primary) purpose is to ensure money changes hands reliably without change and… Wait, was I describing your orator or a banker? Some of those words got a little aligned there. Weird how that is.

Howe about me, in my current field of information technology. A server is designed, from the ground up, to prevent me from making errors. In order to do anything on a server that runs, say, the heating and cooling for an entire building, I will have to accept one hundred warnings, check one hundred boxes, agree to one hundred confirmations… And there are times when I, or yea, people with many years more experience than me have made errors. My sole purpose is to change these settings, to ensure they are changed properly and correctly and without error, and there are systems whose sole purpose are to stop me from making said error… But errors get made.

How about your grandparent? They will tell stories, and I am sure you have thought at times that it could not have happened like your grandparent recalled, but you’d not say anything, of course. But it is well known that dementia and Alzheimer’s are diseases primarily affecting the elderly in the population. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, I’d be willing to say that your slips would be so minor that they could be attributed to a slight dimming of your recollection, to the point you (and anyone around you) would write them off simply as slips of memo–oh damn, what was the sole purpose of the orators? Memorizing things?

And who was the most revered, respected person who would pass along knowledge? The elders of the tribe? Let’s give that elder a generous age of 60 (if they lived in a nice place, a clean(ish) city, it could have happened even in time before history), and they’d be the elder for… We’ll say 20 years? Hell, give them 30 years, we’ll say for the sake of gentle argument that they were the elder for a full generation. If we assume only 800 years of oral tradition (The earliest parts of the Bible were written down in 800BC, and I know they reference events at times as early as 1600BC, though the accuracy is in question), then that was some 26 or 27 generations of elders. That is a lot of time for one of them to have had some degree of early Alzheimer’s.

But… But they obviously wouldn’t be trusted when they couldn’t recognize the face of their own kin, they wouldn’t be the elder any more! So they wouldn’t have passed on the failed stories!

You have to remember that even if we assume a generous life expectancy, they would never have had an 80 or 90 year old Alzheimer’s sufferer, or Dementia sufferer in the 10th and earlier centuries BC. The person entrusted with oration could have had slight slips of memory and died, and so the story altered over time.

But… But there would have been many orators! Many people who remembered! Several for each village, maybe!

Yes, but then you’d have conflicting versions of the story, and how would you resolve those? Well, I don’t know how they’d have done that, but it wouldn’t be hard to think that they would accede to the eldest and most respected of the elders–the one ironically with the highest chance of misremembering a detail. Even if that wasn’t their method, even if it was democratic (against all logic, since democracy was certainly not widespread at the time), you’d have younger elders who learned the slightly altered version voting for the slightly altered version.

You’d have inaccuracies creeping in over time, even if you had ten thousand safeguards. The modern translations of the Bible attest to that, for even within two years there will be versions with differing translations, errors, typos, mistakes in meaning or scholarship. Think of the monks who made copies of the Bible before the printing press; again, they had concrete copies, and yet if you look at old Bibles, you will see scholars marking “Copyist error” in the margin… And that is when they had an older version to copy-check again.

Or how about some of the earlier mass produced Bibles? There was a copy with the Commandment “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery” that was mass produced in the 17th century, only 30 years before the King James version was officially published.

So tell me again that there were no errors in the oral histories, and again I will find more evidence to show that wishful line of thinking will not hold.

How about even the word “history”? Certainly in the times of the Roman Empire, history was a much more sinuous beast, harder to catch, harder to pin down. People did not write down history as we understand the term, history was an idea, was morals and fables, not so much “writing down an accurate account of what happened.” What we call history today is more often viewed in the tax records of the time, or the census records, birth and death certificates, than it is in things that people wrote down — for what people wrote down and what happened are often at odds, and you can see what happened far more in the number of troops reported dead at some location than you can with some historian writing down about the battle. A historian may have written down that it was a great victory, where the death toll was nearly equal on both sides. This is two knives, not just a double edged sword; at work here is the fact that history was the lessons (in this case, the lesson of “we are so much better than x barbarian tribe), and also the fact that history is, was, and will be often written by the victors. In the global world we live in, it is becoming less so, and underdogs tell their tale to fanfare in these days more than ever before, but the principle still stands.

Reza Aslan wrote about this in greater length and with more gravitas than I can–though if you don’t trust Aslan, you can check with any historian who specializes in the centuries around year 0 and you will find similar messages.

So what was written down in the Bible, even when it was close to the events that happened (and you must remember that the earliest gospels were at the very minimum written in 70AD, 40 years after the death of Christ) likely weren’t written with a mind for exactly what happened. They would have been written with a mind for teaching the lessons of Christ, and if those lessons were of humility and sacrifice, well… The events of his life were certainly a great parallel. Almost a perfect parallel. One might say they were perfect for teaching the lessons of his ministry, and by gosh, we’ve come full circle. Again.

I am not calling into question the lessons they taught, as they are certainly good lessons. I am calling into account the historical veracity of the Bible. The YECs may be the only faction to take the Old Testament as historical fact (or as absolute historical fact, as in a 6000 year old world created in exactly 6 days, and with genealogies that can be traced back to Adam), but most people believe the life of Jesus was reliably written down.

It wasn’t. Depending on the details you are viewing, many traditions were in the Bible that were not present at any other time. The tradition of freeing a single prisoner during passover? Find me another reference to that outside of the Bible. Or, even taking that tradition as fact, what about freeing Barabus instead of Jesus? Were there only two prisoners? When given the choice of a rabble rouser (Jesus) and a serial killer (Barabus), wouldn’t they just vote to release no one at all?

Or what about the trial before Pilate? Pilate is recorded by history as having signed so many death warrants without having even so much as read the name on them that a formal complaint against him was lodged with Rome. The crime for which Jesus was condemned, Sedition, wasn’t even a crime for which you would have been given a trial. If you were said to be guilty of sedition, it was off to the cross with you, no questions asked. And during the Passover, when tensions were already heightened? The idea of Jesus having an audience with Pilate is almost silly.

I think I’ve belabored that point extensively enough. The idea is that the Bible can’t be taken as historical fact, as it had a political fact from over a thousand years before it would even have been recognized as a cohesive book, as the Bible you know.

So the people who decide what was meant by these stories? What allegories and laws and ideas and histories and world views should be taught? That adulterers should be stoned, that it is OK to kill an abortion doctor, that homosexual sex is a sin, that Jesus would support this or that idea… Those are what you have discovered two or three thousand years separated from the person who originally came up with what you are reading. Who is to say you learned the lessons they even wanted to teach?

For those reading between the lines in the Old Testament to come up with meanings that aren’t there in a plain reading of the text, I’d like you to step back and read this story, told colloquially (I can find no reference for it aside from a newspaper clipping, so it is at best anecdotal).

When asked about the themes and morals in his book Hatchet (part of the Life of Brian series), Gary Paulsen said that he was happy that so many people have gotten so much out of his book, but that he didn’t write it with all of these themes and morals in mind. He just wanted to tell a good story.

With that in mind, how can anyone today say that it is they that have the themes of the Bible correct? That they have interpreted them correctly, when billions of Christians who came before them with likely billions of differing interpretations have obviously gotten them wrong? That is it you who knows exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke the parable of the mustard seed, when it is a completely nonsensical parable unless it is explained to you?

Again, I do not want to shake your faith or your morals, but I want you to be careful what you claim you know. You don’t know it any better than I do, and believing that someone is going to hell because they believe differently than you is condemning everyone who isn’t you to hell, because chances are their beliefs differ in some core way from yours, but you haven’t had a conversation with everyone in your congregation, and who knows what is going on in your pastor’s head. He can’t tell you one tenth of what he is thinking in all of his sermon’s combined, so who knows where you differ from him? Where your core beliefs, something you completely disagree on based on some word of Jesus or another, may shake your relationship to the core–if you ever knew.

Just some things to think about.

I Really Ought to Mention…

I think 66% of the stuff on this blog is religious in nature, so I would be remiss if I did not mention one person who has had a huge influence on my religious leanings.

http://www.c-span.org/video/?319745-1%2Fdepth-reza-aslan

That is a very lengthy interview with Reza Azlan, a religious historian who has written books on Islam and on Christianity. He is incredibly well spoken, and is worth a watch (and definitely worth reading his books) if you are interested in Religious History. He also speaks about contemporary religion today, and his views are very eloquently stated. If all religious people were as full of understanding and spirituality as this man, there would be no war, and we’d all be friends forever.