Friday, December 31, 2010

In the year of Our Lord, 2010...

Of course to be au courant in academic circles we now say "common era," to distinguish European dating from Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic and all sorts of other calendars. And anyway, "our lord" probably wasn't born in the year zero or one, if he existed at all.

Deconversion is such a gradual thing. This year's 'revelation' was that Christianity is perhaps the most selfish, amoral religion ever. It has taken me over 20 years to come to this realization.

"Salvation" from either one's own sins or Eve's (it's debatable, apparently) is "bought" with the "blood" of an innocent god-spirit-man, who knowingly or unknowingly becomes the "sacrificial" lamb to replace the sacrifices at the temple for all the Jews, and later Greeks, Ethiopians, Lebanese, and Europeans etc. who believe in him and don't fuck people of the same sex.

This is supposed to be a wonderful thing. In my reading this year (thank you, John Loftus) I found out that the term is "penal substitution." Instead of punishing the guilty person, someone else is put in that person's place. And it seems this year I've seen more evidence of evangelicals' embrace of this concept.

One of my facebook pals posted recently about how grateful she was that Jesus was all-forgiving. Being a nice person, I bit my fingers-tongue and didn't type out "unless you're a fig tree." Of course Jesus doesn't have the power to forgive, but you don't have to actually think through theology if you're enveloped in a feel-good movement that's all about YOU feeling relieved of your guilt.

This week Governor Bill Richardson decided not to pardon Billy the Kid. Apparently during Billy's lifetime a pardon was promised, then renegged on, and then Billy continued killing people. Richardson decided on the pardon on the terms he would if the Kid were still alive: based on his behavior subsequent to the original crime. My question is, why didn't he reject it on the pure ridiculousness of the request? It's not like the Kid was on Death Row! I think the answer is that we care about our reputations after our death. We want to be remembered well, and we can't guarantee that we will. We can leave all kinds of instructions for our funerals, pre-engrave our epitaphs, and publish our story in a self-serving autobiography, but when we're gone we won't be able to defend ourselves.

This is where "God" comes in. The trial takes place immediately upon death, and it's quick because there's only one matter to take up: whether we accept Jesus as Lawd, or God, or whatever. (The evangelicals have confused me on this point, I admit) Anywho, if we "ak-Tsept JEEE-zussss" into our hearts at the last possible moment, all the rest is pardoned. And that should be enough.

The Billy the Kid case reminded me of another, Karla Faye Tucker. She was still alive when her earthly fate was being decided on by none other than then-governor George W. Bush. I had just moved to Texas that year and the case really represented Texas for me. Karla Faye had converted to Christianity in prison. While reading the Bible, she was "asking God to forgive" her." She became a cause celebre when she tried to escape the Death Penalty on the basis of her conversion.

She had already something of an evangelical celebrity as her conversion and subsequent good behavior, so she had the Army of Gawd on her side. (This, of course, is quite opposite to what Christians should have wanted for her -- the best she could have hoped for was life without parole, but if she'd been executed she'd be in Heaven with Gawd). But perhaps her jailbird testimony was just too delicious for them, and they wanted her to stick around for their purposes.

The conflict for Dubya: the death penalty, which is almost sacred in Texas, vs. born-again Christianity, which he himself professed. He chose not to forgive her, and Karla Faye was executed. Her last words included the following: "I am going to be face to face with Jesus now." Yes, Jesus forgives murder.

I don't remember any debate about whether she would in fact be forgiven by God for her part in the murder of two people. It's convenient that Christians are all about the Ten Commandments when they want them posted in courthouses or recited by school children, but when one of their own has violated one, they suddenly don't care so much.
The true common element for Billy the Kid and Karla Faye Tucker is time. Christians will forgive if enough time has passed without further ill will. Billy the Kid stopped murdering people ... upon his death... and hasn't broken any laws since then. Karla Faye was a youngster and had spent many years in prison waiting for her lethal injection. After so much time has passed, m'eh they're okay.
Supposedly hell and heaven are forever decisions. God doesn't forgive, and he doesn't forget, either. His judgment isn't mitigated by time or good behavior. Either you're with him or agin'im, and that's forever.
Yet somehow the Ten Commandments only matter when we want them to. Forgiveness is not God's to give or retract, but ours. The whole judgment-in-heaven concept is a projection of our desires. It's 100% cultural, and has nothing to do with eternal spirits, burning bushes, or any of the rest of it.
What it comes down to is this: We want to be forgiven, and we also want to forgive. The Christian theology of forgiveness is a reflection of our human nature, not the cause of it. Society holds together based on whether members of the community can trust each other to behave in a way that supports the community. We have that trust at birth, and we can lose it. It can be lost forever, or it can be regained after a time-out, or some act of redemption. Folk stories from around the world reflect the very human need to keep the very human community intact.
Sometimes we can't control whether we get that trust back. If we've killed someone, they can't turn around and say "aw it's okay I know you're really a nice person." Or if someone holds a grudge we can only do so much to get back into their "good graces." So we ask the Sky Daddy to forgive us. How that happens depends on your interpretation of the Sky Daddy. Evangelicals don't have to do much at all, though they will tell you they base their morals on a fear of Hell. Episcopalians mumble contritious words at weekly services. Catholics go to confession and do some act of penance to make up for whatever they've confessed to.
My absolute #1 favorite religious tradition is the Jewish New Year tradition of self-reflection for acts done during the previous year, then doing an act of charity to erase those deeds. It's all done in one's lifetime, and within a brief time span so guilt doesn't accumulate. Lazy Jews donate money to "the building fund," but a lot donate to actual charities or give their time to the needy. Animal Sacrifice went the way of the dinosaur after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (oops, C.E.), and God has stopped punishing entire cities and countries for group misdeeds. This is their substitution. I think it's a great idea. When it was explained to me it was called "mitzvah" and I even like the sound of the word.
Last year I had the means and opportunity to do an act of charity that directly made up for something I regretted. It cost me a lot of time and money but when it was done it was a very "clean" feeling. My mitzvah had been accomplished and though I could never set right the original situation, I had done the next-best thing. My guilt for what couldn't be righted (don't worry, I didn't break any laws, just felt guilty) was matched by my satisfaction of making a real contribution in a parallel situation. I can start the New Year with a clear conscious, knowing that what's past is past and I've done my best.
When Christians ask me why I'm not worried about Hell, I don't go into all this detail. I simply say I'm not afraid of something that doesn't exist. They're not really interested in a "sermon" about guilt, retribution, redemption, making the most of one lifetime, paying for your own "sins," etc. but I wish they were. Atheism is liberating, but in a grow-the-fuck-up and take responsibility for yourself kind of way. That's much more frightening than Hell to them.
So Happy New Year, atheists. Let's make the best of the time we have and not worry about our 'afterlife' here or in the sky.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

It's *not* a Wonderful Life!

Well, it might be or it might not be. I love the sentiment of generosity in that movie but the rest of the message, well...

Let's summarize the plot: George Bailey gets whacked upside the head, loses his hearing, and can't join the army. Fortunately, the whack didn't destroy his ambition; love did that. So instead of going to the big city to be a little fish, he stays "home" and works at the family's savings & loan, then has a few kids and fixes up This Old House.

Being a little soft-hearted (or -headed) he lets his "special" employee take cash to the big bank and the retard loses it to the mean old crippled guy. Yes, Tiny Tim has grown up to be a selfish, mean-spirited MoneyBags who wants nothing less than to destroy all competition and be King of Bedford Falls. Bwahahahahaaaa!!!!!! And we all know that when you put two people with disabilities in the same room together hilarity ensues!

This is Mr. Potter's moment! He calls in feckless George's loan, and now George, Mr. Ambition, contemplates suicide. Because of course we all know that when you have a wife & kids the best thing you can do for them is jump off a bridge. Naturally they'd rather have money than a husband and father.

Oh wait! Here comes an Angel straight from HEAVEN to convince George he shouldn't jump. Why? Because George is popular and lots of people are praying for him. Now we know that all those people who jumped from the Twin Towers on 9/11 were unpopular anyway, since nobody could have been praying for them or else they'd have been rescued.

So this angel, instead of saying "it's only money and there are worse things than being in debt," grants George the wish to know what Bedford Falls would have been like without him. Oh my it's terrible. Mr. Potter is rolling all over everyone, his wife is *gasp* an old maid and *BIG GASP* a LIBRARIAN! *faint* He regrets his wish, his life is restored, and he finds out that he's POPULAR! How does he know he's popular? People shower him with cash to bail him out of a tough spot.

The moral of the story: what goes around comes around? If you're popular God will intervene? Money is the most important sign of love?

Here's what this atheist would like to see:
George Bailey doesn't even know the money's missing yet. God is pissed by what Mr. Potter did, and of course he saw the whole thing. He doesn't have to wait to hear about it on the prayer party line. He smites Mr. Potter, perhaps with a good smack upside the head, and the wad of cash falls to the ground in full view of everybody. The retard who misplaced it is suddenly cured of his affliction, grabs the money and tells everyone exactly how much money it was to prove it belonged to the Baileys. Mr. Potter goes to jail, the retard is now qualified to take over the business, and George moves to TheBigCity with his family after scoring a hostile takeover of Mr. Potter's bank.

That's how a powerful, omniscient, loving, just god would handle the situation. Clarence would get his wings upon arrival in Heaven just for being a nice guy, because that's what God really wants to see -- nice people getting their reward.

Instead, we have a God who needs to be implored for mercy, and is so powerless he has to employ trickery to save a life. He runs heaven like the army, with ranks and seemingly impossible tasks to complete to get promoted.

Theologians probably don't like this movie much, either, but it resonates with people even decades after its release because it fulfills the fantasy role that religion has in so many lives: prayer works, God works in mysterious ways, the "reality" one person experiences is really true no matter how bizarre, and even though money doesn't matter, in the end it really does.

Of course this could never happen today. Banks have security cameras now so they don't need God looking in on them.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Feelings Aren't Facts

"Debbie," in the discussion here, insists that her feelings are justification for the "knowledge" that God is "real." One of her posts seemed so insane to me I was sure it was sarcasm, until I read more posts by her. It's worth copying here:

I care and seek to know the truth. Jesus claimed to be the Truth. To know Jesus is to know the Truth. He is the answer to the Big Questions of life. So it seems to me.

This is posited like some kind of logical argument but in the end she waffles with "So it seems to me." That's the key. The rest is baloney. She trusts her intuition, so the rest is irrelevant.

Later she posts: "Truth by it's very nature is narrow. A fact is a fact period. Broad is the road that leads to destruction. Narrow is the gate that leads to life. Isn't it interesting that Jesus claimed to be the Truth?"

Yes, very interesting. We all care to seek and to know the truth. It's human nature. SO ... of course if you want people to follow your religion you need to convince them that it's TRUE. And apparently SAYING it's true is enough for some people.

So "Jesus is God" is true because I feel good about Jesus, and Jesus supposedly said it's true, and there can only be one truth. Therefore, any other truth claims must be false.

This kind of thinking drives me crazy. But the "thinking" is irrelevant because she really wants to 1) respect a predictable authority figure, 2) belong to a social group that validates her feelings, and 3) believe that her feelings are facts. "A fact is a fact period." Debbie believes that her feelings are facts. She has positive feelings about authority figures, her church spokespeople & writers, the Jesus of her imagination, and of positive feelings themselves.

If Debbie were the only one, I'd just reply to her rather than blogging about this. Sadly, she's just one of thousands, possibly millions, of people who think that her feelings justify her faith. It's more likely the other way around. Theologists with Ph.D.s call their beliefs "properly basic," which amounts to the same thing.

Believers who pepper me with questions after finding out that I'm an atheist often start by questioning my answer to uncomfortable feelings, such as fear of death, fear of a chaotic society, fear of nothingness... All bogeymen invented by the church to keep the fearful in the flock. It's simple: create good feelings for insiders, create bad feelings about outsiders.

But it really just comes down to feelings. They "feel the spirit," or so they believe. If I felt the "spirit" of Heidi Klum enter me and started doing runway walks in my underpants, I'd be considered "insane." If I said I felt the spirit of Jesus enter me and started speaking in tongues, I'd be welcomed into a few cults.

Feelings aren't facts, and they are no proof of the supernatural in any way. This is why atheists can't reach most believers: we don't manipulate people via an opposition of positive and negative emotion. And being the moral people we are, we find it difficult to ramp up the rhetoric the way that religions have done. Many of us self-identify as "free-thinkers" and resent others' attempts to impose their beliefs, so of course we wouldn't commit that offense either.

The irony for me is that after decades of non-belief I find that there are some emotional benefits. Life means more because it's limited to time on Earth, and death is less scary because I've accepted the inevitability of it.

Many of the "comforting" parts of Christian theology have actually become anathema to me:
  • ritualistic cannibalism (yech!)
  • penal substitution (how unfair!)
  • "original" sin carrying through to every human (yet we're "innocent" at birth?)
  • eternal existence without a body (how boring!)
  • "bad" people going to hell (somebody loved them!)
  • God listening to our thoughts (if he didn't like them why give them to us?)

The rest of them were distasteful to me even while I was trying to be a believer! Fortunately for the ticket-takers at the Pearly Gate, most Christians don't think too hard about these things. They've been offered a self-centered fairy tale future, and it feels pretty good to them.