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“I know everyone who gave their life that day, some of which were my best friends and my daughter. And I guarantee you, beyond any shadow of a doubt, they are dancing with Jesus today.”

 

The above quote from Pastor Frank Pomeroy of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas captures one of the reasons why religion will never die.  It may diminish some.  It will certainly continue to change greatly. But die, no.

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This quote is from a sermon he preached on Sunday, Nov 12, 2017.  A week before this sermon a gunman had entered his church and murdered  26 members of his congregation, including his 14 year old daughter. He preached this sermon in a tent. At the front of the tent were the few remaining members of his congregation.

Many atheists say that religion will one day die out and be no more.  Some say it is already happening, that it is shrinking and will continue to do so until it no longer exists.   I believe that the number of atheists will continue to grow for awhile, but do not think it will ever become the dominant religious view of the planet. And by atheism, I mean the variety that does not believe in God or the supernatural.  Instead, I think some variety of religious belief, including in a God, will survive and still be the most common view.

The reason I think this is because I realize that humans are more heart than mind.  And, by the way, that is not a bad thing. While the heart can and has led to many evils, it is also the source of our morality and most of what is good too.  It is also an essential part of what gives our lives joy and happiness. Evidence, logic, reason all have an important role, but they are not the basis of what is good and right in our lives.

David Hume put it well when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Many atheists may be surprised at this quote from Hume. After all, he is a one of the pre-eminent empirical and skeptical philosophers in history.  However, Hume realized that we do not use our reason to determine our morality and our goals, but rather, they are chosen through our passions and emotions. And reason is then used in aide of them (which can include modifying them to if needed) and, to justify them (unfortunately).

Consider, did you reason your way to loving your parents and siblings?  Did you use logic and evidence and rational thought when meeting people to determine your friends?  Did you reason your way to loving your children?

In moral decisions, do you use abstract moral principles and reason from them to determine if a given action that you have to make now is moral or not?  And do you use reason to determine whether to get angry or not when you see a man knock down an old woman and steal her purse, a woman slapping a child hard enough to mark them, a child tormenting a cat?

Reason has a role to play, but it is in aide and support of, not in substitution of.

Which is why religion will never die away.

What arouses more passion than both the idea and reality of death.  Not only our own death, but, often more importantly, the death of your loved ones – parents, spouse, friends.  Children.

171105151324-04-sutherland-springs-church-shooting-super-169

171105195446-14-sutherland-springs-church-shooting-super-169            For most people, such losses need more than what reason and logic can provide.  I wrote a blog a few weeks ago, “There is No Immortality, But There Are Times I Chose to Believe Anyway”, about why I find traditional atheist platitudes on death unsatisfactory, and  why, on an emotional level, I find myself vested in the belief in the rainbow bridge and will continue to happily be so vested.

This is even though I have been an atheist for over 43 years now.  And this is despite my love of science, my commitment to rational thought, my being a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry since its first day when its journal was called the Zetetic, and my highly analytical nature.

Consider Martin Gardner, one of the founders of the modern skeptic movement, and a founding member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (called Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal at first). Even though a skeptic of the first order, he believed in God and immortality, even though he knew there was no evidence and that such a belief was irrational.

We are not rational creatures. We can harness rationality and use it, but the great majority of our pleasures and desires and goals are not the result of rational thought.  I did not sit down and say and make a list of things that I might like, put reasons by each of them, and then made a conscious choice.  I like to write because I love to read. And my love of reading did not come about by rational reflection but from emotional response.

And there is nothing wrong with this. It is an essential part of what it means to be human. Change it, and you are dealing with something that is something else than human.

So, when I see what atheism has to offer for comfort and support – atoms returning to the universe to last as long as the universe within the hearts of stars or in enormous gas clouds, living on in the memories and lives of others we have touched, living on in our memories and being one of the ones touched by the deceased, and so forth – and compare that to my friends and loved ones “dancing with Jesus” and waiting for me to join in when I eventually die….well, I know which one resonates more strongly.

One final thought.  While I enjoy discussing and disagreeing about various ideas and issues relating to religion – and do feel there is much that deserves strong condemnation – the most important thing is not religious beliefs per se, but an individual’s views towards choices.  Pastor Frank Pomeroy said this well in his sermon too;

“Folks, we have the freedom to choose, and rather than choose darkness, as the one young man did that day, I say we choose life. “

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What does the word father mean?  According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary (slightly paraphrased), a father is:

  • A man who has begotten a child.
  • God, the first person of the Trinity
  • Forefather, such as the founding fathers of the United States.
  • One related to another in a way suggesting that of father to child.
  • An old man – used as a respectful form of address
  • A pre-Scholastic, a Christian writer accepted by the church as an authoritative witness to its teaching and practice – called also church father
  • One that originates or institutes, such as the father of modern science.
  • Source, such as the sun, the father of warmth and light.
  • Prototype, such as the father of all libraries in the country,.
  • A priest of the regular clergy.
  • One of the leading men (as of a city) – usually used in plurals such as a council of the city fathers.

Wow, so many meanings embedded within one word.

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Now, those wedded to the idea a person can read the words of a tract, book, articles, manuscript, religious work or political document and understand exactly what it means, will, upon seeing where I am heading with this, point out that while the word father does have many different meanings, which meaning being used is usually made obvious by the context of the word.  In other words, the words around the word help define that word.  And to an extent they are right.

However, words are not only understood as an abstract intellectual concept. In fact, most of the time they are not. People insert meaning  and values to those words.

For example, what a father is will be something quite different  for a woman who was raped and abused by her father since she was a young child versus what it will mean for a young man who had a loving father who played games and helped with homework.  Which means that how a person understands a word within a given sentence embedded within a paragraph that is part of a page which is just one page in an article or a book and all of whose words influence the meaning and understanding of that particular word is going to also depend on that individual’s own feelings and emotions in reaction to that  particular word.  And let us not forget, that each and every one of those words influencing the understanding of the word in question is also being interpreted and understood by that person’s past too.

Put that way, it is really rather amazing that we communicate as well as we do.

And all of this Is happening before we start applying that rather abstract understanding of a word in a passage in a paragraph, etc to real world questions and problems.  Thou 24stephensWEB-facebookJumboshalt not kill seems simple enough commandment when seen on a page, but what does it mean when faced with a 220 pound six foot man with blood in his eye as well as on his clothes wielding a machete?   What about a person running away from you with your money and jewels when you have a gun in your hand?  What about if you accidently kill someone by stumbling over your untied shoelace, bumping into that person and causing her to take a header down an up escalator?  Is that still a sin?  Or even a crime?

To avoid spending too much time and way too many thousands of words, let me just condense it to this: how we understand words, especially words that are accompanied by a great many words, and even more so when those crowds of words have to be applied to the world, are only partly objective. They also have a large subjective element to it, a subjectivity that is dependent upon a person’s:

  • Parents
  • Personal history
  • Education
  • Culture
  • Society
  • Political economic status
  • Own readings
  • Friends
  • Acquaintances, both of the friendly and not so friendly sort.
  • Movies
  • Music (one person I know was greatly affected by John Denver’s songs, another by Pink Floyd’s)
  • And anything else

So, to cut to the chase since I am now  trying to keep these blogs at 1000 words or less, what does this mean in regards to a definition of religion?  Which is, after all, the title of this blog.

A religion can be and usually is defined by its sacred works and doctrine. However, this never quite seems to nail it down. Take a look and you will find a great deal of variety within even a small seemingly well defined group of believers.  Even the most uniform of them will disagree on some issues. And some will prove to be more amenable to different understandings than others.   Which is strong evidence against the idea that there is some plain and literal reading to be had, and for my own view is that, while there are objective limits, they bracket a wide range of subjective understandings and interpretations.

For myself, I have read many works taken to be sacred by different religions – the Tanakh, Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching.  In every  one of the works I have read I found things I considered good and things I considered bad. Some of these were very very good, and some were very very bad.  How these often conflicting passages are understood and applied to the world is very dependent upon how a person choses to understand them.

6259220Given this, I think the most practical and relevant definition of a religion is that a religion is what its followers make of it – both as a group and as individuals within that group.

 

I believe that the most practical definition of religion is a religion is what its followers make of it. What they make of it is, of course, influenced by the history of that group, their society, other aspects of their cultures, geography, political and economic realities, and so forth.  To get even more basic, religion usually differs even between members of the same group, so that more properly a religion can be said to be what a follower makes of it.

For example, Rais Bhuiyan, the lone survivor of an attack by a man intent on getting revenge for 9/11, suing to prevent the killer’s execution because he believed the Qur’an required him to forgive.

Harman Singh, a Sikhs required by his religion to not take his turban off, taking it off and using it to help a young boy hurt in an accident.

And the list goes ever on and covers every variety of religion, and non-religion – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Wiccan….

For me, I believe that often the most important definition of a religion is what does that person or group make of their religion. It is why, although very important, a particular religions sacred scriptures and doctrine are, to my mind, of secondary importance.

 

 

 

Well dang. 1,174 words.

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This blog has been lurking around in the corners of my mind for quite a while now, ever since July 1, 2016 when I passed a church bulletin calling for all to come to its celebration of God and America. This sign bothered me for several reasons.  Of course, me being an atheist will probably cause most to figure out some of the reasons it bothered me. But only some. As for the rest, well, the rest I thought would be surprising and I hope interesting.

It bothered me because not only is such a mingling of church and state bad for the state, but it is just as bad for the church.

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Let me first say that this church, and the many others that I saw with a similar message, have every right to do so.  However, not everything that is legal and that people have a right to do is also wise. And in this blog I plan to discuss why it is not wise for a religion, in this case Christianity, to mix religion and nationalism. To do so, I will speak as if I were a much younger me, young enough to still be a Christian.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of the Church?

Answer, to spread the good news of the Gospels, the news about Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection.  The church was also meant to provide support and teaching to fellow Christians, and to those who come to its doors seeking. And the church was also meant to serve as a moral guide and conscience of people, of societies, of nations, of the world.

While spreading the news of the Gospels might be easier done when part of a government, as part of the inside group, it does so at the expense of corrupting the church, and of causing great pain and suffering to others outside of that church.

A church is not the state.  Nor is it meant to be.  It is not meant to be a supporter of the state, an auxiliary of the state, a co-ruler with the state.

A church is meant to be an outsider in regards to government.

Christianity was born an outsider.

Jesus was born an outsider with Mary being pregnant before being married

Jesus was born into and preached to a people who were outsiders, the Jews.

Jesus served the outsiders among the Jews; tax collectors, the lepers, the unclean, the sinners.

An outsider preaching to a people of outsiders, that is part of what gave Jesus’ message its power.   His message was not to the rich and powerful, although it was theirs for the taking should they choose to listen.  His message was to the poor and powerless.

His message was not how to create a civil society, how to govern a country or state or city.  His message was about God’s love for humanity and how best to receive and spread that love.  It was a message of hope, not political positions.

Jesus, as the outsider, accepted all, but did not change his message, his standards, nor himself for any.

Jesus changed the world.

From its birth to its early years, Christianity was a religion off outsiders looking in.  Often ridiculed, sometimes persecuted, they nonetheless still for the most part, held firm to their standards and beliefs.  And they grew.

And then came the great split. No, not the Catholic and the Protestant split. Nor the disagreements among Christians, which had been present since the beginning as can be seen in the arguments about the nature of Jesus and his relation to God.

No, the great split I am referring to concerns the split from being outsiders to becoming insiders. The conversion of Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from being a religion of outsiders to being a religion of the insiders, of those with power and money. Or rather, one particular set of Christians became insiders.  As part of the bargain, with Constantine, they had to have a uniform set of beliefs.  So, one set modified some of their beliefs and won, the others became persecuted and died, along with the pagans.

As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of Christianity:

How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”

Now, instead of criticizing the government and society, Christianity and the government tyndale-martyrdom-resized-600were one, and actions against the government were also actions against Christianity, and actions against Christianity were also actions against the government.  Given this, how could most Christians criticize any government action, no matter how bad or how flawed?  How could any government allow any deviation from the established religion, no matter how well argued and supported?

They couldn’t

An attack on the religion supported by the state was an attack on the state, and an attack vc006367on the state was an attack on the religion.  Such was the root cause of most of the religious violence and persecution throughout the years; the Inquisition, the forced conversion and persecution of the Jews, Catholics vs. Protestants, Protestants vs. Puritans, Puritans vs. Quakers, and on and on and on.

In addition to the violence against people, was the violence done to beliefs and morals as Churches assumed stately power. Compromises with principles and beliefs were common, as were the flat out ignoring of such principles and beliefs.

This violence against people and against the teachings of Jesus and of God is probably why the first person to propose an absolute and total separation of church and state was a Puritan theologian and the founder of the Baptist Church in America – Roger Williams. And he lived up to that ideal when he founded the state of Rhode Island.

The United States was the first secular government in the world. Something that the writers of the Constitution did intentionally, and with great forethought.

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Their foresight and awareness of history is something lacking today by too many Americans, and is evidenced by so much more than just the signs I saw that inspired this blog.  This lack of forethought and awareness is seen whenever anyone:

  • Claims that the United States is a Christian country. And then advocates for laws to make it so – prayer in the schools, recognition of the Bible as the state book, etc.
  • Work to limit or take away the rights of those who are not the right sort of Christian or believer.
  • Tells Muslims to go home, even those who were born in the United States. And then tries to make it so.
  • Whenever permits are denied to religious groups due to their beliefs.
  • When President H. Bush commented that atheist could not be patriots due to not believing in God.
  • When Trump sends out a White House bulletin in which he states “America is a Nation of believers. As long as we have faith in each other, and trust in God, we will succeed!”

We, as a nation, as a people, have never been very good at remembering. But, today, that

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lack of memory, of awareness, seems stronger than ever.  The evangelical support forTrump shows how far too many Christians and Christian organizations, are willing to go in dealing with the devil in order to gain political power.  And how many of their values and morals, and how much of the teachings of Jesus they are willing to ignore or give up in their quest for political power.

 

I think that they need to go back and read the history of religion, and of what happens when it becomes part of the state.  Some Madison, or Jefferson, or several others would be good.  But, perhaps, it would be best if they rediscovered the writings and thought of Roger Williams.  Before they manage to harm not just people, but the Constitution that will allow such harm to, eventually, be redressed.

 

 

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I thought I would try something a bit different in my blog today. Usually I pronounce my words of wisdom for all who have the wit to understand to receive and be enlightened. Today though I am going to post an observation of mine in regards to religion and various social issues. And then, instead of expounding on the reasons why this observation is true – since I have only the vaguest of ideas on why – I am hoping those who read it will provide some of their own thoughts.

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Atheists have a strong tendency to point out all the problems and flaws with different religions and argue that they have held up needed social change. As a result, they usually only see the obstructionist role religion has played in needed social change and overlook the other side.

Religious people though often go the other way and emphasize the positive while downplaying the negative.

My own personal view is that religion has been both positive and negative, has fought against social progress and needed cultural change (not surprising since one of the roles of a religion is to foster and support the current society as a sort of glue) but has also often been the sharp end of the stick in regards to creating and promoting social progress and needed cultural change. For example:

  • – Much is made of how religion controlled the state in times past (although often it was the other way around, and even more often both controlling the other in a partnership). However, religion also had a leading role in the development and promotion of the idea and reality of separation of church and state and is a vital component of our current secular government and societies. I detailed a part of this history in my blog “The Religious Root Leading to the Separation of Church and State”.
  • – The church and religion have a long history of providing aide to the poor and sick. The development of hospitals came from our religious history, for example. This link and this one provide some information on this.
  • – The abolition of slavery was led by Christians and churches. As was the Civil Rights movement. And Christian beliefs morphed in such a way that they provided not only comfort to the slaves in the years before the Civil War, but also caused them to fight back in various ways against their oppressors. For example, whenever a religious revival swept through an area there would be more slave unrest and uprisings.

There are other areas where religions also led the way in providing much needed progress and change – including science.

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However, in one very recent movement, and one relatively recent movement, instead of seeing this dichotomy in the role of religion, I have seen much more uniformity in religion opposing both movements. These movements are the feminist movement and the gay rights movements. The church and religion have not played as prominent a role in the promotion of either of these two human rights movements as they have in past ones. Yes, some individual religious people and churches have supported these causes, but they are even more of an exception (until recently) than were the churches that supported past progressive movements.

And I don’t fully know why this difference exists between these causes and those of the past.

So, rather than speculate and research further, I will instead let those readers who wish to comment on this. Consider it my lazy way to do research on this topic.

Now, there is no pressure to respond. After all, even if no one responds what am I going to do? Send hit men out? Refuse to let ungrateful and lazy readers read this blob by sending it only to myself from henceforth?

Instead, I will probably whine to my wife and sulk a bit. Perhaps have a good cry at the realization that I am not as popular and thought provoking as I had believed myself to be.

Now, respond!

Please.

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So many people believe that religion cannot change – most especially the sacred scripture of their religion. To use Christianity as an example, the words of the Bible do not change and therefor our understanding of it is timeless – all that needs to be done is to read its words plain and simply. That is what I see repeatedly from both conservative literalists Christians and from many atheists. I find it amazing that such a wrong idea can be so strongly promoted by those at the opposite ends of belief. I imagine that this is probably the only area of agreement that literalists Christians and many atheists have. And it is ironic that it is so very wrong.

indexI wrote a paper for one of my graduate classes a couple of years ago that illustrate very nicely some of the reasons why it is wrong. It doesn’t hit at all the reasons, but gives an idea about how religious believers understanding of their sacred scripture can and does change over time. Although this paper focuses exclusively upon slavery and the Bible in the pre-civil war United States, the idea behind it applies to any and all scriptures – such as the Qur’an for example – and even such documents as the United States Constitution.

The Bible Wars: It’s Use For and Against Slavery

Slavery still exists today, not only in other countries but even here in the United States. However, today slavery is almost universally condemned instead of almost universally accepted as it once was. Governments have made slavery illegal. Religion and Christianity almost universally condemn it now. Not so very long ago this was not true.

In colonial America and in pre-Civil War United States slavery was a flourishing institution, one that was supported by many arguments ranging from the economic to the supposed nature of blacks. One argument of special importance and interest was the one based upon the Bible. Both the proslavery people and the abolitionists claimed Biblical support for their beliefs and positions. In this paper I plan to look at how the Bible was used to both justify and argue against slavery.

1. Pro-slavery arguments

The pro-slavery side had the initial advantage in using the Bible to support their views. The reason for this is that no special interpretation or treatment of the Bible was needed to justify the institution of slavery. Nowhere within the Bible does anyone condemn slavery, not even Jesus. It was an accepted institution, one that seemingly was considered both normal and moral. Because of this, the proslavery groups could rely on a literal reading of the Bible and upon Christian history to make their case.

Most Christians throughout history did not see the practice of slavery as conflicting with the Bible. Many church leaders from the first days of Christianity had slaves. Church policy since its earliest days supported the institution of slavery and the rights of slaveholders. Several early Christian writings include codes of household management; how husbands, wives, children, slaves, and slaveholders should behave. In these codes, slaves “were told to subordinate their wills to the wills of their master” (Glancy 55). Christian teachings often seemed to reinforce “the power of the slaveholder, even as they affirmed the dignity of the slave in God’s eyes.” (Glancy 53).

In fact, although there are some hints that some early Christians might have questioned slavery, real and unambiguous writings against slavery as being un-Christian did not come until medieval times when people such as Gregory of Nissa, Saint Patrick, and Saint Eligus started to write and speak out against slavery. However, other church leaders, such as Saint Augustine, Saint Aquinas, Calvin, and Martin Luther wrote that slavery was not un-Christianity. Although slavery eventually disappeared in Christian Europe it was still not widely condemned or considered un-Christian by most.

Due to this weight of history, and to a literal interpretation of the Bible, the development of a Christian defense of slavery in the United States did not come about until the early 19th century. In the years before this in America there had been no need for one. It was not until the rise of a larger abolitionist movement and a radical form of antislavery during the 1830’s that proslavery literature began to become significant.

The fact that the proslavery side had a plain reading of the Bible on their side can be readily seen in one of the first conflicts with the abolitionists. Initially the abolitionists had argued that the word translated as “slave” in the Bible actually meant “servant” and thus there was no slavery in the Bible. The proslavery side quickly pointed out that this was not only not how it had been historically translated but that the best and newest methods of biblical scholarship showed that the word in question meant slave and not servant. What is ironic is that those who used and understood the Bible literally to argue for slavery were able to use the new biblical criticism of the Bible, a methodology that would show the problems inherent in a literal understanding of the Bible, to support their position.

Those arguing that slavery was Biblical used a variety of arguments based on quotes from the Bible. They used the story of the Centurion’s Servant (Luke 7:1 – 10; Matt 8:5 – 13) to show that Jesus had not only met slaves but also had commended the slave’s owner, a Roman soldier, as a faithful man such as he had not seen even in Israel.

Taking the argument even further, they argued, on the basis of the example of the Roman soldier above and Jesus’ praise of him, as well as other verses, that not only was slavery not immoral, but that the proper Christian stance towards the world was hierarchical and patriarchical. “Importantly, Jesus praised the centurion’s use of commands to order military and domestic subordinates….The plain sense of this language means that military hierarchy and other forms of patriarchy ought to order human relations, especially between master and slave.” (Harrill, 183).

When the abolitionists used the Golden Rule to argue against slavery, the proslavery groups responded by referring to the above verses, saying that Jesus was not teaching egalitarianism, but rather patriarchical love. Such love does not make men social equals, but instead means that “the master should treat his slave as if the master, imagining himself a slave and aware of his own good, would like to be treated.” (Harrill, 185).

Using a plain reading of the Bible with the understanding that passages were to be understood in light of patriarchalism, and with a selective use of the new biblical criticisms, the proslavery groups defended the institution of slavery as being Biblical and Christian.

2. Abolitionist Arguments.

As I mentioned above, the proslavery groups had the easier argument to make in regards to the Bible and slavery. This was something the abolitionists recognized from the beginning. Because of this, instead of a literalist approach they used an interpretive approach.

Of course the proslavery groups interpreted passages too, as seen by their interpretation of the meaning of the Golden Rule. And the proslavery groups were influenced in their interpretations by outside sources such as their economic and political views and their prejudices. However, the difference was that while the proslavery groups found their key to interpreting biblical texts within the Bible (patriarchy), the abolitionists found their key from outside the Bible.

First and foremost of these outside keys was the outrage that slavery inflicted on their sense of morality. Regardless of the source of this feeling, morally they knew that slavery was wrong and that therefore any interpretation of the Bible that defended slavery was flawed. They had only to be perceptive and knowledgeable enough to discover the flaw. Or, failing that, some counseled rejecting the Bible altogether as a moral guide to slavery. “Garrison concluded that slavery, like just war and woman’s suffrage, ‘was not a bible question’, since nothing in regards to controversial matters had ever been settled by the Bible.” (Harrill, 176). While most did not go as far as Garrison, some did. All though were motivated by the same sense of moral outrage.

A large reason why this attempt to use outside sources to aide in interpreting the Bible was possible was due to the Enlightenment. It was an age of questioning everything, including Christianity and the Bible. It was an age of discoveries that made old understandings of the Bible questionable. The age of the earth, the orbiting earth and central sun, evolution, and other discoveries of science showed that the Bible could not be understood literally in regards to matters of how the physical universe worked.

The new higher criticism coming out of Germany was becoming increasingly influential among American scholars. It demonstrated that Moses did not write the Torah, that the Bible had multiple authors and did not always agree with known history and, most importantly, that the Bible might not always be the best guide in understanding itself.

At the same time a new religious movement had developed and was expanding, that of evangelism with an emphasis on a personal experience of God and not necessarily to adherence to old doctrine. Quakers were the earliest evangelical group to start to criticize and work for abolition. However they were joined by other such new evangelical religions as Methodists and Baptists.

It took some trial and error for abolitionists to find their way to their final arguments. One of their first attempts was to deny that Jesus had ever met any slaves, saying that the word translated as slave could also and more probably did mean servant. However, as noted above, that argument did not hold up to the new scholarship.

From there, they looked for another key by which to understand the Bible and its verses about slavery, one that would hold up to the new biblical criticism and would also align with their moral understanding of the Bible. Part of the key consisted of viewing the Bible as a work in progress instead of a static work with a finished understanding.

Taking their cues from their times, a time when progress was not only much talked about but actually being seen in the industrial and scientific revolutions, they argued that the Bible had “seeds” planted within it that would blossom and bear fruit as societies grew in knowledge and moral sensibilities. They argued that Jesus knew any condemnation of slavery would not take root in the culture and society of his age. Instead he planted a seed that would grow and blossom in the fullness of time. History, and our understanding of the Bible, were not static but were instead dynamic, growing, and progressive.
With this understanding of the Bible and how to read it the abolitionists then argued that the Golden Rule, as related in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, was the seed that Jesus planted and that now was the time for its blossoming. “True Christianity, through ‘fair application’ of the Golden Rule and related immutable principles such as charity and love of neighbor, is a Christianity against slavery.” (Harrill, 171)

The below quote of Dr. Thornton’s, taken from a report about slavery given to the Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina highlights this difference between the abolitionists and the proslavery groups.

“Opposition to Slavery has never been the offspring of the Bible. It has sprung from visionary theories of human nature and society. It has sprung from the misguided reason of man. It comes as natural, not as revealed truth; and when it is seen that the Word of God stands in the way of it, the lovely oracles will be stripped of their authority, and reduced to the level of mere human utterances.” (National Era).

Where the abolitionists would disagree with Dr. Thornton, is that this scheme amounted to “mere human utterances”. Instead they would say that, along with the Bible, God also created the natural world and the mind of man with its ability to reason.

Further, God had implanted within humanity a sense of morality. They would argue that theirs was taking the whole of what God had given them, whereas the literalist views of Dr. Thornton and the proslavery groups had rejected part of God’s revelations and gifts.

One final fact to note is that just because a white person was an abolitionist does not mean that they were not prejudiced. An argument that was used in conjunction with the early claim that Jesus had never met a slave was that if Jesus Christ had met slaves and condoned the institution, then it would have been the slavery of his time, a slavery involving whites. “This reductio ad absurdum disproof…. reveals the racism present in some abolitionist arguments: surely Jesus Christ agreed with the American beliefs that white people should not be enslaved.” (Harrill, 169).

While this was not an argument that was used as much after the abolitionists lost the argument on whether Jesus had met slaves, it does show that a white view of abolitionism might, and did, differ from that of an African American of the times.

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3. Free Blacks and Slaves

“Dark and Dismal was the day
When slavery began
All humble thoughts were put away
Then slaves were made by man.”

The above words are part of a poem by Jupiter Hammon, the first black poet in America and a slave since birth. The 25 stanza poem was titled: “An Essay on Slavery with Submission to Divine Providence Knowing that God Rules Over All Things” and, unlike his other poems and essays, it was never published; most likely due to its controversial nature.

In the beginning, blacks resisted Christianity. They feared that their master’s religion was meant as a means of control and oppression. At the time, the Christianity being preached was. As taught to the slaves, Christianity was strongly Calvinistic and taught that everyone had been put in their place by God, and that given this instead of questioning their God ordained station they should do their best within that station. Most African Americans were not attracted to this message.

Some blacks though did accept the religion of their masters; for example, Jupiter Hammon. Born a slave in Lloyd Harbor, NY in 1711, property of the Lloyd family of Queens, NY, he was fortunate enough to have owners who insisted that he attend school and learn to read and write. He was born and became Christian before the Great Awakening and the arrival of the evangelical Christianities that did not preach a religion of acquiescence to oppression, and so had a foot in both worlds.

The Christianity taught and accepted by Jupiter at his birth, and rejected by many blacks, was of a Calvinism that “did not believe that Christians, and even less so slaves, should do anything that distracted from a contemplation of a heavenly afterlife.” (Day, 2) This version of Calvinism, and not the one that “emphasized participation in the world with a view toward transforming it” (Day, 2) that many of the whites followed , was what the blacks were taught, when any were taught at all to become Christians. From the same poem:

“When God doth please for to permit
That slavery should be
It is our duty to submit
Till Christ shall set us free.”

But, while Christianity was taught as a means of oppression, it did not stay such. Instead it changed and became a means of resisting oppression; sometimes actively, sometimes more quietly. It did so by giving blacks “a sense of common identity and purpose that created the conditions for organization and collective action.” (Day, 3).

The African American was treated as and had the status of property, not person. Even Hammon’s owners, who by all accounts were good masters who treated him well, lists Hammon, along with their other slaves, as property in their ledgers, along with cattle and other goods. To resist this reduction to being nothing more than property, African Americans had to form a new identity as well as a new community. A large part of that new identity came with the arrival of the Great

Awakening. The Great Awakening created a number of new voices within religion, ones that were not part of the established religions with their political and economic ties, which allowed them to “reevaluate the old theologies and speak out against slavery as an organizational endeavor.” (Day, 15).

As a result of increasing literacy among the African Americans and the increasing numbers of itinerant ministers who were preaching a message of resistance to worldly oppression and not submission, blacks started to convert to Christianity in increasing numbers. They also started to assume leadership roles as preachers and ministers as well as organizing churches.

As they did so their understanding and ways of interpreting the Bible differed from that of not only their white masters and white society in general, but even from that of the white abolitionists. In fact, blacks often found themselves at loggerheads with their white abolitionist allies.

For example, the slave narrative became popular means by which the abolitionist movement pressed their cause. However, most of these narratives that had the approval of the white abolitionists were those that “focused on the ‘objective facts’ of slavery rather than on individuals’ ideas and interpretations.” (Day, 88).

This control of the narratives allowed the white abolitionists to control the content and priorities of the anti-slavery movement, resulting in an anti-slavery movement that was against slavery but not necessarily for equality. Even though sympathetic to the troubles of the blacks, most whites were not willing to give up power nor to examine with a critical eye their own views and thoughts about black.

Blacks agreed with and used the argument used by the white abolitionists of the Golden Rule being the key to understanding and interpreting the Bible. However, they also identified both themselves and their plight with biblical figures, most especially Moses and the Exodus narrative, although the figure of Christ as the “Suffering Servant” was also important. Blacks found much support and strength through such imagery and identification; and especially in the knowledge that both the Jews and Jesus were triumphant at the end of their sufferings.

And just like the earliest Christian groups, many blacks found the book of Revelation meaningful. It pointed to a time when slavery and prejudice would end, a time of the Apocalypse when “an abolitionist Warrior Jesus” (Harrill, 179) would come in wrath and retribution to end slavery and establish justice for the blacks.

Not only did the Bible provide support and comfort, but many blacks found within it the sense of group identity and organization necessary for an active resistance to slavery. Those times of unrest among the blacks that led into actual revolt against their masters were most often preceded by a rise in religious activity.

While the black community did have much in common with the white abolitionists, their goals and views were not identical. There were significant differences in how they understood and used the Bible. Given their differing social standings and needs this was inevitable.

4. Final Notes

These changes to Christian understanding of the Bible have now become ingrained and are considered the orthodox understanding today. Except for some small groups, even those Christians who claim to believe the Bible literally use this new interpretation of the Bible, this interpretation that takes into account ideas from outside the Bible to understand it, when they claim that the Bible is against slavery. This is a far cry from the literalists of the pre-Civil War era, and a change that has continued to create social changes up to today.

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Today there is a news story about a man who cold bloodedly shot and killed three Muslims students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A possible motive of the killer is that he is an atheist and hates religion. Regardless of the accuracy of this I find it interesting how many atheist blogs are saying that atheism has nothing to do with promoting violence and that this violence cannot be pinned on atheist beliefs as they can with theistic beliefs.

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A typical example of this line of reasoning is from a blog by Joshua Kelly titled Atheism Did Not Kill Three Young Muslims in Chapel Hill:

“I’m not entirely convinced that any motive that might be stated could criminalize the idea of atheism or the atheist community’s aims and goals, even if he were to outright comment something as blatant as: “I killed them for atheism.”
This sounds immediately like a hypocritical statement. But, while it is true that faiths like Islam have inked within their primary tenets of morality mandates to slaughter those who leave the religion or those who outright oppose it, as do Christianity and Judaism with equally horrific language, we must absolutely remember that atheism does not have a series of standard social doctrines. We do not have a Bible. We do not have a Koran. The atheist mentality is stemmed from the simple truth that there are no gods, and thus the individual acts on philosophical bases on his own choosing. This contemptible man, whether over a parking spot or because of an innate psychopathy or any other reason, cannot be said to have killed anyone because his non-god told him to do it. “

I have several problems with this sort of reasoning.

First, it seems to me he is arguing that beliefs do not effect behavior, or have consequences in our behavior. Or at least atheistic ones do not.

Yes, not believing in God does not in and of itself create or hinder a disposition to violence. However, neither does a belief in God. What does determine that is what else is attached to this belief or non-belief. And just as with theism, what is attached can be conducive to violence, it can be against violence, or it can be neutral.

And that is the other thing that bothers me about this reasoning. It treats religion and all religious belief as if they were all the same. But they are not. They are varied in their exact beliefs, in how they practice and manifest their beliefs and how they interact with society. And yes, there are violent passages and exhortations within most sacred works that atheism does not have. But then, there is also much inked into their sacred works promoting social justice, equality, love, and charity. Something atheism also lacks. How these contradictory strains within religion become reconciled and acted upon depends on a great many factors beyond just believing in a God.

Although atheism does not have a sacred work, the same process is at work.

To take just one example, as an atheist do you value rationality above all else and feel that irrationality is at the root of all evil? Combine that belief with the belief that religion is the height of irrationality and has done nothing but evil, and then combine that with a belief that all Muslims are terrorists and responsible for acts such as 9/11, and viola …you have the makings of a killer. A killer looking for a trigger. Or possibly a killer just looking for an excuse. But then many of the deaths attributed to religion are really nothing more than killers looking for an excuse.

And least you think this is all theoretical, I would say that something very like this has already played out in the real world, and not just once. The Soviet Union with its promotion of atheism and its discouragement of religion as an evil. Or Albania under the Soviet Union. Or Communist China. All of these regimes have jailed, tortured, and killed believers just because they were believers. For that matter, you can look at the French Revolution as another example of this.

Neither the belief in God or the non-belief in God by themselves promote or hinder anything. It is what is attached to these beliefs as it interacts with the personal situation of the individual that determines that. And to me, to dismiss Christians or Muslims or other theist’s explanations for why violence committed by their practitioners is not really their fault but then to do the same as they when the killer is an atheist is indeed hypocritical.

Which brings me to my final objection to this line of reasoning. It divorces atheism from being human. Humans are capable of both great and good deeds and also terrible and evil ones. This means that human beliefs are brought in to serve in both human capacities. To say that this cannot happen with atheism seems to me to push atheism out of the realm of human belief and into….I know not where. However, wherever it winds up it winds up then not having any relevance to our existence.

Science can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by science. Philosophy can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by philosophy. Medicine can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by philosophy. Religion can be used for good and evil and that good and evil justified by religion. All of human thought and experience can be used for good and evil and that good and evil thereby justified by those thoughts and experiences. Except for atheism apparently.

Sorry, not buying it. Not believing in God is a human thought, a human belief, and like all of humanity’s creations it can be linked up with other ideas to do both good and evil. To pretend otherwise is to delude and blind ourselves to reality.

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My faith as an atheist lies in two areas. The first will be one in which many atheists will disagree with me. The other, though, will probably have more widespread acceptance among atheists. This blog though is about the first one.

First Statement of Faith: God does not exist.

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Now that I have admitted that I believe this on faith and made some conservative religious types very happy, let me expand on that and make them unhappy.

I do not believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, moral being exists due to the fact that there is no evidence for his existence and to the fact that there are problems, both philosophically and ethically, with such a being creating what we see around us. However, I cannot prove that he does not exist.

In regards to a lack of evidence, this alone is not proof. I know that the standard (and correct) counter-argument to this is that you cannot prove a negative and, therefore, those claiming something exists have to prove that it does. My problem though, and why I say it is a statement of faith, is twofold.

First, just because a belief may be the most rational one to hold does not mean that it is correct. Our evaluation of what is rational to believe and what is irrational to believe can, has, and does change as we learn and experience more. Continental drift was rejected by the vast majority of scientists for many long years, and with good reason. Evolution was not believed to be valid for many long years too, and the reasoning for its rejection were also logical and rational for a long time. The same with the heliocentric model of our solar system. All of these, based on what was known at the time, and using perfectly good logic and reasonings, were correctly rejected. However, their rejection by most did not mean that they were not true.

Second, and related to the first, for this lack of evidence to be a strong argument against the existence of God, or of anything, it should be linked to other problem that makes the reality of God impossible. To phrase this another way, some existences in the line for proof are more likely than others.

For example, an invisible hippo living in my swimming pool would violate the laws of physics and economics (I would be even more broke than I am now if I had to actually feed a hippo). However, the existence of a unicorn is not physiologically impossible, does not violate any known laws. And, who knows, perhaps we will eventually genetically engineer one or one might evolve due to a changing environment. The point here is that some posited creatures whose existence is without evidence are impossible, while others are possible but lacking in evidence.

God’s possible existence is more like that of the unicorn than the invisible hippo. He is a possible creature rather than an impossible one.

Now, I know many will point to God’s attributes, such as omniscience and omnipotence (which includes the ability to violate the laws of physics, chemistry and all the other sciences) and say that such a creature is clearly impossible. However, that is overlooking one of the basic traits of such a God – he/she/it exists outside of time and space. Since God is not part of our universe and did not derive from it then he/she/it is not bound by its laws and regularities. This trait of God’s is as essential to God’s definition as the horn is for the unicorn. Remove either and the creature no longer exists.

GodSince God exists outside of space and time and is therefore not limited by natural law and, in fact, created them, then the violation of natural laws are not prima fascia evidence against his existence. Again, unless such a lack of evidence is linked to an impossibility then the lack of evidence is lacking in force as proof against something existence. It does not support the idea of God’s existence, but neither does it, by itself, constitute evidence that God does not exist.

After all, at one time we had no evidence coelacanths existed and they were widely, almost universally, believed to be extinct for 66 million years. But they do exist, as was discovered in 1938. Until it was found scientists were perfectly correct in doubting its existence since there was no evidence of it still existing. However, as the discovery of it in 1938 shows, they would have been incorrect in stating that this lack of evidence constituted proof that the coelacanths no longer existed. Perhaps God, like the coelacanths, exists in a remote and inaccessible place.

Then there is the problem of free will. How can free will exist if God already knows what you are going to do (part of being omniscient). Even if he/she/it does not control your actions and thoughts something obviously shapes them so that he/she/it is capable of knowing all. If free will really existed then God should not be omniscient.

Of course there are a couple of ways around that. One I will discuss a bit later. The other though is to concede that free will may not exist and modify God’s plan for salvation, heaven and hell. Or, for that matter, modify the claim that God is omniscient to have it limited by a certain element of uncertainty. In other words, knowing everything God can make very informed guesses at what a person will do and be right ALMOST all of the time. I have seen both of these arguments used by theologians and believers.

Another issue is justice. Life is unfair and unjust and how can a good and just God create and sustain such a universe? However, this one is a two edged argument against God, cutting against the atheist as much as the theist. This lack of justice in this life can be taken as evidence of some sort of an afterlife and a God. After all, we have an inborn need for justice and fairness. Life does not give us either fairness or justice. Therefore to satisfy this need, to right this wrong, there has to be something more than just this uncaring universe and this lone life.

Just as our need for food indicates that food does exist, even if we cannot find any now, so too does our need for justice and fairness indicate that something must exist to provide them. God provides just such a remedy for that hunger in the next life.

From there though we move to the related problem of contradictions between the traits of God and what we see in the universe. God is moral, and yet there is great evil in the universe; very bad things happen to good people all the time. Although those believers who have dealt with the Problem of Evil have come up with many different answers, all of them except one fails. The one that does not fail – the Book of Job’s answer. God is too great for our understanding, so great that he sees the good in what is happening or the reasons for why evil is necessary when we are unable to. And, truth to tell, this is a reasonable and rational possibility. One that also holds up for the question of God’s omniscience and human free will.

During my many debates with creationists when explaining why an unknown that has no scientific explanation (as of yet) does not constitute evidence for God. I pointed out that there are actually three other possible solutions to the question besides God did it. I won’t go over what the other two are (those who are interested can check it out at my blog “Turning Science Into Non-Science”). However, the third possibility is the one of interest in regards to the problems of God’s existence and why some element of faith exists in stating that God does not exist.

3) There is a natural explanation but we will never be able to solve it because we just do not have the intelligence to do so. For 800px-Homo_erectus_adult_female_-_head_model_-_Smithsonian_Museum_of_Natural_History_-_2012-05-17example imagine one of our early ancestors – possibly Homo Erectus – sitting on the shores of the ocean. She notices the tides and wonders what causes them. However her intelligence is too limited for her to ever understand how the gravitational effects of the moon and sun cause the tides. Because of this even though there is a natural explanation she might conclude a god caused the tides when taking baths.

This same argument holds for the question of evil and of free will. We are limited creatures and, perhaps, unable to see the very real solution to reconciling evil and free will to God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

Let me also say that while the existence of God has many different issues, I do not know of any belief system or outlook on the universe that does not have issues and problems – even atheism.
One such problem is that of existence.

Why does anything exist rather than nothing? I am not talking of the existence of the universe, which could be answered by some of the many different multiverse hypotheses floating around; but why does anything exist at all? An uncreated being might be one answer. Of course, then the question comes up of how did God come about. But note the definition of God as uncreated and eternal. So, it is a possibility that cannot be ruled out solely by logic and reason.

Also there is the question of what constitutes evidence? Most atheists (including myself) use science, reason, and logic in regards to answering the question of God’s existence. However, does all evidence have to be empirical and scientific or are other sorts of evidence of equal importance in areas outside of how the universe works? In which case, science and logic and reason would limit how God could and has manifested and worked within the universe, but does not eliminate the existence of such a being.

Personal experience and emotions are often used (and often justifiably so) in making decisions in our lives. Martin Gardner, one of the primary founders of the modern skeptic movement, believed that the emotional reasons were enough for him to make a leap of faith and believe in God. And, while I can bring up some arguments against this, they do not rise to the level of absolute proof.

Consider the limitations to reason and logic contained in the fact – the fact – that I cannot absolutely prove that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. It always has, but that does not mean that it always will. Perhaps it will go supernova on us. Perhaps the laws of the universe will change. There is really no logical proof that this will not happen..

There comes an end to all logic and all reason. A point by which we have to take it on faith. Even reason and logic tells s this is true when you use these tools to seek an answer to whether they will always work. Just because they have in so many areas does not mean they always will. A bridge before it collapses may have had millions of cars and trucks cross it, yet despite that history of success, it still failed. Without access to look beyond or beneath reason and logic we have no way of determining whether their girders are still strong enough to support our endeavors or whether they are on the verge of collapsing

rabbit-hopping_2041499iThe Danish craze that has growing numbers of animal lovers hopping on the bandwagon 2So, bottom line for me – it is a leap of faith to not believe that God exists. However, this leap of faith is a much much smaller leap than the one involved in believing God does exist. Whereas the biggest unknowable question for me is that of why something rather than nothing exists, for the theist it is the multiple questions of evil and free will and why there is no evidence for God’s existence. My leap of faith in regards to not believing in God is a bigger leap than my belief that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, but still smaller for me than believing in a God with all of these problems and issues. In fact, my leap is just a short hop compared to the large leap of the believer.

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