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.


Pointless Cynicism

As tends to happen on the Internet, or really any community over time, some drama has cropped up that managed to grab the attention of a huge proportion of Reddit’s users. If you don’t care to read the rather lengthy story, it adds up to a man live tweeting the discovery that his wife of a few years is cheating on him. Over time, additional characters are added to the story, including his brother, his sister-in-law, an unnamed character, a PI, and a few additional set pieces. I won’t lie, the story is not well written, but the fact that the original writer is not, in fact, a writer of high skill adds more credence than it takes away.

There are other bits in the story that really strain one’s disbelief, such as the idea that a 30 year old man would write “they kissed then she touched his penis a little,” but that line is really what sparked the true drama of the situation, and that has given me the concrete example of what I have been preaching (for lack of  a better word) for a very long time.

Immediately, three camps sprung up, and two of them actively went to war. One, claiming that this person was not in fact telling the truth, and another attempting to offer this person some sympathy in what is (or, if it is made up, would be) a very difficult time in his life. The cynics quote lines that don’t add up, while the sympathetics just want to help another human in need. I think the sympathetics have the right of it, but that needs some deeper exploration.

I know I mentioned three camps; the third is people with bags of popcorn who get three full servings of delicious, nutritious drama. The first serving is the story itself, the next two servings are the ongoing war between the cynics and the sympathetics. The third camp is immaterial, but for a while I was an active member in Camp Popcorn.

As I mentioned briefly on my Facebook, the cynicism of the cynics is pointless in this case. The sympathetics, so long as they do not give him money (and he neither asked for it, nor gave identifying information that would even allow it to be given), have no lost anything by their sympathies. They sent him typed internet messages. The time he wasted was perhaps 45 minutes of their life (the time it took to read it and write their reply). If this story is true, they may be offering a suffering man the only solace he will receive in this difficult time. Afterwards, time will pass, and all will forget. If the story is, in fact, a fabrication, then the sympathetics can be said to be playing along, and at worst have wasted a small part of their life. Time will pass, and all will forget.

The cynics, though, add up to internet bullies (though I am sure if any of them read this blog I could expect wild backlash from them to the tune of “No, we are just skeptical!”). If the story is true, and they are telling everyone to stop playing along, then what they are doing is adding another layer of stress that is helping no one. If the story is fake, they are the person in the theater during “The Usual Suspects” shouting “Well, of COURSE he is Kaiser Soze,” ruining the film for everyone who just wanted an escape from the real world.

This may be stretching it for some “internet armchair cynics”, but some of them are certainly the kind of people who would walk by someone about to jump off a bridge and tell the person “You’re just doing this to get attention.” It is cruel, and it isn’t helping anyone.

You can be cynical, I am cynical. Just keep your cynicism to yourself, because if there is even a 1% chance that the story is true, there could be a human suffering on the other end of your keyboard strokes. I don’t believe the story for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean I am willing to call the writer a fraud. I would never run up to George RR Martin and shout “DRAGONS AREN’T REAL, DUMMY!” even if some of the readers of A Song of Ice and Fire believe the events actually happened. There’s no point to it.

What people on the Internet so often forget is that there are, no matter the situation, other humans out there reading what you have said. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it at them.

The Internet, as media, is more transient than any form of media that has ever come at any point in history. Books have survived millennia. Quotes from TV shows have survived decades. The shelf life of an internet meme, at its longest and best preserved, is two years. Memes from 2012 are all but forgotten, save by Know Your Meme’s databases. The thing is, while next week we may all have forgotten this story, the person who (may/may not) be living it will never forget. You will forget it. The sympathetics may forget it. The story itself is transient. But the human being on the other end could suffer for an eternity, and you would never know or care.

So take a thought for your vehemence, your pointless pointing out of your cynicism. Save your cynicism for perennial issues, save your cynicism for government, save your cynicism for religion or atheism, as is your flavor. Save your cynicism for ideas. You can’t hurt an idea. When an idea dies, no humans were harmed in the process. But when you are cynical towards a human being? You can cause harm.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again. If we took a moment to care for the happiness of others, the world would be a better place in the month. The cynic is perhaps angered by the story, or the fact that some people believe the story, but why should they attempt to spread their misery or anger? No one increases their happiness by so doing. Not one person will ever be happier for your cynicism.

I know I have opened myself up for a world of criticism by saying so (“But Chad, you write about the bad parts of religion!! Religion makes so many people happy!”), but I have accepted my lot in life. I have my justifications for what I do, fickle as some may think them.

I wonder what the armchair cynic would say is their justification?